The gender bending begins long before drag king Elvis Herselvis takes the stage under the red tinsel at La India Bonita bar.
Women stroll the 16th Street and Valencia hideaway in mustaches, suits, ties, and wingtips. Women saunter in perfect male slouches across the checkerboard floor and sprawl on bar stools in perfect male repose: knees splayed, hands dangling in their crotches to protect their balls. Which they've got. Their jockey briefs bulge impressively with handmade penises fashioned with secret recipes proudly held: They're made of hair gel or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle slime squeezed into condoms, or they're fashioned out of rubber toys — those Day-Glo balls from Walgreens make pretty good testicles, and there's a soft rubber snail you can buy at a nature store that looks like a penis, if you castrate its antennae.
Crotches, it goes without saying, are all-important. Particularly for tonight's Mr. Klubstitute contest, a drag takeoff on Miss America: a “he-man” event for the late-night Klubstitute club that meets at this bar each Sunday.
Sexual shapeshifting is the Klubstitute staple. Men dressed as women. Gay men dressed as redneck heteros. Women dressed as men dressed as women. But tonight for the most part, the crowd holds drag kings: women “passing” as men, and camping it up for “an evening of hyper-masculine hi-jinx,” as the contest flier declares. “Be a dude, or just look like one. Pack a big one, draw on a mustache and march right down, Sept. 10,” the flier reads. “No girls allowed!”
And so the women are doing the macho thing: leaning on walls, interrupting people, standing with their feet spread wide, belching beer vapors. They keep a hand in one pocket to jangle coins or check their bulges, while the girls in the crowd — drag queens — flutter fake lashes as if batting aggressive gnats. Two DJs cue up the Beatles' “I Wanna Be Your Man.” A woman who calls herself KC from Chicago wears a mustache, short ponytail, and fawn brown tie, and she's practicing that poking thR>ing that men do with their tongues in their mouths — that clucking-the-inner-cheek action that looks like a mini-erection fighting for air.
Another contestant, Crush Velvet, sports sideburns and a pink jacket from material vaguely reminiscent of fuzzy toilet-seat covers. She packs a mauve dildo, which she'll soon be using in the talent portion of the contest. And first-time drag king Buster Brown Eyes Feeling Blue — in real life a professional teddy bear stuffer — keeps checking her upper lip. She fears her mustache, which she made with her own hair and some spirit gum, will fall off during her Frank Sinatra lip-sync.
“Are we feeling butch tonight?” Elvis Herselvis, aka Leigh Crow, kicks off the pageant, playing her own special version of Bert Parks, channeled through Elvis.
“Ugh,” the drag kings respond monosyllabically.
“Let's not ignore our male side. Let's get in touch with it, let's embrace it!” Elvis says.
The three judges — also women in drag — motion for the eight contestants to come onstage. Selflessly, they allow in two gay men, one of whom normally dresses as a drag queen. “It's probably harder for them to look like straight macho men than for women to do it,” judge Annie Toone, leader of the dykeabilly band the Bucktooth Varmints, will explain later.
By midnight, when booze has helped blur life itself, not to mention sexual boundaries, the fashion portion of the show has begun, to be followed by the talent segment and question-and-answer period (sample question: “What is your favorite household hint?”).
And at this moment, under the glitter of twirling silver balls on the ceiling, as men and women, gay and straight, bisexual, cross-dressed, transgendered, and pan-gendered, share beers and bathrooms — queens using the women's, kings using the men's — there appears to be a break in the universe: a disorienting, transmuting moment that sheds light, yet offers the very opposite of clarity. “She” and “he” — the bedrock of most cultures, the basis for formiR>ng our first, most basic impressions of each other — have been replaced by a murky, formless, ineffable spectrum where dyads don't exist. Male and female. Black and white. Good and evil. Breaking down the dualities, like splitting the atom, produces a charge that's staggering.
“What's your biggest problem with passing?” the judges ask contestant Pierre Byrd, who has wowed them with a campy country song about butt whipping and nipple clamps. On the TV above the bar, Fred Savage from The Wonder Years blows raspberries on the school bus, and, for a brief flash, looks like a girl in drag.
