HDFS Professor Couples Drag Culture, Gerontology in Her Work

Laura Donorfio says the seemingly disparate topics complement each other well, and offer a chance to think about how aging is perceived across society

HDFS associate professor Laura Donorfio, center left, poses with her son, Adam, center right, and drag queens BeBe Zahara Benet, far left, and Jujubee during a taping of the TLC show “Dragnificent!,” which featured the mother/son pair.v

HDFS associate professor Laura Donorfio, center left, poses with her son, Adam, center right, and drag queens BeBe Zahara Benet, far left, and Jujubee during a taping of the TLC show “Dragnificent!,” which featured the mother/son pair. (Contributed photo)

The pieces of Laura Donorfio’s professional life seem to have just fallen into place.

In 2004, she left her job as director of a qualitative research lab that focused on gerontology for a faculty position in human development and family sciences at UConn Waterbury – in the same city she was born and raised, and where, as a young girl, she fostered a revering love for the older generation.

To be able to share that with University students as part of a then-developing major at the campus, was a dream, she says. Five years later when the Academy for Gerontology in Higher Education honored her with its distinguished teaching award, she knew she’d made a good move.

This fall, she is poised to receive the organization’s Clark Tibbitts Award for her contributions to the field of gerontological education and set to publish with two co-authors the book “Gerontology Field Placement: Internships and Practicums in the Field of Aging,” and she almost – almost – feels complete.

With an introduction to drag culture over the last few years via her adult son, Donorfio, now an associate professor, is working on research that focuses on drag queens over the age of 50 and what their motivators have been through the years in the face of adversity. It’s something that came about, in part, after she and her son, Adam, appeared on the TLC show “Dragnificent!” two years ago.

“I never anticipated getting to where I am,” she says. “You have this map in your mind of where you are going to end up and then you end up somewhere else. I’m thrilled where I ended up, and I think it came about because of my drive to be innovative.”

Just what keeps Donorfio going is actually pretty simple, she says:

“In every stage of my life, I have wanted to help people. I have wanted to help people be the best they could be. I want to help students; I want to help them embrace aging and their older selves. Now, I also want to help those who are sexual and gender minorities embrace themselves and be the best they can be.”

She talked with UConn Today recently about ageism and dragism, a term she and colleague, Brian Chapman, coined to signify negativity toward drag queens.

Do your 20-year-old students really think about aging?

They are all going to be old someday, even though they don’t want to believe it. In my classes, we talk about it, and they say they can’t think past the age of 40. So, I am behind the eight ball when I start to teach the students and show them how aging relates to their life today. We need to start talking about aging in kindergarten, and I say that because ageism starts as early as 3. My research as a graduate student looked at children’s attitudes toward older adults. I visited various schools in Connecticut, starting with kindergartners, third graders, and fifth graders, and I could not believe how ageist they were already. We need to openly develop as humans and get to know ourselves in order to be better for the community and how we take ourselves through life. I don’t think people think about aging until they’re there, which is too late.

What is ageism?

It is this absolutely negative attitude and image in a person’s mind of what being old is and what becoming old is. We are living to our 100s now and it just floors me that people think we could be old in our 40s. We are very much an ageist society with what age we think is old. Research has shown that as people age, if they do not develop a positive attitude toward aging, then they internalize it as a negative. They call it ‘internalized ageism,’ in which they start to see themselves as the negative aging concept that they have had. It is critical to make people aware of their ageist attitudes, as many are just not aware that they are ageist. Look at television commercials, look at the role models we have in society, look at all the wrinkle creams and other elixirs and efforts we put into staying young as long as possible. We have racism, sexism, and so on, but ageism is the one that we are all going to experience. It is referred to as the great equalizer.

Someone complaining about their aches and pains, bald head, or laugh lines, is that ageism?

Yes, that’s ageism. My goal is to get people to think positively about those things. Are they all positive? No, not at all. But I think we need to turn our thinking around and feel better about ourselves. We need to realize that we are going to be old one day, realize that we are aging, and realize that there are so many positive things ahead of us even when we are older. That’s the goal, that people start to see aging as something positive and something to look forward to. I ask students, what are your passions? What do you see yourself doing in your 70s, 80s, 90s, and 100s? They don’t know how to answer and end up asking themselves, ‘What are my passions?’ I want them to start thinking at a young age about what life is going to be like when they are 80 and how they can begin to get to know themselves at that age. Students are not thinking about themselves as older or that age.

Is that because people associate aging with nursing homes and loneliness?

