Recently, I had the privilege of being approached by an editor at Love What Matters who invited me to share a piece of myself with their platform. I sent them three different pitches, and this was the first that I was invited to share: my personal manfiesto on my ugliness.
For the sake of length and also to tailor to the tastes of the typical LWM audience, there was some back and forth that led to some tasteful editing. All-in-all, the piece that was posted definitely reflects My Truth, but I also want to post the full, unabridged reflection piece here for posterity and for deeper context to what has allowed me to find pride in ugliness. It is, after all, the foundation that has opened my heart to death positivity, disability advocacy and a generally more even approach to empathy and emotional stability.
When I was a little kid, I went to a book store where an actress portraying Miss Spider was conscripted to do a meet and greet. I don’t know if I was old enough to discern actor portrayals of characters from fantasy, but I know I was definitely young enough and unregulated enough that I didn’t have a handle on expressing myself appropriately. I screamed. I cried. Several adults soothed and consoled me, including Miss Spider! They were all sure that I was mortified by the sight of a giant spider whose legs sprawled for what may as well have been miles. They were 100% correct. Because at some point in the fuss, I gurgled through the snot and tears that Miss Spider was just so wonderful.
Meanwhile, I was a towheaded, gawky, fish-eyed ugly ducking. Over time, I blossomed… into a gander with alopecia and facial asymmetry. I also grew in eager, crowded teeth in a tiny mouth. My hands and my feet are the envy of the Black Lagoon Creature’s fins. My face is as radiant as the full moon: shimmering, with craters on a spherical surface. I may not be the bee’s knees, but I sure do have knock knees!
The instinct of most people I care about who I share this knowledge with is to react in the same way as those adults who tried to soothe the younger incarnation of me. I’ll hear words of assurance, promises that everything will be okay, or even disputes that what things seem to be simply aren’t true. The only substitution is that instead of telling me that Miss Spider is just a beautiful human woman disguised beneath the veneer of prosthetics and makeup, they’re telling me that I’m a beautiful person.
Before these kind-intentioned lavishes were gifted to me as a mid-spectrum millennial adult, I spent a lifetime absorbing negative affirmations toward my physical appearance and of my personality character.
The first of these observations came from my peers and were very superficial. These were just your garden variety “We don’t want to play with you, because you’re [insert pejorative here].” Usually these words were along the lines of ‘weird’ and ‘ugly,’ but sometimes they evolved in their malice toward ’stupid’ when my peers would also take my speech impediments into account.
Then, these validations matured with my peers. I was (and still am) very emotionally and physically sensitive. I wear anguish like a statement piece. I used to cry at everything. My peers had a morbid fascination with intentionally injuring me to provoke my ugliest and most prolonged crying.
Once my first round of puberty hit was when things took a dark turn (and also the mile marker of when adults felt invited to share their opinions of my body and my attitude). The base presumption from pediatricians was to skip the inquiries as to whether I was sexually active and provide educational safety advice. The consensus among my peers was that I was “undateable” and even “unrapeable” (which provided the perfect alibi for the individuals who felt motivated to try the latter). Both of these ‘’qualities could be nicely abbreviated as identifying me as a “dyke”.
Some of the greatest hits of things said to me by friends/friends-of-friends, grown adults, previous partners and young children include:
“I just can’t look at [them]. I’m sorry, I know [they’re] your friend, but [they’re] so ugly.”
“[Their] hands are like deflated balloons. I can’t believe I let [them] touch me!”
“Did [they] decide to transition because they were such an ugly girl?”
“You’re [age]? You don’t look like [age]-year-old girls I’ve seen.” (This ties with other up-agings of me including “Are you his mom?” and “You remind me of my grandmother.”)
“Oh, [they’re] transitioning in that direction. I mean, it’s hard to tell because they’re so…”
And so-on and so-on.
Here’s the thing: I’m ugly. I’m incredibly ugly: emphasis on the incredible. And I’m very proud of it.
