Driving the Halsted bus gave Juanita Clark a good vantage point from which to keep an eye on her son. Quona was only 18 but he'd been living on his own for about a year, so she appreciated the occasional glimpse as she passed through Lakeview. Whenever she did spot him she pulled the bus over, passengers and all, to see how he was doing--make sure he was going to school, check on his health. "Quona always had a perpetual cold, always nose running," she says.
The last time Juanita saw her youngest child was a cold afternoon about a year ago. He was sniffling as usual, so she handed him a tissue to blow his nose, "just like a mom." A week later, Juanita got a call telling her that Quona was dead.
Early on the morning of March 2, 1993, the night clerk at the Lake Hotel, a residential hotel at Roscoe and Broadway, had called the police to report that a couple of Quona's friends had discovered him in the room he'd been occupying since the previous fall. The dingy second-floor room was piled high with clothes; Quona's motionless body was facedown on the bed. The police made out a report describing him as a "known transvestite prostitute."
Quona was about three when Juanita started driving for the CTA. The new job required her to rise before dawn and work weekends. She thought her two little ones, Quona and Jermel, would be better off with full-time care, so she sent them off to live with her mother in Michigan. She kept her 14-year-old son, Darryl, with her. Not long afterward Juanita separated from Quona's father and brought her babies back home. When Quona was five his father was killed in an accidental shooting.
Juanita had wanted an unusual name for her third son. She borrowed the name Quona (pronounced KO-na), a Liberian name meaning "wise old man," from a family friend. "He was just a different baby," she says. "I didn't want no little boy. And if it had to be a little boy, he had to be different."
She always favored him. "He was like my son more than--they're all my sons--but he was more into me as a person," Juanita says. He liked to watch his mother get dressed for dates and brush her hair or put makeup on her face "if I didn't look quite right," Juanita says. "He always would tell people if I was coming to school: 'Oh, my mama is so gorgeous, she is just so gorgeous.' Well, everybody would be standing there waiting for me and here I come in this bus driver's uniform."
Juanita always thought Quona would be the one to take care of her in her old age. "He was always special, because he was my last born. We were just closer--like friends, good friends."
One day when Quona was about eight years old he wandered into the Green Thumb Plant Shop on Clark Street, around the corner from the family's apartment on Roscoe. He asked the owner, Kathy McDonald, if he could work in exchange for a Mother's Day present for his mother. She gave him a few tasks to do around the store and sent him home with a small plant.
Later that week he reappeared and offered to help out again, so she put him to work watering and pruning plants and unpacking shipments. Quona took to the work quickly, impressing Kathy with his knack for it--he was good at remembering the names of plants and the special care they needed. He also turned out to be a charming salesman. "He just had the gift of gab," Kathy says.
Before long Quona was putting in hours almost every day: the shop was a nice alternative to going home to an empty apartment. Also, Quona had never had much interest in school. Social workers told Juanita that the third-grader had a slight learning disability and emotional problems that couldn't be addressed in public schools. He was transferred to the Day School, a small private school in a converted mansion on Buena. Things went all right there for a while, but when he was 11 Quona had a run-in with an administrator and was transferred to the special education program at Lawrence Hall Youth Services, a child welfare agency with a school in Albany Park.
Quona was the only boy in Delores James's math and science class. She remembers him as a sweet, polite boy. "I thought he was extremely nice looking because he had this real, real dark complexion. It's kind of hard to see someone who's dark that's extremely good looking," says James, who is black as well. "I used to tell him, 'Oh, your skin is so pretty.' And he used to smile and he had these pretty white teeth." Quona occasionally stayed after school to make art projects or practice cheerleading--the squad's only boy--but most days he headed to the plant store. "I think he was always with somebody," Kathy says. "He wasn't the type of person who could stay home and watch TV by himself."
The two of them shared meals together often, sometimes takeout--Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Mexican. "He used to eat like mad," she says, laughing. Other times Quona might come over to her house for dinner. "He used to eat five times more than my boyfriend. I'd say, "Quona, where are you putting that?' He'd eat like he hadn't eaten for a month. He'd always have an appetite. He'd come in hungry and go home hungry, but he ate all day long. That's the way he was."
On weekends he went with her to greenhouses to pick out plants and flowers. On the way home they liked to stop at an ice cream parlor. "He would say, 'We're going to shock everybody,'" says Kathy, who is white. "He'd come in and call me 'Ma.' Everybody'd look at him and we'd laugh."
Kathy doesn't have any children of her own, and she and Quona shared secrets like best friends. "We used to talk about everything. If I had a bad day, I'd gripe; if he had a bad day, he'd gripe about it. If we were ever mad at each other, we'd probably make up in a half hour because he was just like that. [He'd] give you that smile--'Oh, I won't do it again.'"
In the early days Kathy would give Quona free plants and a small allowance for his work; when he got older she started paying him $5 an hour. "He liked the money, but sometimes he'd say, 'I know business is bad, I'm going to work for free this afternoon.'" By the time he was ten, Kathy would joke that Quona was her manager, and a couple of years later she was letting him ring sales on the cash register. Once she caught him palming a roll of quarters, but she forgave the incident as "kid stuff," the kind of thing she'd done when she was young.
After Juanita moved the family down to the near west side, to an apartment near Harrison and Ashland, Quona and Jermel befriended Julia Quiring (now Emblen), a white woman who lived nearby. They liked to help her cook and often ate dinner with her when Juanita worked late. She also took the boys--they invited themselves--to visit her church, Covenant Presbyterian, a DePaul-area congregation of mostly white young professionals that's since moved to Bucktown. Reverend David Williams remembers them as a handful from the start.
"They were telling us as adults what we should believe, and they were contradicting everything that we said," Williams says. "They knew everything--no matter what it was, they knew it. They started coming to church every Sunday, and basically they were looking for somebody to love them. They were looking for acceptance and for help, and we wanted to do that if we possibly could." Williams matched them with "big brothers" from the congregation who took them on weekend outings. He says he figured Quona needed someone to teach him how to be a man.
After a couple of years at Lawrence Hall, everyone--teachers, administrators, secretaries, students--knew Quona. He would strike up a conversation with anyone. "Once he made a relationship with you he was very loyal," says Sandra Torrielli, a social worker who started counseling Quona when he was in eighth grade. He had sessions with her once or twice a week but stopped by other times just to hang out, she says. Occasionally she took him out to dinner.
Torrielli tried to help him do better in school. He was a bright, articulate kid, and his grades at Lawrence Hall should have been good, she says. But when she started working with him he was becoming disruptive, often yelling and swearing in class. He didn't take much time to listen, Torrielli says. "He just couldn't sit still enough. He was kind of a hyper person, very hyperactive. Talked a lot. One idea after another."
Quona got along with adults and seemed to prefer their company, but he had a hard time relating to the other students. "In some ways he was more mature and in other ways he was very immature, but he wasn't that easy to get along with and they couldn't read him I think," Torrielli says. Quona's extravagant personal style didn't win him friends among the other students, many of whom were poor. "Appearance was very important to him," Torrielli says. "He had a million hairstyles all the time. Exaggerated dress. He wanted to look different. He always described himself as a 'buppie.'" Sometimes he wore cologne to school.
"He was going to these yuppie churches, and he was straddling different worlds, whereas the other kids here just live in one world," she says. "That was difficult for him too. I think it changed his aspirations."
He raised a few eyebrows when as an eighth-grader he performed in a school talent show wearing a flowing diaphanous garment he'd made himself; he lip-synched and danced to Cyndi Lauper's "True Colours." "For the kids here, who are more into rap, it was a little way out," says Torrielli, who admits she was surprised herself. It may have thrown people, but Quona won the contest.
Torrielli says Quona acted like he didn't need to fit in. "He was a pretty unhappy kid with no clear sense of himself," she says, "and it came out like he was bragging or with a false bravado that really was just covering how badly he felt." Even at a school full of problem kids, Quona stood out, alienating others because he needed so much of the spotlight. "He always needed so much attention and would provoke them a lot," she says. "And then if he got mad at them you would never know what he would say. He would say all these horrible things. He'd say some really revolting sexual things. . . . But sometimes they want to hear it and then other times the kids aren't interested."
Though Quona didn't have what Torrielli calls an "observing ego," he was self-conscious at times. He told Torrielli that he didn't like the way he looked. Black classmates teased him about his dark skin with taunts of "African." He told his mother his nose was too big, his face too black. Of his few friends, most were white. Kathy McDonald remembers, "He would say all black people are full of it and they're all thieves. He didn't like being black at all." Torrielli recalls that at Quona's eighth-grade graduation party, except for Quona's brother Jermel all the guests were adults.
"He didn't trust people a whole lot," she says. "A lot of our kids . . . don't really like themselves, and they don't think people should do things for them. He liked people to do things for him, but then he wasn't capable of reciprocating so they would feel it was appreciated. He had a sense of entitlement."
So he would lie or tell a story to try to get his own way, Torrielli says. Jermel, who also attended Lawrence Hall for a while, knew of Quona's ability to manipulate people. "He kept people pretty interested in what he wanted to do and pretty much behind him," he says. "Quona was definitely somebody who could give somebody what they wanted to see or show somebody what they wanted to hear."
