‘Legendary’ SC drag queen who testified before Congress was ‘truly a bright light’

·11 min read

Attacked and left for dead inside a dumpster on April 26, 1996, Ron Daugherty could’ve given up.

The ”legendary” Myrtle Beach drag queen had been leaving the Rock Burger bar in downtown Myrtle Beach with a friend. They’d accidentally bumped into another customer while getting drinks, and a fight ensued.

He was found and taken to the hospital, having suffered severe head trauma that took away part of his hearing and vision, left him with more than 40 stitches on his face and would later cause memory problems.

His roommate had to demand EMS take him to the hospital in an ambulance. The first responders initially resisted, not wanting to go near Daugherty because of the stigma around gay people and HIV.

Rather than hang up his wigs after the traumatic beating, Daugherty would go on to testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in June 1997, recounting this tale before then-U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Jeff Sessions.

We knew some of the band members who were playing that night and we wanted to hear them,” Daugherty said during the hearing. “I knew the bouncer, so I thought we’d be safe. We were wrong.”

Daugherty demanded the federal government add hate crime protections for gay and lesbian people, saying without it there would never be any strong protections to stop attacks like his own. Later that same year, he would be named Miss Gay South Carolina and compete in the Miss Gay America pageant.

Daugherty, who died Jan. 16 at age of 57, will be remembered for his political advocacy as his vibrant drag queen persona — Miss Erica Sommers.

Becoming Miss Erica Sommers

Daugherty and his other self, the drag queen Miss Erica Sommers, were so different they almost felt like separate people, friends said.

Maxwell Scott Sloan met Daugherty as himself at the Myrtle Beach bar Time Out. Sloan had no idea Daugherty was a drag queen.

“Ron was very quiet, and Erica was his, ‘I can be anybody I want to be’ (personality),” Sloan said. “It was like two different people.”

Yet, no matter what side of Daugherty you saw, Sloan said his kindness always flooded through.

“Being new, Myrtle Beach is such a transient town that it’s hard to meet people and get to know them,” Sloan said. “He just was a nice guy — just a little, short, balding guy who had a cute smile and just wanted to meet people and felt comfortable talking to anybody.”

Ron Daugherty as the drag queen Erica Sommers. Daugherty died Jan. 16, 2021.
Ron Daugherty as the drag queen Erica Sommers. Daugherty died Jan. 16, 2021.

Brian Hardee had an opposite first encounter with Daugherty. He met Daugherty, his first love, as Sommers during a performance one evening at the gay bar Offshore Drilling Company. At the time, Hardee didn’t even know what drag was.

“We went to that club, and I saw this beautiful girl,” Hardee said. “I had no idea” that she was a man. “I was a country boy. I was totally oblivious to everything.”

Hardee fell in love with Daugherty’s passion. The pair traveled the region together would eventually perform together as well. One of their most common duets was as John Travolta and Olivia Newton John in “Grease.”

“He’s the reason I got my start in drag,” said Hardee, who performs as the drag queen Dolores Brown. But of those first few performances, “it was so scary because I’d never been on stage before.”

The pageant girl

Drag queens have become mainstream icons thanks to the rise of the TV competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Thirty years ago, at the height of Daugherty’s career as Miss Erica Sommers, pageants reigned supreme.

“The pageant circuit back then, it was, oh my god, it was awesome,” said Morgan Richards, who’d known Erica since the 1980s. “Drag is always evolving, but I feel like in the era that we did drag, that was probably the best drag has been.”

Drag queens Morgan Richards and Erica Sommers often performed in shows together. Sommers, whose real name is Ron Daugherty, died Jan. 16, 2021.
Drag queens Morgan Richards and Erica Sommers often performed in shows together. Sommers, whose real name is Ron Daugherty, died Jan. 16, 2021.

Daugherty traveled the country competing in pageants of all levels, but the crown jewel for him was making it into the Miss Gay America pageant. Modeled after Miss America, the pageant involved five parts: an interview as themselves, a creative costume competition, an evening gown competition, an on-stage Q&A and a talent show.

As a drag queen, Daugherty impersonated prominent female actresses and musicians including Dolly Patron, Marilyn Monroe and Liza Minelli. Barely over 5 five feet tall, Daugherty easily looked the part, said Billy Thunderbird, who met Daugherty at a bar in Florence in the mid-1980s.

“He could be anybody,” Thunderbird said. “Part of the magic was the transformation from Ron to Erica. It was pretty amazing.”

