James Joiner: Performing Public Space

Loretta Good Lordchild

Loretta Good Lordchild is a drag persona of James Joiner. James and I have many Episcopal friends in common, but got to know each other best at a post-worship service, beer-filled, theology discussion he organized. In this interview, he and I ranged all over the map, so it was hard to condense! Even though I know James as a Official Religious Person, I asked about how he identified from a religious perspective.

JJ: I identify as a Christian of the Episcopal persuasion. Although, I’m in community with people from lots of different religious and spiritual persuasions, especially the the Radical Faerie community, which falls all across the board.

EHF: You also have a professional identity on the Episcopal side.

JJ:I’ve been a priest for five years now and I’m the Assistant Rector at St. Michael and All Angels [Parish.] And I’ve been a chaplain for the Veterans Administration in their Mental Health Department.

EHF: And is [priesthood] something that you always envisioned for yourself?

JJ: I did actually. My parents met when they were at Seminary, Southeastern Baptist Seminary. My Dad was Southern Baptist and my mother was Catholic. We lived in the town of Wake Forest [North Carolina], where the seminary was, so we spent a lot of time there. I just thought that everybody went to Seminary when they grew up. So I assumed that that would be a part of my life. I’ve always felt a persuasion toward spiritual leadership.

EHF: How did that manifest when you were younger?

JJ: Being an altar boy, I was definitely right up there with the usual Sunday morning stuff. We were one of those families that would always show up for the midweek service, and sometimes it would be just the priest and our family there. So it was very much a part of our lives. I used to put on shows a lot as a young person which I feel is very similar to what I do now as a priest. I would put on shows in my living room and sell tickets to the neighborhood and to my family. [The shows] would involve magic, skits, costume changes.

EHF: What do you feel is the relationship between performance and holy liturgy?

James presiding over the sacraments at St. Michael and All Angels Parish, stmaa.org

JJ: I think that I got into the priest job for probably all the wrong reasons because it was very much about performance from early on. When I was in my early twenties I belonged to this really radical, like, campus ministry parish in Greensboro, North Carolina, and we had this priest from other time who preached sixties-style protest sermons. But he was the only person in our community who was really speaking in an affirming way about gay people, from a Christian perspective. When he retired, that’s when I started preaching more. And I found myself basically working out my own issues with human sexuality in the church in the format of a Sunday sermon. There was one really wonderful poet in that congregation, and there are a lot of Religious Studies professors, so it was a brainy, heady environment that was there to listen to a thoughtful, poetic working out of all these questions. And for me that was a kind of performance.

EHF: How old were you?

JJ: I was like 25, 26. And of course the priesthood — it’s not that kind of performance. And preaching itself is actually only maybe like 5% of the job. So I’ve been, you know, in a rude awakening. Like, I have to listen to other people. (Laughter.) I’m joking — I actually do that very well.

EHF: I would think the rude awakening is less about listening to other people, and more about having to show up to potluck suppers where one person turns up, or meetings…

JJ: There’s a lot of meetings. And you know, I like to go in very deep very quick. I just don’t do small talk very well, so I’m all for listening if we’re going in deep. But yeah, there’s a lot of maintenance to keep a community going. And that is a separate gift.

EHF: I wonder how many priests get into it for the performance because that’s what you see.

JJ: Yeah, you’re supposed to not say that. It’s supposed to not be a performance, but it is. The fact that I’m comfortable in front of people has been a gift to what I do. And I think the fact that I that I know that about myself actually is good. It can go south when you’re not aware of your need to be seen.

Liturgy is very performative. We are performing something, a remembrance, an act of grace. But we are not there to be entertained. And we’re also not there to be passive participants. An audience [rather than a congregation] sometimes can get away with being sort of unaffected witness, you know? And in my mind, church is much more about us all kind of engaging it together. What we do as a church sacramentally is that we believe these are actions that God gives us to be known and revealed and disclosed and engaged with.

The more that I do actual performance work, the less church feels like a performance. When I have a chance to put them side-by-side and be like — oh now I’m on stage and now, on Sunday morning… It’s like, this is not about me. This is about all of us here and God coming through the centuries of tradition.

