One of the absolute joys of writing our book was the constant reaffirming of one theme, one aspect, one personality type rearing its head over and over and over again in the history of LGBTQ+ life and the formation of queer culture: capital-B Boldness. As Junior LaBeija put it so well in Paris is Burning, “It do take nerve.” And in the 20th Century, especially in the years before Stonewall, it took a sometimes unimaginable amount of nerve for queer people – especially those who didn’t or couldn’t conform to gender norms – to just live their lives openly. As we’ve said many a time during the course of the last year while promoting the book, the femme gay men, butch lesbians, trans men and women, and anyone else queer who just couldn’t give society what society demanded (that boys just be boys and girls just be girls and we’ll have no more talk about it) – these were the people on the front lines of queerness. And if they were Black or people of color, their very existence was under attack every time they put so much as a toe out in the world.
It took a universe-sized amount of boldness for queer people in those surroundings to thrive as artists. Again, if they were queer, gender non-conforming and Black, the hurdles they faced were unfathomable. Which is why we are honored to take a moment and pay tribute to a stunning legend, an incredible performer, and a trailblazer whose work changing hearts and minds was met with silence for way too long.
Jackie Shane was born in Nashille in 1940 and – almost completely unheard-of for the time and place – enjoyed the support of her mother to live her life as a woman from an early age. Despite this early support, Jackie struggled under life in the Jim Crow south as a Black transgender woman at a time when most people didn’t have the vocabulary to understand such things. An extremely talented singer, she found herself performing in the mid-Century clubs of Toronto, where she enjoyed a limited freedom to express her true self. She never managed to hit the mainstream in the way her talents deserved, but she enjoyed a long and legendary reputation among R&B and soul afficionados, not least because she disappeared from the music scene by the early 1970s, never to be heard from again until a music journalist tracked her down in 2016. She lived long enough to see a resurgence of interest in her work and recordings, and enjoyed the previously unimaginable pleasure of seeing her work nominated for a Grammy in the last year of her life, when a compilation of her recordings titled Any Other Way was nominated for Best Historical Album in 2017.
You’d have to go to other sources to see pictures of how Jackie navigated life back then (we recommend Queer Music Heritage highly), but she veered from being billed as a drag queen to performing in a Little Richard-esque drag that we would probably refer to as “genderqueer” today. In a lot of ways, it’s astonishing to see her navigate the restrictions placed on her while she worked on her art and her career with the fierceness of someone who knew accolades were owed to her. Looking at that video of her singing “Walking the Dog” on Canadian television (the only video of her to be found anywhere because no one would book such an obviously queer person on their show at the time) is honestly one of the most astonishing displays of queer boldness we’ve ever seen. The POISE alone. She knew what she was to the people watching her. She knew what they thought of her. She didn’t care at all. Or if she did, she didn’t let a hint of it show in her performance. The talent would speak for her.
But nothing we say could ever do justice to who Jackie was. The only person who could truly tell her story was her. By all means, listen to the entire live performance of “Money (That’s What I Want),” but pay special attention to the riffing she does at the 3:30 mark in response to people who can’t handle the differences she represents; who recoiled from the challenge to the most basic of paradigms she made every day she lived her life:
“You know what my slogan is? Baby, do what you want. Just know what you’re doing. As long as you don’t force your will and your way on anybody else, live your life. Because ain’t nobody sanctified and holy.”
That quote went in the book because it’s just so fucking glorious. Another amazing quote, from near the end of her life:
“I do not bow down. The lowest I go is the top of my head. This is Jackie!”
Too fucking right, Queen and Legend.
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The Daily T LOunge for June 4, 2020