Tangerine Summers, a beloved drag performer in Macon, Ga., has died at age 63.
Summers, known offstage as Ray Grissett, died last Thursday in Macon, TV station WMAZ reports. The cause of death was listed as an illness, without further details.
Summers had claimed to be the oldest living drag queen in Macon. “I’ve always been openly gay, you know,” Summers once told Macon Magazine. I never hid my sexuality. Everybody knew that I was gay. I was different. I was different from my other brothers and sisters. I acted different and everything. But doing drag, it just gives me — I can express myself more. And I’ve been doing it for over 50-some years. When I started, when I first did drag, I was, like, 17. And then I started working at the clubs downtown.”
Summers’s introduction to drag came in high school. In a drama class, there was a part in a play for a male detective who posed as a woman. None of Summers’s male classmates would take the role, so Summers got it, later telling Macon Magazine, “So that really was what started that, wanting to do drag.”
Summers began performing drag in clubs when cross-dressing was illegal in Macon except on Halloween and during the city’s annual cherry blossom festival. “After 12 o’clock, you had to get out of drag,” the performer recalled in the magazine interview. “If not, they will lock you up. It was called a masking law, and they would sit outside the clubs and wait for us, for the drag queens who worked the clubs where they had the drag shows. … But now it’s like — who cares? You know? Everybody can live their life the way they want to.”
Summers won numerous titles, including Miss Cherry Blossom and Miss Gay Macon. The queen performed to songs by Tina Turner, Mary J. Blige, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, and others.
Summers expressed gratitude for having an accepting family. “I thank God that my family stood by me, accepted me for who I was and what I was,” the performer told the magazine. My mom and my dad — my dad used to come and watch the shows. Back then, that was strange, for a Black gay person’s father to come watch their son dressed up like a, like a girl and do shows and stuff.”
Summers was diagnosed with HIV in 1988 and did many benefit shows to raise money for the care of people with AIDS. The performer had also struggled with substance abuse but had been sober for about 30 years. “My higher power, which I choose to call God, gives me another chance of life,” the queen told the magazine. Spirituality was important to Summers, who was a choir director at a Baptist church, according to Macon Pride. In 1999, the Pride group honored Summers with its Courage 2 B Fabulous Award.
Tangerine was out and proud at a time when few people in central Georgia were, Macon Pride President Scott Mitchell told WMAZ. “I had never seen anything like it before in my life, you know?” he said. “Huge personality onstage and offstage. Just an exceptional human being. She was living her best life and living out loud and trying her best to be a change agent for this area.”
“She loved life, she loved going to church, she loved singing,” he continued. “To have people that this next generation can look up to and know that they don’t have to hide and don'’t have to not be themselves. That’s why it’s so important.”
“Her willingness to stand up for what she believed in at a time and space where we hear stories about [how] the trans community or the drag community were reviled — it’s a story of tenacity like no other,” Macon Pride cofounder DeMarcus Beckham told the station.
“She was a role model, and we have nothing to do but respect her,” drag performer Akasha Giselle Vidalle told WMAZ, adding, “I loved Tangerine with all my heart. She will be missed.”
Summers’s funeral will be held Thursday at 11 a.m. at Greater Zion Hill Baptist Church in Macon. There will also be tributes to Summers at a drag brunch at Society Garden Sunday from noon to 2 p.m.