EHF: So, you have this history of spiritual leadership. Where did the drag come in?

JJ: I got drawn into drag specifically because of Pepper Pepper, a queen here in Portland, who I saw hosting a Dark Night of the Soul storytelling event. [The performers] were there to tell a story, a personal story, to the audience. Pepper had a way of hosting that event that made it sacred and safe and possible for that to happen. The epiphany for me was how similar that work that Pepper was doing was to my work as a priest. You call the attention to yourself so that you can give it to somebody else. Like, you stand in the spotlight for the sake of inviting another person into that space.

I became fascinated with the way that drag queens perform this culturally for us. A drag queen walks into a room and automatically, whoever you are, you’re probably not the freakiest person in the room anymore. There’s like, an umbrella of safety. They are a public space wherever they go, and to me that’s like what Jesus is like. And so I just became —

EHF: Wait, wait, wait, can you explain that a little more?

JJ: A queen is a is a public space wherever they go because a queen, somebody who’s doing drag (I would also extend this to people who are creative and any way in their gender presentations and non binary people also, anybody who is out in public in a way that defies our expectations of what is normal), they automatically invite themselves to discourse. It’s actually kind of the same as wearing a collar in a public space. When I wear a collar in the Pacific Northwest most people don’t know what that means. Back East, you end up in a lot of random conversations. I end up in way more conversations in drag than as is a priest [here.]

And when I compare that to Jesus . . . the historical Jesus that we see in the Gospels was constantly like this lightning rod for attention, and was basically creating these public spaces wherever he went. A public space for discourse, a public space for actions that upset the status quo, a public space for healing. And I really see queens or other people who push sort of norms about what it means to look like a a man or a woman or a certain way in between — they do that. I got into [the priesthood] because I had a really strong desire to talk about God in a public space, and then I realized that also means interacting with lots of people. And I think a lot of queens get into [drag] because they really want to be on stage. And then all of a sudden you’re also functioning as a pastor or chaplain to the drunk person in the corner of the bar who’s having a crisis moment and feels safe talking to you because you’re a freak. It feels safe. . . safe-dangerous though.

EHF: Safe-dangerous. That rings a lot of bells about Jesus.

JJ: If you come back to this common drag queen trope about ‘being your truest self’ or ‘being your boldest self’ or ‘your most empowered’. . . there’s this way in which getting close to that is terrifying. Certainly if you’re trying to embody it, that requires a lot of bravery and gusto, which I think is also similar to how Jesus functions around other people. Jesus is calling people to this relationship with the God who is essentially alien to the world that we’ve made. Whose power is nothing like what we hold up for power for ourselves, and whose power is love, whose power can fill us with the most satisfying kind of love. But which expects, I think, the sacrifice of all of the other false gods we’ve set up for ourselves. And that’s terrifying. It’s scary to be near to that, because it is so different from from the world that we made to live in.

We have in our in our Gospel the story about the young man who comes to Jesus and wants to do everything right. And Jesus says, well sell everything you have and come and follow me. And he can’t do it because he has so much stuff. And Jesus looks at him and loves him. The text says that! It’s like this presence which is fully and completely and totally and comprehensively loving and also the greatest challenge you can have in your life. And that paradox is similar to the queen who is like, I am ok to be myself in the world, to be that brave.

EHF: The bravery is because the queen is breaking down the gender expectations.

JJ: Yes. My interest and appreciation goes more towards non-binary people who are living every day with some expression of gender that is beyond male and female. It’s one thing to go into a club at night and expect to see a show, where you’re surrounded by your peers. It’s another thing to be walking down the street being yourself in a way that happens to be at odds with the standards of the world and then to become a target of violence. To me, that’s the real magic, that’s the real bravery.

EHF: We should talk about [your drag persona] Loretta, specifically. Did she spring fully formed?

Loretta Good Lordchild and @mars_dangit at Verse First!

