SF says goodbye to Heklina

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday May 24, 2023
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Faux queen Fauxnique, center, and her ensemble pay tribute to Heklina during the memorial event May 23 at the Castro Theatre. Photo: Gooch
Faux queen Fauxnique, center, and her ensemble pay tribute to Heklina during the memorial event May 23 at the Castro Theatre. Photo: Gooch

Thousands descended on San Francisco's Castro neighborhood May 23 for what one speaker called "a fucking state funeral for drag royalty," as friends and fans alike said goodbye to Heklina.

"Heklina changed the face of drag," San Francisco drag laureate and Oasis nightclub owner D'Arcy Drollinger told the crowd in the Castro Theatre, filled to its 1,400-seat capacity. "Not on purpose, but she did, and you can see her effect around the country, on TV and around the world. I do want to reframe that — we changed the face of drag, but she gave us the opportunity."

The event — "Heklina: A Memorial (She Would Have Hated This)" — went overtime — three-and-a-half hours — and those who couldn't secure a ticket watched outside, or in the queerville's bars. One of those was Lizzy Dierken, a queer woman.

"Heklina was larger than life in the drag community and in the gay community, and I want to honor her as best I can," Dierken said. "She's inspirational."

Heklina was the drag persona of Stefan Grygelko, who died in London April 3 at the age of 55. She had been in London with her good friend Peaches Christ (Joshua Grannell), as the two were set to star in "Mommie Queerest."

"There was a glamour to that she would've appreciated," Peaches quipped. The crowd was hushed as she recalled their final days together. Heklina was brimming with ideas for the future, Peaches said, as they took a walk to Buckingham Palace the Friday before Heklina's passing.

"We were having fun," Peaches said. "The two of us had one of the best talks we had in years. I'm so grateful for that night. This was someone excited about life and this would've been a shock to her."

Foul play or assault are not suspected, according to a post mortem conducted by London officials, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

San Francisco drag laureate D'Arcy Drollinger, left, Sister Roma, and Peaches Christ take the stage at the Castro Theatre May 23 for the Heklina memorial. Photo: Gooch  

Pushing boundaries
Heklina pushed the boundaries of drag from female impersonation to more multifaceted and creative expressions through her transgressiveness, as multiple speakers attested to.

"Sometimes she'd say something so wrong — so wrong — and I'd start laughing and the whole room would explode," Drollinger said. "I'd say 'if some people could hear you you'd be canceled forever.'"

Heklina had moved to San Francisco from Reykjavík, Iceland in 1991, where she went after a stint in the U.S. Navy based in San Diego. She'd been born in Minneapolis.

"I met Heklina in 1991 and we bonded over our mutual love of alcohol," said longtime friend and drag queen Pippi Lovestocking. "Once we realized alcohol plus drag equals straight men, the party was on and it wasn't long before Trannyshack."

Heklina's drag career began to take off when she founded Trannyshack (the name of the show was later changed to Mother) at the old Stud bar in 1996, though her persona was first thought up for a Club Uranus pageant at the End Up nightclub.

In so doing, she tore down some of the guardrails of the drag of the era, inviting female performers and drag kings to share the stage. Some who went on to national and international drag stardom got their starts at Trannyshack.

"Heklina was part of a larger group of people who created something new and vibrant and exciting while our community was going through a tough and challenging time full of grief and misery," longtime gay activist Cleve Jones, who attended the memorial, told the B.A.R. "We throw around the word icon so much, but Heklina was an icon and I'm so glad I made it to the city to attend. I loved the old clips because I didn't go to see any of those in person, so it was new for me."

Grace Towers performs outside of the Castro Theatre during Heklina's memorial May 23. Photo: Gooch  

The memorial was full of that same mischievousness. BenDeLaCreme — who said Heklina "left a gaping hole in our community" — sang a song about Heklina's love of rimming and made an homage to Heklina's trademark habit of inviting a young man on stage for the act.

"She would approach straight guys and harass them in a way that'd have gotten the rest of us queers decked in the face," Peaches said. "She'd ask them to show her their dick and they would! She was a real charmer."

In addition to being funny, Heklina was sweet and kind — but only secretly, Peaches said.

"She didn't want people to know she was kind," Peaches said. "She was quiet about it. She gave people money, helped them with rent, but she didn't want to be known for that. She wanted to be a bitch."

San Francisco's queer political luminaries also spoke; beginning with Honey Mahogany, a Black queer trans person who's the chair of the city's Democratic Party and district director for Assemblymember Matt Haney (D-San Francisco).

"She inspired so many of us long before there was a 'RuPaul's Drag Race' to put on a wig and show the world who we were," said Mahogany, a former contestant on RuPaul's reality drag competition series.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) spoke on the resurgent homophobia and transphobia on the right; the administration of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R), for example, has used obscenity laws to threaten businesses that host drag performances, as the B.A.R. has reported, and some Pride celebrations in the Sunshine State have been canceled on account of a new law signed by the presidential aspirant last week.

"People are afraid of drag because they say it's subversive," Mandelman said. "It is."

Said Wiener: "Here in California, in San Francisco, we lift up drag queens."

Wiener said he'd be honoring Sister Roma, of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, at the state Legislature next month during Pride, and that they'd be bringing in a portrait of Heklina.

Sister Roma and Peaches Christ will be celebrating Heklina again at the San Francisco Giants' Pride Night June 10, Sister Roma told the B.A.R. (See related story.

Tom Temprano, a gay former City College trustee who was promoted this week to managing director of external affairs for the statewide LGBTQ rights group Equality California, reflected on the significance of the event, which saw a block of Castro Street closed to accommodate mourners.

"This is more than a memorial," he said. "This is a fucking state funeral for drag royalty."

In 2015, Heklina opened the Oasis nightclub with Drollinger. She also helped found "The Golden Girls Live!" holiday show, wherein she played Dorothy Zbornak.

In 2019, Heklina bought a home in Cathedral City, near Palm Springs, and sold her ownership stake in Oasis.

"In the last two hours, I've talked to so many people I haven't seen in years," Roma said. "Here she [Heklina] is, living through our community, living through everyone who's watching outside."

Added Lovestocking: "If she had known her memorial would be such a huge hit, she'd have died three times a month."

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