"Did you see the sudden realization on that guy's face?" I overhear a lithe woman in a leopard skin miniskirt say to her sparkly companion. "Somewhere between, 'Yeah, boy! I want to get in there,' and 'Shit! They're all dykes.'"
As they say, you're either on the bus or you're off the bus.
Of course, being on the bus, tonight, requires a highly refined guidebook, because nothing is quite as it seems. A glossy-lipped femme in tasseled hot pants and curly blond pigtails flounces up to the line, putting her arm around a stolid butch in a leather jacket.
"Remember me?" says the femme with a coquettish smile. "You gave me your number at a bar awhile ago." Stephanie Galetti, aka Da Gov', shifts her feet awkwardly, looking at the femme's ill-fitting white pumps.
"Um, I don't think I know you," says Galetti just as sneaking recognition lights up her face and she realizes that the coquettish femme is actually fellow swaggering butch Marya Taylor, in drag. Taylor laughs, slapping Galetti's arm with a disturbingly manicured hand.
"None of the butches have recognized me," says Taylor, still laughing. "The femmes all know immediately. It's interesting."
Taylor, who is not unaccustomed to showing her body off in a "guy way" -- tight leather pants and polyester shirts that accentuate her chest and arms -- is playing up tonight's role with exceptional aplomb, laughing when she gets her nearly bare ass grabbed by other butches (or femmes dressed as butches, as the case may be). But not everyone has it so easy. The sticky task of establishing who is and who is not in "drag," and who therefore does or does not get a discount on the price of admission, lies on the shoulders of Kountry Kays frontwoman J. Byrd Hosch, whose sweet-voiced discretion takes the form of, "You'll need to pay $15, honey. You can pay $10." It's no simple task, but not one she seems to mind, as long as everyone gets in the door. (As it is, a lot of very disappointed ladies are turned away after the club reaches capacity.)
"Look at all these women!" gasps a suited femme named Hillary Strouse as she gazes around the packed dance floor. "Where do they all come from? More importantly, where do they all go?" The music is pumping, and amusing videos from "Dragstrip" light up the back wall as Strouse disappears into the hormone-rich flurry of bodies.
Backstage, 10 contestants, six judges, two MCs, and a camera crew try to maneuver themselves through a tiny, sweltering dressing room. It's like the backstage scene of any beauty contest, but in reverse. Hair is applied rather than plucked, bellies are accentuated rather than hidden, poise is exchanged for bravado.
"I'm a pretty femme girl normally," says 21-year-old Angus Mustang, a sleazy-looking Serpico-style "detective" with brown shades, tight polyester pants, slicked-back hair, a mustache, and a shoulder holster. "It's really weird sticking hair on instead of pulling it off. My arms are grossing me out." She looks down at the curly dark hair peeking out of her rolled-up shirt sleeve and smiles. "I was inspired by the Spike Jones archetype." A cowboy, a vampire, a Southern preacher, and a car mechanic push past.
Arty Fishal, current judge and former S.F. Drag King (1998), wedges himself between a full-length mirror and a television camera to adjust the Star of David peeking out of his gold lamé suit jacket. "This evening, I'm looking for a true appreciation of camp, something often missing in the lesbian community." Fishal flashes me a gold-toothed smile, explaining the nuances of taking on a male persona. "It's important to take up a lot of space. Put your shoulders back and think entitlement. Last year, I needed a chair for my routine, and I went out into the club to find one. I was going around saying, 'Excuse me, can I borrow this chair?' -- I'm usually really femme -- and everyone said no. Then, I got into character and just grabbed a chair, saying, 'I need this.' It's funny, but it totally worked."
"[When doing male drag] the most important physical gesture is this," says judge Connie Champagne, pulling up her shirt to reveal yards of cloth bandages wrapped around her breasts. "We're all bound up under here -- sports bras, Ace bandages -- depending on how physically impaired we are." She smiles, handing me a lock of her Davey Bones wig.
"For your collection, love," he says in a Brit boy voice.
Electro hustles by, a blur of bad '80s stereotypes -- sleeveless red vinyl shirt with zippers, parachute pants with zippers, a red sparkly headband, a blond disco mullet with a single long braid -- trailed by his fiancee and dance partner, Lady Sergio.
"I really think Electro is coming into his own," says 25-year-old Electro. "Really beginning to feel his masculinity, as you'll see. Tonight's routine is inspired by Staying Alive. Not Saturday Night Fever. Staying Alive. (It's an important distinction.) It's sort of a really horrifying '80s dance thing. We're very excited."
Not nearly as excited as the crowd, which is barely contained when Leigh Crow (Elvis Herselvis in a plumed mack-daddy hat) steps onstage with The Shack (a wrestler of questionable proportions and reputation) to announce the first contestant: Davey Bones performing a really groovy pop number with go-go "girls," which goes smashingly until he is outted as a chick. Timmy Swagger -- a short, balding preacher in a crisp new suit -- comes out clutching a Bible in one hand, spewing fire and brimstone until Marya Taylor gets it into her mind to crawl up onstage and strip him. Quickly enough, the stage is swarming with lascivious femmes, and it's all that Swagger's wife can do to pull him to safety. The next act, Jolie Blonde, Yolo County's answer to Romeo and Juliet, tries to sing an acoustic duet, but the sound system gives out and all we can hear is the thup-thup-thup of "Club Universe" next door. No matter. Hip-thrusting car mechanic Rusty Steel offers free lube jobs to the tune of "Little Red Corvette"; 40-year-old Buster Cherry brings a little sophistication to the affair with a swinging zoot suit and Louis Jordan's "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens"; Angus Mustang shakes his polyester-ensconced detective can to the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" before hurling doughnuts and getting shot in the gut; the Marquis fa Cade sings opera and whips his girlfriend, who is lashed to a stake, but this is San Francisco so no one really cares about a mild lashing. Bad dancing is another thing. The very mention of Electro's name brings a round of applause "rivaled only by Riverdance." As a standing fan blowing cloth flames sets the stage, Electro enters wearing a one-sleeved tiger-print tank top with a shimmering black headband on and leather cords tied around his calves and biceps; Lady Sergio enters in a gold tank top, a leopard skin bikini, and leg warmers. And they dance! Oh boy, do they dance -- jazz hands, cat eyes, and gratuitous floor humping. It's a tough act to follow. Dick Little gives it a go, lip-syncing and hip-pumping until he's suddenly interrupted by Vlad Sucker -- the reigning "Mr. Trannyshack" as a vampire -- and the ominous strains of "Bela Lugosi's Dead." Vlad rips out Little's throat and basks in a spooky blue spotlight until Little Orphan Annie bursts onstage with a bloodcurdling rendition of "Tomorrow." Vlad has no choice but to bite Annie and rip off her little dog's head, sucking blood from its neck until the reanimated orphan drives a stake through his heart. This gruesome display is followed by the more gruesome Grinder, a leather-boy rock band performing "Proud Mary" with suggestive stances.
While the Dragstrip Dancers perform "Life in the Fast Lane" in pink spandex and coke-whore shades, the judges tabulate. Third runner-up, Rusty Steel; second runner-up Grinder; first runner-up Dick Little; and the winner, S.F. Drag King 2000, is Electro. 1999's Barry "Fresh" White hands over the crown and WWF-sized belt, and Lady Sergio kisses her man.
"I think I liked Vlad better," coos a girl standing near the stage. "I like my men tall, dark, and undead. Actually, I might just like my men without fiancees."