As Quona moved into high school at Lawrence Hall, the Clarks changed houses again, this time moving in with Juanita's boyfriend on the far south side. The new place was quite a distance from Quona's north-side stomping grounds. Getting to school on the el could take as long as two hours. Quona was often late, and he began to skip school, sometimes for days or a week at a time. Torrielli would call Juanita to find out where he was, but she could only reply that she'd seen him go out the door or taken him to school herself. One day after Jermel told her Quona had ditched school she found him sleeping under a mountain of clothes in his room. Reverend Williams also got involved. He got several calls from the school--"as if I were his father or mother"--when Quona was absent.
"There were rules and there were Quona's rules, and they didn't always jibe," Torrielli says. "He would pretty much say 'I don't have to do what I don't want to do.'"
In the summer of 1990, Quona met someone who would have a huge impact on his life. Big Hair is a hip storefront salon in Roscoe Village known for its $5 haircuts and kitschy decor in the form of elaborately decorated stations. A friend introduced him to one of the stylists. Joseph Arguellas, known as Jo-Jo, had a station adorned with crucifixes, rosaries, pictures of Jesus Christ, and a cow skull. A handwritten sign notified customers that none of the items were for sale.
Jo-Jo, who's now 22, says that when he met Quona he wasn't sure if he was a boy or a girl. He himself "does drag" (he occasionally performs at Foxy's and the Baton), and he invited Quona to join him that weekend. Quona had just gotten a weave in his hair for the first time, so he already looked somewhat feminine. Later Jo-Jo took him shopping at thrift stores to find an outfit. Quona picked out a strapless skintight purple dress with ruffles. They got dressed at Jo-Jo's mother's house in Logan Square. Quona cut the dress off short and squeezed his ample frame into it. Jo-Jo, his "drag mama," helped him apply makeup. They went dancing that night at Vortex, a gay disco on North Halsted.
The two became inseparable. "I'd go into a club, and they'd be like, 'So where's the other half?'" Jo-Jo says. Dressing as a woman seemed to suit Quona. "It was like it was him," Jo-Jo says. "I think he liked it 'cause more people started hittin' on him." For the first two months Quona wore the purple dress every weekend. "He wore it constantly until he started to reek," Jo-Jo says. Then he started buying new outfits. They'd go shopping at the 99th Floor or at the Village Thrift down the street from Big Hair. "He liked beads but couldn't afford it, so he wore a lot of spandex clothes," Jo-Jo says. "He liked sequins. Anything shiny and glitzy and tight. And he wasn't afraid to--even though he was a big person. Didn't care that the rolls would stick out."
Once they were all dressed up, Quona and Jo-Jo usually headed for Cheeks, a bar on Clark at Diversey, that's since been closed down. Like any neighborhood tavern, Cheeks had a couple of neon beer signs in the window and a pool table in the back. Its hours were a little longer than some: the bartenders started serving drinks at 9 AM and didn't stop until 4 AM. Around midnight the "girls" started showing up, one or two at a time. They paid the $2 cover, then headed to the bar for a drink, scanning the room for people they knew. Their faces were painted, their hair meticulously coiffed, their uniform skintight miniskirts, high heels, plunging necklines, and push-up bras. But in most cases the "girls" also had broad shoulders, thick arms, square jaws, and prominent Adam's apples. Many took hormones to grow breasts and soften their features and their voices. One queen at the bar was well-known for selling them, even doing the injections herself. A few had silicone implants, but most stopped short of surgery. Many worked as prostitutes, often meeting their "dates" at the bar. Quona was by far one of the youngest regulars.
Quona used to brag to Kathy that he could get into bars without an ID. "I said, 'Quona, why don't you grow up gradually? When you're 21 you're going to be bored, you've already done the 21 thing at 15 and 16. So take it easy, you've got your whole life.'"
One day Quona and a girl stopped by Darryl's apartment. They mentioned that they were thinking about going to Vortex. Darryl, who's gay, tried to convince Quona that taking a date to a gay nightclub wasn't such a good idea. He suggested coffee or a movie. "Well, we just see ourselves as two young bisexuals having fun!" Quona announced.
Darryl couldn't believe his ears. "That's when I was like, all right, OK, I guess I've got to take a deep breath. When you leave here I'll call mother and get her on the phone and tell her to sit down and we'll have 'the discussion.'"
During their talks at the plant store, Quona told Kathy that he might be gay and she told him, "Don't be ashamed, Quona, if you're gay. If that's what you want, then go for it. If you want to experiment and find out what you want, don't feel bad about it."
Reverend Williams gave him different advice. Quona had developed crushes on men who volunteered as big brothers at the church, and Williams told him the Bible viewed homosexuality as a sin. "He would tell me that he really wasn't gay but that was how he found acceptance," Williams says.
Beginning that summer at the plant store he sometimes softened his voice to fool customers into thinking he was a girl. "At first it started out for fun," Kathy says, "but after a while he would get real upset if I told someone that he was a guy. They'd call him 'miss,' and he just loved it. I'd say, 'He's really not a girl--he's just acting that way.' Quona would be so mad. He'd say, 'I don't tell things on you, I don't tell that you dye your hair.' He'd get real upset about it."
He also seemed to age, Kathy says. "He used to ask people, "Well, how old do you think I am?' Some of them would say 27, but sometimes he'd get upset. 'I'm only 15.' They'd say, 'Oh, come on,' because he didn't look like he was."
Quona had always liked dressing up, sometimes modeling new thrift-store purchases for Kathy. Once he went through the garbage behind Hubba-Hubba, the boutique a few doors down from the plant shop, and brought back some scarves and an old red velvet dress, which he stashed in the back room.
Williams was noticing changes too. One day when he was driving Quona and some other boys home from church, they were joking around in the backseat. Quona spoke in a feminine voice and coyly told the others not to touch him. Williams says he knew it was a just a joke but it still made him uncomfortable: "You had to figure he was going through a stage."
At home, Juanita's boyfriend was less understanding; intolerant of the boys from the start, he started calling Quona "bitch" or "fag." "He was always jealous of the relationship that Quona and I had," Juanita says. "He thought I let Quona get away with everything."
"He degraded Quona and made Quona feel as though he was nothing, as though he wasn't worth more than a piece of shit on the sidewalk," Jermel says. "They hated each other. They fought. They called each other names. They showed no respect for each other. I mean it was terrible."
Sometimes after a fight, Quona and Jermel stayed overnight with church members or friends. Kathy took Quona home with her a couple of times. "I felt like he was my kid in a way," she says.
Quona told Kathy that his mother was talking about moving out. "He wanted to move back to the north side, and he talked about that all the time," Kathy says. "He used to beg his mother to move. He'd always have these high hopes. She'd talk about it a lot, and she'd tell them that they were going to get an apartment. She would always say, next month, I've had it, we're moving."
Kathy finally realized that they probably weren't going anywhere. She'd say, "Quona, why don't you forget about it, why don't you just try to get along with [him]? You work here. You go home. Watch your TV. Read a book. Do your homework. Go to bed. Don't mess with him. Just stay out of his way."
Quona seemed to be growing bored with his job at the shop and he began to cause trouble. One time Kathy returned from out of town to find some plants and pottery missing. Quona fingered another employee, so Kathy fired her. Later she figured out that Quona had been responsible. There were some complaints from customers about lost credit cards, but Quona always pleaded innocent when Kathy questioned him.
"Some of the things that he did I know," she says, sighing. "I don't know why he did them. I think he didn't know why he'd do these things himself. I had to fire him three or four times. But he'd come by and I'd say OK and I'd hire him back." Kathy's friends asked why she bothered, but she stuck up for him and told them he wasn't all that bad, and that he was good with customers. "In fact one of my girlfriends worked in the shop, and he told me that she was stealing things and I believed him. I was mad at her, and I believed him. That was terrible. . . . I guess he just knew how to fool me."
Things were deteriorating at school as well. After failing to show improvements during a 30-day probation period, Quona was dismissed from Lawrence Hall. Torrielli had saved him from expulsion before, but not this time. "He had a lot of people who were willing to help him," she says. "But the longer I'm in the field you really do see that the person has to want to make these changes themself. I cannot, or the minister or his mom cannot, make him change. He had to have it within himself. And at this point he didn't. Even though he was unhappy with the way things were, he wasn't unhappy enough to want to make the necessary changes. It's like the old saw about the alcoholic having to hit bottom before they want to make any changes. Well, it's true with some of the kids we have, too. They're on a collision course with life, and they don't stop enough to see it."
In May 1991 Quona was admitted to the Southern School, a small private school near Montrose and Clark. He lacked only a few credits toward his diploma, but he couldn't seem to buckle down. He was frequently late. He came to school some weeks, then would disappear. Delores James, who had moved from Lawrence Hall to the Southern School, usually included the absent Quona in her homeroom attendance count, hoping he'd show up eventually.
His fellow students didn't exactly make him feel welcome. From the day Quona arrived, complete with hair extensions, the other kids gave him a hard time. James says he couldn't go anywhere or do anything without someone whistling at him, pulling on his hair, or calling him "faggot" or "sissy."
Quona tried to put up a brash front. To one particularly persistent bully he would reply, "We know you're gay, you don't have to get upset."
