The Diva Has Died: My Life in Donna Summer

by: Timothy 

“MacArthur Park” plays as I am sitting in my boyfriends apartment thinking two things. First, Manila is performing the shit out of this song! Second, fuck if I don’t love Donna Summer something fierce. We rewind the episode and watch Manila lip synch again. And I am in awe, frozen and excited because “That’s motherfucking DRAG!”

“I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiro)” plays and I am at my first gay bar.  The Necto in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I am 20 something and just getting to enjoy my gay self and the gay bar and I am as close to indulgent sensuality as I’ve ever been. My young self surrounded by male bodies that smelled of dancing and vodka plunged right in and I become a part of it all. I don’t talk. I don’t think. I just dance. Happy to be near gay bodies and the occasional lady ally.

“Love to Love You Baby” plays and I am in the car with my sister. Memory doesn’t need to hold onto where we are going. Memory knows only that we’re together in a car and the music is so loud. And we’re both giggling at Donna’s orgasms. And soon after we hear “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” and my gay person shouts a high pitched scream and I clap my hands wildly because not one but TWO gay diva icons are battling it out. I’m 24 or 25 or maybe 28. Old enough to be in control of my gay outbursts, but loved enough by my sister to just not give a shit. And it is, after all, Donna Summer and Barbra Fucking Streisand.

“Kate, you take Donna, I’ll be Barbra! Ready? Go!”

Kate doesn’t take Donna, but I sing the shit out of Barbra, off key and out of tune, but damned it, I’m belting that shit.

It is not until her passing that I think of how possible it is to mark my life with her songs. I could go back to 1984 when “She Works Hard for Her Money” was still popular. As if it’s no longer popular! I remember my 3 year-old self listening to that song and being in awe. Donna Summer is one force of many in my life that legitimized my right to be sensual. Part of an experience of letting go and extending my body beyond myself. When Donna plays, my body moves beyond me and touches others, I become something more than myself as I dance off beat with my wide smile and awkward hair. She didn’t bring me to a “State of Independence”; She brought me to a collective sensuality that was okay.

How do we collectively mourn a Diva? How do we embrace the good when her legacy was also marked by the controversy over her late ‘80s statements about AIDS as a consequence of immoral behavior, a comment she disavowed stridently? I say that we mark Donna Summer’s impact on our bodies by telling stories of how she moved us and how she upset us. Telling the good and the bad so that we remember her humanity and how humans through the mistakes they make can sometimes heal and empower and move us toward something beyond ourselves.

Timothy is a teacher of writing  He is an occasional Twitter user and obsessive FaceBook checker. When he grows up he wants to be Barney Frank during the 1980s or Rachel Maddow at any point in her life.


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