The brain has mysterious ways of healing itself, and this was mine. About a year ago I finished a crafting project inspired by Sharon Needles, and I’ve never shared it with other fans because it was such a personal reflection of my own transformation.
Her courage and integrity as an artist provided a latticework on which I could heal myself during the most difficult, isolated period of my life. The transfusion needle that weaves through the work was its central driving metaphor: Sharon gave me what I needed to heal myself when I was broken.
There’s a reason oppressed groups like gay men in the 40s canonized Judy Garland and Bette Davis… when we feel invisible and hunted, the mind identifies a champion to inspire itself. It chooses someone who’s navigated these waters, then follows them like the North Star until it feels safe and strong again.
In the summer of 2015, I was diagnosed with CPTSD and couldn’t be with my family because of an abusive parent. I’d been ravenously bullied out of my job and community by someone I thought was a friend, and the guy I’d been closest with had ghosted after meeting someone else. It was like I’d been hit by a car and was losing blood faster than I could regenerate it. I felt myself withering and weakening from how badly I needed to be able to trust someone. But everyone I’d trusted– parents, friends, more-than-friends — had left me with such horrifying memories of cruelty that I didn’t trust “love” anymore.
At this most isolated point, jobless, feeling cursed, I rewatched Season 4 of Rupaul’s Drag Race. Seeing Sharon set her own terms for what a drag masterpiece could be, in wild defiance of every established precept, was the most addictive rush of exhilaration. It’s what I imagine it feels like when a blood transfusion enters nearly empty veins, bringing a mangled body back to life from the edge of death.
But it was learning how she’d handled her career AFTER the show that gave me what I needed… how she’d trusted in her own self-knowledge during a grisly witch-hunt that included violent criminal harassment. Just like a real witch trial, self-appointed social media priests tempted her to confess to sins she hadn’t committed: “Just admit you’re a bad person, we can make this firestorm go away…”
But Sharon held true to who she was as a person and artist under the kind of pressure and exposure that most of us will never experience. So when the time came for me to be strong in my own small life, I knew it was possible. Not just to survive, but to TRIUMPH.
That triumph began right before I started this project in early 2016. I was invited back to the workplace I’d been bullied out of… not as an employee, but as an emerging arts critic chosen by a ballet company to review their performance and receive mentorship from an established critic. Even with my name on a damn press pass, my body ached with stress chemicals at the idea of going back to a place where I’d experienced so much fear and despair.
Taxidermy had just been released, so I listened to it the whole walk to the theatre. I sauntered back into that place imagining I was as tall, strong, and beautiful as Sharon… I even imitated her laugh at one point! And the jealous woman who’d ravenously hounded me out of that job, who’d known I didn’t have a family and needed to support myself, she had to watch as a publicist and editor escorted me into a board room. She had to stand in her unflattering uniform while I got free champagne and chatted with dancers, critics, and producers… and I thought “This moment of smug, sublime justice is brought to you by Sharon Needles.”
That blood transfusion had gotten me through a nuclear winter of loneliness and betrayal, and the other side was more glittering and beautiful than I can describe. When I heard Sharon was coming to my city in May, I knew I had to pour all this joy and gratitude into an appropriate thank-you gift… so I bought an antique leather train-case, the kind that fancy ladies took on trips in the 1920s, and immediately begun defacing it! 😈
It may have been a gift for Sharon, but I knew I was giving myself something precious: the opportunity to meditate on how I’d rewired my brain and heart to live in a new world without the things I’d depended on before. Crafting, cutting, glossing, poetry-hunting, burning my fingers with hot glue… the project became a series of deep trances in which I solidified a new emotional structure based on what I’d learned from Sharon’s example.
I refrained from ever using a clear image of her– only silhouettes or obscured shots. It had been so upsetting to see those witch-hunters invasively try to tell Sharon who she was, so this project had to steer clear of that. I didn’t want to confuse her drag character with the artist underneath; I respected and admired each as distinct entities. The two compartments at the top of the tray used silhouetted stills from the “Dressed to Kill” video to show both the distinction and the relationship between the artist who channels a goddess.
When it came to the mirror, I couldn’t bear to glue anything down to it. This project was meant to be an expression of the splendour and wonder she’d helped me grow in myself, but I wanted her to be able to see her own face without any of my bullshit layered over it. So I put the hanging astrolabe/navigation metaphor on tiny hooks so she could remove it if she wanted.
Inside the little compartment in the train-case’s tray, I used a dried rose I’d saved since I was a teenager. Turned upside-down, it looked exactly like a tiny little human heart! One of the things that amazes me about Sharon is how she has such an intensely loving heart but is still tough as nails. My own ragged heart needed a stronger screening system based on knowing my own self-worth. So I surrounded the dried rose with an antique lock and chain; an obvious metaphor, but look how pretty!
