V99: The Fascinating Life Of Flawless Sabrina

V99: The Fascinating Life Of Flawless Sabrina

AFTER DECADES OF CREATING A HAVEN FOR OUTSIDERS, THE QUEEN MISS SABRINA OPENS HER CLOSET

AFTER DECADES OF CREATING A HAVEN FOR OUTSIDERS, THE QUEEN MISS SABRINA OPENS HER CLOSET

Text: DIANA TOURJEE

I was 23 years old when I met a woman named Zackary. She was a few years my senior, an internationally exhibited artist, an actor, a Hollywood producer—and one of the first transgender women I encountered. My friendship with Zackary Drucker encouraged my passage across the sexes; I had begun to transition from male to female and she assured me that this was possible. Not long after we met, she introduced me to her mentor and friend, Flawless Sabrina, aka Jack Doroshow.

Sabrina is now 76 years old, something like a seer, and the androgyne who owned and operated a national organization for gender-nonconforming people back when being queer was considered both a mental illness and a crime. In the 1960s, Sabrina was a central figure in a renegade transgender movement that traveled the American underground. Through her drag organization, the National Academy, Sabrina came head-to-head with a monolithic American majority that loathed gender diversity. Imprisonment and institutionalization were commonplace treatments for cross-dressers. Between 1959 and 1969, the National Academy put on beauty pageants for drag queens. There were at least 100 people on Sabrina’ s payroll, most of them queer in one way or another. Together they ran 46 shows a year, which means nearly every week for a decade there was a traveling, countercultural transgender collective.

Some people are handed their history in heavy books with hundreds of unnaturally smooth pages. Other people’ s histories are kept only in the minds of those who lived them. As pop-cultural momentum meets political change, gender and sexual diversity has begun to gain ground in the United States—our stories and histories are becoming popularized and commodified. But faggots, dykes, and trannies fight for their lives. We’ ve dug up the bones of our ancestors, our fingers ground against cultural bedrock. The 20th-century triumphs and plummeting failures of sexual- and gender-variant Americans weren’ t always well kept; sometimes transgender people are willfully removed from history.

At the turn of the 21st century, the Internet and television provided my teenage self with portals out of suburbia. Through them I found a trinity of otherworldly archetypes. Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Divine, and Hedwig kept me breathing when I thought I would drown, like rare cracks in a ceiling of ice. A decade passed and those trans figures remained fantasy. Worse than that: they were alien, shit-eating, surgically botched monsters. I saw something reminiscent of myself in them, but they could never really exist—at least not the way I hoped to one day, as a real person.

“I keep coming back to that monkey in the cage, getting electrocuted or whatever he was,” Sabrina says one day in her apartment. I’ m seated on the other side of a leather-top desk; her hand is hovering over a page in an abnormal psychiatry textbook.

“What monkey?” I ask her, knowing she earned a psychology degree in 1963.

“It was interesting,” she says. “Those monkeys, they’ d be really hungry [but they] would choose something shiny over the food. But the monkeys didn’ t cross-dress.” Sabrina’ s eyes narrow, as if delivering some psychic message from the past. Though I try to receive it, I’ m not sure I have.

“Well,” I say, “they didn’ t have that problem.”

“No, because they didn’ t have any clothing. Believe me, I tried. With both the mice and the monkeys there. ‘You want a little dress, a little wig?’ ” The brown More cigarette Sabrina is smoking finds a home in a thick crystal ashtray, and the queen begins to slap alabaster cream beneath her eyes. “They didn’ t think it was funny. No, I mean I was sleeping with the head of my department. Dr. Powell was my mentor, as it were.” Two shadeless lamps light up her paint-covered face. Their sizzling bulbs would bring out every wrinkle if every inch of excess flesh weren’ t taped to the top of her head. “He didn’ t think that was funny.”

In her youth, Sabrina was a lover to William S. Burroughs, a muse to Diane Arbus, and a colleague of Andy Warhol. Naturally, she knew the Kennedys. All that ’ 60s trans-national faggotry came with dozens of arrests, charges, and felonies. In those times, it was illegal to wear clothing of the opposite sex. Drucker was an early role model for me, but Flawless symbolizes a legacy for our people: maybe there is life on earth. I began interviewing her two years ago. Sabrina opened her home to me and I devoured her stories. She’ s patient with me, as I bear witness to her life in the journalistic tradition. The Flawless Sabrina Archive was formed in the fall of 2014 in a collaborative effort between Drucker, Sabrina, and myself. It is a multimedia collection containing a lifetime of work. The archive contains everything from ephemera to writing, photography, film, and sculpture. In addition to original work by Sabrina herself, a variety of artists and cultural icons are found throughout, including John Waters, Divine, Arbus, Francesco Scavullo, and Warhol. The FSA represents nearly six decades of Sabrina’ s life and career. The sampling pictured here represents a small portion of her blood-spilled spoils. Think of this as proof that we too belong here.

Andy Warhol. Sketch inscribed with œThis time it™s on time! 6:30 To Jack with love, Flawless AW. 1968. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Diane Arbus. Photo of Flawless Miss Sabrina in Central Park. 1968.

Photo of Flawless Miss Sabrina on Fire Island. 1964.

Photo of Flawless Miss Sabrina at a bar in New York. 1964.

Signed portrait from a contest handout from the early 1960s

Photo of Flawless Miss Sabrina at Club Mother in New York in the late 1990s

Flawless Miss Sabrina. Conflict. 2005.

Diane Arbus. Photo of Flawless Miss Sabrina at home. 1968.

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Credits: Courtesy the Flawless Miss Sabrina Archive; photography Leah James and Mars Hobrecker

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