A student a couple of years younger than Quona, call him "Maurice," got to know Quona working on a Christmas project. He went along with the crowd at first. "I made fun of him," he says. "Then I was like, wait a minute, he ain't done nothing to me." Maurice told his friends he didn't think it was nice to tease Quona. "They asked me if I was gay and all that," he says. "And I was saying, 'No, we wouldn't want nobody doing that to us.' They was like, 'Man, if you're going to be like that then you can't hang with us.'"
Quona and Maurice started spending time together after school. They'd go to the Dunkin Donuts at Clark and Belmont, or shop at the Alley and Belmont Army Surplus. Maurice says Quona knew people all over the neighborhood. A few times Quona kept Maurice out of fights. "He used to say he was my big brother."
He says he watched Quona get ready to go out in drag once. "He showed me how he could put on a wig and have people think it was his real hair," Maurice says. "He wet the wig down and stuck clips to his real hair. Then he combed it and braided it with a thread. He put on some foundation and blended it into his skin. He went out and I went home. My mother, she used to always ask me why I like to han out with him."
Sometimes people would holler "child molester" from a passing car as the two boys walked down the street. When other kids started taunting Maurice at school, Quona told him they should stop hanging out together. "Well, I don't care, you still my friend, and there ain't nothing they can do about it," Maurice told him.
Some of Maurice's friends teased him because he liked the singer Tevin Campbell. "They call him gay because of the way he moves his hands and stuff when he talks," Maurice says. "I was like, 'You can't judge a person on what they are.' They was like, 'Well, he's a fag. If you like him, that's what you are.'"
Maurice says thanks to Quona it didn't matter to him if Tevin happened to be gay. "He taught me whatever I liked to stand up for it. Don't be ashamed. Because when I get around my friends, if I like Tevin Campbell . . . I won't stop listening to it. That's the kind of music you like, you listen to it. Ever since then I didn't care what they say."
One day they were riding a CTA bus crowded with a bunch of public school kids. After Quona got off, a few of the kids started harassing Maurice. They asked if Quona was a boy or a girl, and if Quona was his boyfriend. The next day when Quona asked Maurice if the kids had given him a hard time, Maurice said that to shut them up he'd said Quona was his brother. Quona was amazed. "You for real?" he asked. "Yeah," Maurice told him.
Two weeks after Quona's 17th birthday, in August 1991, Quona, Jo-Jo, and their friend Renee went to the Century mall to pick up a leather jacket that Quona had put on layaway. He produced a credit card to pay for the jacket, but the check revealed that the card had been reported missing and the clerk called security. Renee and Jo-Jo watched as three security guards and then two police officers tussled with Quona. He sprayed them with Mace, and they pulled out his weave as they wrestled him to the ground. Jo-Jo and Renee made a beeline for the exit and hopped in a cab.
Kathy McDonald was walking with a friend on Barry when she heard a familiar voice: "Kathy! Kathy! Is that you?" Quona was yelling at her from a passing police paddy wagon. "Yeah! What are you doing in there?" she yelled. "The police picked me up and they beat me up," he replied. Quona was charged with receiving a lost credit card and three counts of battery. He was held overnight and released the next day. He told his mother that the officers at the mall had called him a "bitch."
Kathy later learned that the stolen credit card was one Quona had pocketed at the store. She suspected that the Mace he used was a can that had belonged to her. She had given Quona a lot of chances in the past--probably too many, she says. This time she fired him for good.
While things weren't going well at home or school, Quona found some comfort at Horizons Community Services, a social service agency that offers support groups for gay, lesbian, and bisexual youths. Located in a three-story building near Sheffield and Fullerton, Horizons works with about 500 young people each year. Kids come from places as far north as Wisconsin and as far south as 176th Street and into Indiana. Quona usually showed up for the Wednesday-night meeting held in the top-floor "youth room," a loft with exposed rafters and brick walls. Rows of books--gay fiction and materials on AIDS and other health issues--fill a few metal shelves against the back wall. Brochures and posters about safe sex are displayed near the door, and free condoms fill some glass jars. Several secondhand couches and an imitation Keith Haring mural complete the decor.
After some free time to catch up with friends and meet newcomers, everyone would break up into small groups for discussions led by staff and volunteer advisers. The subjects ranged from coming out to dating and family relationships. About a quarter of the kids had attempted suicide, some more than once.
Some weeks Quona came to Horizons dressed as a boy wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and a baseball cap. Other times he showed up in drag. As is customary, while Quona was dressed as a woman he insisted that people refer to him as a woman. Even out of women's clothing he still liked to be called "she," which caused all kinds of linguistic confusion among his friends. "I think Quona liked that ambiguity because he wasn't always in drag, and there were times when he came in kind of studly and butch," says Horizons adviser Brad Braden.
When Gilbert Lemus first laid eyes on Quona at Horizons, he says, he thought he looked like a heavyset Naomi Campbell. "I'm hanging out and talking to friends, and this thing walks in. Tight black minidress. Black tights. Shoes to match. Purse, hair, the whole bit. She's like, "Hey there!' She gives her whole Quona spiel, where she gets into this character--really sexy and really wild."
Gilbert, who's 21, says Quona always made a grand entrance. "She would sashay into the room, stand in the middle, look around for the most strategically located seat, and walk over and sit down," Gilbert says. "If somebody was there she would get them to move, and she would then take the seat. . . . When Quona walked in anywhere, that was Quona's space, that was Quona's time, and if you were in the room, it was because she allowed you to be there."
Quona's cheap perfume announced his arrival. "She played off every one of your senses," Gilbert says. "You heard her, you saw her, you smelled her, you tasted her, you could touch her. I think that's what's the most memorable about her because she just let you have it!" He snaps his fingers for emphasis.
He had so much energy that some people wondered if he was taking speed. He was always making jokes, snapping his fingers, firing off bitchy snipes. "She was there in your face 24-7," Gilbert says.
After "group" Quona and his friends sometimes went out dancing but often headed up to the Melrose Restaurant on Belmont for coffee. Their rowdy behavior made them a familiar yet annoying fixture at the restaurant, and they were kicked out a few times. "Quona was the catalyst for making everyone act up and be silly and loud," Gilbert says. He regaled his friends practically every week with a favorite raunchy joke--especially if there was someone new sitting at the table. "Don't do it, don't do it, Quona," they would plead, only halfheartedly. "Every time we walked in there and sat down, Quona would order a coffee," Gilbert says. Then he'd move into the same shtick: "Doctor, doctor, there's a dick stuck in my throat!"
"And she'd turn around," Jo-Jo says, "pour cream in her mouth and then in her coffee, jerk her throat around and make groans of passion and spit out the cream into her coffee. It was so perfect because Quona was so dark that all the cream showed up on her face."
Once Quona got going there was nothing anyone could say to stop him from acting up. One night he caused a minor scene when he stood up in the middle of the Melrose, hiked up his dress, and unhitched a corset that was too tight.
Bryce Hardin, another friend from Horizons, says Quona liked to call up straight 900 sex lines and pretend he was a woman. Then after he'd suckered someone, "Quona would say, 'Guess what? I'm a man!' He would go to a real deep voice and just shock them!" says Bryce, laughing.
"Quona had this really sweet, sexy woman voice," Gilbert says, "and if she was in the mood, she had this really deep masculine voice, and I thought that was so cool."
One night Quona, who was dressed in a long green dress and a black leather jacket, sat down on the el next to a man saying, "Do you think I'm beautiful? Do you think I'm sexy? Do you want to touch my breasts?" The man shifted uncomfortably in his seat, while Gilbert and Jo-Jo, watching from another seat, laughed uproariously.
Quona was proud that even in daylight he could pass as a woman. Gilbert says, "Quona loved walking into a place and being the most beautiful woman there and letting everyone know that she was the most beautiful woman there, and then pulling out the rug from everyone's feet. . . . It's like, guess what girls!"
He loved to "read" people, picking out flaws and making vicious fun. Bryce loved to watch Quona talking about how someone was dressed or pointing out a drag queen whose wig was falling off. "Quona would get shady sometimes," Bryce says, laughing. "Oooh! It would be just so much fun! Because it was bold, it was daring. That's what I would like in a person, when a person can really tell you what they feel no matter how much or how little you like them--even if it was to your dismay."
Quona didn't spare anyone. "If she didn't like you she would tell you," Gilbert says. "She would not go behind your back and say, 'This fuckin' queen,' blah blah blah. She would go up in your face and say, 'Oh it's nice to see you, too bad you're dressed like that!' She would let you have it. She would not take anything from anyone."
"Quona did it as a game," Gilbert says, "to see how low she could put someone in their place and still have people rolling on the floor laughing."
But sometimes Quona went too far. One night after group Bryce took Quona home to the south side. A girl Quona had never got along with hitched a ride too. "Who the hell does she think she is saying she's a woman?" the girl had said. "She's got a fuckin' dick. How dare she say that he's a woman!"
That night Quona had a cold and wasn't feeling well. The girl got on his nerves and as they headed south he lit into her. "You can't be goin' up in Horizons acting the way you do, sweetie," he said, "because a lot of people--I'm going to tell you right now--do not like you. No one likes you. You have absolutely no friends at Horizons because of the way that you act. You can't be going around gettin' friendly with women and touchin' their titties and talkin' about that you ain't no goddamn lesbian." The girl didn't say a thing. "Her face was just cracked," Bryce says.
