The winner of this year’s Community Vision Award, transgender entertainer Tommie Ross, never saw it coming.
“She’s such a legend, but she’s so humble that it’s been hard to honor her,” says Kennedy “Kent” Loftin, the chief development officer for the Montrose Center. “We had to really convince her that she’s a trailblazer in the LGBTQ community.”
The center has previously honored six high-profile activists and public servants at its annual Out for Good dinner on National Coming Out Day. “About 600 guests enjoy a fabulous dinner as well as a program of heartwarming testimonials. We hope guests will leave with a better understanding of how the center can serve their needs and be inspired to do more to serve their community,” says Loftin.
This year’s soiree will be held at The Ballroom at Bayou Place in downtown Houston, with Deborah Duncan as host. The Center promises a performance by the event’s honoree, who is famous for her legendary impersonation of gay icon and namesake Diana Ross.
“She’s such a legend, but she’s so humble that it’s been hard to honor her. We had to really convince her that she’s a trailblazer in the LGBTQ community.”
“Diana is all I did at the beginning of my career. My stage name was Ross,” she explains. “It wasn’t until I entered pageants that somebody told me I needed a first name, so I added the name I grew up with and became Tommie Ross.”
The honoree remembers getting disciplined as a child for being too feminine. “I assumed that I was gay,” she says, like her cousin and best friend with whom she “stumbled upon” a gay disco, The Cove, while still in high school. “We went in a side door. I saw my first drag show at The Cove; Donna Day was a special guest, but she was a regular at The Copa. We went the following Sunday to The Copa and saw Tasha Kohl, Donna Day, Naomi Sims, Hot Chocolate, and Mr. Tiffany Jones.” Those drag masters taught and inspired Ross as a member of the audience, but she mainly relied on her own instincts to create her drag persona.
“That comes from being an only child,” says Ross. “I’m really thankful because I wasn’t listening to people trying to coach me and tell me how to do it their way.”
Ross was working as a clerk at an insurance company on Montrose Boulevard when her mother died from a massive heart attack. “I kept working, but I was functioning in a depressed state, going through the motions, depressed on the inside,” she says. “One day, a new manager said something to me and I just quit.”
Drag shows became a way for Ross to work through her grief, and pageants became both an outlet for creativity and her path to stardom. At the 1986 Miss Gay USofA pageant at The Copa, Ross wowed the audience with a huge, jungle-themed production number to “Eaten Alive” by Diana Ross. The crowd beat the walls when Ross made the Top 5, but many fans booed when she was only awarded second runner-up.
“It shook me up for a minute, so I took the runner-up plaque and held it in front of my face,” the entertainer recalls. “When I realized they were booing for me, I let it down and smiled to thank them and let them know I was OK.”
Many of her black fans thought Ross was robbed by a panel of racist judges, as both the winner, Michael Andrews, and the first runner-up, Tandi Andrews, were white. But during a recent appearance at Hamburger Mary’s (where Ross is a recurring cast member), Ross says “I met an older white couple who said they were there that night, and their group was chanting and booing, too.”
Ross and her dancers reprised “Eaten Alive” at the 1987 Miss Gay USofA pageant, which was held in Columbia, South Carolina. “I was second runner-up again, but I was relieved to get a placement; the winner was Diana Hutton, who did live impressions. The audience lost their minds over her,” says Ross.
On the path to her first major title, Ross won the 1988 Miss Gay Texas USofA pageant, then tweaked “Eaten Alive” for the national contest, which boasted more than 70 contestants. “The first two times I did it in heels, but then I went to Payless and got some winter half-boots and put some ‘jungle’ feathers and rhinestones on them, which allowed me to dance better and be grounded,” she says. Ross swept the talent, sportswear, and evening-gown categories and won Miss Gay USofA at the Indiana Roof Ballroom in Indianapolis.
The news of her victory reached Houston before Ross and her troupe returned. “It was in the Bible Belt, so there were people picketing the pageant outside on finals night. It was a big thing; my friends saw it on the 5 o’clock world news back in Houston.”
Ross has also won Miss Gay Houston America, Miss Black America, and practically every major title in dragdom, including Miss Continental 1999, which includes a swimsuit competition. “It is a different type of prestigious title,” she explains. “It’s an event. People come from all around on Labor Day weekend at the Baton Show Lounge in Chicago. People think it is a pageant for transgender people, but it’s really for anyone. Michelle Dupree, who crowned me, is a boy.”
Ross identifies as a transgender woman.
“I was a sheltered child, and it wasn’t until 1989 or 1990 that I started seeing and reading things about transgender people,” she recalls. “I never dated, per se, gay boys. I count the number of relationships I’ve had on one hand, and the men I’ve dated never associated with being gay. Some have had a sister or a friend who is gay. They’re always a guy who sees me as a woman. I approach things from the neck up. I like a guy who’s really intelligent. After we exchange phone numbers, we just talk on the phone—that is the courtship. That also comes from me being extremely shy.”
In the 1980s, Ross saw her community hit hard by AIDS, and she responded by volunteering at shows and benefits to raise money for PWAs. She also worked behind the scenes to raise awareness about HIV, particularly in the black community. However, as Loftin noted, Ross often seems unaware of the influence she’s had throughout the LGBTQ community until someone expresses that sentiment to her in person.
Not long ago, she says, “a little, skinny person” approached her at a Miss Gay USofA pageant and told the drag superstar they were “thinking about transitioning.” Ross advised, “Take your time and don’t rush it.” A year later, the fan returned as transgender performer Giselle Jones, complete with a tattoo on her arm that reads “Take your time and don’t rush it.”
“That is the most eye-opening thing that has happened to me in the community,” says Ross.
This article appears in the October 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.