This Latinx Drag Queen's HIV Disclosure Brought Down the House in Brooklyn
In recent years, the Brooklyn dragfest Bushwig has attained iconic international status not only for its annual showcasing of gender-fluid talent that echoes its progenitor, the legendary Wigstock, but also because of its focus on talent of color, often with a political edge. (The organizers this year, for example, claimed they had to move the event to Queens because of rampant Brooklyn gentrification.) One of the standout performances this year was from the neon-wigged, El Paso-born Lady Quesa'Dilla, who mesmerized the crowd with a speech about surviving a rough year including eviction and an HIV diagnosis.
"The thing that gives me the most shame and embarrassment is that within the last year I was diagnosed HIV positive," Lady Q said. Briefly silent, the crowd then erupted into cheers for her brave disclosure, plus shouts of, "We love you!"
She continued: "Lemme tell you, there were times that I didn't want to be here anymore because there have been so many times that I have hated my brown queer body. But you know what? I'm still here! And I know that for some of us, loving ourselves, loving our bodies takes a lot of work, and for my black, brown and queer bodies out there, it takes so much work, but girl, lemme tell you, we are still fucking here!" (She then went on to thank her "drag sisters" Horrorchata, a Bushwig cofounder, and Untitled Queen for helping her get through a tough year.)
We talked with Lady Q -- who, out of drag, is Alejandro Rodríguez, 29, the youth leadership developer at NYC's LGBT Community Center, known as The Center -- about her riveting onstage confession, her drag debut (involving guacamole) and what she'd advise other young queers of color if they were going through a hell year like she just went through (and survived!).
Tim Murphy: Hi, Lady Quesa'Dilla! Tell me about yourself.
Lady Q: I grew up in El Paso, Texas, in a working-class family. My parents are immigrants from Juarez, Mexico. I had a very stable home life and my parents have always been extremely supportive of me. I've always been a loud, flamboyant brown boy, and I've gotten in a lot of shit for that my entire life. As a kid, my teachers recognized my talent -- or my magic or my gayness, whatever you want to call it -- and gave me opportunities to perform. In Texas, everything is about pageantry, and they have us competing against one another from when we're very young, whether in sports, music, theater or speech and debate.
When I was in high school, a teacher urged me to get involved with speech and debate and handed me John Leguizamo's Spic-O-Rama. That changed it for me! I remember reading the script and was like, "Oh my God, I can definitely do this." I never looked back. Even though John Leguizamo's not queer, he gave me the agency to be queer, out there telling these stories about my family. I saw him in a restaurant here in New York and wanted to go up to him to say, "You changed my life!"
TM: How did Lady Q emerge?
Lady Q: I did my first year of college in Iowa, a brown boy on a scholarship. Nobody in my family had ever finished college. But that bitter Midwest winter -- I just could not! I was a boy from the desert.
So, I moved to NYC and transferred to the New School then went on to grad school for performance studies at NYU so I could stay in New York. So, I went into more debt! But I got to work with José Muñoz, who was brown and queer and wrote about Kevin Aviance and Vaginal Davis.
As for Lady Q, I always think in my heart of hearts that that was gonna happen. I wasn't getting the theater roles I wanted. Was it because I wasn't good enough? My Chicano accent? The color of my skin? Then the first season of Ru Paul's Drag Race came out. I love Ru Paul and drag, but I didn't like that, so many times, drag queens were mean. So, I wrote a performance piece called "The Brown Queen" about growing up in Texas, and I performed it in New York.
That was the start of Lady Q -- but not with make-up yet. Make-up scared me. I don't consider myself a painter by any means. And because I'm a Texas pageant queen, I couldn't be messy. Not to say I don't appreciate deliberately messy drag, but I can't stand sloppy or lazy drag! Be messy, but make it smart and make it say something. Because at the end of the day, drag is about saying something about the state of affairs!
TM: Tell us about the first time you performance in full Lady Q drag.
Lady Q: it was at Metropolitan Bar in Brooklyn. I made guacamole onstage as I lip-synced to Etta James' "Something's Got a Hold on Me." I passed it out after the performance and even had the tostadas ready. I did that number to death. That's why they say that "Lady Quesa'Dilla feeds the children."
TM: Tell us about Lady Q. What is she like?
Lady Q: She's every woman in my life -- my mother, my grandmother, my aunts. She's that Latina that you never saw in the media. She's based partly on Maria Félix, an old-school Mexican superstar actress who's very much like Elizabeth Taylor because she had many husbands. For many Mexican boys, she's our idea of glamor. And also in my family, food was the uniting thing. In Spanish, we have the saying, "Where there's enough food for two, there's enough for three." My mom would get up at 5 a.m. to make tortillas or burritos and we'd spend all day driving around the city selling them. And my mother has been a cafeteria lady the past 20 years. So, she is literally feeding the children of El Paso.
