Deidre George and her boyfriend, Adrian Roberts, arrive in a cab. George, 31, is a shaggy-haired rocker chick with a gravelly barroom drawl. Roberts, 34, is cross-dressed in black latex, with long fuchsia-colored dreadlocks and the vivacious, heavily made-up face of a teen-queen popular girl.
"I can't believe you guys beat us here!" exclaims George, catching sight of her night-owl pals Jason el Diablo and Andrew Marlin. El Diablo, his fine-boned Mexican features half-hidden under a black lace veil, smiles icily. He and Marlin -- resplendent in a mohawk constructed from white and blue hair extensions -- had just been wondering why they'd gone to so much trouble putting together their Galliano couture-inspired ensembles when everybody else has dressed in, as el Diablo snarkily puts it, "Mrs. Roper drag."
It's Easter weekend, and the group has assembled for Trannyshack Reno, the annual road trip of the popular "Trannyshack" drag show at the Stud. Over the next two days, 57 drag queens and assorted others who play with gender and costume will ride a chartered bus to the seedy Nevada gambling town, where they'll put on a show at a gay bar. They'll spend what's left of the night in a hotel, then drive right back the following morning.
Since it was started in 1996 by a young drag queen named Stefan Grygelko, aka Heklina, "Trannyshack" has bucked the shimmery gowns and diva mimicry of traditional drag shows in favor of what's been called by some fans "outsider drag," in which the lip-syncs are more Siouxsie Sioux than Celine Dion, often crossing the line from drag camp into performance art. Because of its punk rock aesthetic, the show is a mecca for those who don't fit into any category, save their own brand of weird. (Raw meat, for instance, has been used as a prop.) And Trannyshack Reno is billed as a fun-filled weekend of binge drinking, lip-syncing, and gambling.
But for those who return year after year, the trip also plays a therapeutic role. The regulars of "Trannyshack" are outcasts and misfits. They carry baggage: memories of cruel families, vicious teasing, small-minded hometowns. But for one weekend a year, they can stow the baggage in the Trannyshack Reno bus. Packed together in close quarters for two days, they create a bubble of social acceptance that indulges -- even encourages -- extreme behavior, be it creative or juvenile. For people like George, Roberts, el Diablo, and Marlin, the trip is almost like a family vacation. Almost.
The four friends stake their claim at the back of the bus, where the hard-core regulars always sit. Two women, dressed as a captain and a stewardess working for "Tranny Air," roll a cart up the aisle, dispensing Jell-O shots and Cheez Whiz on crackers. Peaches Christ has fired up the mike. Everybody knows that Peaches, dressed in a spider-web corset and a huge black-and-red wig, has been sober for the past two years. So a deafening cheer goes up when she says in her most prim Sunday-school teacher voice, "I'm going to relapse on this trip -- I've already dee-ci-ded." The bus rolls, and corks from champagne bottles, balanced in polyester laps, pop. This year, Marlin and el Diablo have brought eight bottles of Gloria Ferrar champagne, along with pâté and smoked salmon, for the drive. El Diablo purrs between swigs, "We're bourgie."
By day, el Diablo shapes the eyebrows of rich Pacific Heights ladies at a ritzy salon on Maiden Lane. Marlin is a hairstylist in Hollywood. With their gorgeous faces and perfectly planned outfits, they look like they are a different species than the rest of the trannies. But that may be the point. "They make me look good," says el Diablo.
Growing up in Fresno and taught by his "Mexican Joan Crawford" mom never to leave the house without every hair in place, el Diablo was hated by his classmates for being well-dressed and snooty. In high school he was lonely, miserable, didn't fit in; he didn't come out until college. Things got worse when he dropped out of San Francisco State and moved to New York, hoping he would find himself in the glamour and decadence of the 1980s Club Kidz world immortalized in the movie Party Monster. He was a little fish in a big pond, struggling to pay the rent.
He limped back to Fresno, disillusioned and depressed, a year later.
Now, though, people are toppling onto his black velvet suit from the veritable mosh pit of the aisle, yelling over each other in their bad wigs and clumsily applied makeup. It's a trashy crowd, but he's comfortable here. It's a crowd that prizes excessive drinking even more than lip-syncing, and he excels at both.
For years, there was a popular T-shirt that read "I blacked out at Trannyshack." Last year, Deidre George won "Drunkest" honors, the most coveted accolade in the Trannyshack Reno awards show, traditionally held on the bus ride home. Marlin and el Diablo were winners in previous years, thanks in part to el Diablo's rhinestone-covered beer bong. (He left it behind this year, having recycled the jewels for use on a Cher costume.) George was proud of her win, because it marked her total acceptance, as a straight woman, into a crowd composed mostly of drag queens.
"It's not about who gets the most drunk; it's about who can stay drunk the whole weekend and hold it together. Last year I was like, 'I love you guys, you guys are great,'" George explains, slurring her words theatrically as the bus heads toward Sacramento. "But I didn't pass out or puke or anything. I was just fucked-up the entire time."