For a good part of our history, aging has been associated with death, and I think that is slowly being replaced because it is just so much more than decline. Our lifespan has increased to almost 80 now and there are more people living over 100. Aging has to be acknowledged or we are going to have a society of folks who have this internalized ageism, and they won’t be able to live their best life. I grew up loving my grandparents. My first doll was Mrs. Beasley who was a grandmother doll. I have always been open to aging, very confident with it, and very passionate about it. For others, I think they often see it as decline. But I am meeting people who say it takes them all of about three minutes to learn and adjust to being retired and they are going on to think of aging positively. I think we are on the cusp of that change. People are starting to understand they have 10, 20, 30 years in retirement, and ask themselves what they want to do with that amount of time. Retirement has taken on a new meaning; they call it the third act. Do you want to work? Do you want to get another job? Do you want to go back to school? You can be single, married, divorced, widowed, remarried again, single again, and a grandparent, all by the time you are 70. There is no rulebook helping us navigate where we should be at our different life stages, and I think that’s a positive. We are charting new territory. Longevity has shaken things up. Slowly, we are starting to reframe what we think our older years are going to be.

How did you pivot to research in drag expression?

My work right now is the intersection of several different things. The first course I ever taught 30 years ago was Issues in Human Sexuality from a lifespan perspective, and I have a son who’s gay and a drag queen. Because of those factors, I have an extreme interest in sexual and gender minorities. Meanwhile, my son entered us into a national competition to appear on the show “Dragnificent!.” This was the first episode they chose a mother/son pair, and they played the episode the night before Mother’s Day in 2020. Adam knew I was sex positive, but he really did not feel I understood what drag meant to him. He said supporting it is very different than understanding it. We were chosen to be on the show and the whole message was about how to get people to understand what drag is versus all the misconceptions they have. My colleague, Dr. Brian Chapman, and I had been doing research on intergenerational relationships with older adults. He is like a walking history book of Stonewall, where the gay movement and gay liberation has gone and come, and we decided the time was right to partner on a project about drag queens. I am so interested in these pioneers. They were the ones who were on the front lines of the gay liberation movement. They were the ones on the front lines of Stonewall. They were on the front lines for the AIDS crisis. They have always put themselves out there for these causes. Brian suggested we look at drag queens who are 50-plus. This is the generation that is responsible for most of this culture change, they are getting older, and we thought we should capture their voices and their stories. We are doing qualitative research talking to gay men, 50-plus, who have identified as a drag queen to find out what inspires them and how we can leverage this to help future generations of drag queens. Being a drag queen today is very pop culture. But to Brian and me it’s just the right time to study it, because more people are open to it. Is it totally accepted, absolutely not. My son still gets hate mail. People see us in our episode and send us hate mail.

How have you connected gerontology and aging with drag expression?

Since we are looking at older drag queens, we still have the ageism piece. We are aiming to interview between 20 and 30 queens. We are at 11 now and have presented at a couple of conferences across the country and at UConn’s inaugural Rainbow Center Symposium in October 2021. Our oldest queen has been 94 or 95 and our youngest in their 50s, so I think we are getting a nice age range. I think drag queens can help us understand oppression and what it’s like to carry that oppression throughout a lifetime and what makes them brave enough to be a drag queen amidst all the adversity. It is pretty impressive to me to have this inner voice that makes you want to live out something you know others are going to find or could find negative.

What has been your biggest finding so far?

All of them knew from a very young age they had this great respect for the female persona, many of them for their mothers. They knew they were different from others but did not feel comfortable sharing it. As they aged, it stayed with them, and they felt dressing in drag was like putting on a suit of armor to face the rest of the world. They use being a drag queen to help propel themselves confidently and successfully through life. Also, many of them feel as though they are a minority within a minority, which took me aback because I thought the gay community was supportive to all. A lot of them shared that being a drag queen has nothing to do with wanting to be a female. The biggest misnomer is that people assume because you are a drag queen that you want to be a female. That’s far from the truth. They are secure in their male identity, and they are happy to be males, but they have this female side, a performance strength that they like to share with the world. That also was a big surprise for me. Before I went onto “Dragnificent!,” I, too, thought that drag queens wanted to be female.

What drives you to keep pursuing this research?

I have had people get in touch with me from around the country asking for advice after the show aired. They have a son who is a drag queen, they have a husband who is a drag queen, and what advice could I give them. If I am the person they’re reaching out to, then there are people struggling. If I could help even one that would be enough. My son and I said about going on the show that if we could help even one adolescent, one mother feel better about themselves and where they are, then we did what we set out to do. I know there are so many adolescents who are at the stage of not wanting to share, not feeling comfortable to share. Maybe they’re in a part of the country where they think they can never share. I wonder how we can help them be their authentic selves. I grew up wanting to be an advocate for people. Aging was my first love from a young age, loving my grandmothers and not understanding why the rest of the folks in my family didn’t love them as much. Now with my son being a drag queen, I’m interested in sexual and gender minorities. My very last quote in the “Dragnificent!” episode was that it doesn’t matter if you are gay or you are not gay. It doesn’t matter if you are a drag queen or not a drag queen. I’m happy to know Adam for Adam, and I am happy to know anyone for who they are as a genuine person.


Drag queens interested in participating in Donorfio and Chapman’s research, can email laura.donorfio@uconn.edu or brian.chapman@uconn.edu.