Being Himself

Joanie Baker

Like stiff catfish hanging from wooden plaques in a fisherman’s basement, two girls gawk open-mouthed at the 6-foot-6 figure gracefully coming their way. Beneath a rainbow parasol, the figure passes the girls with the elegant posture of a movie star on Oscar’s cherry red carpet. Their eyes move from the multi-colored crescent shade, to the J-Lo style rocks at the wrist, and finally to the British flag purse hanging at the hip.

“Is he for real?” one fish-mouthed girl finally says to the other. “Is he a he?” the other responds.

But Elliot Phillips walks on to class seemingly oblivious to the star-like attention he receives on the way there. After all, he said later, it’s just an umbrella, and it was hot outside.

“Some people are like, ‘Oh, it’s a statement, la la la,'” Phillips said. “And it really doesn’t register with me like that. They thought, ‘rainbow: gay pride’, but really it was a just a cute umbrella my Mamaw bought for me at Wal-Mart. And I’m just crazy enough to do something like that. I don’t try to make statements; I just try to be me.”

Phillips, a Russellville sophomore, is gay. He’s a hotel management major who is still deciding between owning a bed-and-breakfast, working in interior design or becoming a professional drag queen. He strives to be more like Audrey Hepburn. He said that he goes through classes at Western without any problems, and is treated just like anybody else. And although Phillips changes his career path as often as he changes eye shadow, he said he’s no more interesting than anyone else.

“I guess they say everyone marches to their own beat,” Phillips said. “Well I have my own beat and my own drummer. I march over here in left field somewhere. I’m like the offspring of Elton John and Liberace.”

Another side to the stereotype

Phillips’ roommates, Frankfort junior Matt Murphy and former Western student Jeremy Holland, said that one of the biggest stereotypes that clings to the gay community is that all gays are promiscuous. Phillips said he hates the stereotype that says being gay is a choice. All three have admitted to trying to be straight, and said they wish they were straight, because sometimes living the gay lifestyle is difficult. Phillips said people who get to know him see that his flamboyancy is not a front, just a part of who he is. They also see that he’s not a stereotypical promiscuous gay man; in fact, Phillips said he doesn’t even date much.

“I’m like the Virgin Mary of the gay community,” he said. “Saturday night, I’m here watching the ‘Golden Girls.’ They’re just such a comfort show.”

Phillips finds comfort in real life golden girls as well. His closest confidant is his grandmother, who even lets him wash the dishes while wearing her wigs.

“How she puts up with me, I don’t know,” he said. “I discuss whether I buy wigs, dresses; about boys. No matter what, I always sit down and talk to her about it.

“Where most 60-plus women are like, ‘you’re gay, get away from me’, she’s like, ‘yeah, I can relate.”

Cracker Barrel

Another golden girl who plays a substantial role in Phillips’ life is a lady who proudly wears five golden stars embroidered across her brown Cracker Barrel apron. Below the stars, the apron says “Shirley,” but it’s “Grandma Shirley” to Phillips. In fact, Phillips spends much of his time dining out and bonding with his senior co-workers. As he places the newest trinkets on the shelves at work, he chatters away amongst the ladies, and seems to fit in like the boy adopted by wolves. But it wasn’t always this way.

A year ago when Phillips started at Cracker Barrel, he met “Grandma Shirley.” Shirley Minton was a woman known for her strong Church of Christ beliefs, who often condemned anything non-traditional such as living together before marriage. Now she and Phillips tease each other like old school friends.

“I like the person,” Minton said. “Not the lifestyle. He’s always calling himself a ‘she’ and I’m always correcting him saying ‘no, he.'”

Though he doesn’t have enough time to go as often as he would like, Phillips and his two roommates, Murphy and Holland, often make the trip down to Nashville to go clubbing – as women. Thursday is drag night at The Caberet, so on this night Phillips looks frantically through his large walk-in closet. At last, he brings forth his sparkling prized possession. It’s the yellow and orange dress he wore on his first night doing drag.

“The first time I tried drag, they all said, ‘Wow, you’re a really beautiful woman,'” Phillips said. “I’ve always been told I have the universal look that could go either way. Well, minus this three-day-old beard I’ve got going on here.”

Different levels of support

The beard isn’t all Phillips has to bluff to become Aurora, his drag alter ego. He goes to his dresser and pulls out a balled up pantyhose. The Trailmix inside makes his “breasts” look and feel real inside his bra.

The three roommates form a tight-knit group, despite coming from backgrounds of different family acceptance about their lifestyles. Phillips said his family pretty much always knew he was gay, even before he did. In fact, they didn’t seem all that surprised when he came out and told them he was gay.

“My mom was like, ‘Yeah I figured it out a long time ago when you kept watching the ‘Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty.” She said, ‘I love you no matter what.’ I have a really good and supporting family,” Phillips said.

Holland was not as fortunate. When Holland’s family found out he was taking Murphy to his high school senior prom last year, they confronted him about being gay while he was in his tux and headed out the door. Having posed as straight with his best girlfriend for years, Holland said he couldn’t take it anymore.

“My father asked me if I had been living a gay lifestyle, and I said ‘yes,'” Holland said. “There had been more lies in my house than stars in the sky. I just couldn’t lie anymore.”

Holland’s parents then kept him locked in the house until the prom was over so he wouldn’t embarrass the family. They told him to take the opportunity to pack because he couldn’t live that lifestyle in their house.

Holland moved in with Murphy and his parents for the summer, supporting himself by playing bingo. In August, the raspberry-haired duo moved in with Phillips, who said it’s been a circus ever since.

Holland and Murphy have continued to have problems with Holland’s parents, who have little contact with him at all. After the initial confrontation, they even took away his graduation gift of a trip to New York to see “Rent.”

“So Matt and I made a trip to New York ourselves and saw ‘Rent,'” Holland said. “My mom called while I was there and asked what I was doing. I told her I was standing in Times Square. I just let her know: ha ha. She still loves me, she just doesn’t appreciate the lifestyle I lead.”

Ten months after meeting at the one year anniversary of Western’s Outlet (the center for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and trans-gendered students), Holland and Murphy share unity rings on their left ring fingers. But there is no talk of a gay marriage in their future because Holland said marriage is what goes on between a man and a woman. Civil unions should be granted to gay couples so that they do not have to conform to the straight standard, but can receive the same rights, he said. Phillips sees things a little differently.

“I believe it’s just like Michael Jackson having 50 nose jobs,” he said. “If it makes him happy to have 51, then go ahead. Whatever makes you happy – be it marriage or not – is part of living in America. Who are we to judge; who are we to say no.”

Phillips does hope to one day meet someone and get married. After all, he points out, he’s just a regular Susy Home-Maker who loves to cook, clean, decorate and garden. But Phillips refuses to be dull, even if it means carrying a rainbow parasol.

“There’s a Dolly Parton song that says it’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world,” Phillips said. “I think that kind of fits me. They look a lot alike, but it’s the quality and character that separate the two. It’s like, some people are flamboyant just for show, but others, that’s just a part of who they really are.”

Reach Joanie Baker at [email protected]