By Alexis Rodriguez
Central Florida’s LGBTQ history has remained somewhat of an enigma to many young people who live in the area. Of course, in terms of a national Queer narrative, it seems like San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami, or New York City have held the historical torch of sexual resistance to the United States’ heteronormativity. Central Florida on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have much of a story for many in the Millenial and Generation Z generation, including myself. Through interning at the LGBTQ History Museum of Central Florida, I learned such was not the case. As mentioned before, (if you have not read the first article “Who is Miss P? Conversations about the historical significance of local drag and Parliament house at the Footlight Theatre,” please check it out to understand this one), Orlando has a deep history that, when given voice, shows the significance of a greater community of LGBTQ activism that developed in the late 20th century.
The significance of drag performance can be understood in the context of Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity (don’t worry, I won’t bore you with post-Foucauldian theories). In brief, Butler argues that gender is a socially constructed act, one that through performance reinforces the individual to identify as that supposed gender presented as a norm to that sex. Using the idea of drag personas as an example, Butler points out that through the performance of said gender by a set of particular mannerisms, the person acting is in fact challenging heteronormativity of said societies. Long story short, Butler used drag performances to further perpetuate her theory. How cool is that? Now you must be wondering what does this have to do with Miss P (Paul Wegman) and New Year’s Eve in 1999? Keep reading this article and you will find out.
Last month when I met with Loc Robertson, bartender and Drag performer at Parliament House, our conversation ventured through the historical significance of the Footlight Theatre for Central Florida’s drag culture and of Miss P. As mentioned before, Paul Wegman, known as Miss P, emerged on the drag scene in the early 1970’s at Palace Club and then later at Parliament House in 1975. The character of Miss P, a woman without reservation who would throw witty insults to her audiences, became the main source of entertainment at the Parliament House. In reality, former and current employees who worked during Wegman’s tenure as MC say that people didn’t come for the Parliament House, they came for Miss P. Vicki Bebout, one of the bartenders, mentioned that “He didn’t realize that people came to the Parliament House to see him…very rarely did people come through the front door and ask if somebody else in the show was working. It was always is P here tonight? Is P going to be working, because he was very unique.” Although Miss P didn’t participate in pageants like many drag performers, his popularity grew and so did Parliament’s; to where it even perhaps overshadowed his illustrious acting career outside of drag. For many who don’t know, Paul Wegman was a prominent actor for the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre; he always considered himself an actor and Miss P a character. “There was always Paul, and then there was P at the Parliament House,” explained Mark Edward Smith, an actor and Wegman’s friend, to the Orlando Sentinel; he reiterated that “To me, they were never the same people.”
While Loc and I discussed Miss P, it seemed that the one thing that kept coming up was the 1999 New Year’s Eve celebration at Parliament House, when Miss P made her entrance coming down from a helicopter. A drag queen coming down from a helicopter? Yes, you read that right. I repeat, a drag queen coming down from a helicopter on New Year’s Eve to commence the millennial celebration. Paul Wegman’s drag character was known for capturing the audience’s attention and was, in the words of Mark Smith, “…just a brilliant improvisational comedian.” As 1999 came to an end, Parliament House owners Don Granatstein and Susan Unger wanted to do something dramatic for the celebration. Someone suggested that perhaps Miss P could be dropped off into the courtyard at midnight. According to Susan, Miss P was willing to do it. I mean let’s be honest, what better way to start the party and attract a crowd but with a flying queen in a Peter Pan costume?
After we had finished much of the interview in the Footlight Theatre, Robertson took us to the stage by the pool to talk about the Parliament House set-up and how Don and Susan originally renovated the area to facilitate more privacy for patrons. In this moment I asked him if he could give some further detail about that eventful night and he obliged:
(Link to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNq1MvK-Uc0&feature=youtu.be)
Now you must be wondering (or perhaps you have forgotten) what does this have to do with gender performativity? Well to extend the way Butler used drag queens as an example of resistance to “gender norms,” who Miss P was symbolized so much more. Even though Paul Wegman would argue that Miss P was a character for a club where old bitter queens who got stuck living in Orlando gathered, who Miss P symbolized for many was fearlessness and strength. We have to remember that Orlando’s gay/drag scene was quite small and reserved, especially in the 1970’s when Wegman began to create the Miss P character. Willie Tillmon, also known as Geraldine Jones and a close friend of Paul’s, explained that Orlando’s gay scene at the time was pretty much nothing and he compared it to other places he visited during his travels as military personnel during the Vietnam War. Miss P not only represented a character in some drag show but also a transition in time where drag icons became symbols of sexual resistance and nonconformity. One only needs to read about the Tenderloin and Stonewall riots to see what I’m talking about. While many would point to several drag performers who fought against sexual oppression during the 1970’s, the character of Miss P not only inadvertently fought against having to perform in a pageant to be “memorialized” but also personified what it means to be a drag queen in the modern day. I mean having a drag queen be dropped down in the courtyard of a gay resort at the turn of the millennium is something amusing, inspiring and in several ways' revolutionary. It is not always about how the performer closely resembles a woman or if they are in the forefront of political protests. Sometimes we need a moment to just laugh amidst all the troubles we face and have a drag queen call us out to reflect on ourselves. At the end, the greatest act that we will ever see is in the mirror.
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Our History Articles are written by various researchers and members of the organization in the interest of studying and preserving GLBT+ history.