Dolly Parton is the South's Queer Matriarch (And We Need Her)

  Illustration by  Ryan James Hughes

Illustration by Ryan James Hughes

In Dolly Parton’s classic song “Coat of Many Colors,” she sings of a do-it-yourself garment her poverty-stricken mother made her back during the “seasons of [her] youth.”

I recall a box of rags that someone gave us
And how my momma put the rags to use.
There were rags of many colors, and every piece was small,
And I didn’t have a coat, and it was way down in the fall,
Momma sewed the rags together, sewing every piece with love,
She made my coat of many colors that I was so proud of.

Parton sings about how her mother likened the coat to Joseph’s coat of many colors from the Bible, and later of how the kids at school laughed at her upon arrival. Yet Parton stayed strong, informing them that, “one is only poor, only if they choose to be.” 

In many ways, the narrative told within the song is indicative of the sewed together package that has made Dolly Parton an unlikely gay icon of sorts: pride, mockery, pride in the face of mockery, all due to a non-consistent, multi-layered, cheap and colorful object. Parton has connected to a variety of queer fans—from gay men, to lesbians, to drag queens, and beyond, and Parton’s queer appeal, like her coat of many colors, is stitched together from many different fabrics. 

During the 2006 Kennedy Center Honors, Dolly Parton sat firm and proud. She watched, smiling, as country music superstars sang her praises one after the other. A standard loop of Parton’s country devotees covered her classics: Shania Twain with “Coat of Many Colors,” Carrie Underwood joining Parton’s original duet partner Kenny Rogers for a rendition of “Islands in the Stream,” Allison Kraus with “Jolene.” Somewhere within this mix, though, something peculiar happened. Pop star Jessica Simpson took the stage to sing Dolly Parton’s soundtrack anthem “9 to 5.” Simpson was the only performer there outside of the country music genre. She had, of course, been a competitor in the pop boxing ring, battling it out with the likes of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. 

Simpson flubbed Parton’s lyrics and later asked to have her tribute removed from the special before it aired on CBS. This moment, though, becomes interesting when examining it in the context of Dolly Parton’s own career, particularly in the early eighties. At the time of Parton’s Kennedy Center Honors, Simpson was in the midst of a career makeover: she was a little over a year away from releasing her first country album in 2008, after recording it in Nashville, the exact town in which Parton made it big. It’s hard not to see her performance at Dolly Parton’s tribute as part of a career strategy, just like it’s hard not to see the trajectory of Dolly’s film roles circa 1980 as part of a career strategy: Parton was starring in her first feature film, Nine to Five, alongside Hollywood actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, had left the Nashville country music circuit to work with pop producers, and was gaining mainstream exposure left and right. “From Dollywood to Hollywood!” she would later exclaim while performing at the 2006 Academy Awards, and this moment in her career represents just that. The difference between Jessica Simpson’s move toward country and Dolly Parton’s move toward mass-exposure and pop is that Dolly Parton portrayed herself as both hyperaware and willing to discuss this career move as just that—a career move.

“I carry a gun, and she carries a gun in the picture!”: Dolly as Camp

This openness is one of the many reasons why Parton’s film career exposed her to the possibility of being a “gay icon.” As an actress, Parton was not cast to play different roles, but rather, to portray Dolly Parton if Dolly Parton had a different life. This isn’t an insult, or even an assessment of which she isn’t aware herself. In her 1980 Rolling Stone cover story, Parton laughed about the techniques of the more serious actors on set of Nine to Five, saying:

It’s funny how everyone gets into character. I’ve never had an acting lesson in my life... I was lucky in the respect that they had written it according to my personality; I carry a gun, and she carries a gun in the picture! She was really just me as a secretary, so I played it like that.

Examining Parton’s filmography as merely an expansion upon her true self, then, viewers and fans get not a collection of parts Parton became, but rather, parts that became Dolly. So when these roles involved something like camp, Parton herself became camp.

In his essay “The Cinema of Camp (Aka Camp and the Gay Sensibility),” Jack Babuscio sets out to describe what “camp” means and why it connects so successfully to gay audiences. He writes of the notion of a “gay sensibility,” something that camp—“never a thing or person per se, but rather, a relationship between activities, individuals, situations, and gayness”—aligns itself with, therefore relating to the lives of queer people, despite not being explicit. He writes:

I define the gay sensibility as a creative energy reflecting a consciousness that is different from the mainstream; a heightened awareness of certain human complications of feeling that spring from the fact of social oppression; in short, a perception of the world which is coloured, shaped, directed, and defined by the fact of one’s gayness.

