Atlanta lost one of its most vivacious performers this week. Diamond Lil was one of the pioneers of Atlanta’s buxom drag community. She passed away Tuesday morning after a battle with cancer at 80 years old.
Diamond Lil was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1935. As a little boy, she was already fascinated with women’s wear, donning her first drag ensemble at the age of five.
That night was just the first time that Diamond faced harassment in Savannah.
“We believe Diamond came to Atlanta in 1965 and actually was basically run out of Savannah,” said Atlanta LGBT historian Dave Hayward. He was also one of Diamond’s good friends. In Savannah, Diamond was dishonorably discharged from the National Guard because of her wardrobe and gender nonconforming ways.
“She would say, ‘You would get arrested sitting in the bar; you’d get arrested walking down the street; you’d get arresting parking your car.’ … And finally she appeared at a courtroom with a judge, and he said, ‘I’m sick and tired of seeing you here, and if I see you here again, I’m locking you up and throwing away the key.’”
Move To Atlanta
Compared to the deeper South of Savannah, Atlanta was an oasis for Diamond. When she arrived, she began performing at the handful of gay clubs here at the time. In her act, she sang classics like Ruth Brown’s “As Long As I’m Moving” and her own original songs.
“It is very rare for drag queens to actually sing their own – not only sing their own songs – she had her own music that she published,” said Patrick Saunders, the Georgia Voice’s deputy editor.
Diamond was relentless when it came to sharing her music with the world. Wherever she went, she had CDs in her purse, ready to sell.
That relentlessness and her dedication to doing what she loved defined her life. And while she never said she was an activist, just by being herself, she uplifted her burgeoning community. In 1972, for example, she performed at a dance for gay and lesbian students at the University of Georgia, a dance that UGA and the surrounding community was against.
Diamond Lil has been cited as a huge inspiration for the next generation of drag queens. Her beehive hair and over-the-top look inspired people like RuPaul, and her singing influenced many Georgia musicians.
Diamond Lil has received many awards for her work in Atlanta’s gay community. Atlanta Pride and Touching Up Our Roots honored her as a pioneer and community builder.
“Some people wouldn’t know Diamond, and it’s like, you don’t really know your community unless you know Diamond,” said Hayward. “I mean Diamond, on these shoulders we stand.”
Despite growing up in a challenging time for the LGBT community, Diamond went out and performed, which she did all the way up to month before her death. She was always ready for the spotlight.