He was our elder, yes, but not the level of elder that, say, Betty White was. I mean, as much as she was loved and grieved, I would posit the great majority of folks knew it would be coming soon. Which was why the news of Leslie Jordan’s death last week came as such a shock when I happened upon the terrible news on Twitter. It came as a shock to everyone else and was, his death the result of a freak car accident at sixty seven years old.
I had watched his videos on Instagram during the pandemic as many had, shared into my feed somewhere out there in the ether early on. I’d known him as Beverley Leslie from “Will & Grace” and was surprised and delighted by the very witty, very southern stories he told, then other days would wax on being bored on lockdown in Chattanooga, Tennessee with his family, being scared, being unsure, inventing impromptu workout routines. This around forever character actor, a diminutive, senior citizen gay man had gone viral. And then, like, Sharon Stone would comment on one of his posts and I’d think to myself, “Sharon Stone? Like, what is even happening here?”
He was our gay uncle, deliciously so – some of his audience family and some of it friends of the family, all of us reveling in his light southern lilt and sweet smile, always so heartening to me to see one of our own embraced by the masses. I scrolled that suddenly dreary Monday, profoundly moved by the collective outpouring of grief for him. I’d not realized he guested on “American Horror Story,” had not realized he’d become a meme. Tears filled my eyes watching the timeline tick by, Black Twitter, gay Twitter, wine mom Twitter, country music Twitter, even. He’d just recently sung at the Grand Ole Opry, songs from his album of hymns, “Company’s Comin'”.
He arrived by bus in L.A. in 1982 at that Greyhound Station in Hollywood, a young man with a dream like thousands before him and thousands since — just a year after the first cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma would appear in New York. While the virus would lurk quietly beneath the surface, our southern gentleman, newly liberated and out, would once snort a gram of cocaine whilst out dancing with a friend, run after what he called “rough boys,” joyously debaucherous, his nickname “Sweet n’ Low.” And once the virus would surface out west at home, he would sit overnight with patients in hospice as a volunteer with Project Nightlight, all the while partying and working, frequent enough to become a regular character actor – that guy that was in that thing. Out of that darkness he would find sobriety and a chance at a part after Joan Collins was fired from “Will & Grace” in the 90s.
Scrolling that day I’d come to find out he was a mentor to young gay people, some famous, many not. This is what adds another layer of tragedy upon our loss of him. According to the British Academy, by 1995 160,000 gay men born between 1951 – 1970 would succumb to AIDS – an entire generation of our forefathers gone away, making the ones who remained all the more rare and valuable, enhancing the pain of their loss by magnitudes.
He would come to be embraced outside of our community – by Nashville, suburban moms, so-called normal folks, the same sort who turned their backs on our brothers – how far we’ve come. There’s such beauty in that. Such tragedy.
Oh, how beautifully he twirled…