Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project

Lesbian and Gay Black Lives     


"Now, I think I would like to try that."

Marvin Sterling (1940-1999) co-founded the United Ebony Council, a drag organization originally for African-American gay men. He was also UEC’s first Emperor: King I Alexander DeDell.


I was 24, 25 when I came out of the closet, to be with a lover, and have been out ever since. He was in the Air Force, and we met on a train coming from Portland to here.

When I was growing up, what I learned? Really, just within the circle of the group you run with -- fag jokes and what have you. It never affected me because I'd be in my macho-ness, "You're not talking to me." So I never really had a problem with being gay and public. If I'm dressed in drag or out of drag, I'm still the same person.

It should not be an issue to begin with. We are way too intelligent of a race -- the human race -- to have to go through things on such a petty level. Things that matter none. As we make examples out of those things, we glorify it more.

Anita Bryant was my “mentor” -- that some of us gay people were missing the opportunity, and the point. Speaking against us she did more for us. We never could have bought the publicity that she brought forth -- and kept us there for years.


    from the memorial service program

Gay Liberation Front was a big thing for the movement, an entity of bonding, representing gay people intermixing with the world. They were preaching, "Love thy brother, love thy neighbor." Boy, there'd be some lovin'-our-neighbor! But they were a good influence for me, because it went past sex to communication. And I met people that have remained friends -- it’s probably thirty years.

What attracted you to drag?

Mesmerizing. I worked the night shift as a loading dock foreman. I used to go to this little market at Second and Yesler and buy stuff for my lunch break, 2:30 in the morning. And I'd see all these men dressed like women, and it was captivating to me. I said to myself, "Now, I think I would like to try that."

So I met these two queens -- they were breathtaking, head to toe. They could sew, do hair, do makeup. They created some wonderful things. We got to be good friends and they put me in drag one Halloween.

That's all it took. I was off to the races after that. It was very natural for me. I didn't need too much schooling for mannerisms. It was pretty much from watching it and patterning yourself after different women. You picked up a name. I'm Deedee DeDell. She was pretty wild. She was a party girl, show girl. Worked the circuit, about 17 years.

You get so involved with it. Every day you create something new, add to something old. It was a rich, joyful part of my life.


The United Ebony Council was an alternative for those who did not want to be a part of the Imperial Court. We remained close friends with our sister club. They respected and supported us. I'm the first king of the organization. My queen that reigned with me -- Starlet -- we both were founders.

UEC pulled out a lot of Black people within our gay community that stay to themselves, don't go to the bars. We were kind of -- in-crowd, you know. But it was a good in-crowd, a fun, crazy in-crowd. It wasn't a "I'm better than you" type of thing, or "I'm queen of the world, kiss my ring." [laughs] It was just a good fun time.

We as "illusionists" paint our faces into someone else, we escape into this someone else and bring them alive. That requires us to be extremely convincing. You're painting an illusion -- making your entrance, walkin' the runway, showing 'em what you got.

Twenty-five years later you look back and think: God, I spent all my money on that? [laughs] Drinking like a fish for twenty years? Falling over barstools, flying in and out of cities like I'm a millionaire? But, that's what was happening. Had a good time, met a lot of fabulous people, knew someone in every city. I could go anywhere and stay, long as I liked.

What were your favorite destinations?

Southern belt, for show life, gay life, and real people: Atlanta, Mississippi, Tennessee. These girls -- when you're sisters, you're sisters from the heart. When they bring you to sisterhood they mean it from their heart. They'll be there for you, no matter what.

You can foul up so much information in your mind. What my mother always told me: you have to learn something new every day, because if not, then why were you here that day? You didn't learn nothing; you didn't bring nothing. It doesn't matter on what level. Just: "Wow, I didn't know that." I like that a lot. It's like Christmas to me.

Lesbian and Gay Black Lives

Interviewed: May 17, 1999, by Ruth Pettis
Transcribed by: Suzanne Kelly
Seattle, WA: Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project.


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