The first time I saw a drag queen live and in living color, this royal beauty was standing in the bathroom of my small New York apartment, squinting into a mirror as she critiqued her lip liner loudly and her bangles jangled around the rim of my sink.
There was sparkly stretch fabric pulled around her impossible hourglass figure and razor-sharp jet black wings perfectly drawn on each eyelid, effortlessly accentuated with pops of bright eyeshadow. There was perfume, amber-heavy, and it made my apartment smell rich and a little cheap all at once.
Veronica came to America as a teenager in the early 1990s. Her family had been trickling into the United States piecemeal for a few years until finally, it was her turn to make the trip.
Months after our first meeting, we sat on my stoop eating popsicles as she told me about her life “back home” and why she left. It was hard economically and socially. And it didn’t help that she was a “little gay boy” surrounded by devout Catholics who just couldn’t understand why she wasn’t like any of her macho older brothers.
She liked feeling unencumbered, so she rolled the dice, arriving in New York at 17, around the same age I was when I first moved to Manhattan. We both started out looking for the same thing: a place to feel free, to feel like we could just be ourselves walking down the street.
Our origin stories were different, but our motivations to come to New York were nearly identical.
Veronica was in the bathroom of my apartment the first time we met because she was joining the sister of my then-boyfriend for a night out on the town.
In fact, my boyfriend’s sister—let’s call her Betty—had only recently revealed to me that she was transgender a few weeks before that.
It happened abruptly while she was putting on lipstick and waiting for me to gather my things so we could go for a bite to eat.
“You know I wasn’t born a woman, right?” she asked me out of the clear blue sky.
I did not know that.
It had not occurred to me that this was a possibility.
I was a smart young person, but I was also a very young person, and many of life’s nuances were only just starting to reveal themselves to me.
“Really?” I asked.
And I admit, I cringe thinking back to this, but I searched her face for clues, something that would show me who she used to be.
But I just saw Betty. Beautiful, chic Betty.
I was genuinely shocked, mostly because my then-boyfriend had never mentioned this to me about his sister and we had all spent so much time together. I wasn’t angry whatsoever, I was just floored because something I thought I understood, I didn’t really understand at all.
Betty told me as far as she was concerned, it was her business and not mine, but she only “came out” to me because she was worried I would find out details about her past at some point and maybe it would sour our friendship—or worse, she worried, my relationship with her brother.
My mother raised me to be kind and to accept that this world is full of human beings who are different than me and that their differences do not make them inferior. What makes people inferior, she would say, is when they treat others like shit.
Of course, I wasn’t going to treat Betty like shit. I liked Betty. Betty was my friend. I didn’t care about much else at all because Betty treated me really well.
At that point in my life, I was extremely ignorant about people who were nonbinary or genderqueer. I had been a member of the Gay-Straight Alliance in high school and a handful of my best friends coming up were gay, but what I didn’t know could fill several books by the time I met Betty.
All I really understood for sure at that point was that I didn’t like it when people were cruel to others because of their sexual orientation or expression. It seemed really mean to judge someone for something they had no choice in deciding.
So when my eyes drank in Veronica for the first time, my brain immediately tried to fill in gaps of my own ignorance. Was she like Betty? Was she transgender? Why didn’t Betty wear these big wigs and dress like this? I loved this wig. Betty should wear these wigs.
I knew I liked Veronica right away because I liked and admired her confidence. I liked how she looked painstakingly put together and effortless at once. I liked how uninhibited she was as she talked about her life. I liked that she was funny and really smart, and I really liked how she made me feel while she gasped at my very long, curly hair.
“Women would kill for this, you know. They would kill for this hair and these eyebrows,” she would say, running her fingers through my ringlets. “Do you dye?”
Over the course of our friendship, I learned more about Veronica’s life, her horrors and hardships. I learned too about her victories and triumphs.
She taught me a lot, like how to open a champagne bottle with a machete and that gay people are not a monolith. Coming to understand this deepened my understanding of human beings in general.
Veronica’s mere existence triggered a realization in me at 19 that still shapes a lot of my thinking today at 36: Most every human being is just out here trying to do the best they can to live comfortably in their own skin, and a lot of us are just faking it until we make it.
As a kid, I would get teased a lot. I let that creep in as a youth, a teenager, and even as an adult woman. When I would cry to my mother in grade school and start rattling off all the things I really hated about myself, my mother would look me in the eye and tell me this: “Brandi, you have the whole world to pick on you, don’t do their job for them.”
Bless my mother—she tried, she gave me every reason in the world to have a head as a big as a weather balloon. But a combination of my own experiences and persistent self-doubt just couldn’t shake off my low self-esteem. She did know how to make me feel better in general, though, and while I didn’t believe all the things she would say about my appearance, I knew she meant them and that she loved me. And that made me feel better.
So after I left dear mom back in D.C. and headed for New York, Veronica was the first person I met who made me feel good about myself, really. Veronica, a gay man and drag queen, made me feel alive, excited, and more confident in my own womanhood. Veronica couldn’t be biased. She wasn’t my mother. But she sure did sound like her sometimes.
The years sped along and I became more enmeshed in drag culture as Betty and Veronica would take me to shows or bars or just to hang out with their friends. Veronica would sneak me out of my apartment when things got bad between me and my boyfriend and give me sage advice over late-night coffee. Without Veronica’s help, I don’t know if I would have been able to muster the courage to break free and start another chapter of my life.
For a while, after I left New York, we tried to keep up. We both got busy and lost touch. I think about Veronica often, especially when I am at a drag show or consuming queer entertainment.
And I’ve been thinking of her especially in this last year as America’s worst factions have rolled out this horrible “Don’t Say Gay” bullshit.
I’m glad Veronica exists. I’m glad Veronica was out and proud. I’m grateful for all of the LGBT+ people who speak up and say, “I am me and I am proud of me.”
The gay community has given me so much in my life, and as a cisgender woman, I often feel lost on how to return the favor. I am an imperfect ally, of that I am certain, but I also know I love this community so much and will defend it fiercely because it is full of wonderful human beings who are so often founts of strength and courage and above all, creativity and compassion.
So, perhaps you are reading this and you are gay. Perhaps you have heard it a hundred times already in the last two weeks since this is Pride month.
But, please, let me just reiterate: I’m glad you exist this month and all months. I want you to exist.
The world needs you.