The drag community lost a trailblazer with the passing of Mother Flawless Sabrina Friday night. Born Jack Doroshow in Philadelphia in 1939, she helped transform drag from an amusement for straight people into an art form that celebrated queer identity.
Doroshow first tried on women’s clothing as an 8-year-old, and by 19 had perfected the Sabrina Flawless character. Drag was still widely stigmatized in the 1960s—even within in the gay community—but Sabrina organized drag pageants across the country.
“We would take hotels, usually in the black section of town, and rent out the ballrooms,” she told Out in 2015. “We would hang sheets as a canopy outside so people could get in and out of the building without being seen, even though they were in suits and ties when they came in.”
Cross-dressing was still a felony, and she was arrested dozens of times. Sabrina also faced arrest for promoting her 1967 film The Queen, in Times Square. A semi-documentary, the movie recounted the Miss All America Beauty Pageant, where Sabrina played “Mother” to the contestants, including a young Crystal LaBeija.
It was the first drag documentary and, aided by interest from Andy Warhol, The Queen screened at Cannes and landed Sabrina spots on several TV talk shows.
She was photographed by Diane Arbus and, in 1972, had a cameo in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos.
“It took me a very long time in my life to get over being angry all the time. I mean, really angry,” she told trans artist and producer Zackary Drucker as part of the for the 2014 Whitney Biennial, where Sabrina held tarot card readings in her Upper East Side apartment. “It not only seemed illogical; it was also so unkind,” she said of her arrests and convictions. “I didn’t go around pointing my finger at people, telling them how to live or what to do, or who to sleep with or how to dress. And I wasn’t teaching people to do that.”
A boyfriend encouraged Sabrina to get her felonies overturned, launching a life of activism for gay and trans people and those with HIV/AIDS.
“I just was like a cork in the ocean, and by serendipity became involved in something, which in retrospect looks like pioneering, but I don’t think it was anything of the sort,” Sabrina told Drucker. “It was just cultural change, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time—or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on your point of view.”
On Twitter friends and fans offered condolences.
“We’re buying into their excuse that we’re trans something. What? Trans citizenship? Is that what trans means, or is trans just another excuse for trying to disable and disempower people?”
R.I.P. Mother Flawless Sabrina, Queen and LGBT activist.
Thank you for everything. pic.twitter.com/K9tDUYZVRJ
— Alessandra Angeli (@AAtheMerciless) November 18, 2017
Flawless Sabrina was a legend who did so much for so many in our community. Rest in power. pic.twitter.com/GyvLesRQCy
— James Michael (@JMN) November 18, 2017
rip legendary mother flawless sabrina pic.twitter.com/XA6nNaL5qV
— hari nef (@harinef) November 18, 2017
The legendary Flawless Sabrina passed away last night. A star among stars! pic.twitter.com/4k3ZSbXZnr
— Morgan M Page (@morganmpage) November 18, 2017