*This article, the latest in our ongoing “From The Desk Of GayRVA” column in RVA Magazine, originally appeared in RVA Mag #37, on the streets now at all your favorite spots.
I’d never seen such sprawling crowd at the Byrd Theatre. People wrapped around the block, clutching those little red “admit one” tickets you can buy in copious rolls at Dollar Tree, or holding out their phones bent-armed with the digital equivalent. They were dressed on a sliding scale — fit, lacey, dapper, all the way down to gym shorts and stained tees. No obvious correlation with age, either.
The line was buzzing. People honked as they drove by. Then the line lurched forward around the corner, trickling past boutiques and cutesy sandwich shops, approaching the yellow glow of the Byrd Theatre. We filed over the red carpet, under the offwhite marquee, and filled every seat in ready anticipation for Spider Mites of Jesus: The Dirtwoman Documentary.
Donnie Corker, more famously known as Dirtwoman, was immortalized this spring by Jerry Williams in his documentary, Spider Mites of Jesus. The film, which started production when I was just a toddler, had its hometown premiere as part of the Richmond International Film Festival: an eclectic, weeklong extravaganza of films from places like Kosovo, South Korea, Iran… everywhere, really.
“Donnie was a real sweetheart of an individual, and very intense,” said Parker Galore, executive director of Gallery 5, where the film’s cast and crew convened at the end of the night for a bit of an afterparty. Galore knew Corker for many years, and acted as his campaign manager when he launched his 2005 bid for mayor.
Corker was a gay man known primarily as a sort of impromptu drag queen. It was by his weird, sassy, kind, lovable nature, and his tendency to stay in the mix on the sloppy Richmond streets, that Corker became a local legend. And over the years, he fell headfirst into a series of misadventures with dramatic twists, turns, and arcs.
By the age of 13, Corker was stealing his sister’s dresses and strolling around his neighborhood of Oregon Hill in full drag. Today, Oregon Hill acts as an offshoot of the VCU Dorm-Industrial Complex, and a nesting place for young upper-middle-class professionals. But in the 60s it was “extremely working class,” as Williams puts it; populated by the ancestors of Appalachian folks who traveled into the city for jobs during the Civil War. I, personally, have heard other people use the term “redneck.”
“The people who lived there would joke, they’re as far away from Richmond as they were from the territory of Oregon,” said local author Dale Brumfield in the documentary.
But Corker, even back then, was a sass quickdraw. He stood up for himself in the face of what was, initially, constant discrimination and ragging.
“He was kind of at the forefront of not being afraid, or ashamed of being gay,” Williams said.
He was big, too — and intimidating. Williams remembers first seeing Corker when he would walk the late 60s-era VCU campus wearing a wig.
“He was unashamed. He would call you out if you gave him any shit.”
There’s a reason why Corker was so unabashed. So ready to push boundaries — emotionally open, cheerful — yet less accessible to some subtle areas of societal niceties and social cues.
“When he was a baby, he had spinal meningitis; his parents couldn’t pronounce it, so they called it ‘spider mites of Jesus,’” Williams said, explaining the title of his film.
This ailment, so early in his life, had lasting repercussions for Corker.
“Spinal meningitis affected his brain,” Williams said, “and caused some of the mental challenges he had the rest of his life… He was very savvy and very streetsmart, but he was also very childlike.”
One example of Corker’s uniquely eccentric relationship with the rest of the world was his routine of calling people throughout the day — from good friends to people he hardly knew. Although he was illiterate for his entire life, Corker could memorize hundreds of phone numbers. He could talk for hours.
Now the executive director of local educational nonprofit CodeVA, Chris Dovi ran Hamaganza for many years. The annual charity variety show featuring Corker front and center raised around $30,000 over its lifetime, and provided thousands of hams for those in need. But before all of that, Dovi said he first got to know Corker over the phone.
“He would literally do the rounds throughout the day: call you, call the other 50 people in his mental rolodex,” Dovi said. “I have literally a thousand or more Dirtwoman voicemails that he would leave me, desperate to get ahold of anybody to just blab. He was a very social creature.”
Corker’s primary origin story may best illustrate his relationship with the world. His moniker, Dirtwoman, surfaced in the 1970s when he was arrested for sex work by the city’s vice squad. While cuffed in the back of the patrol car, he — to put it nicely — made a mess.
Or: “I picked up the shit and hit the policeman with it,” as he recalls during an interview in the film.