“I have no problem with passing,” says Byrd. She speaks with the conviction of a 45-year-old former cheerleader who was once married, taught Baptist Sunday school, raised a child, wore frilly clothes, worked for a corporation in small-town Crosby, Texas, and knew every minute that, God strike her dead, she was nothing but an impostor. “If other people have a problem with it,” says Byrd, “well, then, that's their problem.”
The world has always had a problem with gender anarchy. The world has a problem even describing what a drag king is, though women today are doing “gender fucks,” as some call it, from San Francisco to New York, London, and beyond.
History only complicates matters, since passing women and male impersonators date back to biblical times, though they've rarely ever been referred to as drag kings (the term “drag” isn't thought to have surfaced until the mid-1800s, referring to gowns or trains dragging on the ground). Female-to-male transsexuals, who develop male characteristics via hormone treatment or surgery, don't necessarily call themselves drag kings. Neither do all female cross-dressers, or all hetero women experimenting with life on the other side, or all lesbians who call themselves butch, or all women who say they're transgendered (an umbrella term for any kind of differently gendered person, typically someone at ease with both “male” and “female” roles). [page]
But many observers trace the modern, American usage of drag king to New York performance artist Diane Torr and Johnny Grant, a female-to-male transsexual makeup artist, who together planted the garden of a blossoming cult happening: They helped women turn into men through drag king workshops.
“It came to me in about 1989,” explains Torr, 45, married to a man, and the mother of an 11-year-old daughter. A former go-go dancer, Torr had been doing male drag since 1981, exploring androgyny and turning heads. “It was a day that I'd done a photo shoot in male clothes, and I had an opening to go to at the Whitney. I decided to go dressed as a man just to give my friends a laugh.”
None of her friends recognized her.
“Everybody was treating me like a man,” Torr says. “So I found myself a wall to lean against and I got myself a beer and this woman started chatting me up — which I recognized, because it was how I'd chatted men up — and it was really embarrassing. And the more I tried to get rid of her, the more interested, the more desperate, she became. And I thought, 'It's so humiliating, she's just laying herself out on the carpet for me.' So then it hit me. I thought, 'If this woman could see what I'm seeing, maybe she could intercept some of her behavior.' ”
Torr started offering drag king training in Manhattan — “Have you ever wanted to dress like a man, try on the male guise and enter the male domain?” her ads ask. The idea, in a sense, was an obvious next step in a culture that's increasingly making drag queens part of the mainstream. (The macho-men-in-dresses romp To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar was the top-grossing new Hollywood release last week, with nary a peep from right-wing organizations).
In the past six years, 600 women have taken Torr's workshop: gay and straight, housewives and business execs, girls of 11 and women of 68.
Participants must arrive with a male persona in mind. Torr's alter ego, for example, is a lout named Danny who harks from Pittsburgh, Pa., works at a department store in Jim Thorpe, has four kids, and belongs to the NRA. Also required: hair gel, ace bandages or some material to bind breasts, and a fake penis –“not too large,” Torr warns. She wants them to look realistic.
By the end of the day, after Johnny Grant's makeover has shaded the women with beards, goatees, or 5 o'clock shadows, the students hit a topless bar and start passing.
“It's so interesting how women can just snap into this persona,” says Torr, who continues to perform — her New York show this year was Drag Kings and Subjects, a multimedia exploration of bullies and mod boys — and who continues to give drag king workshops in the States and overseas. In the meantime, synchronistic sex-role rebellions have led cross-dressing women to cross paths worldwide. London held its first drag king contest this summer, judged by two San Francisco transgender celebs, Stafford and Jordy Jones. But the world of male impersonation is still relatively small, and not yet masticated by the mainstream, so Torr is able to tick off names of acquaintances in San Francisco, and those acquaintances reciprocate, providing the outline of a loose-knit union of the gender-free.
“What drag kings are trying to do is very camp, very gender fuck,” says Mr. Klubstitute judge Annie Toone, who knows Torr from her New York days, and who took the name Toone and her band's name — the Bucktooth Varmints — from Looney Tunes' Bugs Bunny, the original “pinko pervert,” Toone says. “He was always in drag, and always outsmarting everyone.”
A musician and songwriter for nearly 20 years, Toone worked and performed in Europe in the 1980s, cross-dressing, blending drag with punk, and later blending drag, punk, and country.
