How do you bring up that potentially embarrassing question? As the phone rang I sat wondering how to ask iconic gay comedian and actor Leslie Jordan about his recent altercation with a group of youths spewing homophobic slurs at a West Hollywood Starbucks. Jordan answered my call with, “I’m stepping outside of the Starbucks in which I misbehaved the other day!”
“I’m back at the scene of my crime!” Jordan joked, before explaining that the press’s characterization of the youths as heterosexual irked him. “I saw street kids in West Hollywood: Whether they are gay are not is irrelevant.”
So what happened that day?
Apparently the youths were using gift cards purchased with stolen credit cards in a scam. When they were thrown out, the young men, Jordan reported, “were raising hell, and yelling at everybody, ‘Y’all bunch of faggots, all y’all are gonna die of AIDS, f*cking faggots!’
“Well, nobody said a word, but I flew up—I don’t know where it came from. I said you need to shut the f*ck up and get the f*ck out of here. Not in my house, and not in our neighborhood!” From outside, one of the gang shot Jordan the bird. “I just flew out there and threw my tea right in his face! Pandemonium! Mayhem! Ten cop cars. I was held for throwing the first punch: I was detained briefly for throwing the first punch!”
Jordan joked that “That was the butchest thing I’ve done in my whole life!” But not everyone was as amused. The incident made national news, “much to my mother’s horror. My mother said to me, ‘You could have been shot,’ which is exactly the truth.”
Jordan made it up to his mother, who lives in Chattanooga, on his visit home in advance of his show at Play Dance Bar on September 11, 2015. Many might not realize that Jordan is basically a local. His mother and father both grew up in Chattanooga, and he lived there most of his young life.
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“By the time I was in first grade we were back in Chattanooga,” Jordan said. “I went to high school there and went to UT Chattanooga and got a degree in theatre. Then I got on a bus—this would have been 1982. And I was no spring chicken at the time: I was 27. I got on a bus with $1,200 that mother had sewn into my underpants, and all I had was a little suitcase and a dream.”
Jordan arrived in Hollywood without a safety net, and unlike so many others making the same trip he found success. “People ask me, ‘What is the secret?’ Well, in 1982, coming from a repressed, Southern Baptist upbringing, I found West Hollywood! There were queers hanging from the trees, and I thought ‘Well, I’m home!’ People come to Hollywood and say, ‘I’m gonna give it five years and see what happens.’ Well I was home, and it didn’t matter what happened to me career-wise, I wasn’t going anywhere. Now, here I am, thirty-three years later tossing iced tea in people’s faces!”
Despite that, Tennessee has never truly left him either. “I’ve used my past so much in my stand-up comedy—it’s funny in retrospect, though when it was happening it wasn’t that fun.” But Jordan admits his adversity wasn’t like what many suffered. “You know, a cousin called me out the other day. He heard me say what a rough time it was, and he said, ‘Leslie, you were the most popular boy in school: what are you talking about.’ And I thought about it, and you know what, so much of it is the internal homophobia, and so much of it is this fear that we’re going to be found out.”
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“Plenty of people out there that were teased and tormented,” Jordan said. “I was the target of ‘smear the queer’ occasionally. But I was funny, and I’ve always used humor to disarm situations. The interesting thing I’ve found is that in my adult life, let’s say that I don’t want you to get to know me or I’m uneasy in a situation, I’ll fall right into that. I have to catch myself…”
At this point in his career, Jordan admits sometimes worrying about whether he’ll get work. “In 2006 I won an Emmy for Will & Grace and I thought, ‘I’m set.’ About a year later I called my manager and said, ‘Look, I’ve gotta make some money. I can’t eat this Emmy!’” That sparked Jordan to reinvent his career, doing bookings at events and venues like Pride and cruises.
“This new career started—I book about forty-five venues a year. People think because I’m an entertainer I must be rich and don’t need the money,” Jordan said, setting up his punchline. “I always say, ‘If I had a lot of money I wouldn’t be up here selling my pussy!’”
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Being out of Hollywood so much, and with a younger generation unfamiliar with his most well-known work, Jordan sometimes feels out of the Hollywood loop. “You know what’s interesting: that little debacle where I threw the tea on that guy? I’ve had five auditions since then! Is that not silly how Hollywood works? ‘Oh, her! I thought she was dead! Let’s get her a part!’ Well I’m not dead!”
Jordan found some new exposure as an actor. American Horror Story: Coven and The Help are both recent, notable roles. “Coven was wonderful,” Jordan said. “My favorite person was Gabby Sidibe from Precious! She was such a ray of sunshine. We had so much fun! Patty LuPone came down and performed for us. Jessica Lang took us on field trips. It was just heaven!”
When he returned to Tennessee for his family visit and his show at Play, Jordan had this to say: “The young gay boy or girl in the South especially needs to know that what they’re being told in the church pews and here and there—those people are wrong! Find your tribe and we will celebrate everything about you that sissy, that is gay, that is trans. Find your home, like I did!”