HOLLYWOOD — In 2020, drag queen Trixie Mattel killed Leslie Jordan. “Remember Leslie Jordan?” she quipped. “Rest in peace.” Both her co-host Katya and the cameraman were horrified. It is with genuine shock that the cameraman is heard exclaiming, “What? No!”
“No, no, I’m kidding!” Trixie howled with laughter at her deception and the deeply painful reaction it evoked.
Today the joke is over and the laughter has stopped. Leslie Jordan is gone.
Many will call Leslie Jordan a “gay icon,” but he’s much more than that. He was the constant television presence who gave us permission to be our authentic queer selves by embracing his own gayness wholeheartedly.
He is the icon that icons mourn. Dolly Parton, certainly in that category, said. “Well I’m as hurt and shocked as if I’ve lost a family member. Leslie and I had a special bond, I think the world felt they had a special bond with him. I know people always say, “Oh, they’ll be missed,” but in this case, that couldn’t be truer. He will be missed by all who knew him personally and all who were entertained by him. Rest in peace little brother.”
Leslie Jordan was part of our collective gay brand. While the media liked, and still likes, to portray gay men with certain affects that became cliched clichés, Leslie Jordan bypassed them. His character was these presentations in their truly authentic form. As Mayim Bialik told him in her podcast interview, “Your brand is YOU who you are.”
As Leslie Ellen said on her show, “I open my mouth and fifty yards of chiffon comes out.”
Lately, for many in America, Leslie has been the epitome of how to find humor in our shelter-on-the-ground reality. At the start of the pandemic, he had 80,000 followers on Instagram. At the end of the quarantine, he had 5,500,000 followers for 80 days thanks to his twice-daily posts. That was just the beginning – his quirky short videos became TikTok snippets and YouTube treats too.
Throughout the broader history of television, Leslie’s trademark appearances will stand out on any television show that has sought to make its mark as an LGBTQ landmark. From Murphy Brown to Ryan Murphy, from Ellen’s upcoming sitcom to Will and Grace, from Desperate Housewives to RuPaul’s Drag Race… they all featured a Leslie Jordan episode at one point or another. If they did, they could be sure of one thing: Leslie would steal the scene every time.
“When I first saw him on an episode of Murphy Brown in 1989, he was incredibly hilarious. I am so grateful for this gifted man’s 33+ years of laughter,” says Mark Hamill. The magic that Leslie Jordan was in 1989 can still be felt in queer culture today.
“A light, a joy, PURE LOVE. What a loss. I love you Leslie,” grieves Drag Race’s Michelle Visage.
“What a loss, an uncompromising master class on how to live life!” says famous drag queen Vivienne.
“Devastated to learn that Leslie Jordan has passed away. He was such an odd icon to me,” Trinity the Tuck replied to the message.
“What an angel. Gone way too early,” says gay rom-com pioneer Billy Eichner.
“Leslie, we are heartbroken at your loss and will miss your cheerfulness and inimitable spirit,” George Takei wrote in honor.
Leslie was gay from the start and was adored. He was born in Chatanooga, Tennessee in 1955 and became the big brother of twin sisters a few years later. “I fell out of the womb and landed on my mother’s heels,” he said.
His family was religious, and his mother took them to church wherever “the doors were open.” His father was a military officer who was adored by his son, even as he found little Leslie perhaps a little too much to deal with in 1950s Tennessee society. As his father sat on the porch with Butch Miliary friends, little Leslie’s voice could be heard from the front yard: “Daddy, daddy! Watch me… twwwwiiirrrrl!”
When Leslie was three years old, he wanted a bridal doll for Christmas. His father, a lieutenant colonel, told his wife “no”. On Christmas Eve, as Leslie kept talking about how Santa Claus would bring him his bridal doll, Leslie’s mother asked her husband, “What are you going to tell him?” The next thing she heard was the back door being closed.
The next morning Leslie found a beautiful bridal doll under the tree. Leslie’s father died in a plane crash nine years later.
Leslie found ways to be himself. “In high school, you have to play the game. Nobody bothered me – nobody teased me – because I was funny. I learned to be funny to keep the bullies at bay. So nobody would tease me. But I’ve always waited for that ax to fall.”
Leslie came to West Hollywood in 1982. As he described it, West Hollywood was a “city in crisis.” It was a time that made his gay bravery his person and gave him the spirit that would later break through his comedic genius. “People have dropped like flies from AIDS. We didn’t get any help, so we found out very quickly that we had to take care of our own. I jumped into the trenches and I… I saw miracles. With people whose families had turned their backs on them because they found out not only were they gay but also had this condition, that was a real growth period for me where something really beautiful came out. We all went through this together. In the gay community we all went through this struggle together and we came out as a stronger community, a more loving community. Because we were more willing to approach each other. That’s when I found out I couldn’t argue with people (about being gay), I won’t argue with them. i know what i know I know what I know.”
Over the past several decades, Leslie has interwoven his sense of exuberance with his own inner demons. “The dark cloud that followed me wasn’t my homosexuality, it was depression,” he said. He found recovery and his own sense of spirituality. He was referring to something his friend Carrie Fisher had said: “I’m a very ardent agnostic who would love nothing more than to have been proven wrong.”
He told Mayim Bialik: “I am searching with an open heart, I would love nothing more than to believe in and speak to a Higher Power. Am I sure? I don’t think any of us know for sure. In seeking you find your faith.” He resented the idea that being gay was his “cross to bear.” “No, it’s not my cross to bear! It’s me! I’m just a little open book.”
In the end, I take comfort in knowing that Leslie Jordan not only lived his most authentic self, but also lived his best life. He was recently quoted as saying, “I’m as happy as I can be. What a blessing to be content with ourselves.” For those of us who emulate him, this may be our great lesson. The very gay Leslie Jordan left us permission to be content with ourselves just the way we are.
This should also bring comfort to his late mother. She proudly accepted him when he came out to her at the age of 12. Her only comment was, “I’m worried that you’ll be ridiculed. So. I think you should live your life calmly.”
Spring. We all know exactly how well THAT didn’t work out.
Rob Watson is the host of the popular Hollywood-based radio/podcast show RATED LGBT RADIO.
He is an established LGBTQ columnist and blogger who has written for many top online publications including Parents Magazine, Huffington Post, LGBTQ Nation, Gay Star News, the New Civil Rights Movement and more.
He was Executive Editor for The Good Man Project, appeared on MSNBC and has been cited in Business Week and Forbes Magazine.
He is CEO of Watson Writes, a marketing communications agency, and can be reached at [email protected] .