Naturally others were turned off by Quona's histrionics. Some people at Horizons got annoyed that he demanded so much attention. When it came time to divide into small groups, many opted for a group without Quona, choosing to avoid "the Quona show." "You either loved her or you hated her," Gilbert admits.
But Quona wasn't always on. "If you got to see that side of Quona you were lucky, because most of the day it was Quona doing 'Quona,'" Gilbert says. "When you saw Quona with real human feelings, really hurt or really excited, really genuinely feeling something, that was a blessing on you. That let you in on a person who had to put up this front because of all the pain and suffering he had to put up with. I mean just life is enough to make you want to always put on an act. Being gay and living in his world is not easy. Being a drag queen is not easy. I can't imagine the pressure that she must have been under."
"It was clear to me," Braden says, "that there was a lot of struggle, a lot of coming to terms of how to be in this life. . . . But it was real difficult to get him to talk about those issues." If he did manage to open up, Braden says, "he acted like it had no meaning when you know by the very fact that he shared it that it meant a lot to him."
Advisers sometimes pulled Quona aside after group to tell him that he needed to give other people time to talk. He'd promise to be better next time, Braden says, but then nothing would change. Quona might get up and storm off; other times he'd clam up and sulk. "There was no in-between," Braden says. "It was either all of me or you don't get any of me."
Chicago Tribune reporter Jean Latz Griffin met Quona at Horizons in the early months of 1992 when she was researching a story about gay teens. "I'm an older, white straight reporter," Griffin says, "and he came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Hello, Miss Thing!'" In her front-page story, Griffin quoted him under the pseudonym Karal talking about how kids at school treated him. He quipped: "They just thought I was a big fat black girl."
One Saturday morning in March 1992 Quona and Juanita's boyfriend got into a bad argument. He ordered Quona out of the house and called the police. Two officers arrived and asked Quona to comply. One of the officers, a woman, pulled Juanita aside. "If he doesn't want your son, he doesn't want you here," she said. "If I was you I'd leave today."
Quona stayed with a friend until things cooled off. When he returned home a few weeks later, Juanita was rushing to get ready for church but couldn't find her new yellow coat. "Lo and behold, I tear the closet up," she says. Her boyfriend said he'd seen Quona wearing it and one of her dresses.
Quona denied having it, but she eventually unearthed it in a pile of clothes in his room. Until that Sunday, Juanita says, she had never quite put all of the pieces together. Quona had made passing comments about cross-dressing, once explaining that he was "in a contest." Bryce says he had dropped Quona off at home in drag. And friends had called the house asking when she--Quona--would be back.
But after she discovered he was dressing in women's clothing, she says, "I told him I didn't like it. When you come by me, I want you to look like a boy. That's all I ask--not don't do it." She told him she still loved him. She just wanted him to do well in school and get a job someday. "We kind of understood," she says.
But Juanita's boyfriend decided he wanted Quona out of the house. Mostly he seemed angry that Quona wouldn't admit he was gay. Once Quona had irked him by replying that he was "a chick with dick."
He "couldn't deal with my brother cross-dressing or being a homosexual," Jermel says. "That's something [he] thought was totally disgusting."
He gave Quona one week to move out. Juanita says she begged him to reconsider. "Shit, where am I going to find a place for him in one week?" Juanita wondered. "Who wants to take somebody else's child? Nobody. They were mine. God gave them to me. They were my gifts, and you're taking him and telling me they can't stay here." In the end she reluctantly agreed. "I also knew that I would have to have a life after my children."
Quona moved in with Jo-Jo and his mother in Logan Square, and Juanita tried not to lose touch. "She tried to be around him a lot more and hold him a little bit closer even though she didn't let him live with her," Darryl says.
Sometimes they went shopping together. Because of his long hair Quona was often mistaken for a girl. "They would say, 'How are you ladies doing today?'" Juanita says. "I would never explain to them--that's no big deal if that's what they felt. To him it was just a game. I thought it was something that would pass, you know, because people do a lot of things. I always would tell him there are people who don't like that. They don't care who you belong to or that you're a good person or not. They'll do things to you."
Quona delighted in telling Juanita whenever one of her friends didn't recognize him in drag. "I knew they did," she says, laughing. It might ruin Quona's day if he didn't pass, she says.
Quona insisted that Jermel refer to him as his sister whenever he was in drag. He led his brother around Lakeview and told him to study hands and knuckles and the shapes of faces. "Now I can point out drag queens in a second--clock 'em quick," Jermel says.
When she saw him Juanita gave Quona money for expenses, but she couldn't always keep track of him. She kept her eyes peeled for him on her bus routes; after work she got into her own car and drove around looking for him. "I'd be watching so hard," she says.
Later that spring, when things at Jo-Jo's didn't work out, Juanita urged Darryl to look after Quona. He wasn't keen on the idea, but eventually he let Quona move into his studio apartment in Uptown. Darryl, who studied dance at Columbia College, was teaching dance to kids on the North Shore and in some northwest suburbs. He also performed periodically in dinner theater and dance concerts. Having Quona around wasn't easy, but Darryl played the dutiful older brother, trying to rouse Quona from bed in the morning for school. He didn't have much patience for Quona's life-style.
"Take that girlie shit off," he'd tell Quona. "You're not leaving the house looking like that. You're going to walk out of the house dressed like a guy."
Juanita says she only saw him once in drag, when she was visiting Darryl's apartment. After an hour in the bathroom, he emerged wearing a dress and makeup and his hair gathered in a ponytail. "You're not going out looking like that," she said. "Yes I am, mom," he answered. "No you're not." "Yes I am," he said and slipped out the door.
Quona had various ways of enhancing his appearance. Sometimes he'd pad his bra with water-filled condoms or balloons. He also started taking hormones on and off. He and Jo-Jo bought them from a queen at Cheeks, spending about $30 for a small vial and some estrogen pills. Sometimes the drugs caused him to black out.
"He'd do it and get confused," says his therapist at the Southern School, who would like to be identified only as "Miss Smith." "Then he said, 'I'm not going to do it for a while' and then he would go back. It was a constant struggle for him, a constant questioning."
When Juanita wanted to find out if Quona was taking hormones, she'd poke him in the chest. The hormones made his chest sore. "Oooh, mom, don't!" he'd holler. She asked him what he did with his penis when he was dressed in drag. ("That would always kind of tick him off," she says.) "Mom!" he whined. "Son, I just asked," she said playfully. "I just wanted to know, OK? Just wanted to know."
Darryl and Juanita talked about how to handle Quona. "[We] didn't want to crush the flower," Juanita says. "We wanted it to bloom, but we didn't want it to get away where we couldn't keep it in order."
"It's not like there was any approval or disapproval," Darryl says. "It's like, it's your life. If you like it, that's fine. If we don't like or do like it, that's really irrelevant. . . . You don't live to please somebody else. You live to please yourself. However, don't expect anybody to tell you that this is great, this is wonderful all the time. It's not great, it's not wonderful."
Quona confided in Duanna Johnson, a friend he made during the summer of '92. Duanna, who's six-foot-four, and Quona talked about how their families felt about their cross-dressing. "[Quona] would always say, 'I wish my mother understood me,'" Duanna says. "I said, 'Give her time. All you've got to do is show her you're responsible and she'll come around.'" Duanna, who had similarly dark skin, taught Quona to do his makeup. "She wanted to be like me," Duanna says proudly. "She even told me that she admired me."
Darryl had a hard time with some of Quona's new friends. Darryl, who's now 30 and gay, had learned about being gay from friends in the dance community and had avoided the scene that Quona was exploring. "I don't like transvestites," he says. "I think that they're probably the lowest life form in the world. I had a real hard time with it. I didn't like the way he was when he was dressed as a woman. I didn't like his personality one bit."
Sometimes Quona brought friends home to get ready to go out. Though Darryl had to clench his teeth to put up with it, he did find his brother's transformation amazing. "His whole ritual would take like a good two hours," Darryl says. "I would just watch. I'd turn off the television after a while. . . . [It was] infinitely more interesting.
"I thought all of his taste was in his mouth when it came to women's clothing," Darryl says. "But that's the way all the drag queens dress. They all wear tight whore dresses. The shit is tight. It looks like it's bought one size too small on purpose. Or they wear high-heeled shoes that are not well made so they're really bad on the feet. There are those exceptions, like the women who--the men, the whatever--who entertain at the Baton. They can go out and get somebody who was maybe an assistant beader for Bob Mackie to do their dresses, or go out and get shoes that don't give 'em corns the size of a mountain. But those are the exceptions to the rule and those are the ones who have made some serious application toward what they're going to do. . . . Some of them have serious lives. They have either degrees in theater or they used to be, like, a gymnast. They had a life. They know what it's like to apply themselves to something. They didn't just all of a sudden wake up one morning and say, 'I think I'll dress in women's clothes.'"
One night Darryl saw Quona keep some friends waiting while he tried to decide what to wear. "Why are you sitting here fiddling with these stupid-ass dresses? Let's just go," one friend said. "You look fine." Finally they convinced him to slap on a T-shirt, jeans, and a baseball cap. Darryl thinks it did him good to hear that he looked good dressed as a man. "I wish that he had gotten more of it because it would have made all the difference in the world."