Richards said the first time he saw Daugherty perform as Erica was in the late 1980s during a pageant performance of Minelli’s “New York New York” in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

“She was very talented, very talented, very well known in the drag community, the gay community,” Richards said.

Turning art into advocacy

When Daugherty contracted HIV in the 1980s, the disease was still seen as a death sentence. There was no cure — there still isn’t — and the only treatment available, AZT, was prohibitively expensive for most people.

The federal government eventually poured millions of dollars into researching and developing new treatments and covering the cost of drugs for patients, but there was less money for outreach and care at the time.

“There was nothing. There was nothing for us,” Hardee said.

Ron Daugherty as the drag queen Miss Erica Sommers. Daugherty died Jan. 16, 2021.
Ron Daugherty as the drag queen Miss Erica Sommers. Daugherty died Jan. 16, 2021.

Careteam+ was set up in 1993 as the first provider to treat uninsured HIV+ patients in Horry, Georgetown and WIlliamsburg counties. Daugherty went there for treatment but also helped fundraise for the clinic. He hosted benefit performances as Erica Sommers for years into the early 2000s, donating the proceeds, said Hardee, a member of the Careteam+ board.

“They took care of us for a long time, getting us meds,” Hardee said.

In return, Daugherty did his best to give back to the organization, one of the only places at the time willing to help gay people treat HIV.

Testifying before Congress

Just 14 months after being attacked by men outside of Rock Burger, Daugherty spoke to Congress about what happened and criticized South Carolina’s attorney general at the time, Charlie Condon, for proposing hate crime legislation that didn’t cover sexual orientation.

“The state attorney general considered introducing hate crime legislation, but he purposely did not include sexual orientation in this bill because he did not believe anti-gay hate crimes are a problem in the state of South Carolina,” Daugherty said. “This is unfortunate and untrue.”

“I urge you to include sexual orientation in the federal laws that are tough on hate crimes so that people like myself and others receive the justice we deserve,” he continued.

Hatch, the Republican senator from Utah and the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, told Daugherty that he would not “tolerate that type of behavior in this society.”

“People can differ with regard to sexual orientation, but there’s no excuse for anybody brutally beating another person up and harming you the way they harmed you,” Hatch said.

Brian Hardee, left, with Ron Daugherty in the early 1990s. Daugherty, the drag queen Miss Erica Sommers, spent his life as an HIV/AIDS advocate and testified before Congress in favor of hate crime legislation. He died Jan. 16, 2021.
Brian Hardee, left, with Ron Daugherty in the early 1990s. Daugherty, the drag queen Miss Erica Sommers, spent his life as an HIV/AIDS advocate and testified before Congress in favor of hate crime legislation. He died Jan. 16, 2021.

Nearly 24 years later, however, federal hate crime laws do not cover sexual orientation or gender identity. South Carolina, meanwhile, still has no enhanced penalties against perpetrators of hate crimes of any sort.

“Unless there’s something that is done, there will never be protection for for us,” Daugherty told Congress in 1997.

Joyce Kirk, a family member of Daugherty’s, wrote on a GoFundMe page raising money for a funeral service that he was a “true hero” for her advocacy.

“She truly was a bright light in so many people’s lives,” Kirk wrote.

For Sloan, Daugherty’s advocacy has had a more personal impact, having made South Carolina a more welcoming place for gay people like him.

“You’ve got to hear that older story to see what progress has been made,” Sloan said. “I think he would be pleased.”

Pointing out the state’s lack of a hate crime law, Sloan said, “I like to think things have definitely changed over the years and progress has been made. But there’s still so much more.”

After the attack

After the attack outside of Rock Burger, Daugherty went on later that year to be crowned Miss Gay South Carolina and compete in the 1997 Miss Gay America pageant.

In the opening of the pageant, Daugherty walked out as Erica Sommers in a regal white ball gown and a blonde wig that likely added a foot to his normal height.

“From the Miss Gay America family, we are saddened by the loss of Erica Sommers. She fought for justice in the community and the world is a better place because of her life journey,” Miss Gay America said in a statement after Daugherty’s death.

Sommers focused less on the pageant scene in the early 2000s and more on performing in cities around the Carolinas including Charleston, Columbia and Raleigh.

Ron Daugherty, the drag queen Erica Sommers, performs at drag queen pageant in Florence, SC. Daugherty died Jan. 16, 2021.
Ron Daugherty, the drag queen Erica Sommers, performs at drag queen pageant in Florence, SC. Daugherty died Jan. 16, 2021.

