While his face is certainly recognizable, it’s Leslie Jordan’s voice that is unmistakable: a delicious, wry drawl that mixes good ol’ southern-boy charm with naughty gay man to perfection. From his early days on shows like Newhart to his hilarious scene-stealing antics on Will & Grace, Jordan has fulfilled that rarest of media roles — the effeminate, openly gay actor.
I was a frightened teenager when I first saw Jordan on TV. I could scarcely believe my eyes (and ears) when this tiny man flounced his way across the screen in a confident, unapologetic manner that made me realize, “Holy shit… I’m not the only one!”
To readers still in their teens and 20s, this may not seem a big deal — but let me tell you, to a closeted gay kid in the late ’80s who felt completely isolated and alone, it was the fucking Second Coming. Our tenuous foothold in the mainstream media is due entirely to trailblazing efforts by fearless fairies like Jordan. After all, the vast majority of gay actors stay firmly in the closet for the sake of their careers, hiding behind bachelor swordsman images or the occasional accommodating wife (I’m looking at you, Travolta).
Jordan himself admits to early attempts at butching up his image to snag roles. Fortunately for us, these efforts were largely doomed to failure.
“I was never in the closet, even though there were certainly plenty of us in the business,” says Jordan. “My agent would call me for auditions and say, ‘Okay Leslie, keep your feet on the ground, your hands at your side and your voice in the lower register.’”
The actor was sure his ruse had proved successful when he was cast as a straight guy on Ellen DeGeneres’s eponymous sitcom back in the ’90s.
“Oh, I butched it up and thought I completely pulled it off until my friend said, ‘Oh honey, I was watching it with a bunch of people who didn’t know you and the minute you opened your mouth, they said, “Get a load of her!”’ I guess I just couldn’t wash the sissy off.”
Sissy or not, Jordan’s effervescence and flawless timing kept him in regular work in shows like Dharma & Greg, Ally McBeal and Boston Legal. But it was his note-perfect role as trophy husband Beverley Leslie on the groundbreaking Will & Grace that cemented his career and won him an Emmy.
“I’ll tell you what,” Jordan begins in his cozy Tennessee twang, “after all is said and done, I won that award for a television show that has done so much for our tribe. I always say, there are two ways to combat homophobia: through humour or by putting a face on the victims. That show did both.”
Fighting the good fight is a big part of Jordan’s work ethic. He speaks out regularly on behalf of gay organizations like The Trevor Project, HRC and Stepping Stone, a group of homes for recovering crystal meth users. At 55 years of age, the actor has lived through many of the political and health crises that have faced our community, and he has emerged grateful for having survived the experiences.
“I buried an entire telephone directory to AIDS in the ’80s,” he says. “Honey, I was right there in the alleys and the dirty bookstores, and there’s no reason for me to be here now. Then the ’90s came and we all discovered crystal meth until it turned on us like a mother-in-law. So when they call me to come and help out, I come.”
So, when someone from the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives asked Jordan to take part in their Laughing out Loud… and Proud! fundraising event, the diminutive activist immediately agreed.
“I love archives,” he says. “It’s so important for us to tell and record our stories. One of the things I say in my one-man show (My Trip Down the Pink Carpet) is that I am of the first generation of gay men who have anything to pass on to the younger generation. Hell, I remember Stonewall! But will they listen? I don’t know. They’re so busy twittering each other, but we need to pass our stories on and to let kids know that things change.
“I mean, look at me: everything I was ashamed of as a kid — being short [he’s 4’11”], being gay — it’s made me my fortune. I just want to go back to tough guys in high school who’d yell Smear the Queer at me during dodgeball and say, “Hey, kiss my rich gay ass!”