Darryl says the people Quona surrounded himself with were just fair-weather friends. Duanna says Quona's friends knew him as a "free harder," someone who was always giving. "She didn't know how to say no," Duanna says. One time Quona found that his friend Misty Diamond hadn't eaten in a day and a half, so he bought her groceries and cigarettes. Another time they split the cost of hormones. "She might have been wild and crazy, but she would help people out if she had the means to do it," Misty says.
"In this kind of a community people think it's almost a cool thing to be hurtful and mean to other queens," Misty says. "Once you put the makeup and clothes on you put up a front. . . . The world's a runway to drag queens. But deep down inside everybody is cool and has feelings."
Juanita says Quona was too trusting, especially after he was living on his own. "He never questioned anyone," she says. "If he would meet somebody he would just grab them--they were his friend. That was it. I said, 'Well, Quona baby, everybody can't be your friend. Everybody can't have your--what is the word?--your interest at heart.'" On the other hand, she didn't think it was her place to intervene. "Who am I to choose someone's friends? I don't do such a good job choosing some of the people I know."
Despite the brothers' differences, Quona looked up to Darryl, bragging to friends about him and his dancing. When Quona started competing in lip-sync shows at bars Darryl thought he might be trying to emulate him.
"I don't like lip syncers at all," he says. "That is bullshit. I work too damn hard at my craft to just be competent--not great, not fabulous, not Nureyev, not fucking Bob Fosse--just competent. I still get crappy reviews. I work damn hard for those crappy reviews. So it's like, I know that if you're going to be on a stage, you'd better be doing 100 percent you and not moving your lips to some fucking Aretha Franklin or Patti LaBelle song."
Darryl thought that if Quona really liked performing he should apply to the Chicago Academy for the Arts. He urged Quona to get serious and improve his grades so he could get in, but he never did. "There's a line from some poem or a movie--'a glittering husk.' It's big and it's shiny and it's empty," Darryl says. "There's nothing inside of it. That's it. That is not something you try to dive into, because you crack the surface and you right down to the bottom. You need something more substantial."
"Quona needed somebody to take time out to knock a hole in that head and talk to him: Listen! Come here!" says Jermel. He says he never would have enrolled at DePaul if someone hadn't pushed him. "I told him, 'You've got to progress. You stagnate and you won't last.'" But, he says, Quona would nod his head and then do his own thing. "Quona was Quona. Quona was going to do what Quona wanted to do."
"Quona told me something once that made an awful lot of sense to me," Darryl says. "He asked me, 'You know how you watch the after-school specials on ABC and there's always one girl--she's a little overweight, she's kind of dorky, but she makes everybody laugh and she's always seeming to have a good time? That's the kind of person I want to be.' . . . To be the misfit or the funny outcast or the comic sidekick or something--it tells me that he didn't think much of the outer shell that he had been given to work with."
Darryl and a woman friend took Quona to see Paris Is Burning, the 1991 documentary about Harlem's elaborate drag balls. In one of the film's more poignant moments, a young Latin drag queen fantasizes about having a house in the suburbs and a loving husband to take care of her. "I would like to be a spoiled rich girl," she says. "They get everything they want when they want it."
Quona laughed about how unrealistic it sounded, "but I know that's how he felt," Darryl says. "My friend is over here going, 'If he only knew the half of it.' Most women don't put all that shit on their faces. Most women don't want to have a big house on Long Island and a man who looks like Richard Gere taking care of them. Women don't want that.
"When a young black man's sole desire is to be like a young white woman, that don't make no sense. That doesn't add up right. . . . You can invent the outside any way you want to, but there's always this little part of you inside that says, 'This is what I started out as.'"
Quona told Bryce he thought it would be easier for him to be accepted as a black woman than as a gay black man. "Because in the African American society homosexuality is a white man's disease," Bryce says. "It really is. . . . Being black even in the gay white male society, [they're] not going to give two shits and a fuck about you either. They don't want to have anything to do with you."
"It's funny, but being gay and a minority you deal with the gay first and you forget about the minority for a real long time," Darryl says, "and then when you get back to it it's like, oh yeah, I forgot. That's why they carded me and they didn't card those 20 white men who just walked in. . . . People think that you can walk into the gay community if you're gay and be immediately accepted. It's so untrue it's not funny. There are little substratas, subdivisions within the community, and it's pretty damn difficult to cross over all those areas and be accepted widely."
Darryl thought Quona was confused and hoped it would pass. "I kept telling him when he was a little younger, 'Just hang on. You really don't have much of anything else to do except hang on. . . . You and me can have plenty of good times. We can do a whole bunch of things. But you've got to get to 21. You've got to live a little bit more. I cannot confide in you right now. I don't share my problems of the world with a 16-year-old. I just don't do that.'"
Having Quona as a roommate caused Darryl constant irritation. One night when he was walking home from the health club at the Century mall, he ran into Quona and half a dozen of his friends at Halsted and Waveland, a corner frequented by hustlers and prostitutes. A car pulled up and the driver told the group they needed to quiet down. "Who are you?" Darryl asked the man. He turned out to be an undercover police officer and he didn't appreciate the challenge. He arrested Darryl and took him in for questioning. More than an hour later Darryl was released after convincing police that he wasn't a hustler.
Another time Quona told Darryl that a guy would be coming by the apartment to pick him up for a date. While Quona was out, Darryl vacuumed and tidied up the apartment. The man--"a big, balding, studly dudly type" who was more than twice Quona's age--arrived. Darryl made small talk with him while they waited for Quona to get home. The man repeatedly referred to Quona as "she."
"I kept saying, well, my brother," Darryl says. "And then he kept saying she, and I kept saying well my brother. And then he said it one more time and I was like, 'I don't know you all that well, but would you kindly refer to my brother as he in my presence?'" The conversation grew tense: Darryl asked "Why are you hanging out with my brother? Why don't you grow up and if you're gay, find yourself a man?" The next day Quona told Darryl he had ruined his life by interfering.
Other times Quona's friends would call for Quona and ask Darryl to tell "her" to call them back. "I'd be like, 'What are you talking about? I don't know no she named Quona.' They'd be like, 'You mean Quona's not a girl?' Sometimes I would say, 'There's no Santa Claus, there's no Easter Bunny, there's definitely no fuckin' Oz, OK?' I would just be so exasperated." Another fight would follow, with Quona accusing his brother of blowing his cover, of always "clocking his T."
"I personally feel that life is hard enough as it is--you better not try to live it as a lie. It makes for interesting fiction, but other than that it's not much of anything else."
In July Darryl decided to intervene. He walked down to Cheeks with photographs of Quona in drag and showed them to the manager. "You see this face?" he said. "Don't let this face walk in anymore. If you do, you're going to have to answer to me. Then you'll have to talk to the police. You understand?"
The bar complied, and Quona was no longer admitted. But his life didn't really change and Darryl was getting fed up. They argued a lot, things started disappearing from the apartment, and the phone bills were so high that Darryl had the phone disconnected. Finally Darryl asked Quona to move out.
For a while Quona stayed with friends, but he eventually found a room at the Lake Hotel on Broadway; Juanita agreed to pay the rent. About half a block south of the Treasure Island grocery store, the hotel is set back about ten yards from the street with an iron fence fronting its small yard. A sign advertises Free TV, Private Bath, Transients. For $100 a week Quona got a studio with a window furnished with a queen-size bed, a black-and-white TV, a telephone, a lamp, and a nightstand.
Juanita says she called him every morning to get him up for school, but he was going out almost every night with his friends so he didn't often obey her. They would leave the hotel around midnight and stay out past two or three. While his friends went into Cheeks, Quona stood outside on the sidewalk talking. Or he walked up and down Broadway--it appears that by this time he was turning tricks pretty regularly. ("He wondered why I didn't do it," Jo-Jo says. "And I said I had a job, I make my money a safer way.")
Quona bragged to Maurice about having lots of money and said he made it doing shows. Maurice says he once saw Quona with around $300 or $400 in cash. Or he'd say, "I got $200 Saturday night, and I got $300 last night, and now I'm broke this morning." "I'd be like, it's only Monday morning, and it's only ten o'clock, so what did you do with all your money?"
"I have things to do, you know," Quona answered. "I have to look beautiful."
At the end of an evening Quona and his friends would go down the street from Cheeks to eat at the Golden Nugget Pancake House. When Quona got back to the hotel he'd often sleep until afternoon. "Drag queens sleep--that's all we do," says Misty Diamond, laughing. "Sleep and 'ho.'"
That fall Quona was arrested for "soliciting a ride," the misdemeanor charge commonly used to arrest suspected prostitutes. He told his therapist Smith about it. "I would say, 'What happened? What's going on?'" Smith says. "He would skip over it. . . but the fact that he told me was probably enough."
Quona was attending school, if somewhat sporadically. Smith says that when she first met Quona she didn't know what to think: "I was like 'Whoa, who is this guy?' He seemed bigger than life. He just seemed like he was on top of the world, and no one could mess with him. He was very, very sarcastic. He had an outer shell around him that was his protection, but then inside, when I got to know him better, he was really sensitive."
Dorothy Hawkins, who taught his consumer education class, shortly after they met asked him to help with a chore and he refused. "Honey," he said, "you're just a squirrel in my world just waiting to bust my nuts."