TM: Have Mom and Dad seen Lady Q?
Lady Q: Yes, they have. I took Miss Q down to El Paso and, at the request of my mother, they did a little fundraiser for me. My mom rented out a Motel 6 lobby and sold plates of food, and I performed for an hour. Here's the pic of me in high drag with both of my abuelitas:
I have a blessed life with a lot of family acceptance and support -- something not all of us have.
TM: And when you disclosed your HIV diagnosis onstage at Bushwig, you were met with cheers and cries of, "We love you!" Not for getting HIV but for being brave enough to share about it.
Lady Q: I had been engaging in risky behavior for a year, hooking up and not using protection. I was fully aware of what I was doing. Something in my head was like, "Girl, you need to go get tested. You know what you're doing." What finally got my shit together was that, last year at the same time as Bushwig, Alexis Arquette had passed away and there was a rumor that it was because she wasn't taking her HIV meds.
TM: And you were not on PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] even though you knew about it and had access to it, yes?
Lady Q: Right. I had a lot of shame and embarrassment because I had all this knowledge. I work at the damn LGBT Center. So even talking about this is still really difficult for me. I felt like I was this pillar of the community, and I had all the information, and I still did this to myself. Those are feelings I've been dealing with the past year and a half since my diagnosis.
TM: I felt the same way when I was diagnosed in 2001, that I should have known better. But we're human. We have to forgive ourselves at some point and move on, right?
Lady Q: Right. That's the work I'm doing right now, and I'm talking about it slowly. One of the most important things about my drag is the ability to make myself vulnerable onstage. That's how people connect with me. I'm a really great storyteller. When I give my speeches, everyone listens -- even on a Saturday night when everyone's drinking.
So why has this all been so difficult for me? Partly because I'm so self-conscious about myself and my body. I've always been, and now HIV adds an additional layer to it. Now I have to navigate dating and sex, telling people my status and having to teach people stuff.
TM: What you said about your "drag sisters" Horrorchata and Untitled Queen giving you a talking-to in the restaurant was really moving. What did they say to you?
Lady Q: They were trying to hold me accountable for all my risky behaviors, asking me, "Hey gurl, what's going on? And be honest." I'd been diagnosed with HIV and they didn't know. And I was still being messy.
So, I came clean to them about my housing problems, about my HIV status, feeling like I didn't have control of things and I couldn't do it alone. Which is very difficult for me as a Mexican Taurus to admit, because I have done so much. I needed to say to myself, "Look, right now, you're going through a difficult period, but you'll be able to move on when you're ready." Going to college, moving to New York, going to NYU -- when I set my mind to something, I do it.
TM: It's nice to see you got that support from your drag sisters. Bushwig seems very community oriented. What does it mean to you?
Lady Q: It's the ability of all of us in our range of experiences to come together and show the world what we're doing. I love that Horrorchata, a brown queer Chicano from San Antonio, Texas, has done all this work. I love having celebs at Bushwig like Alyssa Edwards, but at the end of the day, we're the headliners -- the ones in the community.
TM: And I love when you talked so honestly about the challenges of living in a brown queer body, and you celebrated survivalism.
Lady Q: We're taught that whiteness is beauty. And it can be beautiful, but it's not the only thing. I'm still working on living as myself. I've never felt beautiful. That's why I do drag, because that's when people see my beauty. When Alejandro walks into the room, that doesn't happen. I recognize the beauty of Miss Q, but I wanna recognize the beauty of Alejandro! Getting rejected because we're brown and HIV positive ... those are fucked up things that keep me down.
TM: We know that you feed the children. But what do you do with the young people at the LGBT Center?
Lady Q: I'm the youth leadership developer. I run a mentoring program where I connect high school students with queers in our community. And I also organize the Youth Pride Chorus, a queer choir, which is a collaboration between NYC Gay Men's Chorus and the Center. Last year we got invited to perform on Broadway with Kristin Chenoweth. It was one of those proud mamma moments for me.
TM: What do you want for yourself going forward, Lady Q?
Lady Q: Honey, I just want stability and control! And a really cute Dominicano! Now I'm in that space of my life being a brown-loving brown boy. It was white boys for the longest time, and then it was black boys, and then it was any type of boy. As for Lady Q, she will go on. I'm always Quesa whether I have the drag on or not. The wigs will get bigger and the costumes fiercer. I wanna travel with her. I have stories to tell.
TM: Final question: What would you say to one of the children if they were going through the hard time that you had the past few years?
Lady Q: I'd say you gotta reach out for support. Often I thought I could do it alone. But I needed people around me, both my blood and my queer family. I needed to be OK enough to say to myself, "Girl, ask for support. Reach out. Let yourself be loved."