(Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series examining the LGBTQ community in the Siuslaw region. Part one can be found here.)
“Different isn’t scary”
Jason Wood is not sure if his drag queen character, Fanny Rugburn, is a force for LGBTQ rights in Florence.
Rugburn is a foul-mouthed, over the top hurricane of raunchy jokes, lively songs and 30 pounds of makeup, wigs, costumes and padding.
Wood performs her at least once a month in Florence, usually at Class Act Theatre. He also tones the character down for family shows where he sings Disney songs and makes puns.
“Fanny Rugburn is an even truer version of myself,” he said. “The filter is cut off. In that sense, she’s the truest form of myself.”
Wood is not a cross-dresser, someone who feels more comfortable in female clothing.
“I have a definite femininity about me, but the only time you catch me in drag is in performance,” he said. “It’s not just because I want to wear this stuff. I have to wear four pairs of panty hose, and that’s not fun. My fake breasts weigh 10 pounds, and I’m a big guy, so I get hot.”
But he has always been drawn to strong female characters like Rugburn throughout his life. “Little House on the Prairie” was all about Nelly Olson in his opinion. Miss Piggy was his idol. And, as the gay stereotype goes, he loved “The Wizard of Oz.” But for Wood, it was all about the ruby slippers.
He was coaxed into moving to Florence by his longtime friend, Melanie Heard, the artistic director for the Children’s Repertory of Oregon Workshop (CROW), after Wood was recovering from a close friend’s death from AIDS. Florence was a chance to reinvent himself.
Not long after he arrived, he was working with CROW, and was soon giving private lessons for singing and piano.
“My favorite thing is when I’m preparing someone for an audition and they get the role,” Wood said. “I get a lot of gratification from their success.”
Rugburn came about in 2015 after Wood played the role of Mama Morton, a tough as nails and sarcastic matron of the women’s prison in Last Resort Player’s production of “Chicago the Musical”
“I didn’t have to check my attitude. I could give as much as I wanted, and it was really liberating,” Wood said.
He wanted to keep that liberation alive, so he thought it would be fun to do a drag show.
As a musical performer, he also thought that Rugburn would afford him the opportunity to sing songs he couldn’t usually perform.
“I can sing all of these songs that were written for women, finally,” he said. “I can do an entire show singing ‘I Enjoy Being a Girl’ and ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.’ I can’t sing all those songs as Jason Wood, it wouldn’t make any sense.”
Plus, he does like attention.
“I’m like Tinkerbell, applause saves me,” he said.
Rugburn’s first live performance was held at Old Town Barber Shop in Historic Old Town Florence.
“That was the best night ever,” Wood said. “I had never performed as my own fleshed-out drag character. I was nervous like you never believe, but I just used that energy.”
The house was packed and Wood felt there was a deep connection with the audience. He thought it was magical.
Wood’s drag character has gotten some pushback from the local community, but not as much as one would think. A few people complained about posters featuring Rugburn on Facebook, and Wood believes that some people may have dropped their vocal lessons because of the character.
“It was hurtful to me because it was an act of prejudice. Not just for me, but for my community as a whole. I’ve watched my community fight very hard for equal rights,” he said.
But it’s those equal rights that still need to be fought for, Wood believes. As the Supreme Court ruling in 2015 allowing gay marriage came down, many long-time activists breathed a sigh of relief. The fight was over.
“We shouldn’t have said that,” Wood said. “We were just inviting it, and now look. We have plenty to fight for.”
And that fight is what gives Rugburn importance.
“I think she creates a presence, whether people like it or not,” Wood said. “Right now, we live in a time where presence is especially important. In that last year, people have come out of the woodwork with ‘hate’ tattooed across their forehead. The worst thing a queer community could do is to take a step back.”
This is not to say Wood believes Rugburn gives any semblance of what it’s really like being gay in Florence. He saves those moments for his own personal show “Jason Wood Untucked,” where he ditches the costume and talks about his own life. That, he believes, is a true representation of LGBTQ people in Florence.
“I’m not trying to save the world by performing as Fanny Rugburn, but if anyone thinks that Florence is this community free of anything uncomfortable, you’re wrong. Queer people are everywhere, and it’s important that everybody understands that,” Wood said.
Regarding Rugburn’s children shows, Wood said, “I hate to use the word ‘normal,’ because I’m anything but. But If you normalize queerness from the get go, later on in life, you’re less likely to bash one of us.”
But doing the youth shows, and all of Rugburn’s shows, isn’t really about LGBTQ acceptance for Wood. It is about acceptance as a whole.
He pointed out a picture he took after one of the youth performances. A young girl, no more than 8, is giving Rugburn a warm embrace.
“That’s what I get,” Wood said. “Maybe Fanny can help other people understand, not just drag queens, but if you’re different, you don’t have to be afraid of it. Different isn’t scary, it isn’t wrong. It’s just different. I think that’s the most important thing Fanny Rugburn is providing.”
