Alexis Nicole Whitney’s life was singular from the moment she was born. “I was my grandmother’s Mother’s Day gift,” she reflected during a recent interview. Born to a lesbian mother disinterested in childbearing, Alexis was adopted by her grandparents when she was two days old. Little did her mother know that this little two-day-old child would grow up to be queer herself, to be a drag performer, and for her on-stage career to flourish even after losing her sight to meningitis.
Alexis was my guest on a recent episode of The Sewers of Paris, a podcast where queer people share the story of the culture that changed their lives. For Alexis, Jerry Springer was life-changing. “They had transsexuals — men who live as women — on there,” she said. “I would watch and be inspired by them. I wanted to be like them. Ever since I was little I knew I was a little girl trapped in a boy’s body.”
She waited until her grandparents passed away to begin her transition. “Sally Jessy Raphael had a transsexual by the name of Tammy Andrews,” Alexis recalled. Andrews happened to live in San Antonio, just like Alexis and showed that life after the transition was possible. “At first I was kind of scared,” she said, but: “I don’t regret it one bit. Now I feel like the person I always was.”
She was also inspired by the movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. The 90’s film follows three drag performers on a road trip across the country, including a prolonged stop in a tiny western town where even small-town folks welcome them. “If you want to be a woman, carry yourself with a woman,” she said.
As soon as she was able, Alexis Nicole Whitney began to sneak into LGBTQ-inclusive clubs with a fake ID. A fresh face, she was welcomed by the community. “I realized there’s a whole different community that I didn’t know there was.”
Going to shows at local venues like the Paper Moon and The Saint educated her about the support that was available to her through people whose lives were similar. Drag performers were particularly inspiring and educational and helped her delineate the difference between male queens who put on a costume and women who transition. Alexis knew that a life on stage was for her, and began performing in the drag shows.
That world of queer performance was everything to her. “I felt like I’m in Oz. This is where I belong,” she said. But trouble loomed on the horizon: several years ago, she began to feel a headache that worsened over a few days. She had just gone to the hospital when she lost consciousness and slipped into a coma for weeks. When she awoke, she’d lost her vision. Doctors weren’t sure if she would walk again. Meningitis had nearly killed her — in fact, her heart stopped multiple times. One more and she would not have been resuscitated.
Despite her alarming condition, Alexis Nicole Whitney was back on stage within days. She was in a wheelchair with her eyes bandaged, but she still performed “No More I Love Yous” by Annie Lennox. Her life would never be the same — but she found that there was no need to leave her drag career behind. Alexis went on to win awards for her drag and continues to be nationally recognized within the pageant system.
For Alexis, being blind is simply a part of her life — something she won’t allow to stand in her way. “I don’t know what I look like,” she said. “But I know that I’m not ugly.”