It was 1979. I was at a Buzzcocks show, standing outside the mosh pit, when I got sucker-punched in the face and fell down. I woke up 35 years later as an embittered middle-aged transsexual living in a world that I didn’t understand, waiting to be transported back to my own historical epoch.
I’m kidding of course – but just barely. The world has changed beyond recognition in the subsequent decades since I first came out, and now I feel very old, like I don’t belong or even exist when I find myself in most trans community spaces. I’ve talked to other trans people who came out before the Internet and the consensus amongst us is we feel hermetically sealed inside an obscured bubble. It’s lonely to venture into community happenings: too many of our friends have passed on, we don’t know the people who are there, and we’re not one of them anyway.
Today I was riding the number 33 bus, which is the most scenic bus line in San Francisco, with expansive views of the downtown skyline, the Bay and the Oakland hills. At one point the driver had to navigate a nearly 180 degree hairpin bend on a sharp rise. As the bus was chugging toward the top of 17th Street, with houses tucked into the hills, I noticed a red tail hawk patrolling the skies. Suddenly, with legs outstretched, it swooped down from the jet stream and pounced on its prey, capturing a small mammal in its talons, before alighting back to the sky, all in under 10 seconds. I found it inspiring and looked around the bus, certain I’d find someone else acknowledging the jaw-dropping spectacle that had just transpired no more than thirty feet from us, but was disappointed when I realized no one else saw it. Instead, everyone’s necks were bent down, hunched over their smartphones like better dressed Quasimodos, probably watching something compelling like dogs who ski. I counted the number of passengers at that moment. Including myself, there were 17 of us, and everyone save me was on their smartphone, including the driver, who woke up long enough to swerve the bus from going over the cliff and killing us all.
Then the driver jumped the curb and plowed over a parked motorcycle. I got off and began crossing the intersection. Suddenly, a young daredevil in a souped up Prius ran the light at 100mph, missing me by an inch. He was on his phone. His girlfriend in the passenger seat was on her phone too. I craned my neck back to the sidewalk to get a witness but all the other pedestrians were on their phones.
The zombie takeover was complete.
Hours later, I’m sitting at my manual typewriter, the clickety-clack of the metal type hammering the page as I ruminate about today’s insights on the bus with all the passengers mesmerized by the Internet. Not for the first time, I apprehend that I don’t fit into the digital age. I feel like I am the modern equivalent of Otzi, the mummified body found frozen high in the Alps. Otzi lived around 3,300 BC. He carried a flint knife and wore animal skins. I carry a small notebook and pen and wear a leather jacket. See the similarity? No? Well, like Otzi, I can say without exaggeration that the Internet played no role in the formative events of my life, which all happened years before the sly tentacles of the web ensnared us all. No, I am gratefully a product of the printed page and hi-fidelity analog recording. Books and vinyl albums, words and music – that magic combination found in great songwriting – helped me locate my personal orbits around the twin lodestars of Music and Gender that my politics and aesthetics continue to be influenced by.
I began playing guitar and writing songs in 1977, when Punk rock exploded, and I’ve never recovered. I am still coated by the dust of attending hundreds of shows. It was a radical conversion, marking a before and after in my personal identity that was every bit as important as my gender transition. Punk rock jump-started my mind, waking me from a somnambulistic slumber and providing me with the structure to question authority and think for myself, no matter how unpopular it might be. These were the very tools that helped me later not to get festooned in a gender expression not of my choosing.
Punk was original, aggressive, anti-authoritarian, not zombified by auto-tune, and made by actual humans and not computers. It cut through the crap we were force-fed as “mainstream entertainment”. For a brief window, punk rock culture created a safe zone for posturing oddballs, where at shows and record swap meets, we’d exchange life saving information hand to hand, through our zines and fliers, spreading the word on which shows were worth checking out and where to meet for political actions. It gave me the courage to brave the world in my first public forays in full femme attire, wearing my best all-black punk-goth girl clothes.
It might have been the brilliant Johnny Rotten, that 20th century Rimbaud, who first grabbed my attention, but what really caught my young queer mind most were the iconic women of punk rock: revolutionary artists like Ari-Up, Exene Cervenka, and Poison Ivy. They broke the tyranny of vapid female pop culture norms, creating alternative and empowered ways to practice femininity, which influenced me to do the same.