“I've stayed the same for the past 15 years, and slowly, society is becoming less frightened of me,” says Toone, who is currently at work on a sci-fi drag king musical, Hillbillies on the Moon, in which she will co-star, along with Leigh Crow/Elvis Herselvis. The plot loosely resembles an Elvis Presley movie, with all the male roles played by women; it will open in February at Theatre Rhinoceros.
“It used to be that playing around with male roles was seen as buying into the patriarchy,” Toone says. “What's happening now is not simply deconstructing gender, but opening up gender to all sorts of variants.” The parodying, anarchy, music, and living as “gender number three,” she says, “saved me from becoming an alcoholic junkie bar dyke.”
Meanwhile, says Torr, it's important that male drag isn't typecast as “a lesbian thing.” Cross-dressing is a hetero thing, too.
“Women have the information inside them, and they can use it by osmosis,” Torr says. “All of us are extremely aware of the nuance of male gesture. Our survival depends on it,” she says. “We know what their gestures mean, because we're prey to them. If I'm on a subway, I'm always watching them because I need to protect myself.”
And by becoming men, Torr says, “women can access a certain part of themselves, a certain behavior they couldn't have used as a woman. They see how they smile all the time, or constantly apologize, and how that puts them in a weak position — if you can't engage in non-smile behavior, you're always going to be in the position of having to acquiesce.
“As a man,” she adds, “people step aside and give you a lot of attention. You're accorded significance without doing anything, without even using your voice.”
The most difficult thing for women to remember is to stiffen their faces, to stop accommodating, she says.
“Men are more reserved. They hold back, they let the world come to them, they don't go out to the world, which is the way women work: We are the facilitators,” Torr says. And if they want to be men, women have to take up space. About 1 1/2 to 2 feet around themselves, to be exact. [page]
How much space do women use?
“Zero. We are entirely pregnable,” Torr says. It's a double meaning she intends. “I've been involved in the feminist movement since 1968,” she says. “R>And basically, I feel after all this time, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.”
Back at Klubstitute, faux chaos shatters the calm. Interrupting the talent portion of the show, a gaggle of drag queens waving picket signs bursts in from the street, banging tambourines. They're protesting the flier for the contest that stated “no girls allowed.”
“Sisterhood, Not Misterhood,” the signs say. “Wigs Not Pigs,” “Bitch Not Butch,” “Fems Against Macho Butch Privilege,” they read. Drag queen performer Justin Bond, looking gorgeous in a blond wig, starts berating drag king KC, who, as the imagined demands of power and testosterone take over, pushes Bond to the stage for a mock humping session.
“Security agents! Security agents!” Elvis Herselvis cries into the microphone. “Oh, this is a fiasco!”
“No chauvinists allowed!” a dramatic cry is heard from the crowd.
But finally the joking is silenced, and drag king contestant Crush Velvet takes the stage, whipping off her pink jacket at one point to lip-sync “Nobody Does It Better,” in her ruffled pink shirt. “Nobody does it half as good as you,” she croons the song's climax, then pulls the mauve dildo out of her underwear and uses it as a microphone. “Baby, you're the best.”
Next up is Pierre Byrd, in real life J. Byrd Hosch, the drummer with the Bucktooth Varmints, a fudge-maker and counterperson at RoCocoa Faerie Queene Chocolates in the Castro, and a songwriter who introduces herself as “the original country lesbian: I put the cunt back into country.” Tonight, Byrd launches into the chorus of her original “S&M Song.” “Show me that you love me and hurt me good tonight,” she sings, her voice high and sweet.
And then comes the Frank Sinatra impersonator, Buster Brown Eyes, 22, who takes the stage in suspenders, dress shirt, and bowler, culled from the boys sections of thrift stores, since she's so petite. She's still fingering her mustache, one side of which has begun to peel. And she's too — too velvet-eyed and baby-cheeked to pass. R>But she draws cheers and the adoration of the crowd with a polished, ultrasuave version of “Luck Be a Lady,” from Guys and Dolls, throwing in an impromptu dance routine with a queen pulled from the crowd. Some remaining “girls,” pretending awe, stuff her pants with dollar bills.