Sharon’s said in interviews that she got famous with a stage name that refers to “how straight people get AIDS”, but I wanted to use the transfusion needle to demonstrate how inspiring a pun it can be! Sharing needles is generally a terrible idea, but there is one type of needle on the planet that’s designed to be shared, and it saves lives like she’d helped me save mine.
But getting FAKE blood into a REAL transfusion tube…? I thought I could trick it by putting Ben Nye blood into a baggie and simulating a pulse, but this piece of medical equipment was designed to keep blood safe and clean… it was way too smart for me! Once I realized the only thing that would pump any kind of liquid into this tube was my actual heart, I painted it red and moved on. (That was a weird, hilarious day in my apartment, trying to find household objects to simulate a beating heart… including a brand-new Beauty Blender 😂).
Although the “Hail Satan” shtick is just a part of her drag persona, Sharon being so intelligent and individual at all costs reminded me intensely of John Milton’s heroic character in “Paradise Lost”. His Satan can’t pretend to be a complacent, obedient angel, and chooses hell over an eternity of boredom. He states that “the mind is its own place”, which so reminded me of how Sharon resisted being gas-lit by those holier-than-thou witch hunters.
I think she went through a kind of hell to win her creative control, so I wanted this compartment to show how holding true to oneself in the face of uncertainly makes the struggle worthwhile. Sharon’s “unconquerable will” gave me the backbone that years of child abuse had almost taken from me. My insecure, misogynist father had tried to break me like Milton’s God had tried to break Satan, like the witch hunters had tried to break Sharon. We none of us submitted or yielded, myself because I had such a luminous example to give me strength. If she could come out on the other side with a brilliant career, I knew I could too.
Because the tray was such an intense series of corresponding metaphors, I wanted the lower life of this project to be fertile, playful, dedicated to beauty. When she lifted this highly cerebral tray, I wanted a wild, glowing world to be waiting underneath… no coded metaphors or quotes. Just a golden labyrinth, a celestial garden in the sky, and some tiny PBR cans littered in the stars ✨✨
As I said before about the mirror, I couldn’t bear to deface it. But it took me forever to accept that and I made page after acrylic page to hang over it, all to put off permanently scarring such a beautiful part of the train-case until there was a bedtime story of gloss-sealed tissue protecting the mirror.
Something in the proportions of Sharon’s emergence and career has always reminded me of a creation myth. I couldn’t resist identifying her drag persona with the goddess that D.H. Lawrence said was chased out of the western religions millennia ago by jealous men. He argued that this woman, robed in the colours of an angry sun, was integral to the feeling of wonder and splendour that made any religion worth following. He said she shows up with different faces across time and cultures, sometimes a vixen, a bimbo, a witch, a virgin… but always gilded and defiant.
A funny little thing happened right around the time that Sharon Needles’ iconoclastic win was aired on TV… the last Transit of Venus this century will see. Just a few weeks after the world saw an emissary from the artistic underworld be recognized as a visible champion for surface-dwellers, Venus crossed the face of the sun. I’m not saying the two were related, but the world I live in has never been the same since Sharon expanded the scope of drag. I’m glad her moment was marked by such a spectacular event… the stars LITERALLY aligned!
Rational modern ladies like myself would never dare say nonsensical things like… maybe she ripped a hole in the face of reality so that millennia of stifled creativity could flow without shame between this world and those beyond and beneath. But there’s a lot we would have said wasn’t possible before she won that crown 😘
As much fun as it was to imagine her drag persona as a goddess, I knew that was just heightened, healing exaltation. Something to do with being raised by atheists, being in search of wonder. The grounded reality was simply that I was very grateful to Aaron Cody for not retreating when it would have been human to retreat, not bending when it would have been human to bend, for believing in the beauty of his artistic vision and trusting in how many at-risk people he had helped.
My abusive father had laid the groundwork that made me so vulnerable to that narcissistic, destructive friend (and several other predators over the years). The grand deception of abusers, who prey on empathic people, is that we are worthless, we are losers, we are dependent upon their approval. Because of Sharon, I can never be deceived again.
I expected to cry when I met her, but the moment she saw my giant train-case and said “Is that for ME?” I felt so accepted and comfortable. She instantly treated me like a friend, and why would I cry at meeting a friend? We stepped away from the meet & greet to the bar so she could really look at the project, and just chatted for a few minutes about her new album, Cerrone, and how you gotta twist the knife when people try to get you down. She kept making me laugh! Finally she said “I gotta go back to work” so I closed it up and promised to say hi after the show.
