After his partner left him at the age of 45, Harris found himself an unwanted middle-aged man in a youth-obsessed gay world. Instead of “burrowing into my books, hibernating for the rest of my life, safe from the indignities of old age” like any sane, less adventurous individual—or perhaps one without a book contract to fulfill—Harris lights upon the idea that as a drag queen named “Denial” he might occasionally have better success enticing an attractive man into his bed.
The stunt revolutionizes his sex life.
“I was overwhelmed with an embarrassment of riches. Gorgeous men hailing from every country in the world came crawling out of all five boroughs of New York City,” he writes.
Despite looking like a “dilapidated harridan” even in an expensive wig and buried under several layers of foundation, eyeliner, lipstick, and powder, Harris is able to snare the favors of many men, most self-professed straights, and many half his age.
It is this paradox of expectations that fuels “Diary of a Drag Queen.” Throughout, Harris’s keen eye discerns the essential contradictions of his circumstances, how causes do not produce the expected effects, and what this wrings on his personality. It transforms a simple memoir into a powerful self-examination.
Often these contradictions result in humor. Instead of shock or outrage, Harris’s family actually encourages his hobby, lending him jewelry and clothing. As he shows his sister pictures of himself posing in a blue teddy she lent him, a teddy her boyfriend bought her, the boyfriend merely says, “So that’s where that went,” upon seeing the photographs.
However, most of the time the contradictions provoke despair. The interminable efforts Harris goes through to make himself more feminine, more desirable, a sort of trans-sexual Bridget Jones, only reinforce the details of his aging masculinity. Instead of a simple matter of shaving closely, packing on makeup and donning a wig, Harris discovers that such accouterments can only erase his masculine jaw and nose so much. He ends up resembling either a corpse or a mannish dowager.
And again, contrary to the 45-year-old’s expectations, after comparing himself to the other drag queens and male-to-female transsexuals cruising the Internet, Harris discovers himself undergoing “the crisis of a belated puberty, which has given rise to a self-consciousness as harrowing as that experienced by any titless teenage girl with pimples and a retainer.”
Because despite his best efforts, Harris never looks truly feminine. Other “girls” on the Internet attain the look of sultry fatales, able to pick and choose their suitors. Harris scrapes up their dregs. Without hormones and surgery he can never be more than a guy in a wig.
The ultimate insult comes when a trick asks if Harris would put a bag over his head while they have sex.
Harris’s bedroom adventures are not as entertaining or insightful. He does approach the dissimulation of his tricks with acerbic “old-school” gay wit. But what he obviously intends as social commentary comes off a bit worn. Sure, it’s amusing when it turns out that a Puerto Rican stud he’s invited over used a photograph that—since it was taken—”some 15 summers had passed and, during that time, many, many Taco Bell Baja Beef Gorditas and Chicken Fiesta Burritos have been consumed.” Yet, at the same time who doesn’t already know the Internet is a liar’s paradise? Better, who among us hasn’t had this exact experience?
Harris also reveals the unsurprising item—because it is a cliché—that most of his paramours come from the more macho social strata—policemen, firefighters, and inner city toughs. Even though sexual taboos appear less forbidding among this group, its members are also generally more misogynist and homophobic than those who are better educated and compensated. He speculates that in these days of sexual equality, proud, manly types desire women who still act demure, feminine—qualities a drag queen exaggerates to make up for their lack of inherent female traits.
It’s all rather basic social commentary. “Diary of a Drag Queen” lacks the keen, witty breadth present in Harris’s “The End of Gay Culture.” Twenty years ago, observations about how the Internet enabled people to shrug off social mores and engage in rude and duplicitous behavior might have been original; it’s hardly a revelation these days.
Eventually, the libertine lifestyle eventually begins to wear on Harris. He can’t cruise the Internet as Denial without a few stiff drinks, many tricks lie about their age and weight, and the other drag queens he meets online mercilessly harass him via instant messages. Most of all, Harris’s true nature calls out for the pursuits of writing and reading; for even though “Denial” springs from Daniel, she is also so named because of what Harris understood he must do to for this adventure.
Even in this, the reason Harris retires his wigs is not because of what the reader might expect.
“It is the assertion of my old habits, my old self, in short, of the curmudgeonly male who wants to be alone with his art books and novels... Denial will become a casualty, not of outraged masculinity, but of outraged studiousness, not of the man and his machismo, but of the intellectual and his books.”