He goes on to assign camp four basic principles that create this layered atmosphere: irony, aestheticism, theatricality, and humor. In regards to irony, Babuscio writes, “Camp is ironic insofar as an incongruous contrast can be drawn between an individual/thing and its context/association.” This, he argues, appeals to the gay sensibility because, “The inner knowledge of our unique social situation has produced in us a heightened awareness of the discrepancies that lie between appearance and reality, expression and meaning.”

In Nine to Five, Parton plays Dora Lee, the sexy secretary of misogynist boss Franklin Hart. She befriends coworkers Violet (played by Lily Tomlin) and Judy (played by Jane Fonda) after they realize she hasn’t been sleeping with Franklin, as he’s claimed. One scene from Nine to Five in particular is interesting because it takes up over fifteen minutes of the film without seeming to move the plot along whatsoever. It involves Parton, Tomlin, and Fonda smoking a joint that Tomlin’s character previously confiscated from her son and, very stoned, fantasizing about the ways they’d like to get back at their evil boss. The film gives each of their fantasies an elaborate daydream sequence, and Parton’s involves creating a reverse situation to the one Dora Lee actually lives in: she becomes Hart’s boss and he becomes her prey. At the end of her fantasy, the office turns into a rodeo, Parton as the cowboy and Hart as the cattle. She ropes him (as he desperately tries to escape her office) in “Five seconds! Just five seconds, folks!” the rodeo announcer marvels. 

This is a textbook example of what Babuscio is referring to with his “incongruous contrasts.” Parton’s scene sets up a fantasy: one in which she, as a female secretary, becomes the boss of the man that actually holds power over her. On top of this, her fantasy is accomplished in a distinctly Dolly Parton way: she’s a cowboy. This segment of the film also functions as camp based on what Babuscio says about the gay sensibility and humor:

Camp can thus be a means of undercutting rage by its derision of concentrated bitterness. Its vision of the world is comic. Laughter, rather than tears, is its chosen means of dealing with the painfully incongruous situation of gays in society.

These women, having been subjected to extreme sexism in the workplace, and now existing in the same house discussing it, represent this “concentrated bitterness.” Yet Nine to Five chooses to have them toke up and get giggly, instead of complain in anger.

“That’s what I wanna be, Mama! I wanna be trash!”: Dolly as Queer

With Dolly Parton bringing her raw self to each role, being strikingly honest and candid in every interview she gives, and generally operating as prideful in the way she looks, dresses, and acts, she becomes a “fully out” individual. When asked about constructing her image on British talk show Parkinson in 2007, Parton responded by explaining her inspiration: a social outcast from her childhood. “I really patterned my look, a real country girl’s idea of glamour, after what they call the ‘town tramp,” she starts to explain before the audience erupts into laughter. She continues:

You know they have them in a mountain town, there’s always a few loose women. But this woman—I thought was beautiful. She had this beautiful peroxide hair piled on her head, and red nails, high-heeled shoes. And I just thought she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. And mama said, “Oh, she ain’t nothing but trash!” So, I thought, “that’s what I wanna be, Mama! I wanna be trash!”

Parton’s version of glamour lies within a social outcast of her conservative hometown. Here is a woman who feels her most beautiful when dolled up as what society considers “trash.” Dolly Parton may be straight, but she is certainly non-normative in her image, and very proudly so. Part of Dolly Parton’s on-screen excitement for queer people is that she represents the idea that a straight person, when fully “out” as an individual, can queer any situation in which she’s placed. She is a queering agent.

