Remembering Gina LaDivina: Trailblazer, performer and local trans icon

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Sunday June 9, 2024
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Gina LaDivina in 2016 (photo: Instagram)
Gina LaDivina in 2016 (photo: Instagram)

When Gina LaDivina performed "Don't Rain on My Parade" at the opening of the Stud on April 20 I had little idea it would be the last time I would see her perform. The longtime drag artist and one-time emcee of Aunt Charlie's Hot Boxxx Girls died Tuesday June 4 at 5:15pm after a brief illness surrounded by friends.

Gina was a regular fixture in the drag and performance scene for well over 20 years (I recall first seeing her at Aunt Charlie's in 1999). She was the host of performances by the Hot Boxxx Girls on Friday nights and was billed as the "$65,000 Silicone Wonder."

Gina's drag daughter Matt Cavalli, who performed with the Hot Boxxx Girls as Aurora Styles told me that "LaDivina" was a name bestowed on Gina by Cockatelia. Gina LaDivina was the stage name and alter-ego of Regina Elizabeth McQuade, who was born in Williamsport, PA on December 19, 1949.

Gina LaDivina in 2016 (photo: Instagram)  

Gina didn't often speak of her personal life publicly, but fortunately there is an oral history which Susan Stryker captured as part of a project for Joanne Meyerowitz's book, "How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States." The oral history, which was taken by Stryker at Mad Magda's Coffee House on July 17, 1997, is housed in the GLBT Historical Society archives (note that she gave her last name as McQueen for this oral history and it is filed under this name).

Early life
Regarding her childhood she told Stryker, "All the way through school, my whole entire life, from first grade all the way up through high school, it was very apparent that I was very feminine, very nellie, and got punished for it. It was very rough. Hated school."

Gina's family moved from Pennsylvania to Ukiah and she moved to Santa Rosa in 1967 to attend beauty school, the same year she transitioned. She told Stryker, "I had always wanted to transition, from the earliest age I can remember I had a resentment that I was born at the wrong time, or in the wrong body."

One incredible element of Gina's story is her native intelligence. With a high school education (which she hated) she had the ability to research transgender mythology in 1967 Santa Rosa libraries.

Gina LaDivina in an early glamour shot. (photo: Instagram)  

"I talked to a librarian about some of this stuff, because I had been a librarian at my high school, and I said I need to find out some information on folklore, and on transgender times throughout history. Like in ancient temples to the goddesses."

After transitioning, she held two jobs, one at Merle Norman cosmetics studio and one as a bartender at the Monkey Pod (616 Mendocino, Santa Rosa).

"I went to work in a gay bar," said Divina. "I held down two jobs the cosmetics studio and the bar for, god, maybe five years? One at day and one at night."
Stryker asks, "So in the straight world you were a woman, but in the gay world you were a queen?" To which Gina replied, "Exactly. I was a freak."

At the Monkey Pod she started doing drag shows.

"It was kind of mandatory. You know — you're a queen, this is what queens do."

While working at the Monkey Pod in 1971 Gina became the first Empress of Sonoma County. Eventually she had enough and rebelled.

Gina LaDivina at Aunt Charlie's Lounge in 2016 (photo: Instagram)  

"I just said, 'Oh Mary, the church don't like me, the government don't like me, society don't like me, fags don't like me, my own kind don't like me-oh well, I like me. Kick ass. And I did. I kicked ass. I rode with bikers. I was a stripper. Whatever whim, I did it. Auntie Mame lived."

In 1975 she moved to San Francisco, where she found a much divided city.
"Lesbians had their places. Drag queens had their places. Drag queens and transgenders were not allowed in certain bars. Period. It was a man's bar.
You had to be a man, and look like a man, to be there. And a woman's bar-same deal. But the places I went to were like Busby's, Gold Street, places like that."

The world of Polk Street was much to her liking.

"You could walk down Polk Street and the whole street would be full of prostitutes. One side would be men standing out there posing, luscious little creatures. Oh! And on the other side would be women dressed in evening gowns with feather boas and big hair and lots of make-up. And the next night, some of the boys would be on the other side of the street, in femme drag, and vice versa. It was colorful. It was fun. It was parties, house parties, all the time. Sausalito was happening. San Rafael was happening."

As regards being the $65,000 Silicone Wonder, she really meant it. Regarding plastic surgery she told Stryker she decided, "I might as well be a sex goddess. I was going to be pretty. I was going to give myself the best shot that I could give it. And I did it. And it was fun."

I met Gina in 1999, when I started going to Aunt Charlie's. We hit it off immediately as kindred spirits. I followed her career to her solo shows at the Oasis and finally to her performance at The Stud.

I would often see her out on the street in Hayes Valley. I went over to her apartment and was astounded at the huge walk-in closet with costumes. It was like visiting the Fort Knox of drag! And she had massive wood furniture (she loved Arts and Crafts era furniture) and found it hilarious that men thought this was out of character for someone so feminine.

Gina LaDivina as part of the David Glamamore fashion show at the de Young Museum in 2016. (photo: Shot in the City)  

Gina was an incredible performer. She gave her all to her performances and yet was able to be bawdy and fun as an emcee. She had a great love of Shirley Bassey and regularly performed at benefits, like a 2004 benefit for Marriage Equality California headlined by Veronica Klaus, about which the B.A.R. said, "The show features the Tammy Hall Trio, along with drag icons Putanesca, Gina LaDivina, Riley, Monique Jenkinson, Glamamore, Vinsantos and more. Expect this to be the gay/lesbian marriage bash of the season!"

There was only one Gina LaDivina. Her loss leaves a great hole in many of our lives, but I think she would advise us to soldier on.

As she told Stryker when asked what advice she would give people coming out she said, "No matter who you are, it's a difficult life. But you better enjoy it, because it's the only one you got, at least this time around. Be true to yourself and just be honest with yourself. You're never going to please everybody — you're rarely going to please anybody except yourself. I think that's what I'd say. If you're going to do it, just do it. Kick it."

There is no question. She enjoyed life and she kicked it!

(At press time there are no firm plans for a celebration of Gina's life, but planning is about to begin for one.)

The author is indebted to Susan Stryker for her vision and hard work which bore fruit in her incredible interview with Gina LaDivina. For the full version:

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