A Drag in the Family
Daphne and Bill
On a darkened theater stage, she gave the cue for her spotlight. Daphne Storm, wearing heels and a wig, dominated the space with her nearly seven-foot frame.
She lip-synced and strolled downstage, signaling another spotlight for the man to her side. His shirt fit tightly over his chiseled torso as he played the character of a confused submissive.
Daphne sauntered over to him and put a collar around his neck, taking control. The young man ripped off his shirt and the audience erupted seeing this tanned Adonis. Daphne pulled on the leash attached to his collar and walked him across the stage. She then pushed him to the floor, making him crawl the rest of the way.
Safely hidden behind the persona of Daphne Storm is Bill Sullivan, a 60-year-old accountant and a drag queen of forty years.
The performance was part of “Damsels, Divas and Dames,” a fundraiser for HIV Alliance. On April 20, 2019, it celebrated its 20th year with a sold-out show and marked the 13th year for Sullivan as its producer.
Storm and Sullivan, a dynamic duo in Eugene, Oregon, exist in a symbiotic relationship based on love and altruism. When they work together the community prospers.
Sullivan is the president of Eugene Pride and has had success creating support for the LGBTQI+ community. His efforts have raised enough money to fully fund their Pride Day Equality Project Scholarships.
“Bill is a pillar in our community,” wrote Nate Boozer, director and choreographer of Work Dance Company who worked on the show. “He works so damn hard and gives 110% to anything and everything he does. He’s the true definition of what a leader should be — humble, real, open, raw, loving, and most of all, FABULOUS!”
From a Dare to a Diva
Sullivan was a very shy and anxious boy in school, especially when he needed to present in front of others. “I’d get sick to my stomach and throw up,” Sullivan said. “I mean, it was just really bad. I was fine otherwise. But put me in front of class? Nuh-uh.”
Like any performer, Storm needed to be discovered, and then her talents sharpened. On Halloween in 1980, Sullivan was dared by a friend to dress up as a woman for his costume. It was Sullivan’s first attempt at drag and he did the best he could, including borrowing a skirt from a waitress. He’s never shaved his legs, but instead uses tights. Decades later, he sometimes uses two or three pair.
At 21-years-old, Sullivan found the love of his life. It just happened to be his drag persona. Storm allowed Sullivan to do things he couldn’t do before. She allowed him to be the person he was afraid to be.
He caught the attention of members of the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Emerald Empire. Sullivan recalled, “They saw me on Halloween and their impulses were, ‘Oh, honey, we’re going to fix you.’”
Sullivan’s newfound support helped him try drag on a regular basis. Daphne, a name given by Sullivan’s mentor and drag mom, Cherresse, was born.
In the year Sullivan was born, Billy Wilder directed the 1959 film “Some Like It Hot” starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. After witnessing a mob hit, Curtis’ and Lemmon’s characters dressed up as women to avoid capture. As for seeing the men in drag, Sullivan said, “You know, that was my first exposure in a mainstream film. I was very young. So, that was my first exposure, a brief glimpse. I’m like, wait, that’s kind of different.”
Sullivan knew he was gay when he was 5-years-old. But he kept that a secret. A couple classmates who knew he was gay, “but it was never discussed at school or in public,” Sullivan said. We always were in private, and even then it wasn’t really acknowledged that we were gay or even bi. It just was too small a town to have any of that be known publicly.”
Sullivan said, “it was hard emotionally to keep that concealed from the world.” But he said he was “fearful of the consequences.” He explained, “Hearing stories of kids being shipped off to ‘camps’ and worse, I choose to keep it to myself and just wait it out I guess, until I was able to move and be on my own.”
Though Oregon is currently considered LGBTQI+ friendly, it wasn’t until 2015 that the state outlawed conversion therapy for minors. While Sullivan was growing up in the 1960s, Oregon already had a history of passing laws against homosexual activites. If found guilty, punishment included life in prison and even sterilization.
Beverly Garneau, Sullivan’s sister, doesn’t think their own father knew Sullivan was gay because he would have made it known it was a “sin.”
In a life which had concealed Bill’s true self as a gay man who didn’t want to speak in public, it was the drag persona Daphne Storm who allowed him to be free. “I realized I could put that face on, become someone else for a night, put Bill away, have fun with it and relax,” he said. “It broke me out of that shell.”
Sullivan said he’s “one who puts on makeup and portrays a character,” and “that is what drag is for me.” He said it’s “enabling myself to be a persona on stage.”
With Daphne in his life, Sullivan was able to express his love and admiration for Cher by performing as her in the 1980s. He admitted to having a VHS tape containing part of his Cher medley performance at a bar. He wore a “skimpy little outfit, with not much on.”
The Relationship Within Blossoms
Sullivan and Daphne grew together for over twenty years. Then, in early 2002, Sullivan’s friend Peter Storm bestowed the Storm name, creating Daphne Storm. Nearly twenty years later, Sullivan is continuing his four-decade journey as a drag queen.
Storm has taken up an entire room in Sullivan’s house in which he has lived since 2005. Drawers are filled with jewelry and accessories. Shelves display colorful wigs. And a makeup station is set up next to the window.
