Sometimes laughter is the best activism.
by Eric Peterson
Picture it. Rehoboth Beach, Delaware: 1998.
There, I stood, waiting in the wings, a microphone in my left hand. Every Labor Day weekend, the LGBT community in Rehoboth Beach, DE hosts a fundraiser that consists of an enormous auction on Saturday and a big dance party on Sunday. This was a Saturday night, the silent auction was wrapping up, and the live auction would begin in about ten minutes.
To entice an audience away from the tables and closer to the stage, I had been asked to sing a show tune while scores of volunteers worked furiously to clear the merchandise and snap up all the bid sheets before any last-minute shoppers could pilfer a victory after the bell rung.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the silent auction is now over,” a voice rang out, and the crowd reacted, some wondering if they’d won any of the items they’d been coveting for a few hours. “The live auction will begin in ten minutes.”
Predictably, many in the crowd decided that now would be a good time to visit the restroom or return to the open bar for another G&T, but it was my job to convince at least some of them to step a little closer to the stage. I adjusted both my headdress and my giant red purse, waiting to be announced.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Sundance is pleased to announce a very special guest this evening. Someone you’ve all heard of, a veritable icon of gay pride.”
For a split second, I wondered if I’d been replaced. I knew a lot of folks in this room, but not all. I wasn’t famous, or an icon of anything. Had there been a mirror backstage, I would have understood the joke immediately. I was wearing a purple hood, with a big triangle perched on top, and a purple tunic with a staticky television screen duct-taped to my chest. Dangling from my right arm was my mother’s tasteful red purse.
“Please give a warm welcome to … Tinky Winky!”
In case they slipped your mind or were forcefully repressed, the Teletubbies were the rising stars of children’s television around the turn of the last century. No one who could form complete sentences could stand to watch them for more than five minutes, but somehow they kept the pre-verbal set enthralled. The Teletubbies weren’t without controversy. Some wondered, then and now, whether getting a one-year old child hooked on television was a developmentally sound choice. But the biggest controversy by far had to do with the largest, purplest Teletubby. You see, years before his son would disgrace himself with the aid of a winsome pool boy, Jerry Falwell Sr. was warning good Christian parents everywhere that Tinky Winky — he even sounded gay — was a tool of Satan sent to earth to turn your unsuspecting toddler into a raging homosexual.
I emerged from my spot in the wings. Even though the Teletubbies famously waddled enthusiastically as they spouted their high-pitched gibberish, I thought it would be funnier if I took a more deadpan approach, simply walking to my mark and standing there, letting the crowd take in the ridiculous costume, looking vaguely unimpressed.
And then I heard the music — the opening chords to the gayest Act One closer ever composed. I raised the microphone to my lips and sang, rather quietly, “I … Am … What I am. I am my own … special … creation.”
The crowd went nuts. It was important for me to sing the song as seriously as possible. “Let the audience laugh,” my friend and director Fay had told me. So, I adopted a sad, plaintive expression, but inside, I was giddy.
“So … come … take a look. Give me the hook, or the ovaaaaaaation.”
The laughter at the front of the house was doing its job; there were people throughout the hall, some of whom too far away from the speakers to hear, who could sense that something was happening near the stage, something they had to see.
As the song gained intensity, I became louder and only slightly more animated. I looked like Tinky Winky on the outside, but inside I was Albin, Jerry Herman’s wounded but defiant drag queen, full of rage and sorrow and yes, pride.
In our preparation for the act, Fay (the evening’s Artistic Director) and I hadn’t changed a single lyric, except at the end of the song. Near the triumphant crescendo, I crooned, “It’s myyyy life! Even though I’m just a Teletubby! No wife, but I’m lookin’ for a tele-hubby.”
I finished the song, and the applause began. And sure, they were cheering for me, but more so for us — for being the kind of people who respond to idiots who wish to oppress us by laughing and singing and celebrating ourselves that much more. My deadpan expression broke, and I allowed myself to smile along with everyone else as I took my bow. Rarely in my life have I felt such joy.