By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
The sidewalk in front of the Glama-Rama! hair salon on South Van Ness is packed with drag queens who are sipping mimosas. A pair of bathing beauties in 1960s swimsuits, Marge Simpson wigs, and platform heels tower above the crowd. One lovely has replaced the rear panel of her cutoffs with a macramé potholder; another is dressed in a ghetto-fabulous, J.Lo-inspired pink tracksuit with bling-bling.
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."
George can become annoyingly chatty when she drinks; once, a friend even doused her with pepper spray to shut her up. El Diablo marvels that Roberts, who rarely drinks to excess, is so patient with her. It's one of the many things that make the relationship between George and Roberts odd, but workable.
They met at "Trannyshack" five years ago, when George, who now works at an Internet advertising firm, came to the show with her friend Marlin. At first, George thought Roberts, an art director at the Bay Area Reporter, was a chick with a big nose. "George, you were at 'Trannyshack,'" Roberts groans whenever his girlfriend tells the story. And he thought she was a dyke.
After George discovered Roberts was a bisexual male, she flirted with him, and he asked her out. They fell in love, in part, because of their shared passion for nightclubbing. Unlike many couples who, upon becoming autonomous units, glue themselves to the DVD player on a Saturday night, Roberts and George went out even more after pairing up. They began to DJ together around town, playing electroclash, pop, and mash-ups. Though he feared becoming bourgeois, they agreed to be monogamous. Now they're engaged.
She talked him into the idea, over his protestations about not believing in the institution of marriage. But when he proposed last summer at Burning Man, his eyes brimmed with tears. "I was drunk," he jokes now.
They're tying the knot this summer, far, far away from both their families and the conventional world they're determined not to become a part of. Roberts' parents, who are divorced, haven't even met Deidre. He fears it would be "too awkward." He was disinvited to his own sister's wedding, after all, when he e-mailed and warned her that he "looked like a girl" now.
The wedding will be at Burning Man, officiated by one of their "Trannyshack" friends.
"This year, Adrian makes the most out of wearing least," reads Peaches Christ. The fashion show has begun; participants write cue cards for Peaches to read as they strut down the aisle of the bus. "She's wearing ... flaming-hot hot pants from For Play in Hollywood and 7-1/2-inch stiletto boots from Foot Worship in the Tendernob."
Roberts began cross-dressing full time on his first Trannyshack Reno trip, eight years ago. "It was the experience of dressing up in daylight hours in another town," he says. "When I got back to San Francisco, I thought to myself, 'I'm always going to wear lipstick and mascara from now on.'" This year, he vowed to step outside his comfort zone and go nearly naked. Now, walking down the aisle in vinyl halter top and hot pants, shaking his tiny ass, he kicks a boot to his forehead with perfect balance honed from years onstage with his band, Blue Period.
"Woo Adrian!" cries his girlfriend. (George is deeply attracted to Roberts' masculine side, which is expressed through his rock 'n' roll frontman persona.)
Traditionally, Trannyshack Reno stops for lunch just beyond Sacramento, at the Auburn McDonald's, and this year is no different. Roberts bites the dust trying to walk across the parking lot in his stilettos, and George cackles at him. But amazingly, he and two trannies in bathing suits aren't asked to leave the restaurant. The diners, however, stare at them bitterly, as if the patrons suspect they're the butt of a joke they're not getting. George wolfs down a fish sandwich, anticipating that booze and coke will be her diet for the rest of the weekend.
Two 17-year-old punk rocker boys from Auburn are shopping for used poetry books across the street at a thrift store. They see the freaks and come over. In seconds, the trannies surround them, crying, "They're so gorgeous!" One lifts up the taller kid's T-shirt and sucks on his nipple, and, surprisingly, the kid doesn't wiggle away.
It's an odd scene. The young men, who cheerfully tell the trannies that they're straight, seem perfectly OK with being molested outside McDonald's by a pack of total strangers. George understands.
