"You're gonna love this," he said, as he handed me a suspiciously hot-pink bag.
He didn't know who I was, and all I knew about him was that he was a celebrity—the first gay celebrity I'd ever met—and he had an impossibly thin, maybe Sharpied-in, mustache. I kept staring at it. Was that really his mustache?
"Thanks," I said nicely, taking the bag.
I knew his name was John Waters, and I knew he was supposed to be famous or something, but honestly I didn't know any more than that and I didn't give a shit. I was 17.
He gestured for me to open it.
"Wow," I said, confused once I'd opened the bag, because inside it was a piece of shit. On first glance, I thought it was a small brown piece of real shit. A second later, I realized it was plastic.
He stood there smiling, waiting for me to get a joke I didn't get. I had just performed in a drag show for him—he and the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore were the judges—although "drag show" is a generous term for what had happened. Only five queers showed up to perform for an empty theater. It was 2010 and we were in conservative country in Michigan. I lost to a senior citizen who deep-throated the mic. The plastic poop was my consolation prize for coming in second.
I was too polite or too stunned to ask him to explain it. I was embarrassed. Was my performance really that shitty?
The whole night had been weird, and it was really Michael Moore's fault.
Moore, the famous filmmaker behind Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, was known for bringing strange things to Northern Michigan. He'd created a successful film festival in Traverse City in 2005, bringing freaks and liberals to an otherwise conservative-leaning purple area. Now, in 2010, he'd decided to create a high-profile comedy and arts festival in the same place in the middle of February, Northern Michigan's worst month.
The resort town is at the very tip of Michigan's mitt, and it's home to a famous cherry festival, Moore's film festival, and an arts boarding school, where I was a prisoner/student. There is nothing going on in this part of the world during the middle of winter. Snowdrifts sometimes get as high as 15 feet—three times the height of most people. Everyone hides. I once found a girl's braid inside a snowdrift, and that was the most exciting thing to ever happen to me during a Michigan winter.
My friends and I were intrigued by what Moore was up to. We were bored with Adderall and bad handjobs, and an arts festival organized by the rebel documentarian was a valid excuse to leave our boarding school campus. We convinced our hall monitors that we were very into comedy and they let us go off-campus—unsupervised. I felt so cool.
Headlining Moore's inaugural season was Roseanne Barr and John Waters. Moore, a fiery leftist and longtime friend of Barr, told Traverse magazine that year, "There is no better observer of the state of the affairs we're in than Roseanne." (He's since distanced himself from Barr, recently calling her a "damaged soul" and an "outright hateful and racist person.") My friends and I knew who Barr was because of her TV show, and Barr's events sold out quickly. None of us knew who John Waters was. I was born in 1992, 20 years after Pink Flamingos came out.
Waters was also slated to perform a one-man show, but that was on a school night and we couldn't get a pass. One of my friends noticed that Waters and Moore were hosting a late-night drag show and a screening of a movie starring "the filthiest person alive," according to the billing. The movie was Pink Flamingos. We wanted something cool to post on Facebook, so we chose to go to that.
A straight guy I wanted to blow thought it would be funny if we competed in the drag show. So we did. The drag show was supposed to increase attendance for the midnight movie.
Anyway, after performing, and after the poop, I was in no mood for this John Waters person.
"Thanks," I said, disappointed. I walked away with the shit and sat back down in the audience next to the bratty straight friends I'd dragged to the theater with me.
"What's in the bag?" one asked.
"Plastic poop? I guess it's a poop joke 'cause I was a piece of shit," I said, shrugging. I couldn't fathom this poop's importance, let alone how lucky I was to be holding America's filthiest filmmaker's turd.
"That guy is so weird," I said to the hot straight drummer I'd come with, the one I desperately wanted to suck bone-dry. He shrugged, and then Pink Flamingos started playing on the theater's screen, and then my life changed.
The film starts out with a fully grown adult woman named Edith Massey sitting in a baby playpen yelling for the notorious Divine to get her some eggs. Massey wears lingerie and holds a giant stuffed heart. She's in a full face of makeup, but it's morning. Divine, a monster in a dress, struts in and hardly says, "I'm sure you're hungry, Mama," before the film cuts to two rival perverts who announce they're competing with Divine to be the filthiest person alive. It's fucking nonsense.
"This acting is so bad. It's terrible," one of my straight friends whined. I agreed.
Everything only got worse. A flasher makes money in the movie by wagging his wrinkly dick—with turkey necks and sausages tied to it—at women and then stealing their purses. Then a trans woman flashes her dick, tits, and scrotum, which causes him to flee. Sometime after that, a straight couple has sex on-screen while smashing a real live chicken between their bodies until it dies. Between them. DIES! IT'S AWFUL!
"This is disgusting. I have to pee," my friend next to me said, after the chicken scene. He left the theater for a lot longer than a piss. Alone, I continued to watch. It was madness. It was horrible. But why was I so turned on by all of it?
In the movie, Divine gets poppers and lice shampoo and a pig's head for her birthday. They all do drugs, and then a performer flexes his prolapsed anus in rhythm to "Surfin' Bird." The police come, but Divine kills them with a meat cleaver and eats them. Everyone, even the murdered people, seem like they're having fun. Things are burned, blowjobs are given, penises are cut off, people are convicted of "assholism," and, finally, after more murder, Divine concludes the rampage by finding a little dog, watching it shit, and then eating the poop. It is the grossest moment in the history of cinema.
It also explains the fake poop Waters gave me.
Sitting alone in that theater, I was too busy thinking about other things. I realized that my drag act—and, to a greater extent, my life—could be a lot filthier. Waters treated gender like trash. I thought it was radical just to put on my friend's mom's kaftan. I didn't know I could have shown up covered in shit and still made people proud. Gender, it turns out, could be thrown away and pissed on and recombobulated to my liking. For a gay kid who was mouthy, femme, and poor, Divine's smile full of shit gave me permission to relish in the freedom of being a reject.
A lot of gay artists probably have this experience: their life before seeing a John Waters movie and their life afterward. Waters doesn't just move the yardstick, he lights the field on fire and laughs while the jocks burn. Even by today's standards, Waters—and especially Divine—remain utterly shocking. In 2018, we're still playing catch-up. Waters is the artist who changed the rules, who brought absolute filth into queer pop culture decades before queer sex was even legal in most states.
Today, whenever I tell this story to anyone who knows John Waters, they die. They gag. They're jealous that he handed me a pile of shit—a piece of shit that I misplaced, or threw away, because 17-year-olds are inherently shortsighted.
I had no idea how important John Waters would be to me as I got older. I'd do anything to go back in time and get that fake little poop. As penance, I work hard every day to be a spectacular, mouthy, total piece of shit.
• This piece appears in the 2018 Queer Issue as “That One Filmmaker.” See also: “That One Serial Killer” by Dan Savage, “That One Drag Queen” by Jinkx Monsoon, “That One Writer” by Sophia Stephens, “That One Coworker” by Trisha Ready, “That One Teacher” by Katie Herzog, “That One Parent” by Jing Jing Wang, "That One Roommate" by Christopher Frizzelle, "That One DJ" by Charles Mudede, “That One Radical Faerie” by Marc Castillo, “That One Songwriter” by Eli Sanders, and “That One Spouse” by Natalie Wood.