We’re all different, Wood believes. And if that young girl can accept the differences of others, then perhaps she can accept her own differences, too.
“Just being authentic”
Jeremy Austen is a Florence native. The owner of Florence Old Town’s toy store, Funky Monkey, moved to the city when he was 8, and said he’s thankful for growing up in a small town.
“It wasn’t easy growing up gay, but it would have been much harder in California, especially the area I’m from,” Austen said.
That’s not to say that school was easy for him. He didn’t identify as gay until he was in his 20s, but he knew he was different at the age of four.
“I’d always been attracted to girls in my class,” he said. “There were girls in high school that I was infatuated with. And it really felt like love to me.”
But the attractions were purely emotional for Austen.
“When someone says ‘I didn’t know I was gay until I was an adult,’ I think that’s kind of BS,” he said. “If someone has hit adolescence and puberty, and you have sexual feelings, then you’ll know. I had very sexual feeling toward men since adolescence, but I never had emotional feelings toward men. So it was very confusing for me.”
Austen found a sort of solace in that confusion.
“It gave me hope. ‘Maybe I’m not gay, or maybe I just haven’t met the right woman,’” he said. “But that never happened. It wasn’t that I didn’t try. Looking back, that was what I was the most angry about. How much effort I put into trying to change, and self-loathing.”
And it wasn’t just his attractions that worried him.
“I am a stereotypical gay person since I was very young,” he said. “I was into theater, I was into costuming, I was into fashion, all of these things that were very ‘gay.’ I always fit that mold, and it really bothered me.”
Other students also picked up on this. He was often bullied in school, particularly in junior and senior high school.
“I think I was called a f****t everyday,” he said.
But still, Austen said that he had it easier than many children growing up gay.
“I hate that this is considered ‘a good experience,’ because some kids don’t have it as good, but no kid should have to deal with that,” he said. “If that was ‘easy,’ then that really sucks.”
But he also had a trove of positive experiences in Florence as well. While he was never good at traditional academics in school — he called himself a terrible student — he found other outlets to boost his self-esteem.
“I loved growing up here. I was really active in theater. I helped with costume design at the Florence Events Center’s very first production when I was 14. I did that for years. I did really well in art and it was the only thing I took seriously in high school. I loved my teacher. I had a really good community in that aspect.”
And things have gotten better for Austen as he grew up.
“I’ve never felt threatened here,” he said. “As an adult, I’ve been called a fag twice. Once by a group of 8 year olds on a bike,” he said with a laugh. The other was a drunk man in Old Town.
Austen has been out of the closet for seven years now. It happened in London at a convention to buy collectible high fashion dolls, a hobby he still loves to this day. He fell in love with a man, a feeling that mirrored the infatuations he had for women when he was in school.
Except this time, it felt right.
“That was amazing,” Austen said. “That was my coming out.”
When he came back to Florence, he made it a point to systematically tell everyone he was gay, but it was difficult.
He grew up in a religious community that wasn’t accepting of homosexuality. Most of the friends he had were from his religious congregation, and they didn’t take it well.
“I lost 90 percent of my friends and support group,” he said. “It was hard for my mom, because I was no longer part of the congregation. I wasn’t shunned, but I wasn’t a part of that anymore. To this day, I see people I grew up with. They might not ignore me, but it’s very weird when you know everyone in town, for good and for bad.”
Austen, though, isn’t one to dwell on the negative. He found new friends, reaching out to the only gay person in town he knew, Matthieu Korso. He immersed himself in the doll community, traveled more and built up his toy store.
“My customers were awesome,” he said. “It’s not like I was telling my customers, but they could tell there was a weight that was lifted off, and it’s very true. There was something about admitting it to yourself and just being authentic. I don’t like that word, but it is true. It’s being true to yourself. Definitely no regrets.”
Florence can still surprise Austen.
“For being so small, I don’t think it’s closed-minded at all,” he said.
The year he came out, Austen played an openly gay character in Last Resort Player’s production of “Cabaret.” He said that he doesn’t plan on going on stage again, but he felt the experience was liberating.
“We’ve come so far, but there’s always room for improvements,” he said. “I’m very grateful for what’s happened in the last 10 years and it’s definitely a lot better. But we’re at a standstill politically.”
Austen knows there’s a lot of people who identify as LGBTQ in the community. He said Florence could do better with LGBTQ rights, but it’s not necessary.
“I don’t need to feel included for being gay, because being gay is a very small part of who I am,” he said. “I don’t need a lot of gay friends, because that’s not something I think about a lot.
“My adult life has been really positive. I’ve done the shop for 14 years, and it’s been great. I feel very safe.”