JJ: Miss Loretta Lordchild! I still don’t think she is fully formed. A lot of the gigs I was doing in town this year were based on the fact that I was being a comedy queen and then I saw Nanette this summer. And that fucked my shit up!

EHF: You’re not alone! I think it fucked a lot of our shit up.

JJ: I love getting people to laugh. That said, I think a lot of drag comedy especially is this kind of defensive moment that Hannah Gadsby is talking about in Nanette, where it’s like if I can beat you to the punch of laughing at myself then I’ve won. There’s so much around that is just deeply problematic and just like, not a way that I want to live. So It kind of put a dent in my wanting to do a lot of comedy. The other layer is that drag comedy, a lot of it, is about sort of lampooning femininity, and that’s kind of dangerous territory too. The key question when I’m doing Loretta, when I am performing femininity, when I’m performing feminine power is, what kind of power do I want to embody?

One of the shows I’m starting with I am starting with Mars is a drag queen poetry night, creating a venue where the primary expression of our drag was reading poetry from other people and some of our own. But sort of embodying my female heroes, like Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson.

EHF: Emily Dickinson is a huge diva.

JJ: A huge diva! And so that’s kind of part of what I want to embody. And I’m also working on this long-term project, a one-woman show in which I play different women from the Bible. For me, female characters in scripture are 99.9% likely [to be] characters created by men. What is a man’s idea of what a woman is — and what does it look like when a man has to actually perform that himself?

You have these women who in our tradition [to whom] we are used to looking to being examples of femininity and as female expression, but who are, if not invented by men, certainly seen through the lens of a male-dominated society. So [Loretta’s] future development is in that area — where I take this crisis that I’m having with comedy.

EHF: Do you see God involved in that process?

JJ Oh, yeah. I think this process was something that definitely God called me into for my own benefit and for community connections. I think that number one it’s what helps me — as we were talking about earlier — what helps me distinguish between my role as performer and my role as a pastor. It also puts me in relationship with people I wouldn’t otherwise be in relationship with. I mean, I’m not interested in just talking to like other Christians, you know? I don’t think that’s always helpful, and so I’m really thankful to kind of be in sacred spaces with other people.

EHF: Would you ever meld your drag and your priest-ness — a drag liturgy? Would that make sense?

JJ I’ve been asked that before I don’t know how I feel about that. I think I would have an easier time preaching as Loretta because she is like a good old-fashioned Gospel preacher; she feels the spirit. But I really don’t think I would feel comfortable presiding over the sacraments in drag. Because it’s like — you’re mixing your drag! The sacraments come with their own costumes which mean very significant things. The symbology of [Eucharist] has a certain history associated with the community and so it just wouldn’t make sense. I don’t have a reason for combining those symbols in my person. The drag amplifies my persona and the sacraments are intended to amplify God’s Persona.

Now, I do believe that God is probably something closer to a drag queen then a human being so that’s up for interpretation. I know in myself when I’m doing drag, I’m self conscious of my person in way that I don’t like when I’m celebrating the sacraments. When I’m celebrating the sacraments, I kind of want to disappear a little bit. And I celebrate sacraments with people I’m in a relationship with. I could conceivably see Loretta [celebrate the sacraments], if she has built up relationship with people, you know, and then she decided she wanted to go through the ordination process. She could do that.

James Michael Joiner is a priest serving as the assistant rector of St Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in the Hollywood neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, a parish with a passion for justice for immigrants and the earth. James has also worked as a Head Start teacher and a chaplain to mental health and recovery programs for the Veterans Administration Medical Center. James has performed Loretta Good Lordchild, a southern lass with beaucoups of class, in comedy, drag, improv and spoken word venues throughout western Oregon. They are currently working on a one person show bringing women of the Bible to life with song, spoken word, and humor, titled, “The Bajesus Monologues.” Follow Loretta on Instagram @whatlolodontknow.

Elizabeth Harlan-Ferlo

Written by

Arts Chaplain, poet, and curator of Interfaith Muse https://www.patreon.com/artschaplain

Inward Digest

a publication of interfaithmuse.com

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