Hawkins was mortified. A couple of weeks passed before Quona apologized. "You don't like me very much, do you?" he asked sheepishly. She told him he had disrespected her and hurt her. Quona put his arms around her and apologized. He began lingering after class to talk with her. She sometimes gave him rides home from school. They talked about clothes and shows he was doing. He complained about men harassing him. "He empathized with women a lot," Hawkins says. "He understands now why women hate men most of the time. He would talk to me about that a lot."
During the summer Smith ran into him dressed in drag at the North Halsted street fair. "He did look beautiful, I have to admit. He was pretty good," Smith says. "He came up to me. He was trying to catch me off guard, and it took me a couple of seconds to register. I go, 'Quona? I can't believe you're doing this,' and we just started laughing."
They talked at times about the dangers of cross-dressing. He said he was scared he might be beat up or killed. "You [are] leading one dangerous life-style," she told him. But whenever Smith admonished him or offered a bit of advice, he got upset and closed himself off. "He didn't want to hear it," she says. "He just wanted total support. He didn't want to hear the mothering or parental side."
Smith tried to help Quona set realistic goals. He'd pledge to start getting to school every day on time. She told Quona not to make promises he couldn't keep.
They discussed his future plans too. He had talked about going to beauty school, and Smith said she'd help him get in. Then he talked about being a performer. "I think he'd be good at anything he put his heart into," Smith says. "He just had a hard time sticking to one thing. It's hard to know what you want to be at 18."
Quona was struggling with more than the usual concerns of an 18-year-old. In the fall of 1992 he and Jo-Jo joined a group for transgender youths at Horizons organized by Lorrainne Sade Baskerville. An adviser who is also a transsexual, Baskerville had her share of rough times. Raised in Cabrini-Green, she eventually completed a sex change in 1980. Now she volunteers at Horizons and is working toward a bachelor's degree in social work from Northeastern Illinois University.
Sometimes Lorrainne brought in videotapes of talk shows such as Donahue or Sally Jessy Raphael. Other times they gossiped about fashion and parties or had serious talks about cross-dressing and transsexual surgery.
"They were going through a transition, trying to figure out their sexuality," says Lorrainne, who is 43. "But they were having fun. When they put the dress on it made them feel good about themselves. They'd go out there and be in control and understand how it feels to be on the other end of the stick . . . being in the male world and getting the experience of being in the female world. They feel powerful. They feel like they are somebody. People look up to them. They feel sexy. They feel people want them more, versus just being a gay guy."
The kids in the group enjoyed some friendly competition, but Quona's strong personality made him the "queen" of Horizons. "She stood out," Lorrainne says. "She glowed. She was always showing off her clothes, her makeup, her hair. She was known for her hair. She loved to swing it."
Some of the group members were "turning dates" as prostitutes, though Lorrainne says she constantly warned them about the risks of working the streets: drugs, AIDS, "sick people." About half the prostitutes on Broadway are transvestites, police say, but many of the johns don't always realize they're picking up a man.
"[Quona] always liked to brag about her dates," Lorrainne says. "He thinks I'm a woman and we've never had sex," Quona told her. "He just treats me so nice."
"They're exploring," she says. "Sometimes they get tired of it. They get the clothes off and go back to being a gay guy and hang out with the gay guys. Then they say, "I feel like putting on my makeup again and my wig and going out tonight and see what I can get into or see how much money I can make.' Just knowing that they can make money passing as a female, get a guy excited, get attention--that's all part of it too. Being in control and getting respected."
The first time Quona met Lorrainne he asked her what she was like in high school. "All they've seen of transgender are stereotypes," she says. "All they were good for are drag shows and turning dates. They see somebody like me going to school, pursuing a career--used to be a street person, used to be an entertainer--now they see me turning around being a counselor, being a facilitator, and going for my degree. They've seen me developing, and they liked that. They don't see that that often."
She says she worried about Quona. "The main thing he wanted to do was put the wig on and be glamorous. I said it's OK what you're doing, but it takes more than that. I asked him do you think you want to be doing this for the rest of your life? Turning dates, going out and partying? Do you have a future? Are you going to school?"
At school too Quona seemed beyond reach. Smith says that by the time he arrived at the Southern School he had a depressed personality. And in October, in a meeting between Quona and his mother and Smith, Quona threatened to kill himself. "You'll all be sorry," he declared.
A few days later, late on a Saturday night, Quona called Darryl from a pay phone at Coffee Chicago. "He said he had taken a whole bunch of NoDoz," Darryl says, "and he was going to crawl behind a Dumpster and die." Darryl hung up the phone and called a friend with a car. "I got to him and slapped him around a little bit just to keep him conscious." An ambulance took Quona to Illinois Masonic, then he was transferred to Michael Reese, where he stayed for a week or so.
Smith considered the suicide attempt a breakthrough for Quona. "I think he was asking for help," she says. "He really didn't want to die." Juanita says Quona was hoping to move back home. "I said, 'Now son, you don't have to do this to get my attention.'"
At the hospital Quona said he was thinking about pursuing a sex-change operation. Bryce heard Quona tell his doctors that "he was sick of being a drag queen and he wanted to be a total female."
After he was released from the hospital, Smith says, "these questions just kept coming up about not feeling good about himself and wanting to be another person. He really felt better about himself as a woman."
A week before Christmas he went into the hospital again, this time for a severe case of strep throat. Quona hadn't been to church since the previous Easter, but he called Reverend Williams from the hospital and asked him to pray for him.
Williams says he wanted to help him reestablish his relationship with Christ and then let Christ and his power help Quona cease being a practicing cross-dresser. "I don't know if he could have gotten out of his desire, but he could have stopped practicing. It's like fighting alcohol--you have to have a higher power."
After Quona left the hospital he started calling Williams several times a week. Quona wondered what the church members would think of him. He said he was feeling empty and unfulfilled. "He told me he was going to sell his clothes. He was going to start living a straight life. I honestly don't know if he was telling the truth or pulling my leg.
"Quona believed in God and he prayed," Williams says. "There was this continual back and forth. I told him I can't change the rules because I didn't make them. I try to keep the rules. He was not living a Christian life and he knew that."
When Quona got out of the hospital and moved back to the hotel, Juanita gave him a pager, hoping she'd be able to stay in touch with him better, but he rarely returned her calls. It wasn't long before Quona was back on his feet; Juanita saw him from the bus "flying down the street."
During the winter months Quona drifted from his friends at Horizons. Jo-Jo says Quona was charging more for dates and spending lavishly on clothes and shoes. "I just think he was getting into a bad scene." Quona had begun hanging out at the China Club and Ka-Boom! hoping to meet heterosexual men. Bryce says he seemed discouraged by the Halsted Street bars, where gay men were looking for other men with "masculine qualities." Though he carried some protection--a can of Mace or a fork that he had lifted from the Melrose--his friends thought he'd be safer if he stuck to gay bars. "She wouldn't listen because she thought she knew everything," says Duanna.
Bryce began to feel he was losing touch with his friend. One time Quona stood him up for a movie; another time he didn't show up for Thanksgiving dinner. "It was getting very hard to count on him for some things," he says.
Jermel visited Quona a few times at the hotel, but Quona rarely called him. Darryl saw Quona at Christmas and talked to him on the phone about a month later. Quona asked for his help choreographing a routine for a friend's drag performance. Needless to say, Darryl was less than enthusiastic, but Quona never followed up. Jo-Jo didn't like the hotel and only visited there a couple of times. He says Quona's room was always a mess: clothes, shoes, makeup, and wigs strewn about, and the shower cluttered with the stash of balloons Quona kept filled with water to wear in his bra.
Juanita says Quona was always careless about dressing for the weather, a "coughing, congested, nose-runny kind of kid," and living on his own didn't help. In mid-February he came down with a cold that kept him in bed for a day or two.
But by the end of February things were going pretty well. A producer from the Sally Jessy Raphael show had run across the Tribune article mentioning Quona, and was trying to contact him about appearing on a show about teen cross-dressers. Quona was thrilled with the idea of going to New York and being on TV (though he never managed to return the calls). "She wanted me to go," says Jo-Jo, "and she always talked about how much fun we'd have in the clubs there."
Juanita was finally planning to leave her boyfriend and get her own apartment so Quona would be able to move back home. He met with Smith and she found him in a good mood. They joked about Quona having plastic surgery. "He was talking about getting his lips done, his cheeks done, his nose done," she says. "I started laughing and go, 'You're turning into Michael Jackson.' . . . I said, 'Quona, you just really don't want to be yourself.' He said, 'I will be myself, but I'll be a woman.'"
Quona and Delores James talked about other kids calling him names. "He said, 'You know now it doesn't even bother me anymore.'"
Last year, on Friday, February 26, Quona went with Duanna and another friend, Christian, who shared Quona's hotel room for a while, to see RuPaul at the China Club. They dressed up for the occasion: Quona wore a shoulder-length wig, a black rhinestone-studded bustier, and Duanna's long black pencil skirt with a slit up the back. At the club they pushed their way to the front of the crowd, Duanna says, and eventually climbed onstage when RuPaul asked for volunteer "runway models." Reporters from Entertainment Tonight interviewed them, but only Duanna wound up on the air.