“I liked it — I definitely liked it,” says Buster Brown Eyes, talking in a cafe a few days later. Her hair billows past her shoulder blades; for the contest she'd braided it and hid it under her jacket. She'd also bound her breasts with a sheet and sewed herself in.
“When you're up there with a mustache, you're not just a guy, you're the guy,” she says. “I became, like, an egomaniac.”
Far beyond the land of women who still live as “she,” Stafford and Jordy Jones live together, work together, and share a world beyond pronouns. (For convenience, they will be called “she” here, though they interchangeably call themselves and some of their friends both “he” and “she.”)
The two platonic friends — family, really — operate a graphic design business out of a South of Market loft yawning with artwork, antiques, and, in the back, a repair shop called Jen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Jordy, who will only give her age as 14 but appears 20- to 30-something, calls herself totally non-monogamous. Stafford, of the same age range, says she is monogamous, and mostly attracted to women — “but really attracted to people, not any particular gender.
“I picture myself as someday having a home and settling down with a woman, but it would have to be a home that included Jordy,” Stafford says. “Jordy's like my son.”
The two didn't attend the Mr. Klubstitute contest this month, but both competed last May in the first annual drag king competition held at the San Francisco Eagle bar, a pageant and photo shoot that resulted in the city's first drag king calendar. Stafford, lankily handsome, appears as a tony “Mr. July,” suited up with a hand in one pocket. “Gender confusion is a small price to pay for social progress,” the caption reads. (She credits the expression to Zippy the Pinhead.)
Jordy, the chestnut-eyed “Mr. February,” sports white military garb. “What are you wearing under your words?” Jordy's caption reads.
The two cohorts these days are basking in some British fame: The BBC has filmed a documentary about them, due to be released next year, and as a result they were flown to London this summer. Which is how they wound up judging that city's first official drag king contest.
“There was a member of Parliament,” Jordy begins the tale of the competition, “who died about a year ago of autoerotic asphyxiation. They found him hanging up with his peter hanging out and his face all swollen.” Which leads to the matter of Hans Schierl, the contest winner, hands down. Literally. “Hans re-created the death scene onstage, hanging by the neck, jerking off like a maniac, and at the moment of orgasm, blood,” Jordy says, totally droll. “Because capillaries do burst. It's not a pretty way to go.”
“The crowd thought it was fabulous,” Stafford says.
The drag that Stafford is personally most proud of is the gender blow she did for a San Francisco gallery opening, “Vegas in Space.”
“I did a military space guy in drag,” she says. “I was painted gold and I had a white jacket on, and gold tights, and high boots, and I packed really nicely, so it looked totally real. And I totally passed among people you shouldn't be able to pass in front of. Even the queens couldn't read me.” [page]
“It's fun to pass with fags,” Jordy agrees. But it's also possible to get in trouble.
“I was cruised once,” says Jordy, “by somebody who didn't know me, thought I was a boy, was being quite friendly, was in my field, was in a position to sort of hand out goodies, was horrified when he realized what the real scoop was, and only a couple years later has he finally settled down enough to talk to me. I think it really shook him up.”
“It's like when Danny Bonaduce from The Partridge Family found out the person he waR>s dating was a man, and he punched her. It's shocking to a male ego,” Stafford says.
I find my mind won't budge from what Stafford said about packing “really nicely.”
“What did you use?” I have to ask.
“I think I was using condoms filled with hair gel inside of stockings. Jordy makes them really well,” Stafford says.
But what if someone gropes them and they break?
“You use more than one condom, you double or triple sack it, and then you put the nylon on,” Jordy explains.
“I've been groped and Jordy's been groped and still passed,” Stafford says. “I mean, if you think about it, when you grab a guy's crotch, you can't squeeze very tight or you'll hurt him, so any guy who's going to grab you isn't going to want to grab you to hurt you. So you're just going to get a squishy feeling, like half hard.” Stafford knows some of this from her work as a male model. “I did the Stormy Leather fashion show, and backstage I was wearing one under my underwear,” she says, “and I totally passed.”
They take me to a light box to show me slides of themselves and other drag kings, a term they use for people in performance mode, not for the daily grind. Today, for example, Stafford wears black jeans and a loose black shirt, her close-cropped blond hair curling slightly over a high, classically “masculine” forehead. Jordy wears glasses and a royal red, V-necked sweater befitting a country clubber. One can imagine her later in a man's satin dressing gown, savoring a martini. Strangely, though her face could definitely pass as a man's, it is her ears I notice. I find her ears uniquely male, though by this time I know the word means nothing.
