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Birenbaum on "I Am Divine"

“I am Divine”: From Deviance to Respectability


Jeffrey Schwarz is a documentarian who has made several films about the gay experience in America. (He also happens to be my nephew.) Jeffrey’s recent nonfiction biopic Vito, which was a straightforward, respectful study of an effective New York advocate for gay rights, won an Emmy in 2013 for best researched documentary.  His latest work, I am Divine, was recently shown in New York City, and has appeared at various film festivals. The movie interlards wild scenes from films starring Divine with snippets from many interviews with John Waters and other members of the world of entertainment who worked with Divine, and also, most notably, with his mother, whose forthright participation immensely enriches the film.


Born Harris Glenn Milstead, in Baltimore, MD, Divine went through his early life as a loner and a victim of intense bullying in high school. He hung out with a bohemian crowd as a young man and got to know local people in the arts, including his neighbor John Waters, a maker of underground films that appealed to gay audiences.  His early roles in Waters’ films were very ribald, brash, and sought to shock audiences as much as possible.  Over the years, Divine became well known as an exuberant cross-dressing performer in gay clubs as well as in the movies. Always a hearty eater, he became obese and used his size as an element of his uninhibited, flagrantly sexual stage persona. He can now be seen as ahead of his time, not only because of his gender-bending, but also because his music acts paralleled punk rock. The documentary shows many clips from his film appearances over the past decades as well as from his live performances. Until late in his career, he is usually shown in drag and garish makeup. Divine’s personal life, particularly the intimate parts, remains a mystery. The film mentions a few men who were said to be his lovers, but they don’t appear on screen.  According to Jeff, none he would have liked to talk with are still alive.


His parents rejected Glenn when he first came out to them but by the end of his life his mother accepted his different life style and gender orientation. Part of that acceptance, as probably was the case with many of his admirers in the straight world, came from Divine’s evolution from a completely outrageous outsider to an actor who sought male roles. Divine made his bones by playing a mother in John Waters’ “Hair Spray,” a very funny film about how a very special kind of racial integration was achieved on the dance floor of a Baltimore-based Dick Clark-like teen television show.  Here, as a larger-than-life straight woman, Divine showed his range as an actor. Eventually he was even viewed by casting directors as capable of playing straight male roles


All of this transformation took place under the mentoring of John Waters, who himself made the transition over time from outsider gay director to respectable gay director. There was interdependence, perhaps even a symbiotic relationship, between auteur and actor/singer that emerged from an American bohemian lifestyle that involved gays and straights and was held together by their enthusiasm for drugs. Later, gays emerged from bohemianism to a new normal; they moved into respectability, today that includes marriage with legal guarantees.


Both Waters and Divine found their place in the sun, but the extremely overweight Divine died unexpectedly at a relatively young age. Publicity shots of this actor who sought male roles show him as a cheerful, almost cherubic, older man.  He died the night before he was to perform on a popular television show, “Married with Children.”


I am Divine is likely to get more attention than Vito, which was basically a civil rights story, because the outrageous diva it captures says something about the gay experience that fits into the broader story of American minorities who have sought to end discrimination and prejudice. But more should have been done with that. The scope of the film would have been broadened by the addition of comments by someone who put these careers in the context of the gay experience in America which has moved, with warp speed, from being lives lived in the shadows, the coded world of gay culture and marginal social status, to the very public awareness of gayness being just another feature of largely quotidian lives.  Even a wild thing like Divine, at least in seeking a career as a conventional actor, knew how important a normal-appearing life, if not a truly normal life, could be.


Normalization has taken place for gays but there is much still to say about how that shift in status has taken place and the new problems that have emerged in relation to being homosexual in this country. From the Interactionist sociological perspective (I have Sussman, Goffman and Becker in mind), the story of the gay experience in America moves from how it is to be in the closet to how it is to be open about one’s gender orientation. While still regarded as “the other” in American society, the problems for gay men shifts radically from having to maintain secrecy, usually from an employer or landlord, to the management of information about one’s private life, which is a problem faced by most minorities. The creation of permanent or more permanent relationships through marital vows or long-term intimacy among gay men, somewhat similar to what used to be called “a Boston marriage” when it occurred among lesbians who lived together, produces issues regarding how to refer to one another privately or in public. In turn, how others, whether straight or gay, refer to non-heterosexual couples is not at all that certain at this point in time. All humans develop models of responses of others to themselves and attempt to use them to maintain or establish easeful interaction.


