Recently, I wrote about the photographs of legendary Chicago drag queen Miss Tillie posted by the Gerber/Hart Library and Archive on Instagram.I call these photographs the #TillieTuesday Archive and I’ll be discussing them in my forthcoming dissertation, but I want to give you a preview now.
In my previous post, I wrote about how the #TillieTuesday Archive reinforces whiteness through photographs of home interiors, replete with orientalist decor. Now, I’d like to talk about some of the ways that Miss Tillie’s photographs transform white middle class spaces by challenging norms of domesticity.
The #TillieTuesday archive centers domestic space while also changing its meaning. In these photographs, Miss Tillie never performs domestic labor. Instead she parties, spends time with friends, and looks as though she is about to perform. Private homes are transformed into queer and trans spaces and Miss Tillie takes on the appearance of a friend, a guest, and a local celebrity.
The prominence of home interiors in the #TillieTuesday Archive can tell us about the conditions facing queer and trans people at the time these photographs were taken. In one photograph from the 1940s or 1950s, Tillie laughs in the back of a group of party-goers, several of whom wear party hats and raise glasses. The group includes people whose gender presentation is masculine, feminine, and androgynous. They appear to be white or non-black people of color and their dress is semi-formal. The Gerber/Hart captioned this photograph, “Cheers to 🌈Pride this weekend from Tillie and her friends! . . .In the 1950s, celebrations like these were nearly all in private homes. As we celebrate this weekend, let’s remember our history and those that came before us, fighting to make it possible to celebrate.” While private parties were common in the 1950s, Gerber/Hart’s description doesn’t comment on the forms of queer and transgender public space that were available at that time. From Finnie’s Ball, to female impersonation clubs, to cruising spots, to bars favored by butch and femme couples, queer and transgender people did occupy public and semi-public spaces in the 1950s. However, all of these spaces were favored by less wealthy members of the queer and trans community, in contrast to the apperance of the homes in the #TilleTuesday photos. Nonetheless, this photograph and its caption speak to the way that Miss Tillie’s photographs were shaped by police surveillance and the lack of safe publicly available space for queer and trans people, while also showing how queer and trans communities found their own ways to gather and celebrate.
In Miss Tillie’s personal photographs, the accoutrements of white middle class identity are rendered somewhat disreputable. In a photograph that that Gerber/Hart identifies as from the 1950s or 1960s, Miss Tillie lounges provocatively on top of a pile of boxes, while wearing a form-fitting sparkly dress.
In another photograph, she poses with a party hat, her dress raised to show off her legs covered in fishnet stockings.
In a photo from the 1950s, she sits on an ottoman in front of a home sound-system covered in knickknacks, dressed only in her bra, panties, fishnets, and gloves and an exquisite up-do.
Miss Tillie is not who one might expect to find in a middle class home. She never seems to embody the idea of the proper hostess. Instead, she brings the party and allows herself to be photographed doing so. These photographs form a strong contrast with the photographs of Christen Jorgensen that circulated during the late 1940s and 1950s, which featured her cleaning, cooking, and otherwise behaving as a popular white middle class woman. Miss Tillie refuses to behave as a reputable, domestic white woman. Instead, she is a performer and party girl, whether she is on stage or in a private home. In this way, the #TillieTuesday photographs both reflect and subvert historical visual regimes that impacted the queer and transgender community during Miss Tillie’s performance career. They also give insight into the different positions of drag queens and trans women, with Jorgensen forced to express proper domestic propriety in public to be treated as a woman, and Miss Tillie having great latitude to be disreputable because she was not trying to be taken seriously as a woman.
The #TillieTuesday Archive offers an opportunity to reflect on domesticity and the history of visual regimes impacting queer and transgender people and the ways that queer and transgender people continue to use photographs to build community. I hope you enjoyed this brief look at these incredible pictures!