And all of this discovered and disseminated without a computer, or search engines, or the information superhighway.
If you had even a whiff of looking like a punk, it was very hard to find a job. In the mid-80s, though, thanks to my friend Ramon, I landed a truck driving gig for a sportswear company. The warehouse I drove out of was a former World War II factory that had made machine parts for battleships. Ramon, a rockabilly aficionado with a big black pompadour, was the warehouse manager. Outside of work, he would help carry equipment for my band and when needed, he’d lend a hand wheatpasting our fliers around town. Often I’d hang out with Ramon and his partner Frank in their house, where we’d light up a joint, pull out the guitars and play music till dawn. Sometimes we’d drive up to the Palomino and catch a music legend like Screaming Jay Hawkins or Jerry Lee Lewis.
Monday thru Friday I’d get dressed, coffee up, drive down to the warehouse, punch the time clock and load the trailer up with boxes of merchandise. A normal truckload was made up of 45-pound boxes of tee-shirts stacked five across and four high, until there were twenty-five rows of boxes.
It was a physical job, but driving around I had the freedom of the road, allowing time for brooding about my closeted life, and affording me the chance for musical expeditions in record shops and stealth detours to adult bookstores. Often after I’d finished my delivery run, I’d stop off at a record store where I’d ransack the import bins. Other times when I was bold I’d find an adult bookstore in a dilapidated strip mall. By the mid-80s I had exhausted the handful of books about “transsexual” experience, usually apologist gender normative autobiographies, so pre-Internet these adult bookstores were often the only outlets to find any new trans content. I’d have to sort through stacks to find something like the fetish magazine Nugget, which had absurd tales of forced feminization or some unsuspecting john being dominated by a stealth she-male.
One day I was at the roach coach ordering my breakfast burrito when Ramon walked up with a scruffy guy, about my age with shoulder-length hair dragged back in a ponytail and a crushed boxer’s nose. “This is Mickey. He’s taking the new routes. Be nice and show him the ropes.” For a couple of weeks, I drove around with Mickey next to me, showing him the short cuts, the best places to eat. We clicked right away and our conversation was easy.
One Friday night after band practice at our rented bunker-like studio, I hurried back to my apartment, put on some extra mascara, combed my hair down over my eyes, grabbed a shiny top, my red mini skirt, and took myself up to the Queen Mary bar. The Queen Mary was a well-known oasis for people slurring gender lines, providing refuge for cliques of dusty grande dame drag queens, dowager trans women, and their admirers. It was in Studio City but seemed like the other end of the universe.
I paid the $5 cover charge, the smell of drinks and nicotine wafting from the interior. Walking inside, I was given quick hostile looks, the rite of passage everyone who entered went through. When you’ve been treated like a pariah most of your life, you don’t know who to trust. Most people were north of forty and wore florid gowns that looked like they were cut from drapes. In my tank girl finery it was apparent I would never fit in there. Some people had the waxen skin from the wasting disease that no amount of makeup could hide.
At the bar I ordered a whisky and scanned the room to get my bearings. Everyone was disregarding a drunken lip-syncing queen onstage. Gazing toward the bathroom alcove I was thunderstruck, doing a classic double take, not believing what I was seeing. In a far corner back by the cigarette machine was Mickey! “Impossible!” I thought and would have been less surprised if I saw the Pope there. Mickey was alone, quietly applying lipstick with a hand-held mirror.
I needed to get out of there and not be spotted. I downed my whiskey and was almost out the exit when I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Hey what are you doing here?” I turned around to see Mickey grinning at me, dressed like a member of Banarama. Excellent question, because now that I was found out, I felt exposed, like I was walking around with my pants around my ankles. “Bitch,” I recovered, “can I buy you a drink?”
We didn’t waste time being awkward with each other in our mutual and inadvertent public outing. There was great surprise followed by much laughter and agreement that divine intervention, plus desperation, had brought us both there that night. Even now almost thirty years later, the odds still feel improbable for us to have met – two closeted truck drivers who also worked together and who also happened to be transgender. Preposterous. With our rough and unkempt warehouse worker uniforms, we certainly did not paint a pretty picture and neither of us would have been picked out of a line-up as two aspiring MtFs.