One of the best moments to illustrate this comes with her next film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). Parton plays Mona, the Madam of a small Texas town whorehouse, who has continued an ongoing affair with the town sheriff Ed Earl (played by Burt Reynolds). The whorehouse is treated as something largely void of controversy; everyone seems to know its purpose and enjoy its services (“Right from the beginning, the little house was kind of special, like a home away from home,” our narrator explains with glee). It isn’t until it becomes the subject of a statewide broadcast by sensationalist newscaster Melvin P. Thorpe that anyone seems to argue there is anything abnormal or amoral about it. On top of this, the town sheriff, an archetype usually in charge of maintaining order and moral code within a conservative southern environment like this, is sleeping with the exact woman running the whorehouse. And on top of that, he’s also seeing another woman, a relationship Mona calls his “in-town wife,” more public and acceptable than his “secret” relationship with her. Furthermore, the majority of the town seems to know about Ed Earl and Madam’s affair, and simply doesn’t care. When Melvin P. Thorpe comes along to shoot a special on the town’s amorality for allowing such rampant sin via the whorehouse, the town’s inhabitants anxiously await the Sheriff’s arrival to run Thorpe out of the town (and they cheer when he does so successfully.) 

Here we have a film about the inhabitants of a small town in Texas cheering for and siding withthe rampant prostitution right under their noses. This is a certainly a non-normative environment, or at least non-normative portrayal of a standard setting. And Dolly Parton, likeability on fleek, pretty much runs this town (in one of her first scenes, she’s donating to the Little League fund and is praised for her continued generosity to the town: “The town council will probably vote you another plaque!” Parton responds: “I hope not, I got a closet full of them now!”) She is the glue that holds the queer non-normative environment together, and keeps it operating as such. Like with Nine to Five, Parton knows she’s been asked to play the “Madam” version of herself:

I’ve often said… that I honestly do look like a whore or a high-class prostitute, not even so much high-class with the makeup and the bleached hair and the boobs and the tight-fittin’ clothes and heels. [Madame Mona] was everything that I am, except that I’m not a whore. But if I hadn’t made it in this business, who knows?

Parton also gets another chance to emasculate her men. In their first scene together, Dolly Parton reveals she has purchased Burt Reynolds a new type of underwear she’d like for him to wear when they engage in foreplay. “What the hell is this, a Japanese slingshot?” Sheriff Ed Earl asks. Parton responds: “No, it’s jockey shorts with little silver snaps on the side!” Parton’s character is already acting in a non-normative way, as the “buying of sexy underwear for a partner to wear” scene in cinema usually plays the other way, with the male gifting lingerie to the woman. Sheriff Ed Earl staunchly refuses to wear them for a long time until Parton exclaims, “Well fine! Then I’m getting dressed and going home!” to which he immediately responds, “Well fine, I’m going to the bathroom and…trying these on,” he sighs, “It’ll be like putting two bowling balls in a marble bag.” Parton responds, unimpressed: “Braggin’, braggin’.” 

Parton and her prostitutes are never slut-shamed at all during this film, except by the disgraced outsider, and once by Sherriff himself (who calls Madam Mona a “whore” in a heated argument) but this is treated as his ultimate mistake, he hates himself for it, and eventually delivers a sincere apology. This is progressive and sexy. This town is a southern, sex-positive atmosphere where the prostitutes enjoy their work and homosocial camaraderie with each other, the men pay and treat them fairly, and there is no shame to be found within the confines of consensual bedroom playtime. When, in her first number on screen, Parton explains the whorehouse, singing, “there’s nothing dirty going on,” she’s not denying that sex is occurring behind closed doors, she’s simply denying that that is “dirty” in some way.

“Drag Queen, Drag Queen, Drag Queen, Drag Queen, I’m Begging of You Please Don’t Take My Man”: Dolly as Ally

In Parton’s Rolling Stone cover story, writer Chet Flippo asked her, “What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve ever done?” Parton tells a story about how after rehearsal one day, she and her friend Judy were riding home in cars driving parallel to each other and they began engaging in some girlish fun. “Anyhow, I just pulled up my shirt and I flashed them with one of them. Well, they just about wrecked because they thought it was so funny…so the next time around, I mooned them!” Then, still unsatisfied with the extent they’d outdone each other, at the next stop sign, Dolly ran around the cars stark naked, laughing in the moonlight.

This relationship with Judy and the fact that her husband of forty-six years acts more as a looming fact more than an actual partner the public ever sees are two of the reasons that many have questioned Dolly’s sexuality. In a 1977 interview with Parton, Barbara Walters asked about her marriage, “What about when you’re on the road weeks at a time? No temptations?” Dolly responded:

[My husband Carl Dean is] the kind of person and I’m the kind of person that if, by being apart, we were to meet somebody, I would never tell him. He would never know and it would never hurt him. And it’s the same way with him. I wouldn’t want to know it. As long as he loves me and as long as he’s good to me… I don’t think that it matters. I’ve got better things to do than sit in my room and wonder, "Oh, what’s Carl doing tonight?"

