As 103 Friends learned in the Tommy/Pam Greenler Keynote presentation on July 29th, there is a whole lot of space on a Wisconsin farm.
For the child who is becoming self-aware within the embrace of a loving Quaker family, Quaker meeting, and Friends General Conference (FGC) gatherings, this meant there was plenty of room to explore spirit, self-identity, and personal expression.
While space was everywhere, and privacy was easy to come by, a supply of heels and high-fashion clothing was not. But we use or borrow the tools that we have access to and create art out of the moments we are given—which in Wisconsin happened to be sheets, fabric, friends who lent clothes, and imagination plus attitude. Christina Washington, the first drag person Tommy/Pam created, performed for an audience of one at home, just a few at Quaker youth gatherings, and sometimes–one Halloween, for example–for the larger community (dressing in drag as the political candidate Mary Burke).
God reaches us in the most unlikely ways, and Tommy/Pam’s keynote talk compared the act of learning how to “listen to myself and recognize (that) transformation is a part of life” through drag to the Quaker belief in the transformative power of God. Questions about who we are and what we bring to the world during our lived lives is part of what Quakers come together to discuss and share at Sessions.
The story of the journey that Tommy/Pam took from the farm to college, to a professional drag artist’s career in Chicago, and then back to University to study philosophy was part of what kept 100 Friends captivated by their computer screens for the 90-minute talk. For some, it was art; for some who lived through the 1980s as queer (and felt alone), it was personal; for many, it was joyous and centered in love.
A year of Covid and time in Atlanta meant other changes for Tommy/Pam. In Atlanta, “I was suddenly seen as a man. I had no outlet for drag, not as much time to do drag, (and) while I did perform, I didn’t really like working in bars…(though) I hosted the university drag show…I credit Covid with helping me figure out I could do drag (for myself)…I started to love my masculine side for the first time.”
Tommy/Pam said that presently most people in Atlanta perceive them as a man. In Chicago, they were seen uniquely as Pam, a professional drag artist.
The male “is just as much a part of myself as my feminine side,” Tommy/Pam said. While there is social “pressure for men to be anti-Fem,” connecting to both the feminine and masculine selves has been important to them. “Who I am has changed a lot over the years, and I expect myself to continue to change and transform.”
The practice of drag opens Tommy/Pam up spiritually: “I embrace change more readily …you can let the internal guide direct how you are in the world…(drag is) a spiritual practice…it has allowed the labels of self-identity to fade away, allowed the spirit of that of God in me to guide how I will present.”
“Shapeshifting (is) a heightened, spiritual experience for me…(and Covid led to) the realization that this (is) spiritual practice.”
While earlier publicity featured Tommy and Pam standing separate and apart, the newest photography has them together as one; “I am one person, and I am both Tommy and Pam.”
Performance and music are things that Tommy/Pam have always done. Photography is something they now practice as art and have used in philosophy projects. Drag in support of the political process is also something that Tommy/Pam does. They first dressed up as the political candidate Mary Burke for Halloween. Last year, they actively campaigned on behalf of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock (Democratic challengers who defeated David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in Georgia). They were glad to see that they won and hoped that their advocacy as a drag queen helped.
Despite the way early Friends publicly eschewed both art and music in worship, it continues to represent a powerful force within each person. So does identity. It is bringing differences into community that makes community effective and powerful.
Sameness has never been what Quakerism is about, but sometimes sameness is what it becomes when Spirit takes a back seat to opinion. Tommy/Pam and other keynote speakers are at Annual Sessions to help Friends think beyond the opinions they may have or the things they may have experienced. They take Friends to new places—with spirit and faith—wherein PYM community can access vitality and energy.
Watch the Keynote
Featured photograph is of the Greenler family farm in Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Tommy Greenler