We left the Queen Mary and drove to Ben Frank’s and found a corner booth. Over coffee and onion rings, we chatted away, sharing our histories, tracing our connections, discovering our lines of intersection and where we were different, as we unburdened much to each other. We made a pact to keep our gender identities a secret between us. When we finally left the restaurant, gathering stares from the other customers, I decided I didn’t feel safe using either restroom. As I sauntered out to the Hollywood night, I answered the call of nature and stepped into the alley and used it as a urinal.
When I think of our time together, maybe a year tops, I am struck by our youth, our pretension, and our edge when we walked down the street after a drunken girls night out. We’d always endure a carload of boys driving by and calling us “Faggots!” and we’d defiantly flip them off and dare them to pull over. Drinking bouts aside, it’s obvious now, as I look back with clarity, that our friendship could not have lasted long. We were just too different. Mickey hated reading unless it was either Glamour magazine or the Bible. Her biggest fantasy was being a pampered housewife. I wasn’t interested in any of that. Also, in our mutual mirroring, we were painful reminders of the invisible yet all-encompassing decree that had been sent out, labeling trans people the lowest of the low, consigning us to underworlds of self-hate.
Still we desperately tried to make it work because the pool of people like us was so small and virtually impossible to find. One night we went out drinking at the Palms, a West Hollywood women’s bar where we were told we better leave. Walking back to Mickey’s Gremlin we were surrounded by a pack of guys that came upon us like starving dogs. “Fucking faggots!” they screamed, pelting us with punches. Desperately we flailed at them and tried to get away, but they wouldn’t back off. One of them punched me in the forehead, a ring or beer top opening a cut, blood falling into my eyes. As I fell to the ground, I heard Mickey’s mouth explode with curses, carrying with it an authority like a laser-pointed wail, damning them for lifetimes to come. It freaked our attackers out, quieting their fists, making them get suddenly very small. They ceased their attack and slithered away back to the shadows.
Then Mickey quit the warehouse and we hung out less frequently, as our lives drifted into different orbits. Mickey got a succession of useless boyfriends, the kind bad honky tonk songs are written about, and she started doing the midnight shift down on Santa Monica Boulevard. Often she had no set address or phone, not that I would’ve gone out of my way to contact her. I was too mired in my own layers of dating misadventures, bad habits and self-hate, and my band required more and more of my attention, as our local following grew and we had our first album to support.
The last time I saw Mickey, we drove up to Mulholland Drive with Ramon, his Camaro snaking around the hills, the wind sluicing past us. At the top, the three of us the only people there, we shared a bottle of wine as we contemplated the miles and miles of lights of the great Los Angeles basin spread below, Mickey and I dreaming of someday going on hormones and starting new lives and Ramon dreaming of dinner saying, “I’m hungry! Let’s go to Oki Dog.”
Things change. My band broke up and I escaped town for awhile, invited to stay with a friend in Paris. Months later, after I returned, Ramon and I met up for a drink. He let me know Mickey passed on from AIDS, her demise sudden. I didn’t know how to pray then, but I regretted not spending more time with her. Years later, I learned to pray, not sure to what or whom, but I learned how and I prayed for her then.
When I think of San Francisco in the early 90s, I think of a city with very little daylight, a place of shadows and dimly lit bars, where life happened only at night. The Bay Area Reporter was filled every week with the AIDS obituaries of gay men (but not transwomen). Rent was still cheap, and even with the potential for harassment everywhere, especially from the police, the city was largely a refuge.
If I didn’t go out to a club or bar 4-5 nights a week, I felt like I was missing something. I flitted between communities and scenes, from drag and leather clubs to dyke bars. I played music to queers in SOMA and to straight audiences in the Haight and North Beach. The clubs themselves acted like a collective town crier with people sharing events and resources, person-to-person proclamations. My ears pricked up at anything involving a whiff of gender variance. Hearing about one event would lead to hearing about the next event. This was how I heard about queer happenings like Wigstock, Merkinfest, Lypskinka’s performances and Kate Bornstein’s one-woman show. This was how I learned about the radical queer performing venue, 848 Community Space, where I would eventually perform in a live sex show. Always in person, if you weren’t in the room, you’d miss out on what was happening. In 1994 I attended Loren Cameron’s photo exhibit, the first of its kind, his nude transman gym-hewn self-portraits. It was there that someone suggested I check out a group called ETVC, which stood for Education Transvestite Channel, and I did go to one meeting, but I got there right after my under-the-table job in a cut-off tee shirt and steel-toed boots and was asked by handful of crossdressers paying homage to the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders why I dressed liked that.