This may be the closest a country star from small town Tennessee in 1977 can get to describing an open marriage without invoking severe controversy. And this behavior hasn’t gone unnoticed (or un-queered). In Jean Carlomusto’s documentary L Is For The Way You Look (1991), a group of gay women recount a time when they saw Dolly Parton at a primarily lesbian function. They tell the story with such detail and excitement, each adding their perspective as if any missing detail from the previous installment of the story was the most vital part. This sort of wishful thinking makes perfect sense; Dolly Parton being an openly queer person would be something of extreme excitement for queer people. She’s a country music star. She’s a Christian. Parton being a lesbian would complicate her entire personhood, making her a queer Christian body.

In Queering Christ: Outrageous Acts and Theological Rebellions, Lisa Isherwood writes, “The queer Christian body is a transgressive signifier of radical equality.” She continues:

It attempts to subvert the weight of patriarchy upon it through counter cultural actions. This body lives in the world but is not chained by its narrow definitions and hierarchical power systems. It is a body that acts stubbornly in the face of life as it is, and is a space in which creative rebellion is rooted in the everyday business of life. In the language of Christianity, it is a redemptive space.

It is here in examining Parton’s religion and its history with queer people that we come across a complicated fact: she is a fierce ally to the gay community. “Well I think the gay people have always liked me because I’ve always been myself, I’m not intimidated by how people perceive me, I don’t judge or criticize people…I think all people have the right to be who they are, we’re all God’s children and God should be the one to judge,” Parton says after being asked about her gay appeal on Larry King Live. One of her favorite stories to tell in interviews is the time that she entered a Dolly Parton drag contest, exaggerated her various beauty marks and makeup, then received last place. In one concert, she dedicated perhaps her most acclaimed song “Jolene” to her drag queen fans, telling a story about how they were hitting on her band one day before the show, temporarily changed the words to “Drag queen, drag queen, drag queen, drag queen, I’m begging of you please don’t take my man.”

This spirit exists in the same body as a fierce worshipper of the same Jesus that queer people have been killed in the name of. I am here to argue, however, that Dolly herself exists within a queer body, even if she is a straight, married woman, and thus she embodies Isherwood’s aforementioned description of a “redemptive space.”

Parton’s queer fandom often exists in the southern, rural, small-town audience. 

Now we get personal.

For young queer people growing up in the south or in strictly country-music-loving homes, Parton could very well be the closest thing to a “gay icon” or ally they were exposed to. I’ve noticed this myself. This piece originated as an assignment to explore a gay icon of cinema and while I was conducting my research, those from cosmopolitan areas ask me why I didn’t choose to write about a more obvious gay icon (like Judy Garland), whereas those from the rural south immediately understand the queer connection to Dolly. 

It is for this reason that Parton’s spirituality plays a very important (and “redemptive”) part in her connection to her queer fans. In the documentary Hollywood to Dollywood (2011), gay twin brothers Gary and Larry Lane from North Carolina plan a cross-country trip from Hollywood, California (where they currently live) to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee to present Dolly Parton with a screenplay they’ve written for her. Throughout the film, they discuss what Parton meant to them growing up in a very conservative, restrictive environment under the control of parents that still to this day do not accept their “gay lifestyle.” They lament the fact that they must live a “double life” and don’t get to share their cherished relationships with their parents. However, when it comes to Dolly, Larry makes a point about her position as an ally that immediately turns maternal:

All we want is our parents to be proud of us. And when there’s that one thing that they don’t accept about you, it’s very, very difficult… I think [Dolly] would embrace that one part of our lives that our mom doesn’t embrace. I remember early feelings of acceptance from her. I remember being like, “Well, she could accept me.”

In a sense, Dolly Parton’s existence as an ally is queering Christianity for her queer fans: instead of it being something oppressive to their bodies, sense of worth, and developing sexuality, she frees it to become something of comfort: Their idol, who fully accepts them and has lived her own life in a specifically non-normative fashion herself, is also a Christian. She is also a Christian just like, hypothetically, their mother that disowned them upon their coming out is a Christian. She is a Christian, so they too can accept their sexualities and reconcile them with religious beliefs and, like Parton and the queer Christian body, embody a space of “creative rebellion.” On top of this, she provides a space for queer visibility in the country music circuit. In an interview conducted in Hollywood to Dollywood, a fan explains, “Dolly’s concerts are the most diverse events you’ll ever find. You’ll see a Southern Baptist pastor standing next to a drag queen.” Zoom in on this image of the pastor and the queen sitting together singing the same song, and we see the embodiment of Isherwood’s “creative rebellion.”

