The LGBTQ community is reeling from the news of the death of beloved gay icon Leslie Jordan.
Jordan, an effeminate southern gay actor who for decades occupied his own special corner of queer culture, died Monday morning in a car accident in Hollywood. His agent said Jordan is suspected of having a medical emergency behind the wheel. He was 67 years old.
Condolences poured in for the Emmy-winning trailblazer as the day progressed, from other actors to drag queens, activists and everyday LGBTQ folks, many of whom praised Jordan for never shying away from a flick of the wrist or a double entendre, focusing her unapologetic queerness on her many roles and public appearances.
The 4-foot-11 scene-stealer first rose to fame in the ’90s with cameos as Beverley Leslie, the hilariously queer-coded nemesis of a New York City socialite played by Megan Mullally in “Will & Grace.” . Jordan’s character ultimately comes out as gay on the show, which in turn broke important barriers for her time in its portrayal of gay men, albeit mostly white and cisgender, on network television.
in a interview On NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 2012, Joe Biden, then vice president, attributed much of Americans’ changing attitudes about the LGBTQ community at the time to the show.
“When things really start to change is when the social culture changes,” Biden said. “I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anyone else has ever done.”
Mullally called Jordan “one of the greats” Monday on Instagram.
Over the years, Jordan, who hails from Chattanooga, Tennessee, brought his over-the-top queer sensibilities into the mainstream on several network shows, including the Fox sitcoms “The Cool Kids” and, more recently, “Call Me Kat.” Over the course of the pandemic, viral videos of him on social media, inspired by lockdown fatigue, found a new, younger audience.
“This summer, I really blew up with ‘the gram,'” he said in a appearance guest host of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in December. “For you older folks, that means I’m doing really well on Instagram.”
To many, Jordan was a symbol of the joy of unquestionably visible weirdness, of reclaiming and reveling in entrenched stereotypes about the feminine affections of gay men.
“He leaned into his quirkiness,” said Eric Gonzaba, an assistant professor of American studies who specializes in LGBTQ scholarship at California State University, Fullerton.
Jordan was a teenager when the gay rights movement began to gain momentum. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, in the midst of the Stonewall uprising and the removal of homosexuality from the American Psychological Association’s official list of mental disorders, he was coming to terms with his identity as Americans’ ideas about sexuality also began to change.
Then came the AIDS epidemic. Gay men like Jordan, born between 1946 and 1964 and classified as baby boomers, were hit harder at the peak of the crisis, from the end of the 1980s and throughout the 1990s. By 1995, a tenth of the 1.6 million homosexual men between the ages of 25 and 44 had died.
Gonzaba called Jordan representative of a “lost generation.”
“All that talent, fabulousness and culture that we never got to see,” tweeted. “Imagine over 70,000 Leslie Jordans.”
The AIDS Epidemic and the Reagan Administration failed answer to him, played a role in the rise to prominence of already well-established LGBTQ enclaves, referred to by some as “gay neighborhoods”, in larger urban areas in the 1980s and 1990s. Those neighborhoods, like the Castro in San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York City became ground zero for the fight for LGBTQ rights and for coordinating a strong health response within the community to the AIDS crisis.
Socialization among gay men and gay-centric networks, particularly in gay neighborhoods, has myriad political and social benefits. but some research has shown that it may be associated with an increased risk of drug use. More than two decades ago, Jordan struggled with alcoholism when he first lived in Los Angeles, he said in a interview with People magazine in January 2021.
His challenges with substance abuse, he admitted, were directly related to his experience as a gay man at the time.
“I felt like it was so much easier to be gay when I was loaded,” he said.
He died with more than 20 years sober, a fact that comforts Vic Vela. Vela, a gay man and host of an award-winning Colorado Public Radio program on addiction, “come back from broken”, he said that although it has never been easy for anyone to come out of the closet, it was particularly difficult in the last decades of the last century.
“For a lot of gay men of a certain generation, that was very difficult to do without alcohol,” he said.
Avoiding anti-LGBTQ discrimination and homophobia remains especially difficult for queer people who, like Jordan, are less outspoken, which can give people incentives to suppress aspects of their identity.
“I open my mouth and 50 meters of purple gauze comes out,” Jordan said in another appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in September 2021, prompting a room full of laughter.
In the interview, Jordan talked about having to play a straight man in a cameo on the DeGeneres sitcom, which broke new ground in American culture when DeGeneres’ character came out as gay in 1997. He had his doubts he could pull it off. . but he joked that he would try to “do it”.
In the years that followed, he did just the opposite in most of his roles. It was that outward expression of her queerness that became a shining example for younger generations of LGBTQ people to embrace theirs as well.
In the same interview, DeGeneres thanked Jordan for coming to her show. It was good to see her, she said as he sat down.
“Thank you,” he said, looking at the audience. “It’s good to be seen.”