Guest Opinion: Not the Mother we wanted, but the one we needed

  • by Adriana Roberts
  • Wednesday April 12, 2023
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Heklina performed at the last Mother show at Oasis in February 2020. Photo: Gooch
Heklina performed at the last Mother show at Oasis in February 2020. Photo: Gooch

By nearly all accounts, Stefan Grygelko didn't really know what he was doing back when he created his now-legendary drag persona Heklina, on a whim in the early 1990s. It was a strange time to be a twenty-something altera-queer (trust me, I lived through it), transplanting oneself to San Francisco in the dying days (pun intended) of the AIDS crisis. Drag luminaries in queer nightlife, such as Doris Fish, Kitty Litter, Jerome Caja, and Klubstitute's Diet Popstitute, all succumbed to the disease way too soon, creating a gaping void that needed to be filled (Heklina would have easily turned that into a dirty joke about butt sex, but I'll refrain).

Soon after arriving in San Francisco, Grygelko got swept up into local queer community theater, cutting her teeth by performing in Tony Vaguely's Sick & Twisted Players. Named after one of the most active volcanoes in her partial homeland of Iceland, Heklina soon lived up to her namesake, when she created a little Tuesday night drag club at The Stud — called Trannyshack — back when the first part of that name was a Gen X transfemme term of self-empowerment, before internet porn and cis/het men ruined it for everyone. (Has it been long enough for us to reclaim it yet? No? OK, fine ...)

Coming from an alternative/punk ethos more rooted in performance art than traditional notions of "drag," Heklina created a space that welcomed anyone and everyone, regardless of gender, talent, looks, or notions of what drag was "supposed" to be. Her only requirement was for performers to show up and be fabulous. Few of us realized it at the time, but for a drag show, this was kinda revolutionary. Remember, this was back when being a drag queen pretty much meant you were a gay man impersonating a woman, with sequined gowns and diva lip-syncing. Or, as Heklina put it, "tired." T-shack changed all that.

And while she may not have known what she was doing at the start, she soon figured it out — and fine-tuned it. She kept things fresh by creating themes for each week's show. She biked around town hanging up her own flyers. She did the opening number for nearly every show (at least for many years) but was actually much more of a host and impresario than she was a performer, turning her between-act emceeing into miniature comedy sets. And over the years, she evolved the art of drag, making it incredibly inclusive across the gender spectrum (remember the uproar when Fauxnique, a cisgender woman, won the Miss Trannyshack Pageant?). She broke the traditional mold of drag years before queens in Los Angeles and New York (and the rest of the world) caught on.

Hekkles (as she was known to her friends) had a reputation for being prickly, hard-nosed, and a bitch — but if you've ever worked with flaky-ass drag queens and club kids (especially in the 1990s), you'd understand why. While she generously gave so many performers their first shot on stage, to call her a "drag mother" in the traditional sense would probably be a bit of a stretch. She didn't suffer fools gladly, and she wasn't one to dole out compliments. Her parenting style was more like, "throw them in the water and see if they can swim." And trust me, as a performer, you always wanted to please Heklina. Her brutally honest, "take-no-shit" attitude challenged drag artists to raise the bar, especially after the shows moved to the bigger stage at DNA Lounge, and eventually to Oasis, the venue she co-founded with D'Arcy Drollinger, where she re-launched and re-branded her weekly drag show as "Mother." She may not have been the mother we wanted, but she was definitely the one we needed.

She was a Master Class in "How To Have A Successful Career In Queer Nightlife." (Step 1: If you've recently become sober, start a project and throw yourself into it.) She knew how to wrangle order from chaos, managing a stage, managing a crowd, putting down hecklers, booking budding queens, assembling trusted crews, promoting shows, emceeing events, following one's heart — but also always being aware of what actually sells tickets. She was a business bitch at heart, and made no apologies for it. And she did it all with snark, wit, balance — and a hearty trademark cackle — for over 27 years.

She ended Mother at Oasis and semi-retired to Palm Springs literally a month before the pandemic shut everything down, a savvy business move that even she couldn't have predicted. But for someone "semi-retired," she still managed to be everywhere, livestreaming and starting a podcast, and then, after things reopened, back on stage and in the clubs with her Daytime Realness party at El Rio, her recent one-woman show "But I Don't Judge," and her starring roles in a series of drag parodies, like the "Mommie Queerest" show in London with Peaches Christ, which she sadly never got to do. She was resolutely performing to the very end.

Heklina being gone — especially so suddenly — feels like a sucker punch. She galvanized so many subsets within our LGBTQ culture — the drag, theater, nightlife, and sober communities are all feeling her loss. And while she may have left us way too soon, she made the most of her time here, moving the needle on drag culture, and inspiring two generations of queers.

And if you, like I, miss her trademark cackle, just Google "Heklina ringtone" and you can still buy it. A savvy business bitch, even from the grave. She's literally having the last laugh.

Adriana Roberts is the creator and producer of the long-running Bootie Mashup events, as well as a former DJ and performer at Trannyshack. She was also the former art director of the Bay Area Reporter.

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