Queen for a Day

Lonnae O'Neal Parker (pictured here with her daughter, Sydney) writes about school reform for The Washington Post.
Lonnae O'Neal Parker (pictured here with her daughter, Sydney) writes about school reform for The Washington Post. (David S. Holloway/Reportage/Getty Images)
By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Sunday, August 16, 2009

By the time we reach the top of the stairs, the sequins are in full effect.

The money-taker waves me through with my 15-year-old daughter, Sydney -- but not before pointing out that my dress needs a few little baubles to pretty-up my decolletage. Too bad, I think. I had dressed so carefully for the afternoon. Then again, there's never enough sparkle for a room full of drag queens.

The local drag organization the Academy of Washington Inc. has invited me to its annual awards ceremony in recognition of an article I wrote about it last year. Inside, I spot Ella Fitzgerald in a glittery red gown and give her a big hug. I wave and smile as we pass the statuesque Ofelia Bottoms and the lovely young Destiny B. Childs. A nervous Sydney stays close on my heels. Despite 100 channels of cable, her life seems dramatically free from characters, so I've brought her along to introduce her to some American originals.

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago with black people who hailed from a blues tradition. I spent summers in southern Illinois, where my granddaddy owned a tavern, and characters from both places informed my life. They kept their heads down during the week, so their Friday night exhale was hyperbolic. By the time I was Sydney's age, I knew men who played the numbers and women who could smoke a Newport dangling from their lips without ever using their hands. My best friend and I once rode our bikes three towns away just to find a boy I'd fallen for after his picture ran in the paper. But Sydney's world is different. Nestled in deep suburbia, she can't walk to school, to a park or even to the store to buy a soda. She's limited to streets that end in cul-de-sacs, and even in our safe, suburban neighborhood of white-collar professionals, she calls to tell me when she goes from one friend's house to another's.

I once dropped Sydney across the street from her dance class in Washington. She looked skeptically at the three lanes of traffic, looked at me and shook her head. "I have to cross that busy street?" she asked, disbelieving.

"I'm not comfortable with that at all," chimed in her little sister.

As a mother, I understand that primal desire to shield our kids from harm, but sometimes, in our zeal to protect, it feels as though we've stripped too much texture -- too much Friday night -- from their lives. I worry that my family's somewhat sheltered environment is hampering Syd's ability to develop powers of discernment, to understand the difference between unusual and unsafe -- and, maybe, even to cross the friggin' street. I've always told my kids it takes all kinds of people to make a world. But our own world is out of balance, and one type is overrepresented. There can be warmth and community in people who color outside the lines, I tell Sydney, and I'm ready for her to meet some of them. To allow their humanity to help inform her own.

Inside the club, we arrive at our table. "Syd, go get me some water," I say, as I begin talking to Lady Charlotte.

"Mommy, no, please, I don't want to get up," Syd begs. She has the usual teen self-consciousness about being dressed formally, she's nervous about being in a room full of strangers and there are a couple of six-foot-tall men in ball gowns, sporting cleavage and rhinestone-studded tiaras, standing between her and the bar. I knew where she was coming from. But I also knew she'd be just fine.

"Girl, these folks aren't thinking about you," I say firmly. She heads toward the bar warily. Minutes later, she returns with my water and I smile and give her a big hug.

The show begins, and the queens cheer their favorites. A pale, cherubic nominee for male entertainer of the show comes out in a body stocking covered with balloons. He bursts all but the one pinned between his legs, which he twirls as the crowd roars its approval. Syd covers her mouth.

"That's so inappropriate," she says, before collapsing into my lap in a fit of giggles.

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