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A Few Words of Wisdom from John Waters—IMHO, the Ideal Queer Elder

A couple of weeks ago, hundreds of guests gathered for the latest Queer Biennial exhibition to listen to John Waters speak. Situated among the work of emerging artists — as well as legends like Tom of Finland and Laura Aguilar — Waters commanded the attention of the space despite its overwhelming kinetic energy and the noise of nearby tattoo artists cranking away on queer bodies (a pink flamingo was one of the available flash tattoo options, in honor, of course, of Water’s 1972 magnum opus Pink Flamingos).

For my part, I sat cross-legged in the front row, excited to listen to the self-described “King of Filth,” a personal hero, in conversation about what exactly a “queer utopia,” the theme of the exhibition, meant to him. “When I was growing up, ‘queer’ was the worst insult,” he explained. “I still have a little trouble when I hear it because of that. It’s like, ‘Oh God!’ I remember it so well as a slur.”

In conversation with Ruben Esparza, the Queer Biennial’s founder and director, Waters said gay wasn’t enough anymore (“Let’s come up with something new!”) and called out how LGBTQ progress in the U.S. has slighted people of color. “You see, things are getting better better, if you’re white!” he skewered. He also talked about how he’s primarily made his living as a writer; creating a creative community in Baltimore of all places (“Be your own cult leader!”); and what career he would have pursued had he not been a filmmaker (“I’d be a criminal defense lawyer, and I’d be a good one.”)

That, though, was only scratching the surface. Here then are a few other pearls of wisdom from a man who not only pioneered queer visibility on screen but also found the time to have his muse eat a freshly minted pile of dog shit on camera.

I just drove across the country again — the route where you see stuff like Mount Rushmore. It’s amazing to see just how big this place is. We have room for every Syrian refugee in the world here.

Transgender? You should be able to go back and forth there, too, as many times as you want. I’m for flexibility and free operations for everyone.

We need proper education in grade schools. It’s never too early to talk to your children about poppers.

Drag queens, start doing women we hate! Do Kim Davis, that greasy-haired, pony-tailed one. Do Nancy Reagan, who when she first heard of the gay liberation march said, “What on Earth do they have to be proud of?”

There’s no such thing as a boy or a girl anymore. That’s great, but I’m still surprised. I read that article in New York magazine about “theybies” — people who raise babies without saying if they’re a boy or a girl and let them decide for themselves. Basically, a little girl tells her parents at three, “I’m a girl!” and they have a party for her. That seems a little extreme to me, but I’m for it. The conversation keeps surprising me, and that’s what I want young people to do. I want young people to come up with new things and surprise me. It’s not as important that I agree with them as it is that I’m astonished. That’s youth’s duty.

I don’t know that I’m for homeschool. In a way, going through school and being hassled is a way to build your character. It’s a lot different now though. When Divine went to high school, he was beat up everyday. The teachers were even worse to him [than the students]. Today, that school ran an anti-bullying campaign and dedicated it to Divine.

I learned the rules of good taste from my parents, which is good, because you can’t have fun violating the rules if you don’t know them.

If you want to change somebody’s mind, make them laugh. It’s the only way. No one wants to listen to someone ranting about how right they are. I miss the Yippies [members of the Youth International Party], because they used humor as terrorism against their enemy to embarrass them.

Divine didn’t want to be a woman; he wanted to be Godzilla! Plus, it was too hot wearing all that shit! He only dressed as a woman for movies or things like that. He did, however, love Elizabeth Taylor and wanted to be her. The funny thing is, when I finally met Elizabeth Taylor at the end of her life, she looked like Divine.

I didn’t meet Andy Warhol until after Pink Flamingos came out. He watched the movie in a closet at The Factory and told me, “Make the same movie again.” Then he offered to back Female Trouble, which I didn’t do, because it would have been Andy Warhol’s Female Trouble. But he was very supportive. He took [Federico] Fellini to see Female Trouble. I get angry about all the people who start taking credit for things the longer he’s dead. Without Andy, none of this would have happened.

I keep my romantic relationships private. I’m never in love with famous people anyway. Every boyfriend I’ve ever had has had no interest in show business and wants to be kept private. I understand it. When I read people spilling everything about their personal relationships to People magazine, I think, They don’t have any friends.

I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote the “cunt eyes” bit [in Pink Flamingos], but it’s when someone with a vagina looks at you with desire. It’s not some catchy expression from Baltimore that you don’t know. I seriously don’t know what I was thinking at the time. Divine’s father always used to say that to me, “What are you thinking about?” Still a good question.

If I could choose any superpower, I’d choose to cure all disease. Starting with anal warts. The anal wart community has been forgotten. Brown ribbons on everyone at the Oscars this year!

When I read movie or art reviews that say something is “John Waters-esque,” I usually hate it because they’re trying too hard. If you’re trying too hard to be shocking, it doesn’t work. You have to be able to surprise people.

I like art that makes me mad. If you think about it, every piece of art that changed the world pissed people off. Andy [Warhol] put all of the Abstract Expressionists out of business with one soup can. Jeff Koons pisses people off. I own a piece from a German artist who never actually touched it. In fact, she was never in the same country as it. She worked with an art dealer who threw a canvas outside and let it grow mold all over. In order to bring it into my house, I had to get it treated; otherwise, it could wreck my house or kill me. It was ugly and expensive, and it’s perfect.

Success means you’re never around assholes. It took me 70 years to get to a place where I’m never around assholes, not even on airplanes. I have good karma like that.