West News Wire: Walter Cole, better known as the legendary drag performer known for decades as Darcelle XV and a fierce supporter of Portland’s LGBTQ+ community, passed away in Portland, Oregon, from natural causes. He was 92.
Darcelle, who passed away on Thursday, was honored as the world’s oldest active drag performer by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2016 and entertained crowds right up until the end. Darcelle was well-known as a performer for running the longest-running drag performance on the West Coast of the United States. Cole, an Army veteran, promoted LGBTQ+ rights and volunteer work in Portland off the stage.
Darcelle XV Showplace, the nightclub he founded in downtown Portland more than 50 years ago, wrote a note on Facebook expressing his loss and requesting privacy and time.
The club, which had become a Portland cultural institution by the 1970s, was listed in 2020 on the National Register of Historic Places, making it the first site in Oregon to be nominated specifically for its significance in LGBTQ+ history. In the venue’s early days in the 1970s and 1980s, it was seen as taboo and protesters picketed outside, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.
It provided a lifeline for many in the city’s LGBTQ community, including Cole, he told the newspaper in a 2010 interview. Cole preferred female pronouns when performing, but told The Oregonian he preferred male pronouns off-“If I hadn’t admitted who I was, I’d probably be dead now,” he told the paper. “I’d be sitting on a couch retiring from management. Not for me.”
“She touched the lives of so many, not only through her performances but also through her fearless community advocacy and charitable works,” said Todd Addams, the interim executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, speaking of Darcelle. “She was nothing short of an icon.”
Writer Susan Stanley described the club a place of “warmth and affection” where performers were “glittering in sequins and satin and a shimmering froth of feathers,” in what’s credited as the first profile of Darcelle XV, published in Willamette Week in 1975.
When speaking of Darcelle, Cole, a gay man, referred to his persona in the third person using female pronouns. “I’m an entertainer with a capital E,” Cole told Stanley. “Darcelle is a character like in a play and I work very hard at her.”
Stanley wound up briefly working at the club and becoming Cole’s close friend. She described the performer not only as a talented artist, who also sewed many of the club’s costumes, but as a caring person deeply invested in the LGBTQ+ community and the fight against the social stigma of the time.stage.
“(Darcelle) was just a very, very nurturing person. She encouraged other guys to perform and get out of their shells,” Stanley told the AP in a phone interview.
After decades of advocacy by LGBTQ+ activists organizing for civil rights and freedoms, Stanley said she was saddened to see how drag has become so polarized in today’s political climate.
“It bespeaks a really, really big misunderstanding,” she said. “Politicians wanting to step back decades in attitudes it’s mystifying and horrifying to me at the same time.”
Cole was born in 1930 and raised in Portland’s Linnton neighborhood. He served in the U.S. Armed Forces and was discharged in the late 1950s, according to the club’s website, which says he used money he received from the military to start his first business.
After dabbling in a coffee store and a jazz club, Cole purchased the space that would become the Darcelle XV Showcase in 1967.