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VIEWPOINTS Finding My Brother, Miss Gay Black America
by Mary Morten
2012-12-03

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In the past few decades, a divide has emerged in the LGBT population, between the transgendered and gay communities. The transgendered community is seen as "other," and often as a novelty, particularly in the case of female impersonators or drag queens. What many people in the LGBT community often forget (or never knew to begin with) is that the transgendered community have put themselves on the front line in the battle for equal rights.

When the Stonewall Inn was raided in June of 1969, female patrons of the bar were taken into the women's bathroom to have their genders "checked". Of course, some of the patrons who were dressed as and appeared to be female were not, and these men became some of the first of many to fall victim to the fight for equality. Though this would not be the last time that the transgendered community took the first hits from the population at large, its spirit was never broken, and as years have gone by, it has grown stronger and evolved into what it has become today.

Transgendered people are often dismissed as not being a part of the gay community, but what may people forget is that while we as gay men and women do not necessarily wear our gayness on our sleeves, the transgendered community is not always afforded the option.

Ronnie Reed was the youngest of four brothers and two younger sisters on the south side of Chicago. He taught his sisters how to wear make up, made their prom dresses, and showed them how to style their hairpieces just right. An effeminate black boy in the 1970s, Ronnie stuck out from other men in his community on the South Side, and suffered prejudices and harassment until he was old enough to move away and pursue his interests in hair styling.

While working in hair salons, Ronnie fell in love with the entertainment industry. Soon Ronnie became drag performer Terri Livingston and began touring around the country and the world with his act, often focusing on the persona of singer Shirley Bassey. Over the course of his hair styling career, Ronnie worked with such personalities as Stephanie Mills and Maurice Hines, while also serving a tour in Vietnam.

Ronnie soon became so enthralled by the entertainment and hair styling industries that he would not contact his family for months at a time. His mother died in 1981 and since his family had no way of reaching him, they endured the tragedy without him. He did not find that his mother had passed away until several months later when he called home.

Terri was known in the drag community nation and worldwide; she performed at clubs across the country and was a regular at the Miss Continental Contest at the Baton Show Lounge in Chicago. In 1989, Terri was crowned as the first Miss Gay Black America at Club 21 in Indianapolis, IN. Unfortunately, Terri had contracted HIV, which had developed into AIDS in 1987. He was living in Indiana by that time, and refused to come home to be a burden, against the wishes of his sisters and brother, who wanted to take care of him. By the time of the pageant, he was so sick that he was unable to complete the competition, but was still crowned queen.

Terri Livingston was my brother. I was one of the little girls whose hair he did, whose clothes he made, whom he taught how to wear make up. It didn't seem at all wrong; we just assumed that this was how Ronnie was. He moved away from the prejudices of the South Side of Chicago as soon as he could, falling into a world of drag performance that I really knew nothing about except when I found my 8th grade graduation shoes in his closet. Since he got very sick right after we reconnected and continued to travel when he could, I never got to ask him so many things about his life that I wanted to know. My family was not one to have prejudices against our brother—his illness wasn't an issue, regardless of its origin. He was our brother, he was sick, and we were going to take care of him.

I am currently in preproduction for a film that I am calling Miss Gay Black America: The Terri Livingston Story, which will explore Terri's unique life through interviews both with his old friends and fans and the owners and managers of clubs in which he used to perform. The film will also examine the evolution of the culture and public perception of female impersonation, specifically its evolution since the 1980s as well as the drag community's reaction to the AIDS epidemic.

Miss Gay Black America: The Terri Livingston Story is a tribute to my brother Terri Livingston—an amazing performer, and an amazing person. Throughout this project, I hope to get to know the man, and woman, that I didn't get to know when he was alive.

If you knew Terri—as a performer, friend, or anything else—please e-mail me at admin@mortengroup.com . I would love to hear any stories that you have about my brother and interview you for the film.

Mary F. Morten

Director, Miss Gay Black America


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