The Divas Diaries

The past, present, and possible future of San Francisco’s only transgender bar.

Divas is the only transgender bar in California and one of only a handful nationwide.. Photo by Christophe Victorio

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

I arrive at Divas at a quarter to midnight, and the pickings are slim as ever: cisgender men and a few Motherlode Girls. None of them are my type, but that’s OK. When you’re a transgender woman who is attracted to women — though primarily femmes, which narrows the opportunities considerably in San Francisco’s butch-happy lesbian scene — it’s all about patience. And if nothing happens, at least it isn’t because I’m at home.

I’d forgotten Tuesdays are the Talent Show, basically an open mic with a $50 prize. The talent in question is usually lip-syncing to whatever you can find on the CD jukebox, but I sign up to recite my piece from UC Berkeley’s V-Day production of The Vagina Monologues in February 2005. (Eve Ensler had written a transgender-specific piece, but the producers didn’t like it and asked me to write my own.) Nursing a White Russian under the comforting blue glow of the neon “Motherlode” sign hanging behind the bar, a remnant of the bar’s old location down at Post and Larkin, I dredge the monologue from my memory and into my notebook.

My recall is interrupted by a cisgender man who asks, “What are you writing?” I tell him, and he shakes his head. “People want to get away. They don’t come here for a lecture, they want to be entertained.”

He already doesn’t have a chance with me because I don’t like men, which is nobody’s fault, but suggesting that I won’t be entertaining? Oh, fuck you so much.

A little while later, a beautiful cis femme walks in. She orders two drinks and flirts with one of the Motherlode Girls, but it doesn’t go anywhere. They’re there for the paying men, and whatever else this stranger is, she is not a trick.

I take my name off the list for the Talent Show, then make my move: “I’d buy you a drink, but you already have two.”

Smiling broadly, she pats the stool next to her and says, “Can I buy you one? Please, sit down!”

I sit. She tells me her name is Ryder, and she’s looking to pick up a transgender woman. I tell her my name is Sherilyn, and I’m looking to pick up a cisgender woman.

Somewhere in the world, a bolt of lightning shoots down from a clear blue sky.

We tell each other about ourselves, occasionally interrupting to gush about how hot we find the other, one hand always on the other’s leg or waist. (She starts it, and I follow her lead.)  Ryder then asks the question which has been implied from the start, but needs to be spoken aloud. “Will you spend the night with me?”

I say yes.

Located at 1081 Post between Polk and Larkin and flanked by a firehouse and a long brick wall, Divas is the Tenderloin’s only transgender bar. It’s also San Francisco’s only transgender bar. It’s also California’s only transgender bar. And pulling back further, it’s just one of three across this benighted nation, the other two being the Jacques Cabaret in Boston and the Las Vegas Lounge.

Divas is not a drag bar; it is a transgender bar. Deal with it.

The essential question: Who is Divas for in 2018?

But think about those numbers. There are more out transgender elected officials in the U.S. — Danica Roem, Andrea Jenkins, Phillipe Cunningham, and Lisa Middleton, for starters — than there are bars that offer a space safe for transgender civilians. It’s always been a struggle for just this one to exist, and whether it exists to offer a safe space to transgender civilians of all stripes — the gamut from casual crossdressers to full-time trans women, referred to collectively in the Divas argot as “T-girls,” while I personally refer to the local sex workers as the Motherlode Girls — depends on who you ask.

An excellent metaphor for transgender visibility is that Divas only appears on Google Maps if you actively search for it. If you zoom down to the 50-foot scale, it shows an article-free “Motherlode,” with the highlights listed as “Fast service, Great cocktails, and Live performances.” But if you enter “Divas” into the search box it suddenly exists, described as a “Transgender community hangout & bar featuring strip shows, karaoke, lounge & pool room.” The pot club next door also shows up only if you search for it, but Divas has been around a whole lot longer.