She and Marlin grew up in a small town outside of Dallas, where, she gripes, her options for dates were girls, gay guys, and rednecks. The two would drive to the city, starving for anything alternative, and found the biggest freak scene at the gay clubs. Even though she wasn't gay, George found her people, her dearest friends, there. Who knew? Maybe this chance encounter with "Trannyshack" will change these boys' lives completely.
"Tell them how to get to the show in Reno!" George implores Peaches.
"I did, but I think they literally have to ask their parents," she says.
One tranny smashes a bottle of Absolut vodka onto the floor of the Cal Neva Hotel, unintentionally signaling the group's arrival to hotel staff. After checking in, Roberts and George catch a ride to Visions, the nightclub where the "Trannyshack" show is to be held.
It's a cavernous, dark gay bar on the outskirts of town; it reeks of cigarettes, and a few grizzled men are playing video poker in the middle of the afternoon on screens embedded in the bar. In back of a small stage made of unstable-looking planks of mismatched plywood is a crudely painted mural of the New York City skyline, perhaps an attempt to add a bit of urbane sophistication to the run-down roadhouse. Roberts fumbles in the DJ booth trying to figure out Visions' primitive sound system. He curses, as George gets drunk.
"I'm terrified of performing," says George. She loves music, and she can read a crowd. But she hates being up in front of one. When she started DJing around San Francisco, she adopted the moniker "Mysterious D" and hid behind big dark glasses. When she and Roberts DJ tonight after the show, Roberts will furiously try to make sure everything is technically perfect, his hands on the pitch shifter knobs, slowing down the last song to sync up with the beats of the next. George just does "the whole cliché rock star thing": gets drunk and feels the vibe of the crowd. If the music makes her "go wooo!" she figures, then it'll make the crowd "go wooo!"
But tonight, there is more pressure than when she DJs; she'll be lip-syncing with Roberts and el Diablo to an electroclash song called "Sex That I Need" by a seriously raunchy female duo named Avenue D. George has been in "Trannyshack" numbers only a couple of times, and always in a bit role. She drinks her beer quickly, nervously.
"Sex That I Need," which guest-features a gay male rapper named Cazwell, describes the rough sex the male character likes to engage in with his partners, while the two Avenue D girls egg him on with their own pornographic ghetto fantasies. Appropriately enough, considering the occasion, the song could be seen as either shallow and shocking for the sake of being shallow and shocking, or empowering in its grotesque profanity. The three friends think it's hilarious.
George, Roberts, and el Diablo learned the lyrics separately, then met at el Diablo's apartment in the Tenderloin for a single run-through. George and el Diablo tried to work out some choreography, but keeping up with the rapid-fire rap lyrics of the song while trying to execute synchronized dance moves was simply too challenging. Instead, they decided that they'd just move to the beat of the music; whoever was "singing" would move forward, and the others would move back. George has been praying she won't bomb.
After heading back to the Cal Neva, where they change into the pink-and-black-striped shirts they'll wear for the act, George and Roberts hook up with el Diablo and Marlin for a meal consisting entirely of booze. Then they return to Visions.
The crowd is noisy, drunk, and ready to party. Trannies sprawl on the floor in front of the makeshift stage, and one woman sits in the arms of her partner, jamming her tongue down her throat. The show is typical "Trannyshack": high-concept, with a down-and-dirty style. It opens with a performer named Queen Size doing a lip-sync to Bananarama's "Venus"; she's clothed in a nude bodysuit, the tendrils of a long blond wig clutched over her private parts, and she stands between two fans of pink fabric, constructed to look like two halves of a clamshell.
Finally, el Diablo, dressed as the male counterpart to the "girls" in the song in a wife beater and black-and-white-striped pirate pants, takes the stage. George and Roberts are behind him. The hip hop beat of "Sex That I Need" begins, and George moves center stage. She mouths the opening words, "The Latin explosion ain't new to me, I've been into foreskin since puberty." She shakes her hips and points her finger at the audience, tough-girl style. "I want an uncut Latino with a libido the size of Reno, Nevada, to bang me till my bladder splatters. A dick fatter than a beer can ..."
