Council honors cult celebrity Sharon Needles, advocate for LGBT youth

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As the wheels of local government rolled to a halt Tuesday morning in the ornate fifth-floor Pittsburgh City Council chambers, Councilman Patrick Dowd proposed a recess. The council had finished its official business 10 minutes early, and Mr. Dowd wanted to give his featured guest time to arrive. The sparse audience stirred quietly in its seats.

Then, as Mr. Dowd stepped down from the podium, Sharon Needles, a bulging black bra visible beneath her sheer top, pushed open the wooden doors to the hall.

"A drag queen on time is not a drag queen."

Thus began Sharon Needles Day in Pittsburgh. Ms. Needles, the spooky drag queen and Bloomfield resident who vaulted to national cult celebrity as winner of the most recent season of "RuPaul's Drag Race," was honored with a proclamation Tuesday for her fearlessness as an artist and her advocacy on behalf of bullied LGBT youth.

"She forces us to reconsider questions around young people and bullying and ask what can we do to be a more open and inviting city," Mr. Dowd said.

Wearing a short blond wig, sparkling black gloves, thick black lipstick and pointed black sunglasses -- a tame outfit by her standards -- Ms. Needles humanized the sometimes outlandish world of drag.

"Beneath the 30 pounds of makeup and corsets and gowns are real beating hearts of real people and they usually come from a place of pain," she said. "A win for Sharon Needles is a win for every single kid in this city who's still being bullied."

After wishing the crowd a Happy Halloween, she pointed to Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle. "You, especially, would look beautiful in a blond wig, darling."

Ms. Needles, aka 30-year-old Aaron Coady, also used the occasion to push for gay marriage rights and excoriate those hostile to her lifestyle.

"Two monsters have lived in this city," she said. "One of them is me, self-proclaimed monster, and the other one is Rick Santorum.

"I think gay people have the right to be as unhappily married as half the people in this room."

She said later that she designed her drag character to be naive and beautiful to push back against the aggressive tone of many queens, and then decided she needed a third dimension. "So we made her dead."

She started the Haus of Haunt in Pittsburgh, an outsider art collective with a blood-drenching, money-blending, cake-throwing act that has been unpopular in the traditional drag community but sells out some straight bars. Still, the violence and verbal abuse Ms. Needles has endured have made her consider leaving town. The Pittsburgh fire department is investigating a suspicious fire set at her home Monday.

Her disarming realness endeared her to "RuPaul's Drag Race" audiences, who helped vote Ms. Needles the winner. "I think what they see is the flaw. They see the flaw in my beauty and I think the most beautiful thing in the world is flaw."

Ms. Needles' irreverent wit shocked some in the crowd, which grew to about 60 for her outdoor performance of the Rocky Horror Picture Show song "Sweet Transvestite." One girl in an elementary school group placed a hand over her agape mouth as she walked past the City-County Building.

Connor McCanlus, 23, of Brentwood, said that Ms. Needles' willingness to push boundaries, even within the gay community, made her a hero.

"She's weird and unapologetic about who she is," he said, an artificial pink flower poking out of his canvas bag. "She represents a part of the community that hasn't had a figure to represent them."

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Benjamin Mueller:, 412-263-4903


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