Political Notebook: Show's closure is a drag

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday August 6, 2008
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At the start of each Trannyshack, San Francisco's outlandish, no-holds-barred Tuesday night drag show, a snippet of the old Muppet Show theme music warns "it's a kind of torture, to have to watch the show."

The joke belies the fact that the performances are more than just boys in dresses lip-synching to pop ballads or camp classics. The weekly shenanigans often masked what in reality is a uniquely queer riff on the political, social, racial, and gender controversies of the day.

The show's founder, Heklina (a.k.a. Stefan Grygelko ), invited not just drag queens �" many of whom went on to become stars in their own right �" but also female performers, known as faux queens, and drag kings to share her stage. By doing so, Heklina threw out the rulebook on what it meant to be a drag performer.

"It doesn't matter if you have a pussy or a dick. What mattered was what you did on stage," said Heklina, who had to defend the crowning of a woman as Miss Trannyshack on NPR. "We just didn't care."

And over the show's 12-year run at the Stud bar �" it comes to a close Tuesday, August 12 �" Trannyshack offered up headline-grabbing performances such as its "Wetback Nights" or the time one headliner appeared in black face. It was the rare venue to see criticism of President Bush post 9/11, and numerous shows have lambasted him for taking the country to war in Iraq. One performer even beheaded a presidential stand-in following the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal.

One notorious political send-up had Heklina dressed as Monica Lewinsky singing a duet with a look-a-like of Linda Tripp, the woman who outed her sexual affair with President Bill Clinton , to the song "So that's what friends are for."

Yet Heklina never set out to create a cabaret for critical commentary on society's ills. Initially, the show was meant to fill a hole in the Stud's weekly lineup. As its success grew, other performers asked Heklina if they could mount a certain themed-night or tailor their routine to a certain topic.

"Myself, I have never been political. But I never censored people performing at Trannyshack," she said. "I learned that everything is okay to parody �" AIDS, gender, politics, religion �" but the one thing that is still taboo is race."

Sergio Prieto, who spent five years on Trannyshack's stage as Lady Sergio , found that out after his Wetback Night performance in 1999. He staged his own fake backlash to promote it, with posters calling himself a racist and friends acting as protesters outside the front door. But when he staged a second night, real protesters showed up with television cameras in tow.

"I am a Latin American. It's my story and I wanted to tell it in my way. It was about my struggle as a first generation gay American and how you relate to your family," Prieto recalled this week.

Along with Heklina, he had to testify before the Human Rights Commission, and the bar staff was asked to undergo sensitivity training. Last week during a return performance, some in the audience booed when he reflected back on the controversy. To Prieto, Trannyshack's appeal came from the freedom its performers felt on stage to express themselves.

"It was an elaborate platform for you to deal with the demands of whatever was going on at the time politically or personally. It was a place you could go and have no barriers," he said.

The Stud will replace Trannyshack with a "new drag cabaret" called Pink Slip hosted by Virginia Suicide (a.k.a. Flynn Whitmeyer) beginning Tuesday, August 19. Time will tell if it will transcend a mere camp format and attract the devoted following as Heklina's show.

As for Trannyshack, it will likely return on a monthly basis or for special occasions, said Heklina, who owns the copyright to the name. The Trannyshack Pageant will continue, though it is taking a one-year hiatus and will return in 2009.

"I am not the same person I was in my late 20s when I started it. I had more energy back then," said Heklina. "I am not so challenged anymore with a weekly show. I want to do something new. It was time."

Web Extra: Be sure to read this week's online Political Notes column, which looks at PG&E's moves to appease its gay critics. The Monday online column at http://www.ebar.com will be on vacation until September 8.

Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail mailto:.