Conceptually, Divas evolved from a single-story bar called the Motherlode at the northwest corner of Post and Larkin. The Motherlode’s iconic neon sign still hangs behind the first-floor bar at Divas, though it no longer works; owner Steve Berkey tells me he hasn’t been able to get it fixed because the local neon repair shop has been replaced by a Verizon store. Isn’t that always the way?

Physically, Divas is a four-story letterbox with the main bar on the first floor, a dancefloor on the third, and a cozy lounge on the fourth. (Formerly a kitchen, the second story is used for storage.) It’s a mere 128 feet from the old Motherlode, yet it took several years to make the move, and it’s a location that has never been easy to get into.

In June 1975, the Bureau of Building Inspection received plans titled “Alterations to Convert Existing Former P.G. & E. Concrete Sub-station to Cocktail Lounge — 1081 Post.” It hadn’t happened by the early 1980s when further plans were submitted to build additional floors to the one-story concrete slab, labeled “Tavern Renovation for Leola King.” Blue Mirror proprietor Ms. King’s renovated, four-story establishment would eventually open as Goldie’s Supper Club, but that was after what a 2007 Bay Guardian article described as “a seemingly endless round of yet more negotiations, letters, legal threats, and bureaucratic backbiting.”

It closed by 1997, and the Guardian article goes on to say that Goldie’s was to be a roost from which Ms. King “hoped to feature cabaret dancing, fresh crab at happy hour, a refined Art Deco aesthetic and live music performances. She lost that, too. Today, it’s Diva’s just off Polk Street. Urban renewal won.”

That’s what’s so handy about Divas: It represents whatever evil you need it to, whether urban blight or gentrification.

Friday, Feb. 16, 2007

The walls of the dancefloor are mirrored, but I’m only in it for the dancing tonight. Studying my reflection is no longer the engrossing activity it once was, and for that I am grateful.

I’m relaxing between tours of dancing duty when a familiar-looking blonde walks by and goes into the restroom. Was it my old friend Lilah, returned from New York? Nah. But definitely familiar. And intriguing. I stand and edge closer to the door.

Someone else goes in, and I peek through as the door closes. Well, no wonder, she looks just like … but, no, it couldn’t be. Last I’d heard, she’d passed away, and if she were alive she was unlikely to be fixing her makeup in the third-floor restroom at Divas. But still…

When she comes back out, I ask, “Excuse me, are you Kelly Michaels?” She nods, and my heart explodes.
In my late teens, I watched a fair amount of what was then referred to as “shemale porn” because it was the only positive representation of transgender women I could find — my essay “The Big Reveal” in the anthology Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation goes into more detail on this topic — and my biggest hero was Kelly Michaels. A trashy, gum-snapping Southerner with a serious Madonna fixation, Michaels had a distinct persona and attitude in her movies, young and energetic and alive. She had been known as one of the better Madonna impersonators in the late ’80s, appearing at Finocchio’s in North Beach and La Cage in Vegas, venues which were that field’s equivalent of Carnegie Hall. But Michaels was on a different plane, with her own bleached-blonde hair — no wig! — and breast implants rather than the bra padding the other performers wore. Although she’d been making a living as a female impersonator, she was not a man impersonating a woman; she was a transgender woman.

I’d also found it inspiring that she did everything under her own name: Kelly Michaels the Madonna impersonator was the same Kelly Michaels as the porn star. She didn’t try to hide who she was or what she did, and while she wasn’t the only reason I eventually went blonde, she was up there with Debbie Harry and Aimee Mann.

I geek out all over her: “Omigod, I’m a huge fan from way back and I am just so super-thrilled to meet you, this means so much, can I buy you a drink?”

She orders a white wine, and as I get the money out of my wallet, I realize my hands are shaking with adrenaline. I say, “I’m sorry, I’m having a total fangirl moment.”

Kelly laughs. “That’s okay, I don’t mind.” She takes a sip of wine and adds, “Wanna dance?”

And so I turn into a mirror-gazer, my baseline narcissism amplified to deafening levels because, holy fucking shit, right there, that’s her and me dancing! Kelly Michaels and Sherilyn Connelly side by side, cutting a laminate rug. No picture will be taken of this personally historic occasion, so I burn it into my retinal memory. Things only happen once, and most things don’t happen at all.