The enraged, disgusted officers hurled abuse at Corker, calling him a ‘dirty woman.’ The story traveled around the city, and the term was used in Corker’s direction once again. But Corker embraced the term. Reclaimed it. Relished in it with his Southern-belle accent and demeanor. Before long he was calling himself ‘Dirtwoman,’ and soon it was a form of endearment.
Some people were concerned that Corker was being mocked through this persona, and that he’s the butt of a joke that he was never entirely hip to.
“When I started to realize that Donnie had become this character, I was concerned immediately that there was some form of ridicule,” Lorna Wyckoff says in the documentary. Wyckoff has a mentally challenged brother, and draws some parallels between cruel treatment aimed at her brother and the way some treated Corker. “I started to feel that in some way what had happened… had really stolen his dignity.”
Deciding when we’re laughing with Corker and when we’re laughing at him, though, is complicated.
“Some people did make fun of Donnie,” Williams said. “Especially his drag shows. I remember them — they were kind of like a train wreck.”
According to Williams, Corker would often get on stage and forget the lyrics to his songs. He was known to start stripping just to get a response. Some of the negativity directed towards Corker was rooted in homophobia, but not all; some LGBTQ advocates criticized Corker for the unsavory ways he represented their community. Williams said he was aware of this issue from the beginning, and it posed a challenge he took seriously.
“I was told by a number of people, ‘Be sure you show his heart; be sure you show all of Donnie, don’t just show the outrageous stuff.’”
Ultimately, everybody has to decide for themselves whether they think Dirtwoman is a dearly loved icon or the butt of a joke. But in the film, recounting her first meeting with Corker after years of hearing about him and thinking his fans were cruel, Lisa Cumbey remembers having her view reversed.
“…he totally owned that brand, and that changed how I felt about it. I knew that it was his, and not something that was being done to him.”
After years of declining health, Corker was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. He died in his sleep on September 26, 2017 at the age of 65. His obituary made the front page of the Richmond Times Dispatch, and a Dirtwoman retrospective was distributed nationally by NPR. It’s fun to imagine this radio program in particular: Corker‘s spirit slipping into radios across the country for all to hear, a woman stuck in traffic, a young guy cooking in a sun-speckled kitchen. In all these little moments, Dirtwoman lives on.
New Kids on the Block
Richmond is forever in flux. Freshman kids are dropped face first into buzzing neon bar signs and river ruins. After a few years, a few wild nights out, and maybe one too many all-nighters in the depths of Hibbs or Harris, they’re gone again.
One side effect of this ever-shifting population is the fragility of cultural memory. Once beloved figures can disintegrate in just a handful of years, at least to the young. Do you remember the wild west days of Grace Street? When biker bars and punk rockers were like staccato marks on an erratic symphony? When Corker would sell flowers from a lawn chair in front of the Village Cafe, when he’d break up fights and stand up for the punks? When he saved Sharon Ellis’ life, pulling her into a doorway when a man drew a gun at somebody walking behind her and shot?
“When I could finally breathe again, we happened to look up, the bullet happened to nick the area which would have been right about here,” she said in the documentary, running her finger over the door frame of the building next door to Grace Street Theater. “Had he not pulled me out of the way, it probably would have caught me in the head.”
I didn’t know Corker in his heyday. To me, he was a nameless figure whom I walked past countless times at various points throughout the city. Usually he was simply planted on a bench. He never threw out his famous catcalls. He just sat silent and content, his big belly in a pile, almost Buddahlike. I never spoke to him. I didn’t know about the time a local radio station gave him their press pass so he could crash Governor Doug Wilder’s inauguration. I didn’t know his role in a GWAR video, “Sleazy’s Crabhouse,” when ghoulish figures went to town eating crabs out of his crotch. I didn’t know about his drag shows or Hamaganza.
Watching Spider Mites of Jesus, a Dirtwoman I had never known came alive for me. Not just the myths and legends, but the little moments too. How he reacted when a friend walked by. His pain and irreverence when recalling past trauma. The kind actions, the daily routine, and the general community he cultivated with hundreds of people.
For us experiencing him now after he’s passed, Donnie Corker is all of these amorphous stories, no longer bound by time. They’re on our screens, in our memory, passed back and forth on front porch stoops. We remember Dirtwoman for these weird, amazing stories, but he’s ours because he so thoroughly embraced us — even when we weren’t perfect to him.
The stories are important because they’re what’s left. They’re how Dirtwoman survives.
Top Photo by Alice McCabe