“I’m just me”
“In my case, I had a girl brain and I had a boy body,” Jane Hudson said about being transexual.
Hudson, who is the president of Florence’s Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) chapter, felt so strongly about being trans that she spent $23,000 for surgery and $18,000 for hair removal, fully transitioning to a woman seven years ago.
“I tell people how I woke up from surgery. I lay there for a minute thinking about the enormity of what I have done. And I started smiling and I couldn’t stop. My friend Patrice said, ‘Yeah, and you haven’t stopped yet.’”
Hudson is transexual, which is different from the term transgender. That is an umbrella term encompassing a variety of different gender identities and stages of transitioning. Some only wear clothes of a different gender, while other take hormone therapy but never get full sexual reassignment surgery, like Hudson did.
“I know a lot of people who are transgender who have not had surgery and no ideas in that direction,” Hudson said. “They’re just happy who they are.”
But the terms aren’t really important to Hudson.
“I’m just me,” she said. “There’s a lot of labels, but I think more people are getting away from labels, simply because people just don’t fit under a specific one. Why should I be labeled anything? I’m just a person.”
Hudson’s long, flowing blond hair and delicate features usually wouldn’t give a person pause as to her gender, and if anyone is confused about it, she suggested people just take a look at her.
“As long as it’s not said with hatred, that’s how it is,” she said. “Some people make mistakes, and some people get it right. You’ve got a 50-50 chance.”
As for her sexuality, Hudson considers herself pansexual.
“Traits and characteristics is what I’m interested in,” she said. “I like masculine energy, whether it’s male or female. And I like intelligence, and of course a sense of humor. Who the person to me is more important.”
Hudson realized she was a woman when she was around 6 years old, which is common for the trans community.
“There was nothing wrong with me. I just didn’t look the way I should,” she said. “And, of course, later on, I was not treated the way I thought I should be.”
As a child, Hudson did get the opportunity to be her true self, at least for a while. Her father was a trucker and would be gone for long stretches of time.
“My mom was sitting at her dressing table one morning, so I asked her about putting on makeup and clip-ons. I think she thought it was just a phase I was going through, and she just let me be.”
She passed for a girl for years until her father got a job as a dispatcher and came back to live with the family. Hudson was forced back into the closet, living as a man into adulthood, eventually getting married to a woman and becoming a trucker herself.
“I had a stash of clothes, but I was always denying it. I mean, who wants to be weird? It’s called internal transphobia. We’ve been told for so many years that this is bad.”
She was married for 37 years.
Hudson wasn’t open about her feelings with her wife at first, but after a while, she couldn’t live with herself as a man. Hudson’s wife initially allowed her to wear women’s clothing, but only if she wore her clothes inside the home.
“It almost got to the point where it physically hurt to take off female clothes and have to look like a guy again,” she said.
Hudson packed up her belongings, got in a truck and left. Her wife attempted to convince Hudson to come back, but after she went through her operations, the marriage officially failed.
Hudson lives in Mapleton now. She lives alone, which doesn’t bother her in the slightest.
She’s since been a rather quiet but hopeful leader of PFLAG, working to rebuild the organization.
While great strides have been made regarding the public’s view of the transgender community in recent years, there are still issues.
“They’re all in an uproar about bathrooms at this point,” she said. “I mean let’s face it, everything takes place behind a closed door anyway. Those fears are unfounded. Most of this is the case that, people are just normal.”
But she does believe that, for the part, the public is becoming accepting of the transgender community.
“It’s just not completely understood,” she said. “I would like to be a part of the community simply because there’s more acceptance when there’s more people. One of the things I see as an impediment to trans people is finding the resources they need, because younger people don’t know who to see to begin with.”
Finding physicians and therapists to transition can be extremely difficult, even in large cities. It took Hudson months to find any doctors who even had the medical knowledge to help her, much less the willingness. At the beginning, she was taking hormone therapy by herself with medications she purchased off the Internet.
“It would be nice to have a stronger community in Florence,” she said. “What I see at this point is that people have this feeling that it’s a conservative town. ... And that’s why a lot of people don’t come to PFLAG. They don’t want to be recognized. I just shake my head over it because it’s not that way anymore, but they still haven’t gotten past it.”
And if they haven’t gotten past it, how can others who are still questioning their identity come to terms with it as well?
Of course, it does get easier with each generation.
“If you look at who’s complaining, it’s the older generation. The younger kids in school don’t seem to have a problem with it anymore. No big deal. They’ve seen it; they understand it. They have classmates that are coming out. It’s going to be normalized, it’s just a matter of how many generations it takes,” Hudson said.
Florence PGLAG meets the second Tuesday of each month at Lane Community College Florence Center, 3149 Oak St, except for June through September.
For more information, visit pflagflorenceoregon.org.
Note: This is part 2 of a 2 part series. Find additional installments in the Special Series Archive, located here.