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Remembering Kenny Kerr—gay pioneer

Not just a great entertainer, Kerr’s performances actually changed the world

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Kenny Kerr was a Vegas workhorse who rubbed elbows with Diana Ross and Sammy Davis Jr., but more than that he was a gay pioneer.

Just a few days before Kenny Kerr died, the Nevada Senate took the first step toward repealing the ban on same-sex marriage. In the process, Sen. Kelvin Atkinson came out on the floor of the Legislature to hugs and plaudits and virtually no recrimination worth reporting. The day after Kenny’s passing at age 60, the media was consumed by an essay by NBA free agent Jason Collins announcing himself as the first openly gay male professional athlete in a major team sport. Collins got the cover of Sports Illustrated, a virtual high-five from Kobe Bryant and a congratulatory call from the president.

All of that was important, even courageous in its way. But not once did any of those people pay tribute to the really, really queer people upon whose padded shoulders they stand. If you’ve seen anything about Kenny’s passing, it was short, obligatory and woefully incomplete. Yes, he was a Vegas workhorse with a monumental career who rubbed elbows with Diana Ross and Sammy Davis Jr. Yes, he did such a dead-on Barbra that La Streisand herself sanctioned it. And yes, this drag queen who sang and fired off brilliant, unscripted zingers was more naturally talented than his drag rivals anywhere.

Kenny Kerr

But lost in the headlines that dutifully credited him as a pioneering drag star is what that actually meant, and how, unlike probably any other entertainer in Vegas history, Kenny Kerr’s performances actually changed the world.

Kenny always knew his work was subversively political because there was no other choice back then. Being who you were when you are what Kenny was was a death-defying act of heroism and bravery.

True, Kenny became a Strip star at a time when over-the-top and garish were the town’s defining characteristics. But Kenny was different. Audiences could (somehow) convince themselves Liberace was just eccentric or that Siegfried & Roy were really, really good roommates like Bert and Ernie. Even Elton John came with a wife in tow. But while Kenny wore a gown, he never wore a beard. No serious show-goer could hide behind the claim that they just wanted to see a pianist or watch a tiger disappear. It was a man in a dress singing and telling jokes, period.

For untold thousands, Kenny was the first out person they laughed with as well as at. When he showed audiences photos of his adopted son, he revealed a touching, relatable familial side. Even if the yokels came for the freak show, they left with their worlds a little broader. Vegas was, in its best sense, a safe place to push boundaries and demystify taboos.

A key detail of this week’s Jason Collins tale was his proven virility, his aggressive style of play. I know why, but pushing that narrative means we’re still scoring the debate on straight-male terms.

Kenny Kerr never put up with that. At some point, gay kids not given to being overtly effeminate—and many who are—have all scapegoated drag queens as bad representations of The Gay, as feeding stereotypes and making it more difficult for them to come out. But drag queens fought back at Stonewall and launched a movement; stealthy, “straight-acting” queers were far too craven back then. It was real men like Kenny whose determination to live as they actually were made it possible for this culture to learn to respect everyone in the lightning speed it has.

Kenny faded into obscurity and poverty largely because of terrible choices, damage he did to his own legacy. But that doesn’t erase his other truth, that he was a fearless leader who carried a torch when it was far too hot for Ellen or Rosie or Kelvin or Jason. He single-handedly raised hundreds of thousands for charity, and yet only AFAN even posted condolences on Facebook.

I’m grateful Kenny lived. If you are gay or love someone who is, then so, too, should you be. Coming out today may still be difficult for some people, but it was made inestimably easier by men like this.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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