Don’t get me wrong—for the first half of my life, I definitely internalized these abuses in a self-deprecating way. I felt that I understood why they hated me, and I logically felt like I should hate myself, too. This meant that my own eventual coming out as a queer person was slow and nervous and filled with tears and trauma, much like my initial encounter with Miss Spider. And it was just so wonderful.
I won’t insinuate that all ugly kids grow up to be fabulously queer (even though Lou Reed’s “Smalltown” provides compelling evidence: “When you’re growing up in a small town / Bad skin, bad eyes, gay and fatty / People look at you funny / When you’re in a small town”). Nor will I stand here and tell you that the LGBTQ+ community is immune to the racism, the lookism, the ableism, the agiesm or the misogyny that we’ve unfortunately carried in with us from our upbringings, because that’s simply untrue. But I will tell you about how I am one of the young people who grew up to findpride in ugliness, both in a general sense and in my own personal ugliness.
I had two major breakthroughs happen at approximately the same time. Let me set the scene. I was a tween/teen in the mid 00s. It was the age of Disney princesses!–the rom-com!–the interchangeable couples amounting to 10 years’ worth of scriptable content for FRIENDS! These were all things that my peers enjoyed and I desperately wanted to enjoy, too, but I just didn’t.
What I did enjoy was the debut season of a Bravo show about five fabulously flamboyant men who blustered through bachelor pads with the tenacity of a twister. It was everything.
Through OG Queer Eye, I began to open doors to all kinds of funhouse mirrors of monstrosity: I saw a construction paper cutout of Carson Kressley reveal himself to be a crab person on South Park in the same fell swoop as I saw John Hurt as the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, give his impassioned plea:
“I am not an animal! I am a human being!”
I took note of all the steps Tim Curry took to sculpt his Adonis in The Rocky Horror Picture Show‘s extraterrestrial laboratory. I learned about queer-coding. I learned about how villainy was scripted as the antithesis to the 90s obsession with plucky, heterosexual coming-of-age. And I learned that said villainy came with power, with drama and with memorable ear worms and quotables!
In college, I began to dissect queer-coding through the academic lens of queer theory and aesthetics. I learned the vocabulary of Oscar Wilde’s sardonic wit. I also felt sincere validation in Edmund Burke’s treatise on the difference between what could be categorized as “sublime” vs. what could be categorized as “beautiful”: the two poles that encompassed the whole of human feeling. According to Burke, beauty is what we like to have near us, because it is aesthetically pleasing. Beauty can be observed anywhere and everywhere. But the sublime?
“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. […] Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.”
When I wasn’t waxing on the philosophical and cultural relevance of aesthetics, I indulged myself in the drama of it. I binge-watched RuPaul’s Drag Race and fell in love with out-of-the-box personalities like TaMMie Brown, Sharon Needles and Alaska (and then fell out of love with Drag Race, but still had goo goo eyes for Yvie Oddly). When I left campus housing, it was to go to my other home: Pulse Orlando. When I had to find a new home, it was Stonewall Orlando, and it just happened to be on a fateful Tuesday night.
Victoria Elizabeth Black and her broodmates are hideous. They are horrific. When I first met Victoria Black, it was meeting Miss Spider all over again. She was, and still remains, wonderful. She is an artist in every sense of the word: a prop creator, an interior designer, a couture seamstress and a painter in the flesh. She not only crafts her own drag, and not only acts as the binding glue of her growing drag family, but she is also the lady of her land: a land inhabited by gods and monsters who descend on the dance floor in droves.
Creature Feature Tuesdays is the first place where I have ever been approached by my peers (greeted with an enthusiastic “Hello, ugly!”, which is a term of endearment in monster-centered spaces) and told that I looked amazing. It’s the first place where I have felt the warmth of people who genuinely meant that. It’s, to date, the only place where no one, patron nor performer, has ever interrogated me about my physical differences or disabilities. Although many of my maladies and co-morbidities prevent me from stepping out, these days, I am often contacted by regulars and told that I am missed and loved. Stonewall Orlando is where I learned my sublime confidence.
It may have taken nearly 3 decades, but I have learned to re-tool every slur, every utterance of slander and every hurtful observation pierced into me and relish the power of it.