Emmy-winner Leslie Jordan learned early on how best to fight bullying
by A.J. Mistretta
There’s no mistaking Leslie Jordan. The pint-sized product of the Tennessee hills has been entertaining stage and screen audiences with his signature drawl and biting wit for more than three decades. From regular appearances in television shows such as Boston Legal and Will & Grace to roles in feature films such as The Help, Jordan brings comedic levity to anything he touches.
But his life hasn’t always been tiaras and feather boas. Struggles with addiction plagued the actor in his early career. Now sober, Jordan talks about his Hollywood journey—in all its messed-up glory—in his one-man show.
A.J. Mistretta: Thanks for chatting with me. How are you doing?
Leslie Jordan: I’ve got a cold, honey. I just went to the drugstore to buy light bulbs and Nyquil. Glamorous, huh?
You grew up in the South, in the Bible Belt. How did that influence you?
There’s a line that my friend Del Shores [creator of Sordid Lives] uses that’s so poignant: we learn to hate ourselves in a church pew. Until you’ve gone through that—sat in a Baptist church in the 1960s—you can’t understand. There was so much shame over who I was. I’ve been baptized 14 times because I just didn’t think it ever took. I started drinking and doing drugs when I was 14 because that was my way of dealing with being gay—it was a lot easier when I was loaded. When I finally got sober at 42, I was riddled with internal homophobia. What it finally took was me getting rid of all that I learned growing up.
Brother Boy from Sordid Lives is a character that many Southern gays understand on some level or another. How did you end up playing that role?
I gave Del Shores a book of short stories by Bobbie Ann Mason, a Southern short-story writer from Kentucky who I just love. And I told him, “You can write like this.” And he did—he developed these three different short stories that were very funny. And one day he told me he was going to take the three stories and turn them into a play. I said, “Oh no, honey, there’s just too much going on, it won’t work.” Well, he did it, and that first reading we did was an absolute mess. But it did work.
A lot of fans were sad when Sordid Lives didn’t come back. Are we going to see you on TV again?
Right now I’m working on my own television project, which is in development with a great producer. We’re going to see how that goes.
What role are you most proud of?
Probably my involvement with Will & Grace [for which Jordan won an Emmy]. I just think that show was so important. I’ve always thought there were two ways to combat homophobia. One was to be funny. I’ve always used that even as a kid who got bullied. And the other way is to put a face to what people fear. Many Americans allowed gay characters into their homes for the first time with Will & Grace. Today, I really believe the tide has turned on gay rights. But we have to keep it going. I tell kids all the time, it’s so important that you vote. When I finally got sober at 42 I had never registered to vote, and I’m not proud of that. I was in the bars seven nights a week. Who could get to a voting booth? I couldn’t even get out of my bedroom. I was a mess, honey.
Is there an actor that you’ve wanted to work with and haven’t had an opportunity to yet?
Dolly Parton. I’ve just always loved her, but I’ve never had a chance to meet her. It’s funny—one time Del called me up and said, “You’ll never guess where I am. I’m at Dolly Parton’s house right now.” He was meeting with her about a sitcom that ended up never happening. I made him promise he would call me right after he left and tell me everything. He said she answered the door at 9 a.m. in the morning in “full Dolly” and was absolutely darling. Anyway, she was describing this actor who she wanted to play her brother in the sitcom and she’s describing me! Del tells her I’m her biggest fan, and she says “No, I’m his biggest fan.” So she asks him about me, and he tells her, “Oh, he’s just trash from the hills of Tennessee.” And she says, “Honey, aren’t we all?”
The Houston Coming Out Party takes place on October 13, 6–10 p.m., at Sycamore Heights Bed & Breakfast. Tickets are $30 general admission and $125 VIP. There is also a VIP dinner on Friday, October 12. For more information: outreachunited.org.
Celebrating Coming Out
Local party hopes to morph into national event
On an ever-so-slightly cool Sunday morning in September, a small group gathers around the kitchen table of a home in the Heights over coffee, kolaches, and spreadsheets. Gary Wood and Bryant Johnson’s kitchen has served as the de facto headquarters of OutReach United since the nonprofit’s founding in 2010. Together with several friends, the couple launched OutReach as a vehicle to help engage the community and celebrate the coming-out process.
This particular meeting is to finalize the details of the group’s major annual fundraiser—the Houston Coming Out Party. There’s food prep, table rentals, auction items, and stage setup, just for starters. Yet despite the mass of logistics that come with creating a two-day event for hundreds, this group of friends works through it all with laughs, craft, and a little bit of sass. This isn’t their first rodeo, but it’s bound to be their best. With Emmy-winning actor Leslie Jordan as the star attraction, buzz is already building.
Inspired by friend and advocate Carol Wyatt, Wood and Johnson held the first Coming Out Party in 2006 as a fundraiser and means of giving back to the LGBT community. They scheduled the event at their house, on the weekend closest to National Coming Out Day (October 11) and hoped for the best. That inaugural event drew 85 attendees and raised $5,000. By 2010, the party had outgrown their home, swelling to more than 300 and raising $33,000 in just three hours. That’s when the decision was made to establish OutReach as a formal 501(c)(3) charity.
Lee Ingalls, one of the five founding board members of OutReach, says he remembers when Wood and Johnson approached him about their concept. “I thought to myself, How brilliant. They managed to come up with an idea that had not been thought of before, and yet touches every GLBT person in the most emotional way.”
To date, OutReach has raised more than $100,000—money that’s gone to groups such as Montrose Counseling Center, Pride Houston, and the GLBT Homeless Youth Imitative, just to name a few.
Over the last couple of years, OutReach has added more events to the roster, including an annual pool party. Plans are in the works to develop more, perhaps on a quarterly basis. The focus of the organization has also coalesced around three central elements: philanthropy, community involvement, and a drive to project social awareness and acceptance.
Wood says his hope is that the Houston Coming Out Party grows into a nationally recognized event, making the Bayou City a destination for the gay community each fall. But that’s not the endgame. “I would like to see this party replicated all across the U.S.,” he says. The goal: helping craft a culture where “coming out and being who you are is not only socially acceptable, but celebrated.”
For his part, Ingalls sees OutReach as an affirmation of the touchstone event in the lives of LGBT people. “We are a part of society often lost within the masses as a whole, and we’ve been encouraged to keep it that way,” he says. “I want to make sure I do what I can to help educate people on how to treat youth and the generations to come. I want them to know they are okay exactly the way they are.”
A.J. Mistretta is editor of MyGayHouston.com and public relations manager of the Greater Houston CVB.