There's an uncomfortable moment in which George forgets the words, but she comes back in for the finish, "... and then he eats my ass like he eats rice and beans, until the plate's clean. You know what I mean?"
"Yes I DO," mouths el Diablo, strutting to center stage. "Just the other day I got a blow job from a ho job, with no job ...." Roberts and George nuzzle up to either side of el Diablo for the chorus, caressing him with their striped arms as they lip-sync, "This is the kind of man that I want. This is the kind of sex that I need." Then Roberts comes in on the high-voiced girl's part, sassily shaking his dreads.
Roberts: "Well, it won't be long, before he takes off my thong."
El Diablo: "But it wasn't a thong until you put it on."
Roberts: "Shut the fuck up! I'm the one getting laid here. And he's back from the bodega with a case of beer, a bag of weed. So I'm on my knees pullin' out the seeds. He wants to squeeze my 34Bs."
El Diablo has completely forgotten the blocking, and insists on stepping out in front where the spotlight would be -- if Visions had a spotlight. He's strutting about in his stiletto boots, his long hair, augmented with dreadlike extensions, swinging. For el Diablo, the point of performing is forcing more people to admire his outfit.
"Oh GOD I bombed," says George shakily when it's over. It wasn't the most creative "Trannyshack" number in the world, but the sheer perversity of the lyrics made it a hit with the crowd.
"Jason, you kept hogging the entire stage!" chastises Roberts.
"I'm drunk," says el Diablo. "I forgot the choreography."
Roberts and George return to the DJ booth to play dance music, but Marlin wants to board the bus back to the Cal Neva. El Diablo casts his eyes over the club and says peevishly, "I'm horny. I just want to get laid."
"Let's face it, Jason," says Marlin. "You're not going to get laid here or back at the hotel, so we might as well go back." It's the truth, and el Diablo knows it. He doesn't say anything.
For all his Johnny Depp-like looks, el Diablo doesn't seem to attract attention from boys. Neither does Marlin, for that matter. Most gay men prefer masculine-looking boys, the two attest, rather than femme guys who wear flawless makeup. But that doesn't mean el Diablo and Marlin are going to change. Though el Diablo had a moment of weakness, he isn't on this trip to get laid. He's here to be as big a queen as he wants to be. His gorgeous, custom-made boots have given his right foot a blister, but he is determined not to wreck his look. He hobbles back to the bus with his best friend, one of the walking wounded of "Trannyshack."
The posse is back at the Cal Neva, in el Diablo and Marlin's room. Roberts and George are lying on one bed, their two friends on the other. They are doing lines of cocaine, laid out on a red Bible they found in a drawer. Empty champagne bottles, clothing, and makeup litter the room. Marlin and el Diablo have cast aside their bourgie act and are relaxed and bitchy.
"Your friend tried to impress me by telling me she does vomit films," says el Diablo to Roberts and George. A female buddy of the couple came on the trip and hit on el Diablo earlier in the day, apparently believing that her porn career would appeal to his kinky side. "She's a little much," sniffs el Diablo.
"She's really nice, Jason," says Roberts. "Give her a chance."
Roberts is sweet and accepting to a fault; George sometimes jokes that he'll even go so far as to hire subpar go-go dancers for their DJing gigs because he doesn't like anybody to face rejection. He's tougher on himself. Accepting his body, for instance, hasn't been easy for Roberts. When he and George first started dating, he'd been taking female hormones to get his "physical to match up with the mental image" when he looked in the mirror. But she didn't like the way he looked. He was "getting fat in places that girls do."
George loves her boyfriend's current image: a streamlined glam-rocker who is almost as pretty as she. And really, he prefers this self-image, too. All the same, it makes him different from a lot of the transgender crowd, in that he doesn't take hormones, and from most of the "Trannyshack" crowd, including Peaches and Heklina, who do drag for performances at night, but by day look like boys. It wasn't until Roberts began performing regularly at "Trannyshack" that he felt he was part of the club, even though he was even more unusual, in some regards, than its other members.
