Queer Icon: Divine (1945-1988)
By Kyle Parker
Divine, born Harris Glenn Milstead, was an American actor, singer, and drag queen best known for his work alongside filmmaker John Waters. Divine and John Waters met each other in late 1960s Baltimore, and it was Waters who gave Milstead the name “Divine”, as well as the tagline, “the most beautiful woman in the world, almost”. Divine and Waters would collaborate on a number of short and feature-length films, such as cult classics Pink Flamingos, Mondo Trasho, Female Trouble, and Hairspray. He toured gay clubs during the disco scene of the 70s and 80s and appeared in several avant-garde performances with San Francisco drag collective, The Cockettes.
Divine didn’t begin opening up about his homosexuality until the 1980s, often hinting at being bisexual when questioned by the media, and avoided discussing gay rights altogether at the urging of his manager. Still, his filthy, messy, in-your-face drag style remains a fixture in American consciousness. People magazine described him as “Drag Queen of the Century”, Disney used him as inspiration for Ursula the sea witch in the classic animated film The Little Mermaid, a 12-foot statue of his likeness is on permanent display at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. If you ask any given American to name a drag queen, they will probably say, or at least reference, “Divine”.
Divine died from an enlarged heart in 1988 at the age of 42. Although he is gone and was with us for such a short time, his impact on queer culture continues to turn heads and ignite conversations of gender and performance in art.