The history of Divas is necessarily also a history of how trans women and trans issues have been discussed in the media. Case in point is an April 1995 article about the Motherlode’s attempt to move to 1035 Post St. with the horrible title of “Moving is a Drag” (boooo!) in SF Weekly. The online version of the article is credited to simply “SF Weekly Staff,” and while I didn’t start writing for this paper until 2011, I nonetheless apologize. Shame on us back then.

Joseph Jurkans and Mark Gilpin purchased it in 1986 with the intention of opening a gay bar, but the Motherlode started outgrowing its Post and Larkin location upon the closure of the infamously rough Black Rose at Eddy and Jones streets.

From the ’95 Weekly article: “The ‘girls,’ as Gilpin calls the trans crowd, flocked to the Motherlode when they discovered the bar welcomed them and provided a safe atmosphere.” The construction of the sentence implies that it was the Weekly staffer who put the scare quotes around “girls.” (Boooo!) An attempt in 1992 to move to 1217 Sutter St., which had formerly been occupied by a straight bar, failed when the Apostolic Faith Church and the Polk Street District Merchants’ Association teamed up to block it, citing prostitution concerns.

Remember the Guardian Angels? They lodged the same objection during the unsuccessful 1995 move. In a Gilead-worthy turn of phrase, a spokesangel said he had seen “lots of” prostitutes go into the Motherlode, whereupon they “pick up their men and go to Hemlock [Alley] and sell their bodies.” His fear was that if the bar moved across the street and a few doors down — approximately 185 feet — then they would start turning tricks on Cedar Street. That’s the alley that runs parallel between Post and Geary for exactly two blocks between Van Ness and Larkin, much like Hemlock runs for two blocks parallel to Post and Sutter, but Cedar was “closer to Guardian Angels headquarters.” Pearl-clutching terror! In other words, the big strong men in their jaunty berets were pulling a straight-up NIMBY move that surely had nothing to do with their masculinity being threatened.

1990s-era SF Weekly did not always write about Divas in the most sensitive ways. Photo by Chris Victorio

Friday, May 22, 2009

For our second date after meeting on OkCupid, my-soon-to-be-girlfriend Marta and I have dinner at Zen Yai at Ellis and Polk streets. We then go to Divas, where we drink and dance and improbably find a space to lay back and cuddle. I ask if I may kiss her, and she says yes. It is a good evening.

In 1998, Divas finally moved into 1081 Post St. Current owner Steve Berkey bought it so his wife Melissa — whom he met while she was a Motherlode Girl — would have somewhere safe to tend bar. To afford the space, he sold off the other properties he owned across the country. How’s that for a heartwarming real-estate deal? The third and fourth floors were initially a club for Asian men called Dragon, which Berkey says is a legacy of Mark Gilpin’s appetite for that demographic. Dragon is still listed on the gold plaque in front of the building, much like how the inoperative Motherlode sign is still behind the bar.

In a roundup of queer bars for SFGate in April 2000, Buck Sledge (uh-huh) listed the Motherlode as being the “bottom floor of Diva’s” and “a serious tranny bar for men who like their women with a little something extra.” Very clever, “Buck.” In a 2004 SFGate article about Divas, John Koopman described it as “the most famous, or possibly notorious, transgender bar in San Francisco.” Though he left the word “only” out of that list, his description of the clientele was not terrible: “post-op transsexuals, pre-ops, crossdressers, gender-benders, female impersonators and the men who love them.” An improvement, even if the cis boys are still hanging in there, as they always are.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

I’m at Divas for karaoke, a self-care habit I’d resumed after breaking up with Marta, but nothing is going right. I absentmindedly pick up someone else’s drink from the bar, which the bartender calls me on somewhat harshly, and then the host can’t get my song to load. I look in the big binder and confirm that I got it right: Alanis Morissette, “You Learn,” SC07-596. The host refuses when I try to show them the number in the binder, instead handing me the slip and telling me to get it right this time. I write it on the back, directly from the book, the same number I’d written on the front.