My original plan had been to bring the project to her in Pittsburgh. 1. because I didn’t want her or Chad to have to lug it around on tour, and 2. because I really wanted to see her perform in the place she felt the most comfortable. And 3… in the months that I’d been making the project, the boy / friend who’d dropped me for someone else had reached out, and I kinda wanted to show him the project. But while Sharon was performing on stage, I realized that this craft project wouldn’t make that boy want to be with me and I no longer cared.
What David Bowie did for me in my teens, Sharon did for me in my twenties. To see the two unified in this unforgettable tribute changed something in me. When this boy predictably ghosted again after saying he loved me, I shrugged and couldn’t get myself to feel heartbreak. Sharon’s Bowie tribute reconnected me with an internal self-love that sustains more than any of the unreliable love in my life ever has.
After the show I brought the project up to her on stage. I had no idea one of the most transformative moments of my life was about to happen, but I vividly remember how she acted excited to see me again and actually tongue-popped at me! Even though she was in heels and had been on her feet for hours now, she didn’t seem to be in a rush to wrap up the meet-and-greet. She acted like she genuinely liked talking to me, and that experience has been more validating than any other… including being mentored by the ballet!
She’d told me before that they had a tour bus she could keep it on, so I handed it over and thanked her for the amazing show. She said “But I thought you were going to visit us in Pittsburgh!” I said that was still the plan, but I wanted her to have this now since it wouldn’t be a burden to get it home.
Then I said something like “I have to see a P-Town Bar show because I feel like you in your comfort-zone is more interesting than most people trying to step outside theirs.” I remember her making a happy sound– her hands grabbing my shoulders, her lips on my cheek… and the curse was broken.
You know that moment in “The Little Mermaid” where all hell is loose on the ship, the dog bites Vanessa’s ass and the shell goes saaaiiilllling through the air to SMASH at Ariel’s feet…?
My own voice had been trapped by years of living with an abusive, terrifying parent, of both my parents treating me like a stranger in their home. Years of exposure to that toxicity had swallowed so much of my creativity and confidence. I thought my true self was gone forever, chased away by hatred and the constant threat of violence… but it was just buried, waiting to come back to me.
The moment when Sharon looked at me like what I was saying meant something was just as powerful as that tipsy smooch on the cheek. It smashed open the shell my true voice had been trapped in and let it return to me. I’m not just being figurative; I physically felt that native light I came into the world with settle back into my heart… so easily and naturally because it had belonged there all along.
Over the years of being a Sharon Needles fan, I’ve observed she has razor-sharp instincts; she can detect bullshit right away and see the goodness in things others overlook. So as much as I might doubt myself, Sharon’s taste has never steered me wrong. If she thought I was worth that little conversation, that tongue-pop, that hug and smooch, then she was correct. Even a year later, in unavoidable moments of self-doubt, I remember the compassion and kindness in her eyes as I chattered about the project. It’s a compassion that neither of my parents had for me, but now I have it to keep forever.
I’m fascinated by how a man can conjure a goddess, breathe life into her and share her with others. There’s a mysterious element in drag transformation that I don’t think has anything to do with illusion… in a way, the goddess a queen channels is 100% real in how it affects their audience. What she did for me feels like an act of pure magic, but it’s much more special than that: Sharon gave me a moment of understanding. Of just being present, caring, and kind. It’s made all the difference in how I treat myself.
I’ve kept the project to myself for over a year, and finally decided to share it. This morning, I had an indirect brush with both former abusers within ten minutes of each other. It brought back a wave of panic, nausea, and rage that left me trembling and trying to find a friend to talk to. When none were available, I reopened “The Sharon Project” folder on my desktop. I think if I share it, the project can continue to help me process my feelings just like it did when I was making it.
I didn’t make this because I think Sharon’s a perfect person; sometimes she’s hard to understand and to stick up for. But the challenge of shutting down haters has made me a more critical thinker and a more patient person; I investigate things thoroughly before having an opinion on them now. You can’t be a Sharon fan for long unless you’re prepared to look up esoteric references, appreciate her risks, and analyze how brilliant and subversive her drag really is.
That’s why I think Sharon-fans tend to be analytical types, who reach for meaning beyond the obvious. There’s something distinct about the way fans talk about Sharon. Our voices get thick with bubbling feeling, our hearts squeeze, our eyes well up, our smiles hurt our cheeks. The drag world is lucky she chose it, because when she dies she’s going back to the same planet David Bowie came from. Transits like theirs come once a century and we lived through both. ❤️