Tommie Ross says her life has been full of blessings—in spite of surviving racism, homophobia, transphobia, and nearly being paralyzed in a horrific car crash. That positive attitude is one of the many reasons this 60-year-old transgender drag legend is so beloved by her community.
In April, Ross was blessed again when she was elected as Pride Houston’s 2020 Female-Identifying Pride Marshal. Winning the title is a special honor for Ross, since she is the first Black transgender woman to be so honored. “I’m glad I didn’t have to compromise my Blackness to win.”
Growing Up in Houston
Ross was born in Houston in 1960 and grew up as an only child, attending Lanier Middle School and Lamar High School. She says her life’s defining moment came at the age of 4, when she saw The Supremes perform their hit “Come See About Me” on The Ed Sullivan Show. “I connected to Diana Ross both as a Black and as a woman,” she says. Little did that 4-year-old know that she would one day take her idol’s last name as her own.
In 1977, Ross went with friends to The Cove, a Black LGBTQ bar near what used to be the Alabama Theater. “We parked in the parking lot for a while to watch people come and go.” When they finally went in, Ross was delighted to see men dancing with other men, drag performances, and hearing popular disco music.
Ross first came out as a gay male, but admits she never felt comfortable in that identity. After watching trans Houston performer Champagne take the stage, Ross understood that she was also a trans woman.
Ross soon became fascinated with drag, and began performing locally at The Copa. That popular LGBTQ disco had regular talent shows where each evening’s winner could go on to compete in the club’s annual competitions. Quickly sizing up what makes a great performer, Ross garnered The Copa’s Entertainer of the Year award in 1982. After that win, Ross became close friends with popular drag performers Donna Day, Hot Chocolate, and Naomi Sims.
Ross’ love for performing in lavish costumes led to her interest in beauty pageants. As a pageant queen, she began competing under the name Tommie Ross, and created her own aura of elegance and depth.
Ross found the beauty pageants to be lacking in racial diversity. “I was often the only Black person on the plane to a pageant, and arrived to find myself one of the few Black people in the building.” But that didn’t stop her from winning just about every pageant title in the drag world, including Miss Gay Houston America and Miss Black America. In 1999, she won the Miss Continental contest in Chicago, where she was so overcome by her win that she dropped to her knees and wept.
In July 2000, Ross was asleep in the back seat of a vehicle, headed to Houston. Near Tyler, the driver lost control of the car and it flipped over, throwing Ross 50 feet in the air. She was taken by helicopter to a Tyler hospital, and eventually underwent three surgeries that left her with a metal rod in her femur and metal plates in her right shoulder and neck. At the 2000 Miss Continental pageant, Ross was unable to stand up to crown her successor, so the 2000 Miss Continental winner bowed before Ross while she sat in a chair to do the honors.
Ross eventually moved to Memphis after a stint in Dallas. It took two years of rehabilitation to be able to walk without her injuries being noticeable. “It was devastating to me physically, but it ended up giving me so much spiritually.” Ross now lives with a high-school friend in the South Park area of Houston, close to Hobby Airport.
Ross believes that the annual Pride events are important because “we can’t forget that we were persecuted and killed. We must not lose that awareness.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is something that has Ross very concerned. “I contracted Legionnaires’ Disease in 2018, so I am taking this seriously and am not out and about.”
The recent death of George Floyd, who grew up in Houston, has also had a big impact on Ross. “It’s not just his death. [That murder] was just the match lighting the fire. The fuel [for that fire is society’s] racism.”
Looking back on her life, Ross credits her spiritual awareness as the factor that has made all the difference. “If my connection to God hadn’t been so close, my life could have been a tragedy.”
Keep up with Tommie Ross on Instagram @TommieRoss.
This article appears in the September 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.