I don’t realize the binder’s rings are open until half the pages fall out, and they scold me: “Sherilyn, what have you done to my book?!?” I try to explain that it’s not my fault, it was like that when I picked it up. The host is having none of it, and gets even angrier when I try to put the paper back on the rings: “Just leave it alone!”

I sing my song (swallow it down, what a jagged little pill) and beat a hasty retreat. As I exit the building and walk toward Polk, a Motherlode Girl calls after me, “Do you fuck for pay?” I say that I don’t, and she shouts, “Well, get the fuck out of here, then!” But I was walking away! I have to stop and turn back to answer her question! It is a bad evening.

On my 43rd birthday in 2016, an SFGate article about queer bars for Pride month had a lovely little gift for me, describing the crowd at Divas as “Trans women, drag queens, crossdressers and the people who admire them.” That’s not perfect, but not having my kind’s existence reduced to whether we give men stiffies and/or we’re physiologically capable of producing our own was an improvement.

Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017

Divas has recently started offering Bloody Marys, and they are spicy and delicious with olives marinating at the bottom, but BroFest ’17 is making it difficult to enjoy my drink. The men have taken over the internet jukebox and they’re trying to headbang to a muddy recording of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” One says, “This is like classic heavy metal! It’s Ozzy before Ozzy was Ozzy!” To which the bartender says the best thing I hear all night: “Is that Kelly Osbourne’s dad?”

Lots of fuck-yeahs going on from the boys, and some debate the provenance of this terrible recording, which only I seem to have Soundhounded. (It’s a demo from the compilation The Ozzman Cometh. Internet jukeboxes are treacherous.) This song, in this context, couldn’t be more wrong.

And now, silence. Normally I love silence, but this is somehow worse. Oh thank goodness, the bartender changes it back to the satellite radio, which Soundhound tells me is playing Jason Derulo’s “Swalla (feat. Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla $ign).” I’ve never heard the song before, but I am so happy it’s on. It feels like a necessary corrective to the overabundance of male energy in what I think is the last place male energy should be abundant.

Look, male energy isn’t the worst thing in the world. My best friend is a straight man who dislikes bros even more than I do, and I’m well aware that if no men came into Divas, the bar would be in even more dire financial straits than it already is. Some of them are perfectly sweet, and over the years I’ve become good friends with Raz, the only straight cis man who works there besides owner Berkey. But between being wired to find masculinity unattractive and privileged enough to have never had to fuck for pay, I can’t shake this snowflakey desire for Divas to be a safe space for trans women that isn’t just a meat market. I also know I’m alone in this.

Steve Berkey is a kind but exhausted man who described his current state to me as one of “total frustration,” which no doubt is both cause and result of Divas having been on the market for the past three years. An unwritten condition for sale is that the new owners will keep Divas the way it is.

Alexis Miranda, longtime bartender and host of the weekend Midnight Show — a fairly pedestrian lip-sync extravaganza, so basic you’re as likely to hear Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” as not — assured me there will be upgrades and improvements, but it will continue serving the same clientele.

This brings up the question that has been foremost on my mind: Who is Divas for in 2018?

I’m never quite able to ask the question flat out — both Berkey and Miranda tend to disregard my attempts to steer the interview — but Berkey answers it all the same when he leans in confidentially and says, “Here is my philosophy for this whole thing. What does a guy like most about himself? His cock. What else do guys like? A beautiful girl. When you put both of those together, you’re in fuckin’ heaven.”

So once again, it all boils down to the feeding of the male ego vis-à-vis the worship of the penis. It certainly explains why so many men there have gotten angry over the years when I’ve declined their advances: I am not keeping up my end of the bargain. (And when I’m writing in my notebook, which is often, I inevitably get a “What are you writing?”)

Meanwhile, the repeated characterizations of cis women as unfuckable hags and the vagina as a “mudhole” that you can’t have any fun with — a fun conversational meme started by Miranda, continued by Berkey — is a stream of old-school queer misogyny that makes me wish I’m wearing a pussy hat. Maybe next time, if there is a next time, and I’m beginning to think there may not be.

Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017

I put a sawbuck into the jukebox and build an impromptu Sia setlist. “Rainbow” from My Little Pony: The Movie followed by “Cheap Thrills,” and it’s almost making up for the gross boys demanding “War Pigs” last time. “Move Your Body” followed by “Waving Goodbye” — this is so Q4 2017 of me, Sherilyn’s Sia period — and “The Girl You Lost to Cocaine” followed by “Reaper.”

A short bald man who unpleasantly reminds me of the late Paul Addis, infamous for Burning the Man four days early in 2007, has just entered. When he overhears Carla the bartender commiserating with me about the weird people coming in tonight, he interjects, “Don’t think I’m weird, I’m being dead fucking serious.”

He continues to mumble to himself as he eats behind me after Carla tells him there’s no eating in here (song: “House on Fire”), tells us he’s looking forward to football tomorrow, because of course he is (song: “Day Too Soon”), and now he’s boasting about how he fuckin’ shoots people who disrespect him.

Sure you do, dollface! Even with the Addis look-alike mumbling to himself about what a badass motherfucker he is, there isn’t as much male energy as that other night. But is that the fate of Divas as the safe space it provides becomes less essential in a more trans-inclusive world? “The Fight” followed by “Academia,” almost overpowered by another man loudly telling the bartender over and over that she’s beautiful, which upon repetition to a T-girl becomes patronizing, like telling a person of color they’re articulate. “Fair Game,” and as soon as “Rainbow” finishes playing a second time I’m out, after tweeting a picture of it from the jukebox.

Being that they’re both cis-gender men of a certain age — and Miranda never missed an opportunity to point out that at the end of the day, the clothes and makeup come off and he’s a man, hence my use of the male pronoun in reference to him — it’s disappointing but not surprising to discover that Miranda and Berkey aren’t what you might call feminist allies.

Miranda speaks disparagingly of how “Women today, they’re so ‘liberated’ — you know, this big ‘women’s movement?’ ” After acknowledging that “I’m sure some of that is true,” he proceeds to tear apart one of James Franco’s accusers. A few moments after I write, “Not big on #MeToo here, apparently” in my notebook, Berkey independently concurs on this modern iteration of what I suspect they both still thought of as “women’s lib.”

“This whole ‘Me Too’ thing is just driving me bonkers,” he says. “I mean, oh my God, do you know how many girls’ asses I’ve squeezed?”

“Countless?” I reply.

Steve laughs and says, “Yes! That’s kind of my normal greeting.”

Divas’ management is many things, but “woke” is not among them.

Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2018

Miranda mentions that Kelly Michaels passed away last month, and I am momentarily stunned.

He’s something of a carny, so I know much of what Miranda tells me is pure humbug. I believe it when he says Jacques Cabaret and the Las Vegas Lounge are the only other transgender bars in the United States, but not when he insists that the internet has “pushed more people back in the closet,” something that only makes sense if you spend no time online or following national news. (I don’t pretend to understand Trump’s mind, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t forbid the CDC from using the word “transgender” because fewer people are coming out.)

Miranda also tells me “most transgender girls in San Francisco are from another country,” and they’re here to make money to send home to gain their family’s acceptance. Are there transgender women in town who fit that description? No doubt. More than 51 percent? No, full stop. But Divas is an increasingly insular world, and that point of view makes sense coming from someone whose exposure to the transgender community — not drag, but transgender, and there is a difference — may not extend much beyond a half-mile radius around Divas.

But I’m inclined to believe this rumor of Kelly’s death. We only hung out once more after that first night in 2007, and I’ve always regretted that we never became friends. At the time it felt like our worlds were too different, but in retrospect, it was a failure of compassion on my part.

RIP, Kelly. I pour a metaphorical one out for her, and drink a real one to Divas’ continued health.

Sherilyn Connelly has covered film since 2012 and she’s the author of Ponyville Confidential: The History and Culture of My Little Pony, 1981-2016 (McFarland & Company, 2017).

 

 

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