My Love Song to Debra Dejean

July 7, 2021 / Vio Dorantes

The story of how a young, trans woman befriended a dead disco queen from Memphis, Tennessee.

I met Debra Dejean on a drunken spring afternoon. After three months of lockdown, my skin’s tolerance for Texan heat was low. My pores eagerly dilated to allow warmth to enter, and I immediately felt a buzz. We bumped into each other in a Half Price Books. Her smokey eye and slight face tilt constructed a magnetic pull between her record and me. In a sunny haze, the record store had become a dance floor, and I chose to dance with Debra. I handed the cashier my crinkled bills and drove home with my friend Ale and my newfound muse.

For a dollar and two cents, I was passed down Debra’s voice — and with the hit of a needle, she animated into a spunk of persistence. “Goosebumps,” the first track off her self-titled album, radiated zigzag lines in every direction of my room. Fuzz-like electricity stimulated my eardrums in ways I had never felt before. So, of course, I danced. I closed my eyes and visualized Debra in all her glory.

The same day I met Debra, I lost her. A Google search turned up a singular obituary and a thread detailing the reign of the “Memphis Madonna.” DJs of the ’80s left reviews on listings of her first and last album, citing its capability of “fill[ing] the dance floor.” And after a deep search, I found a striking image of Dejean on an issue of This Week In Texas, known as “the publication with regard to the gay community in Texas.” Maybe my affinity to Dejean wasn’t purely irrational or by chance.

Yet my connection to Debra wasn’t due to my love for disco. Neither was it her involvement in the gay club scene. I felt the most connected to her intangible passion. I was mesmerized by the way her fervor leaped from the record onto the four walls of my room and demanded such attention.

It’s unnerving to think of her in a state of such passion. Her passion troubled me at the time; it was the kind I’d never given myself the permission to have. And the crazy thing is, I didn’t even know her. I never will know her. Dejean is not a distant grandmother or a long-lost aunt. She’s a pop singer turned disco Rockette from the ‘80s. She’s a woman born half a century before me, yet I feel like our paths converged at some point. As a trans woman, I know the desire to want something so bad. I want soft skin. I want love. I want to dance in a dress. For Debra, her wants were a career, autonomy, and a pulsing dance floor.

That night, my friend Ale flew back to her dormitory in Boston, and I was left alone with Debra’s brooding face pictured on the vinyl cover. Atop layers of foil paper, she stared back at me, and I thought of her shivering outside a studio in Memphis, waiting to shoot the album art for her very first record. The record machine now felt like an intermediary between the living and the dead.

I imagine a friend of Debra’s styling her hair before the shoot. Her friend had promised she’d do her best before her evening class at the local cosmetology school. They laugh about boys and giggle at the thought of Dejean’s music career. At that moment, creating a record is still just a dream.

Emotions and images dart toward me every time I reset the record on my dingy turntable, to the point where her voice becomes deafening. Alone in my room, with every lyric, she utters a story of hunger I know all too well. The hunger to be somebody for someone, even if that someone is yourself.

Like Dejean’s sound, disco was defiant. Its roots weren’t tied to one cause, movement, or city. The sternum-bumping genre commanded movements of its own. The late ’70s were adorned with glamour and tarnished with the antithesis of disco. Hate plagued every corner. Nicky Siano, DJ and producer, labeled early disco in Brooklyn as a movement of love and any force against it as “anti-gay, but also anti-women and anti-color.”

Dejean didn’t just write songs about love. She created havens for people who’d never gotten the chance to love. Not because they were afraid, but because they were told their love was different. So, no, disco isn’t just some love-ridden beat. There’s power in singing a song about a boy who won’t listen to you. Whether that boy is the head of a record label controlling your path to stardom or a lover who doesn't quite understand you, there’s power in singing at the top of your lungs right back at him.

Maybe Debra wasn’t explicitly tied to queer movements, but there’s something so queer in her emotion. Of course, our paths diverge. But that’s the thing about disco. It’s universal. Journalist Arwa Haider noted that disco enabled “female, gay, Black, and Latin artists to define their identities” fluidly when their rights were threatened. Disco travels through time, echoes in your lungs, and creates such tension that all you can think of doing is moving your limbs.

In an article interview, Debra said, “there are three things a woman needs today: positive thinking, persistence, patience.” Some things never change. Women in music still face some of the same barriers Dejean faced in the late ‘70s. But for Dejean, the uphill battle was much longer. She couldn’t self-publish her record on Distrokid, nor did she have the opportunity to livestream a set with her band. She ran from set to set and could only hope her first record would be played somewhere, anywhere.

Luckily, it did. Dejean’s music reached dancefloors, movements, and from the looks of a single Google search, the hearts of many communities. Her record even reached me four decades after its release. When I met Debra, I was a young trans woman at the beginning of my transition. I still don’t quite understand how I made friends with a late disco queen, but her voice has instilled in me a fervor I didn’t know was attainable.

Positive thinking, persistence, and patience have followed me everywhere I go, and with them, I keep Dejean’s demanding voice in my back pocket. Disco’s revolutionary sound could teach each of us a thing or two about love in its many forms. It transcends dance and heartbreak and produces passion. Today, I no longer fret at the thought of Dejean’s passion. I embrace it with a full heart and begin my own journey toward being someone for myself. ■

by: Vio Dorantes

layout: Michelle Collins

photographer: Chloe Bogen

stylist: Leslye Ruiz

hmua: Julia Holstein & Claire Philpot

model: Nicole Rudakova & Presley Simmons

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