“This is a woman who was a San Francisco fixture for a while,” Jordy points to a slide. “Terrible drag king.”
“What makes someone a terrible drag king?” I ask.
“She wore those high kind of girly platform shoes,” says Stafford. “And I also think she did a butch striptease? Isn't that what she did?”
“Her talent was like, yeccchh,” Jordy aR>nswers.
“And also, we know she threw her act together in about five seconds, and if you're not prepared,” Stafford says, “it's not going to come off. It's like Leigh — Elvis Herselvis — works on her drag all the time and she buys great costumes, and Jordy and I are constantly going to vintage clothing stores.”
“We've got about 30 suits and different outfits, lots of cool military jackets and hats and trousers and shoes and some band uniforms you can use for different things,” says Stafford.
“I think when you talk about drag kings, Jordy and I take it a little further than most people do,” Stafford adds. “We don't try to pass.”
“We just do,” says Jordy.
“We do it because it's aesthetically pleasing to us,” says Stafford. “I always wonder, when somebody calls me 'he,' or calls me 'she' — I always wonder, what did they see in me to make them call me that? Because I basically look pretty much the same from day to day,” she says.
“I'm never insulted by being called one or the other,” Stafford adds. “The only time I'll point it out is if someone is using gender as a reason to treat me a certain way. If somebody is giving me male privilege, I'll refuse it. When I walk up to a counter with somebody who comes across as visibly, really female, 99 percent of the time, I'll be served first. Or the person will address questions just to me. And then I'll point it out to them,” she says.
Both Stafford and Jordy, like most of the women interviewed, have memories of wanting to cross-dress from earliest childhood. Stafford at age 4 found a catalog of bride and groom outfits, fell in love with the tuxedos, hid in one of her brother's closets, put on a boy's shirt, and taught herself how to knot a tie. Instinctively, she felt she had to hide her behavior. “But I remember thinking the grooms were really lucky because they had all these great choices, but the brides basically had one boring white dress to choose from,” she says.
Stafford's hometown, Gridley — halfway between Chico and Yuba City — didn't offer much room for experimentation, and her mother, by the time Stafford hit adolescence, became increasingly angry over her blossoming lesbianism. Stafford took solace in her skill as an athlete, and spent a year in college and five years in the Army before reaching a place where she could come up for air. She met Jordy after the two crossed paths at a San Francisco porn shoot.
Jordy, meanwhile, says her family forced her to wear girls clothes “in order to be taken places. We went to tea parties,” she says, darkly. “Which meant I couldn't run around looking like a scruff all the time in boys jeans.” She escaped during her teens and doesn't want to say how, or from where, except to describe her childhood home as somewhere around the Bay Area. But life took a major turn when she met Stafford, and found family. [page]
“I consider gender a continuum along which I travel freely,” Stafford says. “I don't really see people as men and women anymore.” How can you draw lines, she asks, when you live in a world with people as amazing as Justin Bond, the drag queen performance artist? Or James Green, director of FTM International, a Bay Area support group for female-to-male transsexuals, himself a man who was “born in an apparently female body” as Green puts it, and who legally changed his sex in 1990. “James is a saint,” Stafford says.
“I would just give a word of advice,” she continues. “I would just say if you want to pass, climb over the fence like you belong there. Act like you belong in those clothes,” she says. She searches out Jordy's reaction, and finds approval.
“Let's have a nice round of applause for the handsome gents.” Leigh Crow/Elvis Herselvis is keeping things rolling at Klubstitute, though she looks a bit lonesome tonight without the company of her fellow band members, the Straight White Males.
Half-time entertainment remains ahead: She'll be launching into the lyrics, “One night with you is what I'm praying for,” black shoes gleaming, hair perfectly pooR>fed. At the song's end, she'll be on her knees, hands pleading with the ceiling in true Elvis fashion. Crow's been playing the King for more than five years, and though her male impersonation roles of late have expanded to Jack Nicholson and Erik Estrada, it's Elvis she loves most, and it's Elvis who stares down from the black velvet painting in her bedroom. The only thing she refuses to do on his behalf, she says, is wear a jumpsuit.