The next day Quona stopped by Big Hair to see Jo-Jo and stayed for a couple of hours. Among other things Quona asked Jo-Jo about the beauty school he'd attended. After the store closed they walked to the thrift store down the block and browsed through the racks. Quona was "in prime time," Jo-Jo says. He was singing along to RuPaul's "Supermodel" and bumping into male customers and accusing them of trying to grab his breasts. Jo-Jo was going to a friend's house that night to prepare for an upcoming show, and Quona asked if he could come along but Jo-Jo said no. He says he wasn't sure his friend could deal with Quona.
That weekend Quona called Williams and said he was coming back to church. "I'm looking more like a woman all the time physically," Quona said.
On Sunday he called his mother to ask for a family friend's phone number. They talked for 10 or 15 minutes. Juanita reminded Quona that she was preparing to move. "He knew that it was only going to be a few days and he was going to be back with me, so he was really in high spirits," Juanita says. She asked him if he was going to school. "Yeah," he said, and then they said good-bye.
It was closing time at Cheeks, around 4 AM, on the morning of Monday, March 1. Quona stood outside with Duanna in a stiff wind talking to a young man who wanted to party with them. Duanna says the guy didn't have much money but offered drugs instead. Quona agreed to go with him, and told Duanna he'd meet her later at the Golden Nugget. Quona never showed up.
Later that morning Duanna called Quona several times, but he didn't pick up the phone. The desk clerk told her that Quona had returned, so she tried knocking on his locked door, but got no reply. That day he was getting calls "like crazy," the clerk says. Juanita paged his beeper but got no response.
Monday night around midnight Duanna and their friend Christian went up to his room again. This time they found the door slightly ajar. They went in and found Quona lying facedown in bed.
"Christian kicked her foot and said, 'Get your fat ass up,'" Duanna says. When he didn't move Christian lifted him by the shoulder and got a look at his face. They rushed down to the lobby and asked the night clerk to call the police.
When officers found Quona's body, he was wearing a long-sleeved black turtleneck, a red skirt, black leggings, and a brown wig. The white bra he was wearing was stuffed with condoms filled with water. He was also wearing earrings, and his fingernails showed flecks of silver polish.
The room was in its usual chaos. The police couldn't find any identification for Quona. They noted the multicolored rubber balloons in the shower stall and suspected they were used to transport drugs. Duanna says they checked Quona's arms for IV drug use, and in their report they indicated possible needle marks on his right arm.
Police interviewed Christian and Duanna and a couple of other people at the hotel. One of his friends reported helping Quona, who seemed "highly intoxicated," into his room around 6 AM. With no evidence of foul play, police said Quona's death was a "possible overdose."
Juanita says that when she got the news from Jermel she wasn't entirely shocked. When she had last seen him, less than a week before, she had had a vision. His face was peaceful, sleeping--"like death was upon him," she says. Once when she was 16 she had seen a similar death mask on a friend who later drowned.
"I don't know why I felt this way. There was this strong thing in me and twice it came to me. I tell you, I don't believe in ghosts. I did but I don't anymore. Something came to me out of the clear blue--Go get some insurance on your son--twice. It was so clear, like that's what I should do. Put down whatever I'm doing and do this." The portentous feeling gnawed at her, but she never acted on it. "I pushed it aside," she says. The day after Quona died, Juanita received word that the keys to her new apartment were ready.
Most of the Horizons kids learned of Quona's death Tuesday night. Gilbert was approaching Horizons when he saw a group of his friends standing outside. "Nobody's laughing, nobody's snapping fingers," he says. "Everyone's really quiet, everyone's hugging." Bryce told him: "They found Quona dead. She's gone."
Maurice says the bully who had given Quona such a hard time at school told some of the other students he was "glad that faggot was dead." Everyone else looked to Maurice for his reaction. They asked if he wanted them to "take it up" with the boy. He said the way they were treating him made him feel like a relative.
"All of them did apologize," Maurice says. "They had their own way. They didn't actually say, 'Well, I'm sorry,' but they was like, 'He was nice and stuff and we shouldn't have made fun of him. But there ain't nothing we can do now.'"
Lorrainne heard about Quona's death on Wednesday when she returned from a social work convention in New York. She felt like she had let Quona down. She says she thought of Paris Is Burning. At the end of the movie, the young drag queen who dreamed of suburban bliss is found strangled in a sleazy hotel room.
Quona's passing was reported in a short obituary in the Tribune. Jean Latz Griffin wrote the article after a former Horizons adviser called her.
No one knew what to think about what had happened to Quona. By the next day speculation filled the vacuum. One story making the rounds was that Quona had been struck in the head with a hammer or a brick and stuffed between his mattress and box spring. Others heard that his throat was slit, or that his genitals had been mutilated. These rumors probably got their start at Cheeks. "When you're dealing with drag queens," Misty Diamond says, "everything's a story."
Yet it was hard for friends to believe anyone could have subdued Quona. "Quona is a fighter," says Lorrainne. "She would never let anybody hurt her. She always stood up for herself. She was very in control."
"Quona would hate me to say this," Gilbert says, "but Quona was not the daintiest of women--Quona was a big boy. . . . Even though she could look as beautiful as she wanted to be she always had the biggest arms. Quona could fight. Quona was not anyone you could push around in any way. If she didn't put you in your place verbally, she could literally pick someone up and throw them."
Darryl was furious about the stories circulating. "There's been a rumor floating around that little circle of--whatnots that the body was so badly mutilated that they thought he had to be cremated. It couldn't be shown. Well, that's a lie. The family went to Gatling's Chapel and saw the body."
Jermel blamed Quona's cross-dressing friends for what had happened and told Christian on the phone he didn't want them showing up at the memorial service. Christian retorted that Juanita couldn't deal with the fact that her son was a "ho."
Overhearing the conversation, Juanita grabbed the phone and told Christian that she and her friends were welcome at the service.
Still, Juanita was troubled by what she was picking up about the darker side of Quona's life-style. "At some point or other I would have to see it," she says. The CTA garage on Clark, where she is based, was only half a block from Cheeks (which has since been shut down). "I used to get off at one o'clock at night. I used to see a lot of shit out there. . . . I'm not saying that he didn't do it, I'm just saying that I always asked. If he wasn't person enough to tell me, that was his problem. The last time I saw him, he came to get some money. I gave him some money, and I said, 'Quona, are you on drugs?'" He protested, and she replied, "Just thought I'd ask, just checking. Are you out there tricking people?" He just acted like the question was ridiculous.
The pathologist working on the autopsy, Dr. Mitra Kalelkar, suspected drugs, since investigators from the medical examiner's office had told her that "drug paraphernalia"--balloons--were found in Quona's bathroom and that he had a "history of drug abuse." In turn she told Jermel and Darryl that Quona was a "known drug user" and that the cause of death would be determined after a toxicological analysis.
"She said user and I was like--I was stunned. Well, that can't be true, that's not true," Darryl says. He repeats it again, softly, "That's not true.
"I don't know what the last hours were like," he says. "I've heard something to the effect of Quona came in acting really silly and then the next thing we knew Quona was dead. Well, then was Quona taking something? Was Quona on something that night? What was the deal?"
Many of his friends say he didn't do hard drugs--only an occasional puff of marijuana--though, Duanna says, "she would have people around her that did that shit."
Jermel thought Quona had killed himself, despondent at living at the Lake Hotel. "I know how lost I'd feel there," he says.
"All he had to do is just wait," Darryl says. "That is what he couldn't do, he couldn't wait. He had no patience. Life had to be right there, right on the money, up front."
Some friends even mused that Quona had faked his own death. Once Quona had tried to fool friends into thinking he had been beaten up in a hate crime, but Bryce had refused to go along with the prank and ratted on him. "I had hoped that it was a really tasteless bad joke, the worst thing that Quona had done," Gilbert says.
Juanita troubled some of her relatives by deciding against a funeral. "My mother would be all emotional and the whole nine yards, and I didn't want that to happen," she says. "I didn't want to lay him out because I wanted people to remember him as they had last seen him and known him as this crazy person who was full of life and joking." She had Quona's body cremated.
A memorial service was held the Friday after his death at Covenant Presbyterian Church. A bulletin with a picture of Quona on the cover contained a short bio that read, "Quona possessed many talents and capabilities, which were reflected in his many interests, horticulture, visual arts, and performance. His ready wit and generosity made him popular amongst his classmates and friends."
Before finding their seats, people hovered over a collage of snapshots that Juanita had pasted together: Quona wearing a Madonna shirt. Quona at his middle-school graduation. Quona lying on his mother's bed. There were no pictures of Quona in drag; Juanita says she didn't have any.
Kathy McDonald hadn't seen Quona since she fired him two years earlier. When Jermel called to tell her that Quona was dead she thought he was kidding. He told her it might have been suicide, but she couldn't believe it. She put together three floral arrangements for the service with some of Quona's favorite flowers: calla lilies, a mix of potea, curly leaf willow and a few other exotics, and white roses and gladiolas. As she arranged them she told Quona that if he'd killed himself all he deserved was daisies. "I was swearing. I was so pissed--not pissed--hurt. I didn't think Quona would ever do that."