This shift in focus—from information to situation—is all the more reason that I am Divine could benefit from an academic viewpoint on this fascinating man, his relationships, and the world he enriched.    


Arnold Birenbaum

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Issue No. 77
December 22, 2013

"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel- Part I
"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel-Part II
Earlier Issues

List Articles by Topic

The Political Ticker
The Hillary Coalition
  - November 19, 2014
Obama's Win in the Ukraine
  - April 5, 2014
"House of Cards" Politics
  - February 14, 2014
Birenbaum: The Day the President Struck Out
  - January 29, 2014
The Debate Over Inequality
  - January 27, 2014
Temporary Issues: "Stop and Frisk", Climate Change, Inequality
  - January 21, 2014

Previous Political Tickers

The Administrative President
  -January 12, 2014
Three Chronic Problems
  -December 19, 2013
Obama the Transformational President
  -December 13, 2013
"Homeland", "Alpha House" and the Tea Party
  -November 27, 2013
Off Year Election Post-mortem
  -November 7, 2013
Kathleen Sibelius and the Iliad
  -October 31, 2013
Political Impasses: 2013 and 1936
  -October 7, 2013
Birenbaum on The Tea Party
  -October 6, 2013
Fifty Years Later: The Anniversary of the March on Washington
  -September 18, 2013
The Principled Obama
  -September 10, 2013
Obama Thinks About Syria Freshly
  -September 5, 2013
Syria and the Falklands
  -August 30, 2013
Public Opinion on Syria
  -August 24, 2013
Upward Mobility Through Educational Innovation
  -August 12, 2013
The Anthony Wiener Bubble
  -July 30, 2013
Racial Issues in 2013
  -June 29, 2013
The David Brinkley Era of Journalism
  -June 5, 2013
Republican Scandal Mongering
  -May 23, 2013
Benghazi and Two Other "Scandals"
  -May 14, 2013
Lackluster Politics
  -May 7, 2013

The Cultural Ticker
A Dour Cultural Week
  - February 4, 2014
Colonial Virginia
  - January 15, 2014
Birenbaum: The Joy of Middle European Posters
  - January 6, 2014
A Jewish Nipple
  - November 28, 2013
Birenbaum: My Oral Comprehensive Examination and the JFK Assassination
  - November 27, 2013
"12 Years a Slave"
  - November 12, 2013

Previous Cultural Tickers

Pinter and Shakespeare
  -November 8, 2013
Birenbaum on "I Am Divine"
  -November 3, 2013
The Hearing Impaired Student
  -August 17, 2013
Ideas and People
  -August 10, 2013
The Weekly Roundup of Morning Joe and Chris Matthews
  -August 8, 2013
The Zen of Dishwashers
  -August 5, 2013
The Profundity of the Second World War
  -August 2, 2013
The Trayvon Martin Bubble
  -July 20, 2013
Eliot Spitzer
  -July 9, 2013
The Study of Everyday Life
  -July 5, 2013
The Zimmerman Trial
  -July 3, 2013
Le Carre's "A Delicate Truth"
  -July 1, 2013
Zucker: A Madeleine (A Memoir)
  -June 23, 2013
Von Trotta's "Hannah Arendt"
  -June 7, 2013
The Armchair View of War and Disability
  -May 30, 2013
Birenbaum's Summers
  -May 24, 2013
Old Neighborhoods
  -May 21, 2013
Jackie Robinson
  -May 20, 2013
Barbara Spun's Catskill Vacations
  -May 16, 2013
An Old Friend in Her Eighties
  -May 11, 2013


A new issue of “w. end ave.: an e-journal of culture and politics” is published once every three weeks or so. It is edited, owned, and where not indicated as otherwise, written by Martin Wenglinsky. The rights to all materials published here are copyright © 2008 by Martin Wenglinsky