“I heard this statistic once that if the rate of Elvis impersonators keeps going the way it is today, by the year 2050, one in 10 people will be Elvis impersonators,” Crow will muse a few days in the future. “So that's really a beautiful thing to look forward to.”
In the meantime, contestant Raoul is stressed out.
He has to follow the act of Buster Brown Eyes, clearly the most popular Mr. Klubstituter with the crowd so far. Plus, Raoul's a real boy. Taking a deep breath, he mans the stage, strips off his shirt, and lip-syncs “Witchcraft,” but near the end of the song he forgets the words. A drag queen arrives onstage to whisper the lyrics in his ear and help him finish.
“Behind every great man is a great woman,” Elvis says, comfortingly.
Finally, it is time for the announcement of the semifinalists: Pierre Byrd; Jonathan Newt, who sang a nasty song about Newt Gingrich, plastic lizard in hand; and Ronnie Earl, an actual man, who portrayed a redneck jaw-jutter with the IQ of a plank.
“How many dildos do you own, and do you have names for them?” the judges ask Pierre Byrd, to test her intelligence and suitability.
“I have lots of little fellas, but they're not really little,” Byrd says. “I call them my alter egos.”
Sigmund Freud, the premier Mr. Id and Ego, would have had a tough time explaining drag kings. In fact, today's sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists — even therapists specializing in gender issues — find it difficult to explain the needs and behaviors of those now being called the differently gendered.
“TR>here's so much new that is going in terms of gender fluidity — the more we know, the more we don't know,” says San Francisco psychotherapist Lin Fraser, whose gender-issue work spans 25 years. Perhaps, Fraser says, the amorphous new roles signal the first open flicker of a buried fire: a sign that the old notions of femininity and masculinity, and other dualities, are collapsing. “We don't know if this is just some kind of symbol of what's going on in the whole culture, or if it's a sign that we are moving away from a binary system. We don't know why this is happening at all,” she says.
The only thing that seems clear, she continues, is that people are seeing more options. Instead of trying to fit into a stereotypical male or female mold, “people might say, 'I'm bigendered, or I feel somewhere in between,' ” Fraser says.
But why do they feel in between? The literature offers few answers, experts say. Traditional psychotherapists sometimes theorize that the transgendered identity is a defense — something used to block pain. “Another theory being discussed,” says Fraser, “is that the cross-gender or transsexualism is a dissociation,” a kind of fugue state that people use to split off from reality and escape pain.
Most gender experts believe there is some kind of biological underpinning in differently gendered people, she adds. “But we don't even know for sure when gender identity is established. We used to think it was between the ages of 2 and 4, and now we're not sure about that.”
Statistics don't help; they mostly don't exist. Psychologists currently believe that the number of female-to-male transsexuals — loosely defined as people who take male hormones, have mastectomies, or have penises surgically constructed — is 1 per 30,000 in the population. About 1 per 100,000 female-to-males actually undergo sex reassignment surgery, says Judy van Maasdam, coordinator of Palo Alto's Gender Dysphoria Program. It is also believed, says van Maasdam, that there are just as many female-to-males asR> male-to-females.
Surgery is less common among female-to-males, though, because it's far less perfected. Phalloplasty, one of two available procedures, involves taking skin, typically from the forearm and wrist, to construct a penis. “The sensitivity isn't great, it doesn't function well, and it doesn't look good,” says Fraser. The other option, metoidioplasty, involves injections of testosterone, which can eventually enlarge the clitoris, creating a sensitive “microphallus” perhaps an inch and a half long. The labia can also be pumped up with implants and fashioned to look like a scrotum. [page]
The procedure, in any event, is not something sought by most of the women calling themselves drag kings. Cross-dressing, drag kings point out, is a far different thing than what is traditionally described as feeling like a male trapped in a female body. And no one has statistics on the number of drag kings in the world.
“It's a campier side of lesbians,” says Leigh Crow, on a lunch break from work at a thrift store. Like Stafford and Jordy, Crow admits to being a thriftaholic. “Drag is something a lot of people in the gay community” — men and women — “can relate to, as opposed to the really heavy political aspect of the women's community,” Crow says. “It doesn't even have to be political. It's light, and funny, and has a certain whimsy to it.”
