"Trannygate." That's what everyone is calling it. You all know what I'm talking about: that furor that erupted a few weeks back. What, you don't know what I'm talking about?
OK, the back story, then. You've certainly heard of Trannyshack, my legendary drag performance party? I started it way back in 1996, when the expressions "doing tranny" and "getting into tranny" was used by people in my circle as another way of saying "dressing up in drag," like, "Are you doing tranny tonight?" or, "I think I'll get into tranny tonight."
The real origin of the name was a seedy basement apartment in the Lower Haight neighborhood. Four of my friends -- Miss Chocolate, Pippi Lovestocking, Bambi Lake, and Ruby Toosday -- lived there, and when I went to visit, I would say I was headed to the Trannyshack. Then, when the Stud, the bar where I worked, asked me to start a drag night, I thought the name was perfect -- and not just perfect but cool, original, and transgressive.
Trannyshack was never supposed to last more than a few months. I was given a dead Tuesday-night slot -- a slot that I had seen scores of promoters fail at trying to get people to come out for -- to try to fill.
What happened next was a miracle. People did start coming out -- and not just people but a stunning array of creative mavericks and others who were desperate for a nontraditional venue to perform in. 1995 had been an unbelievably sad year of funerals and feeling numb: Everyone who had influenced me when I first moved to San Francisco passed away that year. AIDS had robbed us of an entire generation of artists and club promoters. Then, in 1996, people got on meds and stopped dying, and Trannyshack started. Now, I am not comparing the significance of my club opening to the advent of lifesaving antiretrovirals, but it certainly felt like a time to celebrate.
This was the beginning. Over the next 12 and a half years at the Stud, and for the past six years at the DNA Lounge, things happened. I learned how to properly apply eyelashes. Trannyshack, as it turned out, was the perfect name for a club that celebrated punk rock, the avant garde, cult movies, heavy metal, goth, and camp and skewered just about everything pop culture could throw up. Absolutely genius performers honed their craft on my tiny stage, and Trannyshack is now seen as having redefined drag on the West Coast. We won the award for best drag show every year in just about every Bay Area magazine. I took Trannyshack on the road, conquering London, New York City, Reykjavik, Amsterdam, New York City, Waikiki, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Reno, and, um, Fresno. Several documentaries about the club were filmed, and Out named it one of the top 10 reasons to move to San Francisco. We had celebrities swing by (Charo, Lady Gaga, No Doubt, Scissor Sisters, The Go-Gos, Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Pink, and R.E.M., to name a few) and unwittingly became champions of gender diversity. (The only thing that ever matters is what you do onstage, not what you have between your legs, and I got a lot of flack when Fauxnique, a real girl, won the 2003 Miss Trannyshack Pageant.)
I've had the pleasure of working with some of the most amazing people you could imagine and enjoying the delicious luxury of not having to work a day job, as I genuinely believe the 9-to-5 world would kill me. Trannyshack has been my life's work.
But in the past year I've increasingly been made aware of the growing meaning the word "tranny" has taken on for members of the transgender community. People have asked me about it on the street, via email, on Facebook, etc. My response was usually along the lines of, "Oh, well, Trannyshack is different, and surely people know that," and for the most part I have gotten a pass because of what the club is. But still it nagged at me.
What was really the catalyst for me deciding that I had to consider a change was when I came across a post on Facebook. It was by a performer announcing his appearance at Trannyshack, but he was too embarrassed to use the name of the club itself; it was sort of, "You all know where I'm talking about." This really drove home the fact that times have changed. If people are too ashamed to say the word, what does that tell me?
Privately I began to have discussions with people in my inner circle (especially Peaches Christ, whose opinion I value immensely) about this. We talked about it being almost a no-win situation. People who love Trannyshack were going to be up in arms, and the people who have problems with the name... well, there are some people who are never happy. We turned out to be so right.
When the promoters of Seattle Pride asked me to do Trannyshack up there this year, I strongly suggested using the name "T-Shack." This was my way of dipping my toes in the water. But as it turned out, certain people in Seattle still blew up. They objected to the fact that the word "Trannyshack" was still on the materials (as in "aka Trannyshack"). The uproar reached the offices of the Seattle Pride board, who began to spell out the name of my beloved party as "T-----shack." This all got to be a bit much, so I decided to write a letter.
I guess I genuinely underestimated how many people read or care what I have to say. The letter was an open post on the Facebook page for the Seattle party invite, and I honestly thought it would not go beyond those invitees. But by the next day my letter had "gone viral" and been picked up by The Huffington Post, CBS News, the San Francisco Chronicle, SFist, Seattle Gay Scene, etc., and I was fully embroiled in, yes, "Trannygate" -- along with RuPaul, of course, who was telling people to "get over it" while I was calling for everyone to get along. Not everyone was getting along, though, and I had to turn off all notifications on my social media and just ignore the storm.
Of course, things did sneak in, like people telling me on Twitter that I sucked for caving to pressure (how to respond to something so eloquent?), and a message from a certain lonely trans girl who had seen the small thing that I did as a beacon of hope. But I don't want to be part of the discourse or debate, and I don't want to be hailed as a hero. I just want to continue to do my shows like I always have.
Oh, gosh, I didn't even tell you what my open letter said! In a nutshell: Times have changed, and Trannyshack can too. Yes, we are irreverent and love to shock, but we do not like to hurt. Trannyshack has always been about inclusion, so why would we want to exclude anyone, especially over the name of the party? The club has always been much more than its name. Even I am not the most important part of Trannyshack; I'm just the glue holding it together. It's always been about the show.
Look for a rebrand or an official announcement of how we will proceed by the beginning of the New Year. For the time being, you can always keep posted by going to trannyshack.com.