Walter “Darcelle XV” Cole is 88 years old and doesn’t give a damn what you think about her.
As the oldest living, still active drag queen with a bar in Portland, Oregon, she’s worked hard to get to where she is today.
For South King County LGBTQ Task Force’s inaugural event, they showed a film about Darcelle’s life called “The Queens of Heart,” with both the film director and Darcelle herself in attendance.
Born in 1930 as Walter Cole, later changing her name to Darcelle XV after opening her namesake bar Darcelle XV, she lost both of her parents young. First, her mother died at a young age, and shortly after her father took up heavy drinking to cope.
It hasn’t been an easy road for her, to say the least.
Darcelle wanted her bar to be a place where you could go to be yourself completely and not fear judgement or hate.
“Ladies used to come in… it was a place they could go without being hit on,” she said.
In 2002, Jan Haaken, a Portland State University professor, created the documentary around the pleasure people derive from watching drag.
She explored some of the criticisms around drag as well.
“Some feminists thought that drag was a put-down to women, some thought the idea that ‘it takes a man to know how to be a woman,’ some thought it was making fun of gay men, so there was a discussion about who pays the price of the joke,” she said. “What makes it funny?”
Haaken explored how drag queens also acted as kinds of community therapists for people who came to see shows.
Darcelle joked that while watching the film, she wept the whole time.
“It’s a life that I’ve lived and loved.”
Darcelle recalled what owning the bar and participating in shows was like decades ago alongside her husband and bar co-owner Roxy L. Neuhardt, nicknamed Roxy Le Roy. He passed away a few years ago, but Darcelle still looks back on all of his life memories fondly.
“Love is what it’s all about… we need a little love now in this world.”
Darcelle still owns the bar at the same location, but nowadays they are only open if they are putting on shows.
Haaken joked that “Darcelle still gets up there, on stage.”
A big part of the film, Haaken said, was getting people to realize what holes they had in their fences, and to see past their own world view to what life is like for people different from themselves.
“There are people out on the other side … It seemed like such a good metaphor for, we do need boundaries, but they should be kind of porous and flexible boundaries,” she said.
Even the drag queens shown in the film had different boundaries for themselves on stage. Some drag queens did not like to be touched at all, while others had a much more cavalier attitude about it.
“I don’t care … I’m on stage,” said Wayne Chamberlain, stage name Celeste Towers.
Darcelle has a similar view on being touched on stage, she told the attendees at Highline.
She said if anyone got too handsy and made her uncomfortable, she’d simply move away from them while on stage. She couldn’t blame people for trying to touch her while she was on stage.
Darcelle also commented how different drag is now from when she first opened her bar.
“Now it’s much more common,” she said. “I preferred it when it was more mystique.”
After watching the film, everyone in attendance had a brief discussion with Hawkin and Darcelle to talk about how drag has changed over the years and what it was like all those years ago.
Another part of the event, held by South King County’s LGBTQ Task Force, wanted to gauge how the LGBTQ youth and young adults in the community felt they were being supported.
A question at the end of the event asked those in attendance how else they thought they could be supported by the LGBTQ Task Force.
Some of the answers included conventions for LGBTQ youth to connect them with different programs and services. Some people wanted to conduct a survey to reach the wider LGBTQ community in South King County.
The overarching theme of the evening though, after the film concluded, was how the youth in the community wanted more opportunities for events like this, and to be seen and heard by the community at large.
South King County LGBTQ’s Taske Force mission is: “To cultivate relationships with, and between, LGBTQ+ individuals, human service providers, community groups, businesses, and political leaders to support, nurture, and advocate for the LGBTQ+ communities in South King County.”
For more information, visit www.skclgbtq.org.