It's play, says Bay Area psychotherapist Marny Hall. “I think that for many butch-femme or postmodern dykes gender is a role they can assume, and make fun of, and use as a costume,” Hall says. “And if you accept the notion that gender is costuming, instead of essence, then you can play with it however you want.”
Portola Valley author and lesbian therapist JoAnn Loulan puts it this way: “On the whole, the world believes there are only two genders. I think there are thousands.”
Francis Vavra, deep-voiced and dark-haired, wears a sleeveless red dress when she opens the door to her Oakland apartment. Her artist husband, whose nudes — all female — grace the walls, isn't home. The sun filters through her living room, glints off the wigged mannequin in the corner, warms the cat on the couch. In half an hour, Vavra will strip to bare breasts and jockey shorts and start preparing for an evening as a man. There's an AIDS benefit in San Francisco, and she's the “male” escort for Miss ETVC, the representative of what is discreetly called Educational TV Channel, the largest transgender group in the nation. Miss ETVC is a male-to-female.
And Vavra, 45, is a woman with two lives. “I'm my own kind of man,” she says.
“I call myself a shapeshifter,” Vavra explains. Each weekday she dresses as a woman and goes to her job in San Francisco as a secretary. Nighttime, she says, is typically “male” time. “I can play a gay man, but I'm really a bisexual man. And when I'm male, I'm actually attracted more to women,” she says. She pauses. “The only way to really explain it is to say I'm attracted to people, and to some people more than others.
“I don't feel like man, and I don't feel like a woman,” she says. If people consider her male, “then I can have adventures, be a fly on the wall and really open that side of my personality up.” The journey is partly spiritual, she believes. Tibetan monks can change their vibrations and their aspect, she says, and what she does with gender follows the same path. By embracing both female and male parts of herself — which everyone has — “I create a balance that's beyond gender,” she says. “Because we are much more than our bodies.”
Being in the male body, she says, is more difficult for her than being in the female. “It's a much more isolated, restricted world,” Vavra says. “Men have a hard time making eye contact, saying what they want to say, expressing feelings. In the gay world, at least, men can laugh and joke, but the straight world feels so uptight.”
Vavra plays the drag king every once in a while — it's a term she uses for performing, which she did in last year's drag king contest at the Eagle bar.R> But mostly she just puts on a mustache and passes.
“It takes about 20 minutes to do the makeup for both the male and female,” she says. As she walks into the bedroom to change, Vavra's looks are unquestionably “feminine,” though her voice is deep, owing to a course of testosterone she's been taking. She uses a cotton pad to wipe away the eye shadow, foundation, and lipstick of her female self. She takes off her necklace. She steps out of her dress, and pulls on a Lycra undershirt to minimize her small breasts. Tonight she will pack with her favorite recipe: a penis fashioned out of squishy rubber balls — kids toys — and the large, soft, rubber snail, sans feelers. She opens the closet, pushes past her 40 ties, and puts on black men's pants, a dress belt, a pressed white shirt. And she suddenly seems to stand differently. Her voice seems lower. I have a hard time with her hands especially: Just a second ago, they seemed like a woman's hands, and now they seem totally male.
“The eyebrows are the hard part,” Vavra says. “I plucked them years ago, and they never grew back.” She draws them in with tiny brush strokes. Her real-hair mustache comes from a theatrical company. She applies it with spirit gum and touches it up with wax.
All that's left is to comb back her hair, graying at the temples, and receding, thanks to the hormones, which also sparked male puberty: Her voice changed and cracked. She stopped suffering from cold hands and feet, she slept less, her sex drive took off. “My face also got more angular, my nose widened, my hips got more thin, and I started growing facial hair,” she says. She now has to shave if she wants to pass as female.
Vavra's gender play started young: By the age of 4, her greatest thrill was to wear her father's fedora hats, or sit for hours in her grandfather's walk-in closet, admiring his smoking jackets and silver cuff links. Her role models growing up were dapper movie stars: Tyrone Power, Clark Gable, Ronald Colman. [page]
But she didn't start cross-dressing for years. Born in St. Louis, she moved to Los Angeles after high school, worked as a model, and met her husband posing for his paintings. He dressed her in women's clothes, which, she says, he really wanted to wear himself. And eventually did. The two married and moved to Seattle, where Vavra began playing with menswear, while her husband cross-dressed female.
