Diva©Kathryn Van Aernum

Diva©Kathryn Van Aernum

I came out to my parents when I was 21 years old.

I was about to attend the first Gay & Lesbian March on Washington, DC in 1979. (Yes, the first march was in 1979, not 1987.) It marked the 10 year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in which a group of drag queens said, “I am telling you, I’m not going,” to the NY police who continually raided the gay bars in the Village and arrested people just for being authentically who they were. In my naïveté I was afraid my parents would  “find out” by seeing me on the evening news. HA! Little did I know the media would keep a whole march in the closet. There were only two small articles – not even first page, in the Washington Post and The New York Times. Over 100,000 people kept in the closet. Amazing. You can learn more about it here, from this award-winning documentary produced by 4 high school juniors in May of  this year. Times have changed.

Back then, I also was a regular at the only gay dance bar in Ann Arbor, Michigan; The Rubiyat. Every Sunday night I was there to dance and watch the drag shows. It was mesmerizing to see how Stan, Lester and Mark became Benetha, Diva and Candy. They had such joy when they performed. It is incomprehensible to me now, as it was then, how this was/is considered to be such a threat. Men in high heels. Seriously?

Candy Sweet© Kathryn Van Aernum

Candy Sweet© Kathryn Van Aernum

I began to photograph them. In order to shoot with available light, I used police recording film which had a very high speed and then push processed it – which meant developing the film for longer than the recommended time because you would be exposing the film for an even faster rating. It’s a chance operation and sometimes the negatives were under exposed. This film was extremely grainy and could produce clumpy results on your print. I could soften that by taking the cellophane from a pack of cigarettes (I used to smoke) and wave it quickly for just a couple of split seconds under the enlarger to diffuse the grain. I’m not sure how I knew or learned to do this, but it was very effective. Pre-Photoshop days. These are still some of my favorite images. The memories they evoke are lifetimes away.

A lot of people don’t “get” drag queens, or pride parades. I don’t think I’m a good enough writer to be able to explain their importance. I think my friend Sheila Morris could do a better job with that. What I do know is that they are inextricably linked, along with coming out, to what has shifted perceptions worldwide to what it is to be identified as LGBTQ…human; in all of its glorious, rainbow-like expression.

Beneatha Sheets © Kathryn Van Aernum

Beneatha Sheets © Kathryn Van Aernum

Happy Pridefest Columbia.