When I went to catch a screening of the Leslie Cochran documentary Becoming Leslie at the East Sixth Street Alamo Drafthouse during SXSW, I expected things to get weird. After all, it was a film about a nationally famous cross-dressing, homeless mayoral candidate. The mere mention of Leslie’s name calls a clear (and kooky) picture to mind: tiara, pleated miniskirt, spaghetti-strap tank top, unkempt shoulder-length hair, goatee, wordy cardboard signage, and high heels impractical for a man who did a lot of walking.
I encountered some Leslie cosplay outside of the theater, though no one was so brave as to rock Leslie’s trademark leopard-print thong. The seats inside were draped in hot-pink feather boas for each audience member to wear as we watched a movie about the man who was treated as the anthropomorphic manifestation of Austin’s beloved weirdness.
I grew up in Austin, but I didn’t lay eyes on Leslie until January 1998, mid-morning on Congress Avenue, during the tail end of a middle school MLK Day march from Huston-Tillotson University to the Capitol lawn. Some kid pointed out his big bike cart and near-naked body. Someone else responded with, “Oh, that’s Leslie,” and we all kept walking, unperturbed. I added this cross-dressing homeless man to the list of new things I was learning about Austin (including the existence of a historically black university on the city’s East Side). I was growing older, almost twelve, and just beginning to see a different version of my hometown, one that extended beyond the boundaries of my mostly white, not-all-that-weird West Austin neighborhood.
For the years that Leslie lived here, from January 1996—it’s hard to believe he wasn’t here decades earlier—until his death, in March 2012, it was a rite of passage to see his freckled asscheeks bursting from his thong on the city’s streets. He was often strutting down some major Austin thoroughfare, carrying a big sign advocating for the homeless and against harassment from the Austin Police Department, two issues that were central to his mayoral campaigns. He was almost universally celebrated, which was treated as proof of the city’s best qualities.
Becoming Leslie, which is not just about Leslie but about what he came to represent, makes note of this phenomenon. At one point in the film, filmmaker Richard Linklater says Leslie was a litmus test by which to judge a person’s Austinness. If you had a problem with the way he dressed or behaved, you probably didn’t belong here. But if you were cool with Leslie, Austin was cool with you.
The film moves from Leslie’s arrival in Austin to his early local notoriety to the refrigerator paper-doll magnets that brought national attention to his final days, but Becoming Leslie also tells the story of the man long before he ever sashayed into this town. Born in Florida as Albert Leslie Cochran, he dropped the Albert when he started cross-dressing in his forties. He’d spent the previous decades roaming between America’s coasts, briefly attending Florida State University and spending time in the Naval Reserve before living as a hippie Grizzly Adams type named “Trapper Al” in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest. (“Trapper Al just showed up one day,” remembers one Coloradoan in the film.) He was briefly married and worked at a Safeway and as a truck driver. There was a near-fatal motorcycle accident and significant childhood trauma (he had a twin brother who died in utero a month before their birth and an abusive mother who always partially blamed him for it). His life became even more nomadic in his forties, when he couch-surfed with family and friends and biked across the American South, eventually landing in Austin, where he finally felt at home.
The story is told through old video footage of Leslie shot mostly by one of his friends, Ruby Martin, a hairstylist at Wet Salon, on South Congress, who kept Leslie’s shaggy coif in vibrant shades of any color but gray. Director Tracy Frazier, who joined Ruby on the project in 2010, spliced the footage with interviews with his closest friends in town, many of whom offered him couches to sleep on and backyards to camp in. They helped him get his social security checks, loaned him a little cash when he needed it, visited him in the hospital after a fall left him unconscious in 2009, and threw him a birthday party fundraiser when money from the magnet paper dolls dried up. Their tangible love for him is palpable throughout the film and provides a contrast to the mascot-like love and attention he received from the city at large.
Leslie Cochran has long been welded to Austin’s very identity. In life, he was welcomed across the city; in death, Austin has recognized Leslie with his own official holiday (March 8), a historical plaque near the site of the now-defunct Black Cat Lounge, and a painted plywood statue at the South First Food Court. Our embrace of Leslie is celebrated as an example of what we want to see as our city’s best qualities: open-mindedness, creativity, rebelliousness, individuality, tolerance, and generosity. These qualities do make the city feel special. That Austin is (or at least was) a place where someone like Leslie could feel at home is a virtue.
But that version of Austin, the one seen through tie-dye-colored glasses, is a half truth. Ours is one of the most economically segregated cities in America, with an interstate built between white Austin and its communities of color—communities that are continually pushed beyond city limits as wealthy white developers take over East Austin neighborhoods. This is a town where a Muslim woman was verbally assaulted in a Kerbey Lane Cafe and not a single onlooker intervened. This is a town where young white Austinites—like me at age eleven—might not know a historically black college even older than the University of Texas existed because we spent so little time east of I-35. This is a town where people tell me I’m a “unicorn” because I was born and raised here, despite plenty of second-, third-, and fourth-generation Austinites among the city’s black and Latinx populations.
Becoming Leslie is a story about a white man and what he meant to a group of Austinities who are almost exclusively white. That’s not a condemnation, and the filmmakers seem more concerned with honoring the details of Leslie Cochran’s life than patting themselves on the back for not shunning him. But the film’s focus on the subculture so often shared as the singular narrative of Austin—one that’s white, weird, artistic, and fading as we become a city of tech companies and mixed-use developments—should also prompt reflection about which Austin stories never become refrigerator magnets or make it to the big screen.
Becoming Leslie is a tender exploration of Leslie’s life beyond his bikini top and kitten heels, one worth watching for anyone who caught a glimpse of Leslie’s freckled buns or cited him as an example of what they loved about Austin. He was a whirling dervish of self-confident originality, but he had a terrible childhood, he struggled and suffered throughout his life, and then he lost most of his teeth and died when he was only sixty.
Mostly, through interviews with his family and friends, Becoming Leslie shows what it was actually like to love Leslie—not just to champion the idea of him but to intimately love and support a man who had a very hard time helping himself. I don’t think Leslie would mind if we kept loving him as a symbol (Becoming Leslie makes it clear that he was fond of the attention), but there was more to him than unconventional housing and flashy personal style. The more complicated aspects of Leslie are worth celebrating too.