It wasn't until moving to the Bay Area eight years ago, however, that Vavra dressed head to toe in male drag: She wanted to be the “male” escort for her femmed-out husband, “Roxanna.” The event was an ETVC Halloween party. “I took on the accent of a Hungarian and became a Gypsy man for the evening, with a mustache and a double-breasted pin stripe suit and wingtips. And when I looked at myself in the mirror, it just came out full force: the male part of myself. It was like my brain changed,” Vavra says. The face in the mirror matched her inner feelings.
She began putting on her male persona — a dapper gentleman, like her heroes — as often as she could. She bought more men's clothes. She learned how to pee standing up — she uses men's room stalls, and cups a cut-out plastic coffee can lid between her legs, jutting out her hips, male style. (How-to pamphlets on the subject suggest pretending a sneeze in order not to arouse suspicion when tearing off toilet paper.)
“My husband didn't necessarily like me being a male,” Vavra says. “But when he's cross-dressed, it works out for him. The only thing that doesn't work very well is if we're both men together.”
Having a continued sexual connection with her husband, though, makes it difficult for her to find a relationship with a woman, she says. Particularly since straight women aren't often interested in someone transgendered, and lesbians often disapprove of her involvement with a male.
Her appeal to the world — a difficult and sometimes lonely one — is that people not pay attention to outer appearances. Which happen to be the lifeblood of the culture.
“The more understanding there is about transgendered people,” she says, “the better it will be for all of us.”
“If you were a flower, which flower would you be?” the Klubstitute judges ask contestant Jonathan Newt.
“A voodoo lily,” Newt replies. The crowd listens expectantly for an explanation. “They smell like meat, and they only flower once or twice a year,” Newt says, obliquely.
Judge Lu Read ponders the answer, and tries to block out thoughts of all the work ahead. Not only is there a winner to pick tonight, but Read is the promoter of Merkinstock on Oct. 8, a drag event at the Transmission Theater that aspires to be the West Coast's “Wigstock,” only wilder, since lots of performers will wear merkins (theatrical pubic hairpieces). Justin Bond has signed on — he's in town doing The Moon in the Gutter, a pulp noir performance piece playing at the Climate Theater. And Joan Jett Blakk and Elvis Herselvis and Patsy Cline are coming. But there's the rest of the lineup to organize.
“What's the most pressing problem in the world today?” Read manages to ask Ronnie Earl.
Earl, the macho thug, flexes in his sleeve-free jeans jacket with the Motorhead patch on the back. “There ain't enough guns out there,” Earl croaks.
Not much more can be said. All three semifinalists have answered their questions. It is nearly 2 a.m. A slip of paper is handed up to Elvis Herselvis.
“And the second runner-up,” Herselvis declares, “is Ronnie Earl!” The first runner-up, she continues, “is Jonathan Newt! And the winner” — she pauses, as she must at a time like this — “is PIERRE BYRD!”
Pierre Byrd can hardly believe it. She waves her arms in joy, then holds them out so Elvis can secure the Mr. Klubstitute '95 belt around her waist. Byrd cradles the gold trophy she is handed. Her fellow kings and queens harrumph and cheer her victory.
Only days later, back at the candy store, can she sum up her feelings.
“I was tickled to death, and I was shocked,” Byrd says. Just two years ago, she was still a corporate administrator, driving a church bus, leading a Girl Scout troop, “living in the same town I grew up in, carrying my little briefcase every day to the same job I'd had for 20 years.”
By chance, her company transferred her to San Francisco. “I started meeting people who were really free, and I knew I had all these things deep inside me that I had beat down all my life,” Byrd says. “I'd thought it was evil and of the devil and I would be cast into hell forever, and so it was something I fought like crazy.”
Now she doesn't have to fight anymore. Except that, in keeping with the savage-male, macho tone of the Klubstitute contest, Byrd has heard faux rumors on the street that someone wants to knock her off.
“They're going to try to steal my crown,” says Byrd, with her apple-pie voice. “I don't know what that means, but whatever it is, I'm looking forward to it.