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The contradictions and nuances that made Leslie Jordan more than a performer

To watch his Instagram videos was to watch a man show us the folly of labels and the complexities of being human.
Leslie Jordan
Leslie Jordan.FOX Image Collection / Getty Images

For much of 2021, my 11-year-old son and I had a bedtime ritual: brush teeth, watch Leslie Jordan videos, read. Like millions of others, Daniel and I had discovered Jordan on Instagram during the pandemic and been charmed by his impish smile and sometimes mischievous musings.

We’d start giggling the moment Jordan would open a new video with his Southern drawl, “Well s---, what’re y’all doin’?” Or his pandemic-themed “Well hello, fellow hunker-downers ... Leslie Allen Jordan reportin’ for duty.

He could perform at the Grand Ole Opry and also appear on "RuPaul’s Drag Race." He was in showbiz and also down-home. He was sincerely self-deprecating and also supremely self-confident.

When I saw a headline about the 67-year-old actor and comedian’s death on Monday, I went “No-no-no-no-no” as if receiving word about a family member, searching frantically for a trusted news source and hoping I’d seen a fake death clickbait story. Then I thought about how I’d break the news to Daniel, now 12.

Our nightly Leslie Jordan check-ins had become more than just punchlines and stories. To watch those videos was to watch a man who showed us the folly of labels and the complexities of being human. As much as Jordan loved attention and was thrilled at his explosive social media growth — he went from 70,000 Instagram followers to 5.4 million during the pandemic — he was also nuanced.

A gay actor and comedian, Jordan would toe the line with sexual innuendo one day (have you seen his Back Door Donuts post?), then show up singing gospel hymns on another. His final Instagram post, part of his regular “Sunday Mornin’ Hymn Singin’,” was a gospel duet with songwriter Danny Myrick, “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.”

For all of Jordan’s silly secular humor, he left us with a heartbreakingly haunting final post in which he sang, “When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more/And the morning breaks eternal bright and fair/When the saved diverse shall gather over on the other shore/When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.” 

Jordan epitomized the idea of “and also,” the notion that we can simultaneously occupy seemingly different spaces without sacrificing who we are. It was refreshing in a world that increasingly pressures us into either-or thinking, and he did it without being preachy. Jordan never told us to do this; he just lived it. 

He could perform at the Grand Ole Opry and also appear on "RuPaul’s Drag Race." He was in showbiz and also down-home. He was sincerely self-deprecating and also supremely self-confident. He was wholesome and also worldly. 

This is a great lesson for anyone, but a particularly useful one for my son, who has been diagnosed as mild-to-moderate on the autism spectrum and is prone to black-and-white thinking. Many nights Daniel and I would talk about the backstory of a Jordan skit or joke after our giggles had settled and break through this binary world view. 

With all due respect to social skills therapists, a Jordan video proved much more fun than our usual lessons about tone of voice and body language. Profanity was one such nuance. Any time Jordan would swear, Daniel felt like he was getting away with watching something I’d normally ban. So we talked about that seeming discrepancy. We talked about the difference between a bad word uttered with playful naughtiness versus one used with nastier intent. How Jordan wasn’t directing the profanity at anyone and how he never called people names. So I allowed an occasional bad word that didn’t come with bad intent. 

Then there was “Will & Grace.” Daniel and I found a YouTube compilation video of the top 12 Jordan moments from the TV show, in which Jordan played a closeted gay character named Beverley Leslie. Though most of the humor went over his head, Daniel loved the visual gags. 

Daniel couldn’t grasp how Beverley Leslie could be married to a woman but also gay. I tried to explain to my literal this-or-that child the notion of hiding one’s identity, and the way a person might create a false exterior for protection.

“But is he married or is he gay?” Daniel asked, and around and around we went one night. Daniel didn’t understand it, but someday he will, and Jordan will have helped him get there.

The comedian also gave us an opening to talk about addiction. In one of Daniel’s favorite Instagram posts — albeit another that he didn’t fully understand — Jordan was in a pharmacy and wondered out loud why Listerine only kills 99.9% of germs even though its primary ingredient is alcohol. “I thought alcohol killed everything. It ‘bout killed me!” he quipped. 

Jordan grew up a Southern Baptist in Tennessee, leaving a church and culture that wouldn’t have him only to return decades later to a more welcoming, if still complicated, society. 

“Most people know how he made us (his fellow hunker-downers) laugh smile and reconsider our collective tattered faith in god,” singer Brandi Carlile wrote in a tribute post. “But few people know the thankless work he did to hold the hands of the rejected and to walk traumatized and forgotten queer people from the trenches to the throne.”

Jordan brought us a little bit of everything. In his last two and a half years, he finally got the attention and adoration he always wanted. And maybe that’s the final dichotomy: a life cut short but also perfectly timed.

“I mean, it’s cool that at the end of his life he had this massive resurgence because you always want people to get their flowers,” drag queen and TV personality Trixie Mattel told Out Magazine, “and, b----, he got his flowers.”