It is interesting that Larry and Gary chose to model Hollywood to Dollywood as a road movie. Dolly’s story is also one of traveling: planning her escape from her poverty-striken hometown from the moment she could dream, then loading a Greyhound bus to Nashville to become a country star. Then, her eventual travels from Nashville to Hollywood to entertain crossover success. This narrative of traveling and its association with Parton reaches a pinnacle when considering Parton was asked to compose a song for the 2005 road movie Transamerica, about a pre-operation male-to-female transgender on a cross-country road trip with her son, who doesn’t know this is his father or that this is a biological man. And what did she do other than make a direct lyrical connection between the pre-op transgendered body and the Christian, pre-Christ:

Questions I have many, answers but a few
But we’re here to learn, the spirit burns, to know the greater truth
We’ve all been crucified, and they nailed Jesus to the tree
And when I’m born again, you’re gonna see a change in me.

These lyrics are working on many levels, intertwining Bree’s narrative with that of Jesus Christ himself and that of the “born again” Christian. Regarding the former, Jesus arose from the dead three days after his crucification. This mirrors the idea that once Stanley (Bree’s given name) is officially “dead” during his transition surgery, Bree will then emerge from the ashes. Regarding the latter notion, that of likening Bree to the saved, baptized Christian, we see a very tender correlation between two “rebirths.” When Bree is “born again,” or, emerges from her sex change operation, we will “see a change in [her],” as in she will be physically female, just like when a Christian is “born again” they will have turned their life around for the better. They have devoted their lives to Christ and therefore can be expected (and held accountable to) being kinder, gentler, and more forgiving toward others. In intertwining Bree’s narrative with that of the “born again” Christian, Parton is strongly arguing within the song that Bree has a right to this life and will benefit from doing what makes her happy. “I wanted to write [the song] because I love the message of that movie,” Parton explains, “That everyone has the right to dignity in their lives.” 

Dolly Parton occupies the queer space with us all (even you straighties), but especially us southerner queers who are currently fighting for our protections in states like Arkansas with bills like SB202, aimed at confusing the world into thinking they’re anti-discrimination bills when they’re actually anti-anti-discrimination bills aimed at us. Us southern queers who are living in places, or are from places, where our states are lagging behind the rest of the nation in recognizing same-sex marriage or trans rights. We are the states that nearly universally take Dolly Parton appreciation into Dolly Parton worship. And this is the woman who has proven time and time again in both the roles that she takes on film, the songs that she sings on vinyl, and the life that she lives as an individual and public icon – that she is on the right side of history. 

There is always skepticism within queer communities when a pop star modernizes their beliefs on queer rights issues during major career moves. During release of her seventh album Femme Fatale, accidental gay icon Britney Spears promoted it largely at gay clubs as a launching point, hoping we would all forget her “ew” reaction when in 2002 a reporter asked her if her refusal to change the female-admiring lyrics to the Stones’ “Satisfaction” in her cover was a shout-out to her gay fans. Let’s also not forget the sudden and seemingly invisible lyric change of Taylor Swift’s pre-domination era track “Picture to Burn” between album and single versions - from “So, go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy; that’s fine, I’ll tell mine you’re gay” to “You won’t mind if I say…” (A masterful chorus lead-in that literally works better than the previous homophobia).

But Dolly Parton herself is already a queer person, even as a straight person. At the very least, she’s an agent of queerness within a normative industry–film or country. And she has proven to be able to masterfully create these “redemptive spaces” in her work, religion, and interviews. So, I call on Dolly to speak her mind about these moments in time as they happen, even just as a measure of comfort. Just as I call on us all to find comfort in her words as these laws and the people passing them come for us: “I really do think I stand for being proud of who you are, and not worrying a lick about what other people think,” Dolly says. She goes on, “And I feel fortunate I’ve never had to be anything but myself.”

Michael Doshier is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the creator of the electronic rock project Johnny Darlin and his visual EP Mr. Monogamy, all available at