The group wanders into the Cal Neva Casino; with a drunken gambler's lust in her eyes, George glues herself to the slot machines. Bored, in control of himself as usual, Roberts sits down in the arcade and starts playing the old video game Galaga. He's racking up the most points he's ever scored when he feels a presence over his shoulder. A male voice says, "Hey, how's it going?" Roberts loses his concentration, and his Galaga character blows up.
"You're bad luck," says Roberts, looking over his shoulder at the drunk boy in a baseball hat standing behind him. The guy sees that Roberts is a man and shoots back, "Yeah, you suck, DUDE."
Whenever men emphasize "dude" in that menacing way, Roberts knows, they're saying they've clocked you. There's no fooling them. All Roberts can say to that is, "Well, duh."
As Roberts walks away, he passes by Peaches and her friend Martiny, who have just sat down for a late-night snack at the diner. They're out of drag and look like normal guys; normal enough, at least, to fool a man sitting next to them at the counter. He nudges Peaches and growls, "Why are there so many gays here?"
Amused, Peaches explains that they are part of a traveling drag show, from San Francisco. The man is unimpressed.
"I mean, is that a chick, or a dude?" he snorts, looking in the direction of Roberts. Peaches and Martiny try to conceal their glee, for they see their snacks coming out of the kitchen in the waitress' hands. They've both ordered enormous hot dogs. Peaches picks up her sausage and takes a big, messy bite.
Sunday morning, the trannies look green around the gills. Many of them have had just a few hours of sleep. Hoping to snare the "Best Easter Costume" prize, five have dressed in homemade AstroTurf dresses, with Peeps marshmallow candies hot-glue-gunned onto them. One of the guys also has attached to his dress a Ken doll nailed to a cross; it squirts water out of its wounds.
El Diablo, Roberts, Marlin, and George are crashed on a couch in the lobby, looking like an exhausted rock band waiting for its tour bus to arrive. Roberts is wearing a pair of bunny ears on a headband. They are perkier than his haggard face, which he swiped hurriedly with beige makeup minutes before. Marlin, who's dismantled his hair extension mohawk, laments that all eight bottles of champagne they brought are finished.
The bus stops at Boomtown Casino for breakfast on the way out of Reno, and Marlin makes a beeline for the bar, returning with Coronas for everybody. Somebody has passed out homemade T-shirts that say "Almost Fuckable," and the trannies who put them on are kicked out by security guards. "'Fuckable' is not even a word, much less a dirty word," gripes one tranny.
Post-breakfast, back on the bus, everybody's rip-roaring drunk again. The aisle, especially near the back, is a press of bodies. Hands steal out to grab asses, shirts come up, nipples are licked. Vodka is pounded straight from the bottle. The "Drunkest" award, announced by Peaches, goes to the boy who dropped the bottle of booze in the lobby of the Cal Neva.
When the bus arrives at the Auburn McDonald's again, the 17-year-old punk rockers, alerted by cell phone, are waiting. "Show me your pooper!" hollers el Diablo, who has been drinking vodka for the past hour. "Show me your pooper!"
"Jason, do you even know how to spell pooper?" somebody asks.
"P-O-O ... show me your pooper!"
The presence of the underage boys, and their ambivalence about acceding to his demands, seems to agitate el Diablo. The last vestiges of his snarky, ice-queen persona fall away, and in a gesture of absurdity mixed with self-loathing, he pulls down his pants, revealing black Calvin Klein underwear. Falling onto the grass beneath the golden arches, el Diablo rolls around on his back, screaming, "Woo! WOO!"
The other trannies watch him for a minute, bemused. Is this the same Jason el Diablo who ate pâté on the way up, as detached and glamorous as a runway model? His legs become tangled in his pants, so that all he can do is toss his upper body back and forth.
Finally somebody hoists him vertical and pulls up his pants for him. Although later he will claim not to remember much about this episode, it's clear that some inner demon has been exorcised. George is waiting at the back of the bus, ready to minister to him with a big bottle of Crystal Geyser. As he stumbles toward her, his long black hair as tousled as a wild pony's, el Diablo glows with his first real smile of the trip.