Richmond has lost its queen. Legendary drag queen and general rabble-rouser Donnie “Dirtwoman” Corker has passed away, dying in his sleep early this morning, according to WTVR. He was 65 years old. Corker’s name does not necessarily have the same recognition factor it once did, as his recent health troubles have forced him to keep a low profile in recent years. However, those of us who have been walking the streets of Richmond for some time certainly remember him.
In a modern era that sees a freshly-scrubbed, VCU-dominated vision of the lower fan, it might be surprising to some of our younger readers to know of Grace Street’s sordid past, the porn theaters and dive bars that dotted the strip in the 90s and before. Corker was easy to spot around the Grace Street area in those days. He often operated a flower stand at the corner of Grace and Harrison streets (a spot now occupied by a VCU dorm), calling out to the boys walking by who drew his attention.
This is when I first encountered Corker, but his history in Richmond dates back long before this time. Beth Marschak’s book Lesbian And Gay Richmond elaborates on his origin story. “Corker worked as a performer, dancer, and prostitute,” Marschak writes. “Corker earned his nickname in 1976 following an encounter with the police vice squad. After police threw him in the back seat of their cruiser, Corker accidentally made a mess. The cops called him a ‘dirty woman,’ and the name stuck.”
Since those days, Corker’s various colorful escapades, from wrestling in jello at gay clubs to getting kicked out of Doug Wilder’s 1990 inauguration as Governor of Virginia, have generated plentiful material for local raconteurs. This eventually gave rise to a Dirtwoman calendar (which Corker would gladly sell you along with some flowers during his later years on Grace Street) and even a campaign for mayor of Richmond, managed for a time by RVA Magazine co-founder Parker Galore. It wasn’t all goofy hijinks, though–-Corker’s long-running Christmas event Hamaganza has raised a great deal of funds for the Central Virginia Food Bank. Richmond.com’s obituary places the total amount at somewhere between $25,000 and $30,000 over the past two decades.
It’d be easy to say that Richmond won’t be the same city without Corker, but the fact is, it’s a far different city already than it was in his heyday. Recently, local filmmaker Jerry “TVJerry” Williams has revived his planned Dirtwoman documentary, for which he originally did significant filming in the late 90s. The project takes on a new resonance in light of Corker’s passing; the need to capture this unique and colorful Richmond character in his full glory is more acute than ever.
The city of Richmond that knew Donnie Corker in his prime may bear only passing resemblance to the one he leaves behind today, but it’s a city that was forever changed due to his presence. That city mourns him today.
Top Image, Dirtwoman on the campaign trail at First Friday in 2008, by PJ Sykes.