As the years wore on, Daugherty’s health continued to decline as he faced not only HIV but also diabetes and steadily worsening memory problems, a longterm consequence of the beating.

Daugherty remained upbeat all throughout, loving every minute he got to perform as Erica. Having built many friendships over the years, he saw a steady stream of visitors to his Conway nursing home, where he spent the last few years after an extended stay in the hospital.

“He was hilarious,” said Vicki McRae Britt, one of the nurses who worked with him at Conway Manor. “The old ladies would flirt with him, and he would be such a gentleman. Then, he’d look at me, roll his eyes and say, ‘They don’t know I don’t want them.’”

Dying isolated from friends, family

Daugherty was born June 18, 1963. He died Jan. 16, 2021, and is survived by a brother, Don, and Kirk, his niece.

His death, like many over the past year during the coronavirus pandemic, happened in isolation, away from friends and family who might bring comfort in those final hours.

For Daugherty’s friends, it made facing his death much harder because they’d not seen him in nearly a year, and his difficulty hearing made it hard to have phone calls.

He also died estranged from most of his family, friends said, because of his sexual orientation. The Pentecostal church he grew up in did not support LGBTQ+ people.

“She is a true hero who - though abandoned by her family after coming out, never lost her beautiful smile and love for everyone,” Kirk wrote in the GoFundMe listing.

Kirk and other members of Daugherty’s family could not be reached for comment.

Friends like Kelly Johnson, a caretaker in recent years, stepped in to fill the gap, taking him out for lunch or joyrides to “look at boys” on Ocean Boulevard in downtown Myrtle Beach.

“Our culture, in the early days of the epidemic, we kind of took care of each other and we watched out for each other,” Johnson said. That culture of support remains strong today. And Daugherty “was just a really good person. Never had anything bad to say about anybody.”

Ron Daugherty at his nursing home in Conway. Daugherty, an HIV/AIDS advocate and longtime drag queen, died Jan. 16, 2021.
Ron Daugherty at his nursing home in Conway. Daugherty, an HIV/AIDS advocate and longtime drag queen, died Jan. 16, 2021.

Daugherty’s circumstance is a common one for many LGBTQ+ people of his era. Emboldened to finally come out of the closet thanks to the LGBTQ+ rights movement that started in the 1960s, many people’s families cut them off. And today, as this generation grows older, they turn to their friends and the local queer community to help out instead.

“He relied solely on the community, (but) he had so much support in the community and in the nursing home,” said Britt, the Conway Manor nurse. “It was multiple times a week that people were visiting or mailing him things. People made sure he had all the things he needed because he had so many friends, so many people to look after him.”

Despite the strife that separated Daugherty from his family, Britt said that he still loved his family and, in some senses, the church as well.

“He even traveled and sang gospel music. He loved to sing, and he knew all the gospel songs,” Britt said. “Because that was his childhood.”

Getting to be Erica one last time

Stuck in a nursing home in the waning years of his life and much weaker than he once was, Daugherty missed being Erica Sommers.

A few friends got together to change that in 2019.

For Halloween, Richards and another local drag queen, Judy Simmons, went to Conway Manor and put Daugherty in drag one last time. As they got him dressed and put makeup on, Richards said Daugherty’s smile just kept growing.

“The more makeup Judy put on him, it was like, ‘Here’s Erica. Here’s Erica. Erica’s coming out,’” Richards said. “There were several moments where I even had to stop myself crying just from seeing how happy she was.”

Ron Daugherty, left, got dressed up as the drag queen Miss Erica Sommers one last time on Halloween in 2019 with help from fellow drag queen Morgan Richards. Daugherty died Jan. 16, 2021.
Ron Daugherty, left, got dressed up as the drag queen Miss Erica Sommers one last time on Halloween in 2019 with help from fellow drag queen Morgan Richards. Daugherty died Jan. 16, 2021.

After he was all dolled up, Daugherty went out to see his neighbors at the nursing home. Richards said they fell in love with Daugherty’s new (to them) look.

“In that moment, seeing the reaction of all the nursing home residents and when she came out in a wheelchair,” Richards said, “just, oh my god, they were just falling all over her. I think that’s probably one of the best times she’s had a long time.”

Daugherty’s health prevented him from performing in recent years, but “he still looked good” that day.

“Maybe he’s performing now,” Sloan said.

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