About 175 people filled most of the pews in the small sanctuary. Many were church members who hadn't seen Quona in months. Some friends from Horizons arrived just before the service began and took seats in the last few rows. None of Quona's friends from Cheeks or the hotel showed up. Jo-Jo had once joked with Quona that he'd wear a red dress to Quona's funeral, but when the time came he showed up in jeans, a black jacket, and a white shirt. The only nod to their cross-dressing days together was the makeup on his face.
Juanita, Jermel, and Darryl were among the last to enter the sanctuary, walking down the aisle one by one to a hymn played by the organist. They joined Juanita's best friend, her mother, and her boyfriend in the first pew.
Jermel says Quona would have laughed at the assemblage. He didn't think the church had ever seen so many black people and gay people under its roof before. That was especially amusing, he says, because so many of the church members were uncomfortable with homosexuals. "They all have their ideas of what they are and they go on believing those stereotypes," Jermel says, "which is kind of funny--I mean for a bunch of people who aren't supposed to judge other people."
In the sermon Williams told the congregation that Quona had been overly concerned with vanity, clothing, fleeting friendships. The only permanent thing in life, he said, is a relationship with God. He told them that Quona had said he wanted to return to the church, that he loved Jesus Christ and knew he had to make amends.
Julia, the woman who had first brought Jermel and Quona to the church, read from a letter she wrote the day she heard about Quona's death. "The last time I saw you was in August at Jermel's graduation party at church. I still remember the big bear hug you gave me. So I knew that even though you were 18, you still remembered your little-boy times when we were special pals . . . "
As Bryce listed a string of adjectives describing Quona--"he was bold, he was daring, he was spontaneous"--Juanita answered "yes" after every phrase. Someone else told a story about Quona wearing his mother's clothes, eliciting laughter from the back of the sanctuary.
Nonetheless, some of Quona's friends left the service feeling that the "real Quona" was left out. "It was just a very surreal kind of memorial service," Gilbert says, "because it was all these people talking about Quona as he had been when he was in grammar school and had started high school--none of the Quona who Quona was at the time that he died or was murdered."
Some of his friends were unsympathetic to the family. "How can you say that you love this child when you throw him out," says Gilbert, "just because they're not what you expected, they're not what you wanted them to be?"
His friends also had a hard time believing that Quona was struggling with faith. They had never heard him talk about it. "Quona was on hormones," Gilbert says, "Quona had gotten extensions. I doubt Quona was going back to the church dressed just like a woman."
Five days later 60 friends, staff, and volunteers at Horizons held another memorial service. In the youth-group room a table was set up against the Haring-esque mural displaying mementos: photographs, flowers, poems. Darryl, Jermel, and Juanita and her mother joined the others in a large ring of chairs; David Williams chose to stand outside the circle.
Many of the kids had originally come to Horizons questioning whether their own lives were worth living. "The enormity of the event kind of makes you take a look at your life and the people in your life," says adviser Brad Braden. Some of the kids who didn't like Quona weren't sure how to react to his death, but in organizing the event, Braden says, "I wanted to help in getting the message to the youth that whether we agree with each other or not we are all in this world together and that we really do get something from each other."
Starting with a candle on the table, a flame was passed around the circle from one candle to the next, until all of them were lit. New-age music played while the lights in the room were dimmed. Everyone sat absolutely still; the only other sound was the occasional rumbling of a passing el.
The group members stood one at a time, sharing stories about Quona. They remembered his sense of humor, his sassy attitude, his straightforward style. Some admitted that he irritated them and they didn't much like him. Some cried. Jo-Jo urged the group not to forget to tell people they care about that they love them. One group member joked about how Quona talked on and on and on in small group discussions: "I just thought she'd never stop!" Another mentioned an outfit that Quona had worn to group. Juanita's deadpan response broke up the somber mood. "Yes, I know," she said. "It was mine."
For Darryl the Quona described at Horizons was a projection of Quona, not the real Quona. It bothered him that his friends celebrated a "smart-mouthed, acid-tongued, cutting kind of personage."
"When someone is all bluff and swagger you can't really believe that that's them all of the time, 100 percent, 24-7," he says. "And it wasn't. I know that his friends at youth group, they all said He was out there, he was just so real. And I'm like, no, that was an act. Get with it."
Even those who weren't his biggest fans admitted they were glad to have known him. Many had carefully guarded their sexual orientation and were emboldened by Quona's lack of fear or shame.
"Quona could do and say things that other people couldn't say and do," Braden says. "He had a forthrightness with which [he] faced the issue of being gay, the issue of being a cross-dresser, not giving a shit what anyone thought about it."
Bryce, who says he was tired of people telling him not to "queen out," saw Quona's gender bending as something to admire. "I really applaud him for doing that," he says, "because people have to wake up and realize that all people are not just going to be black or white, just male or female or just short or tall, big or small, fat or thin, et cetera. That men are not supposed to have any effeminate qualities whatsoever or women are not supposed to have any masculine qualities."
Gilbert had only been out for about a year. "I was still thinking, 'Do I pretend I'm straight all the time, or do I just let myself be me wherever or whomever I'm with?' With [Quona] I learned to have courage. Here's this person who's marginalized, one, because he's black, two, he's gay, three, he's a drag queen. You put all these things together and the place where Quona could actually fit in in this world got smaller and smaller--because of who he was, who she was."
Darryl and Jermel called--or rather, "bugged," Jermel says--the medical examiner's office weekly to find out if the toxicology report was ready. Each time they were told that the results were still pending.
"I don't know what he did that night and I have not been able to talk to any of the so-called friends," Darryl says. "But I don't think that he meant to die that night in particular."
Two months passed and Juanita struggled to piece together an explanation. The police had never contacted her, not even to identify his body. "You don't think it's important enough to find out who this child belongs to?" she says, incredulously. "You know he's no old man or old woman."
She wondered if maybe the pathologist was making a mistake by focusing on drugs when maybe Quona had died of something like a heart attack. Even AIDS, not drugs, seemed a more likely way for him to die, she says. Or perhaps the hormones he'd taken had some adverse effect.
One day Juanita ran into Lorrainne, who told Juanita she should get a lawyer to help. Like many other people Lorrainne figured authorities weren't doing anything about the case because Quona was black, gay, and a transvestite.
"It's just another fag dead," said Jo-Jo. "I guess that's how the police are looking at it." Youth group members at Horizons briefly considered holding a candlelight vigil in front of the hotel. A Horizons volunteer contacted the Police Department's liaison to the gay and lesbian community to ask for help in determining if Quona could have been the victim of a hate crime.
Juanita thought Quona's friends were trying to hide something. "I was thinking of all the things I could do," she says. "Can I afford a private detective? What would they find out? Would they be assholes and just take my money and know they're not ever going to find anything because there's nothing to find? Could he have just died--just died--because it was his time?"
Juanita says she's skeptical about the supernatural, but she did think about buying a book on ghosts. She couldn't forget how years earlier a coworker had been murdered and the killer had been revealed in someone else's dream.
Juanita put the gold-plated rectangular urn containing Quona's ashes in a spare bedroom in her new apartment. An inscription on the urn reads: "Born into time August 3, 1974. Born into eternity, March 2, 1993." The leafy vines of a plant Quona brought home from the store years ago twisted around some mementos: his Bible, a Muppet doll, a white teddy bear found in his hotel room, a couple of pieces of glazed pottery he sculpted, the class ring found on his hand, and a couple of framed pictures.
Finally, on June 4, three months after Quona's death, the autopsy report was complete. No injuries or needle marks had been found on his body. Blood and urine tests for 38 different substances--including alcohol, cocaine, barbiturates, and amphetamines--turned up negative.
Sometime between the early morning of March 1 and when he was found just past midnight, Quona died of natural causes, the report stated, as a result of bronchopneumonia. Fluid filled his lungs and his heart failed. What a friend observed as a drunken stupor when Quona returned to the hotel may have been hypoxia, a condition caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain that's related to the onset of pneumonia.
People usually don't die of pneumonia, particularly young men who tip the scales at 200 pounds, as Quona did. The results of an HIV test were inconclusive, and the type of pneumonia that apparently killed Quona isn't the type usually associated with HIV or AIDS, though bronchopneumonia is common among people with weakened immune systems, such as chronic drug abusers and alcoholics.
Into the summer and fall of '93, and even a year after his death, there were people who knew Quona who never learned how he died. Many still assume it was murder or drugs. Even Jo-Jo, his closest friend, was startled to learn recently that he had died of pneumonia; three days before he died he had seemed fine.
After Quona's death Juanita gave Kathy a snapshot taken shortly before he died. That night her boyfriend had been out and she and Quona had sat up talking. In the photograph, Quona's false bangs are tucked underneath a baseball cap. He is leaning to the side, smiling warmly.
Another series of photographs, which Quona had once shown his mother, never turned up in his hotel room. They were snapshots--head shots taken by a photographer from the Baton, friends say--of Quona in drag. Through the gauzy focus, he's wearing a pink sweater and dangly gold earrings. His hair rests on his shoulders and his painted lips are slightly parted.
"Well, in my heart I would never tell him these pictures looked nice," Juanita says. "He said he looked like 'a fat ugly black girl'--that was his quote in the Tribune. . . . I said, 'Well, OK son, some of those fat ugly black girls don't look this good.'"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.