Leslie Jordan and I had something in common. Unfortunately, I don’t much share his delightful wit, delicious Southern charm, undaunting cheerfulness or success in Hollywood. All things I admire and wish I’d had. But we did share a special bond. We belonged to a unique sort of gay fraternity. We were both Southern Baptist Sissies.
Growing up gay in the Southern Baptist church was an experiment in mixed emotions. You’re taught Jesus loves you and then, as you and your desire for other boys begins to grow, you’re told you’re going to hell for something you absolutely cannot control. To be told simultaneously that you’re embraced by the bosom of the Lord only to then be potentially cast into the fiery pits of hell is enough to make anyone bipolar. (Poor Leslie was so confused that he was baptized 14 times trying to drown out the gay.)
I was not, like Leslie, born below the Mason-Dixon Line. But while he hailed from Chattanooga, Tennessee, I did spend my summers in a little hollow called Firebrick just four miles south of the Ohio River in Kentucky. There, my grandfather pastored a tiny hardcore fundamentalist Southern Baptist church. The kind where women were encouraged to wear long shirts, long hair and no make-up. Little gay Jason was so bored. But then there was the singing.
Like Leslie, I loved to sing in church, and I loved that good ‘ol hand-clapping, foot-stomping Southern gospel music.
“I’ve sang all my life in church, and I was in a choir when I was a kid,” Leslie said in a 2021 interview with offtherecorduk.com. “I’ve never considered myself a singer. But we’re told, ‘Just sing for the Lord. Sing for the Lord.’”
As oppressive as the Southern Baptist church environment was for a young gay man, there was true entertainment value in the Southern gospel music scene. Handsome, clean-cut, well-dressed male quartets were the norm. But then there were the family groups, of which there were just as many.
One group stood out from the rest, and it featured the woman who sang as if she’d been sent down from the heavens just to minister to the weary and downtrodden, which pretty much summed up the Southern Baptist Sissies of that time.
Her name was Vestal Goodman, of the Happy Goodman Family, and she was fabulous. She wore floor-length sparkling gowns and an enormous, foot-high cluster curl beehive on her head. She always had a lacy hanky in her hand and a smile on her face. She was basically the diva queen of Southern gospel music. And to us Southern Baptist Sissies, she was basically our first gay icon, sort of like the Gaga or Beyoncé of the fundamentalist church.
Leslie and I both had a special affinity for Vestal.
“I never got to see her, but I’ve just worshiped her,” he said in the same interview. “The Goodman Family, everything they’ve ever done, I’ve listened to over the years.”
In the ’70s, it was not unusual in Southern gay bars to see a drag queen doing Vestal. The church would probably call it blasphemy. But it was really just an homage to a lady who brought comfort to many a queer soul.
Leslie, of course, left the church and the South and headed to Hollywood to seek his fame and fortune. He did guest appearances on a diverse array of shows and sitcoms ranging from “Murphy Brown” to “Star Trek: Voyager.” He struggled with substance abuse issues and eventually overcame them. And after that, he made gay history by playing the hilarious Beverley Leslie on the hit show “Will & Grace.”
While that will undoubtedly go down as his definitive role — it opened major doors for him and ushered him into the big time — queer fans would likely choose the role of Brother Boy in the Del Shores’ “Sordid Lives” movies and short-lived Logo TV series as a close second. He played a misunderstood Tammy Wynette-loving drag queen who had been institutionalized by his family for his flamboyant ways. He also appeared in both the stage play and film “Southern Baptist Sissies,” again written and produced by Shores, who shared the same church background as Leslie.
His time on “Will & Grace” took Leslie’s career to a new level. And as he got older, his popularity continued to grow. Leslie arguably reached the peak of his powers during the pandemic, when he was in his mid-60s. His warmth and charming accent helped accentuate his sincerity and childlike humor in the social media videos he posted. A year into COVID-19, he had amassed some 4 million followers on Instagram. (By the time of his death, he had over 11 million followers between Facebook, IG and TikTok.)
Leslie’s vivaciousness and effervescence shone through in his videos. And it was during this time that he seemed to reach back to his roots and expose the world to the Southern gospel music of his youth. Jordan admittedly didn’t have the best voice. But he sang, along with his friend Travis Howard who accompanied him on guitar, the old songs and hymns of his youth with vigor and pride.
“We got the Baptist Hymnal, but we knew every word to every song, and we’d sing,” he said. “And not that I even go to church now, but I started thinking. When you’re raised like that, these songs bring comfort. I just love singing them, and that’s a wonderful thing.”
The videos became so popular that Leslie even went on to record a gospel album called “Company’s Comin’” full of duets with legitimate vocalists such as Tanya Tucker, Brandi Carlile and even Dolly Parton, who said in a post following Leslie’s death that he was like a little brother to her. He included traditional songs such as “This Little Light of Mine,” “Where the Soul Never Dies” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.” The album became so popular that it earned Leslie an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry.
“It was pretty amazing the memories that it brought back, because I don’t have any ax to grind now,” Leslie said in an interview with Southern Accents Radio last year of working on his album. “I’m 66 years old. I’ve worked through any problems. I’m perfectly happy with who I am, what I am.”
Leslie’s videos and album introduced Southern gospel music to a whole new audience. And for those of us who grew up on it, he brought back bittersweet memories. He posted his last Instagram video the day before he died. In it, he sang the hymn “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.”
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I’m glad Leslie laid his issues with the church down. Me, I’m still struggling with mine. But I do still believe in God. And in heaven. And Leslie, they may have booted you out of the church, but I have a feeling that when the roll is called up yonder, you’ll be there.