"If the kid were a jockey, I'd be at the races," says John Young III's mother, Donna. But the kid's a drag queen--once a year--and so it's become a ritual for Mom, Dad and Sis to watch John compete at a local drag beauty pageant. When he won in 1997, he boomed into the microphone, "Thanks, Mom and Dad!" and invited his parents to join him onstage to share his palpable joy. A little stiffly, they gave their high-heeled, garishly made-up son a hug and a kiss. And then they looked out into the cheering audience and beamed.
This scene opens local filmmaker Marguerite Arnold's documentary "There's No Place Like Home," which paints a portrait of the Young family against the backdrop of the pageant. It combines family interviews with scenes of John shopping for glittery dresses with his mom, putting on makeup with his sister and getting ready with other contestants on the big night. "I think they just let me into their lives and forgot I was rolling," says Arnold, 32.
After meeting Donna in an AOL chat room for writers, Arnold sold the family on the idea of the film. It wasn't easy; many relatives, including his grandparents, don't know John is gay. But Arnold was persistent. "They came to trust me and believed that this project would help a lot of people," she says. "They didn't realize what an anomaly they were."
"You only have one family," says Donna Young in the film. "He's my son until he's not here anymore or I'm not here anymore."
John, 32, included his family in the pageant by calling his drag character Donna Galore, and wearing a bright pink shirt emblazoned with "Daddy's Little Grrrl" while lip-syncing "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" at the pageant. As for his sister, Michael (named after the man who saved his father's life in Vietnam), she gets over the fact that he wears a smaller dress size and lends him a bustier. The pageant has brought them all closer, John says in the film. It has given them an experience to share.
"My family should be as intolerant as any," says John during the film. His father graduated from the Citadel and served 26 years in the Army before retiring. His mother also grew up in an Army family. He came out to them in his twenties. His sister intuitively knew long before then, but his parents say they had no idea. In the only tense segment of the film, his father admits he wishes John weren't gay, if only because of the difficulties that gay people often experience. Still, he's there at the pageant to retrieve John's black dress after he rips it off and flings it into the audience during one of his numbers.
When Arnold showed the film to the Youngs more than a year after she interviewed them, she says, they were "shocked, but in a good way. It's always weird for people to see themselves on film, especially in a movie this personal." She's still raising funds to finish it, but there will be a work-in-progress screening at the Reel Affirmations Film Festival next Thursday. The Youngs will attend and will stick around for a question-and-answer session afterward.
In an open letter on the film's Web site, theresnoplace.com, the Youngs explain their decision to participate. John was the only pageant contestant whose family showed up to support him, and his parents became a symbol of hope for the others. The Youngs go every year and say they never leave the competition without offering many words of comfort and listening to many tales of rejection. "There is a long way to go," the letter says. "But tolerance and love begin at home."
Arnold says she felt a strong pull to the elder Youngs. "Both parents are very nurturing," she says. "Every time I go over there I'm asked how I'm eating, and I get a meal."
"There's No Place Like Home" is dedicated to a high school friend of Arnold who she says was rejected by his family after he came out, and to Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten to death last year.
For the screening next week, Arnold and John tried to reach agreement about attire. "We were considering wearing matching dresses," says Arnold, who killed the deal with a demand: "We couldn't choose any fashion that would flatter him more than me."
The screening takes place Oct. 21 at 9 p.m. at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. Tickets are $8. For information, call 202-986-1119, and for tickets, 800-494-TIXS.
CAPTION: The Youngs, above, from left--Michael, Donna, John III and John Sr. Below, Marguerite Arnold films a documentary scene with Michael, left, and John Young.