Sullivan stayed in areas that were friendly to the LGBTQ+ community and had a drag scene. This included the western part of Oregon and the Los Angeles area.
But the early years with Storm were not easy for Sullivan. Though she was his new love, his new life, the 1980s were not always kind — even in the more progressive communities — to someone such as Sullivan, a gay man and drag queen.
“The younger generation, they have not had to deal with that hatred. That persecution.” When reminiscing about doing shows in the 1980s, Sullivan said, “You shouldn’t be walking around the streets back then in drag. Now you can.”
Death is Unforgiving
It’s been said that we each have a public life, a personal life, and a private life. But where did Daphne Storm fit in? For Sullivan, he compartmentalized to create a fourth category: family. And in the early 1990s, Daphne was not part of the family. She was still Sullivan’s secret, his life beyond his hometown.
At the end of the 1980s, his father became terminally ill and bedridden. When the healthcare assistant left the situation, Sullivan moved to assist his mother. Each night, as his mother worked, Sullivan cared for his father. He was the son his father loved, the baby of the family. Sullivan’s bond with his father was more powerful than his bond with Daphne. And so, she was shunned.
Sullivan says that Daphne was always there in his life. But she was put into the closet, literally and figuratively. Like a late-night call to a mistress, Sullivan rarely brought Daphne out, and never in front of the family.
Though Sullivan spent a decade with Daphne, the return home reverted him back to his shelled self. Sullivan suppressed as much of himself as he could to be there for his father. “I was there for dad. It’s not about me,” Sullivan said.
But this act of love and selflessness took a heavy toll on Sullivan who started using substances to fill the void left by Daphne’s absence. Frustrated in a room with no outside door and a closet door he couldn’t open, Sullivan started imploding.
On Christmas morning, December 25, 1991, Sullivan’s father passed away in his sleep. As a loving son, the only relief Sullivan felt was that his father would no longer be in pain. And instead of opening that door and going back to his life with Daphne, he stayed with his mother — a woman who just lost her husband and needed her son.
Though willing to admit he used substances as a coping mechanism, Sullivan has shown resistance revealing specifics. Even with acts decades into the past, he compartmentalizes his life, guarding details of memories. Over two years after his father’s passing have become a footnote on a page that’s been filed away. It’s a page not meant to be read, especially by a journalist.
After this period, his brother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. Sullivan moved to his sister’s house to assist. Eight months from the diagnosis, his brother-in-law then passed away. It was Christmas again, three years after his father’s passing.
It was a low point in Sullivan’s life. The HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s took the lives of many of his friends. Sullivan had suffered from survivor’s remorse, so much so that when he found out his own HIV diagnosis was a false positive, he couldn’t find the strength to tell his dying friend. Then his father and brother-in-law passed. And the substance use took its toll on his body.
But he didn’t waver from his family. Sullivan stayed with his sister to assist with the transition after her husband had passed. Garneau said of her brother, “He helped me raise my son who didn’t have a father.”
The Storm is freed
Sullivan’s stay with his sister marked the turning point in his life. He was no longer acting the role of son to his father, but as a father to his nephew. He was no longer assisting a loved one through their final days, but rather raising someone to live a happy and fulfilled life. It was a changed perspective that allowed for self-reflection.
Sullivan understood what the substance use was doing to his body. He realized how destructive it had been to shun Daphne and keep her in the closet. “I decided to get back to work at least for a while and get my life going up again,” Sullivan said.
But such healing takes time and support. He stayed in Florence, Oregon, where his mother and sister were still grieving and his nephew needed a father figure. But “Florence wasn’t exactly a hotbed of gay community,” Sullivan said. “I just stuck with my circle of friends there that knew and got through a couple more years until I decided to get dental work done, stop smoking and prepare to move back to the valley.”
Slowly, Sullivan brought Daphne back into his life. Each teachable moment with his nephew would provide a spark of inspiration for himself. Each time he consoled his mother and sister, he was able to console himself. The pieces to Sullivan’s life were being put back together. By helping build others up as others had done for him and Daphne, he learned how to pick up the pieces and rebuild himself. “That was 1997 and I have been solid and active here since!”
After years of putting Daphne in the closet, she was brought back into Sullivan’s life full-time. This transition included moving on from his partner of seven months who had given Sullivan an ultimatum: him or Daphne. Sullivan chose Daphne and his reenergized life. As someone who has been single most of his life, Sullivan likes to quip, “they can’t catch me in heels.”
Sullivan moved back to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, which includes Portland and Eugene. A new focus onto himself brought opportunities as an organizer and leader. He uses his compartmentalization skills to separate his roles and organize his time.
And whereas Sullivan produces, it’s his drag persona Storm who draws the people in. She “brings the perfect balance of comfort, comic, and dedication, riddled with true passion for bettering this world,” said Ceara Dawn Swogger, local photographer and fan.
Bill Sullivan grew up living two lives — that of a dutiful, loved son, and that of a scared, gay child. But with Daphne Storm, he rose to become a diva. Together, they have made Eugene a better community. And at 60-years-old, Sullivan isn’t showing any signs of stopping.