The Queer Issue
In 1988, an obese homosexual named Harris Glenn Milstead died in his sleep from a combination of heart attack and sleep apnea; in an instant, Divine—the greatest queer-freak superstar the world has ever known—was gone.
The story of Divine is as American as apple pie. After an adolescence as a fat, faggoty outcast and petty criminal in Baltimore, the teenage Milstead attended a Halloween party dressed as Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8—in a slip, fur coat, and stilettos, the character Divine was born. What other name could there be for a 300-pound drag queen who declared himself the most beautiful woman in the world and ate dog shit on film to prove it?
Taking the camp aesthetic to ridiculous heights while infusing it with unprecedented depth, Divine didn't just proclaim himself a superstar—through force of will and personality, he made himself a superstar. The Divine persona proved strong enough to power a series of classic trash-cinema epics by writer/director/childhood-friend John Waters (including Female Trouble, Polyester, and the immortal Pink Flamingos) and fuel an international solo career for Divine as an actor and disco-punk chanteuse. And while Divine's cultural and artistic significance is easily on par with, say, John Lydon's, his stature as a gay figurehead is even greater. For freaks of all stripes—fags, dykes, trannies, even pervy straights—Divine provided living proof that even the most ridiculous dreams can come true.
The freaky triumphs didn't cease with Milstead's heartbeat. A year after his death, he achieved animated immortality in Disney's The Little Mermaid, whose villainess Ursula was explicitly inspired by Divine. This year, the role he originated in Waters's Hairspray (a career peak for both) will be assumed in the movie musical by John Fucking Travolta. In death as in life, Divine proves anything is possible. "All my life I wanted to look like Elizabeth Taylor," said Divine in the glory days. "Now Elizabeth Taylor looks like me."