At some point in his younger years, Donnie Corker’s true name was supplanted by his drag name, Dirtwoman. That’s Dirt, for short.
Countless Richmonders who pulled at least one tour in the Fan or nearby neighborhoods can recall a memory of the city’s most notable, unforgettable and Rubenesque drag queen.
“Donnie was fearless,” says photographer Barry Fitzgerald, who arrived in Richmond in 1969 to attend the newly minted Virginia Commonwealth University. “First time I ever saw him was probably 1969. I was sitting on my front porch at Harrison [Street] and Grove [Avenue]. He’s walking down Harrison Street toward Floyd. A car full of rednecks runs by and screams insults at him. And he put his hands on his hips and yelled right back at them at the top of his lungs: ‘You can come right back here and kiss my queer ass!’”
Corker died today at home after suffering chronic health problems. He was 65 years old.
People around the city saluted Corker with Facebook posts remembering his unabashed irreverence and campy brand of performance art.
Bill Harrison, president and executive director of Diversity Richmond, released a statement celebrating Corker’s willingness to be open about his sexuality. “Back in the day, when very few people from our community would go public and speak with the media, Donnie would,” Harrison wrote. “He may have not packaged his message the way many of us would have, but he was there.”
City Councilwoman Reva M. Trammell also paid tribute in a released statement: “I’ve known Donnie for the many, many years he lived in our 8th District. I am very sorry about his passing and he will always have a place in my heart. We just talked recently and my thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends during this difficult time as we say goodbye to one of Richmond’s most well-known personalities.”
Corker was the inspiration for a yearly performance event, Ham-A-Ganza, that raised money to feed the needy. Reports estimate that the event raised more than $25,000 in the years it was staged.
Legendary filmmaker John Waters, who discovered drag star Divine -- to whom Corker often drew comparisons -- recognized Dirtwoman's reputation in a Style Weekly interview two years ago.
"Every time I’ve ever done anything with Richmond, Dirtwoman’s name has come up," he said. "Every time, like forever. He really is your ambassador."
Fitzgerald notes that Corker’s Dirtwoman persona was an imminently quotable spectacle.
“I’ve seen him lip-sync and stuff,” Fitzgerald says. “I never saw him mud wrestle or Jell-O wrestle.”
He recalls seeing Corker strutting in drag in the late ’60s and early ’70s, walking blocks of Broad Street near Lombardy and Ryland streets. “You didn’t mess with him,” Fitzgerald says. “And that was wonderful, because he did attract a lot of attention. And not all of it was positive.”
Dirtwoman’s image was not quite high-polish, Fitzgerald remembers. “It was usually maybe a dress and maybe women’s shoes. Never really high heels, but you know, women’s shoes. And wigs – bad, horrible wigs. But certainly not any outrageous makeup or anything. Just bad makeup.”
Corker worked various jobs in the city, he recalls: parking attendant or flower vendor.
“Everybody knew him on Grace Street. … He was a pretty sweet person. … A denizen of the Fan, in a very large way. He was always very noticeable.”
The sometimes drag performer was prone to pronouncements: “I’ve been to New York City, and I’m twice the woman you are.”
“We didn’t’ argue with him,” Fitzgerald says, “because, how could you?”
What remains, he adds, is a sentiment others shared in their online tributes to Corker: “He was a big-hearted person.” S