After one 848 event, I took myself out for a nightcap South of Market. I jostled my way to the bar, placed my order and had not been there more than five minutes when I felt someone staring at me. I turned toward the entrance and caught the eye of a Cigarette Girl, in a vintage above-the-knee saloon skirt, pillbox hat and tray around her neck filled with cigars, cigarettes, silk flowers that lit up, candy, Cracker Jacks and mints. When our eyes locked she scowled and took her tray off, handing it to a friend. Then she pointed at me and pushed rabidly through the throng. I returned to my drink, not believing what was happening, and hoping she’d go away if I ignored her. Wrong.
“Bitch! Don’t you snub me!” she said, crowding next to me, looking for trouble. Her eyes were crazy, filled with rage. She was hyperventilating with aggression. A 5’3 enforcer wearing a pillbox hat.
“Do I know you?” I asked.
“Don’t act innocent, you lying fucking whore!” she screamed, bringing people to attention.
I guffawed at the absurdity I found myself caught in, realizing it didn’t matter that I’d never met her. The rubbernecks moved closer, hoping to see a catfight.
“You make me sick, you backstabbing bitch!” she said. “Shit,” I thought. “It’s on.” I knocked back my drink. Bring it, I thought, one good punch ought to do it, but she was too quick and grabbed my wrist, yanking it with fury. Pain shot through my arm. Then she pressed me against the bar, upending my skirt and exposing my ass, signaling to everyone I was wearing thong underwear and had done a masterful tuck job. For a split second that lasted for eternity I expected a proper beating, but she miraculously paused. Peering back, I see her very close to my ass, scrutinizing it as if she was Sherlock Holmes with a magnifying glass. Beads of humiliation were dripping down my forehead.
“Where’s the Black Flag tattoo?” she asked.
“This bitch doesn’t have a Blag Flag tattoo on her ass,” she said to the rubberneck jury. Realizing she’d made a mistake, that I was not the woman she held a vendetta against, she let me go. “Oops! Sorry! My bad-sy,” she said.
I watched her walk back to her tray, her little skirt retreating into the crowd.
Red-faced with mortification, I vowed not to mention this incident if I ever wrote a memoir.
I didn’t know what was more disturbing: her callous assault, or that I had a doppelganger, apparently with a Black Flag ass tattoo, slinking around the bars making enemies. Looking back on it now, I am profoundly grateful this happened before cell phones or Instagram.
Am I surprised this happened? Not really. San Francisco was still the Barbary Coast then, no Internet needed to locate adventure, the city still spared a few years from the first wave of dot.com gentrifiers breaching her hull, drowning us with higher rents and dull bars. A fight or unexpected escapade was always around the corner, or the next bar you hopped to. One time I stumbled into The Saloon, the oldest bar in North Beach, and ran into a meeting of the Society of Philosophical Clowns. The bar was packed with men in white greasepaint, red noses and crazy colored wigs, discussing Heidegger’s Being and Time. I caught the eye of a tall clown wearing a big red frown and squeaky nose, who bought me a drink and said “I want to make love to you.” I could not tell if he was kidding or not. I left the bar that night with a purple wiener dog balloon.
With hindsight, I understand that I was living on the cusp of change, that that the mid-90s would be a breakthrough for the Internet, especially for burgeoning trans communities who would come to find it an invaluable lifeline. But I still did not know anyone who owned a personal computer until 1997 when a neighbor, whose house I was painting, had one and gave me a quick tour of the web. It was easy to see the obvious potential the Internet offered for shining a light on the perpetual oppressions afflicting the world, and breaking the self-hating solitude too many trans people suffered from, but I also felt the probability that the Internet would more likely be used to spread, with great rapidity, our species’ penchant for drivel, gossip and virtual night rallies for partisan hatreds.
We made music or art, paid our rent, and bought our drink and drugs, all without the assistance of a computer. Computers seemed, for lack of a better word, terribly bourgeois. We didn’t realize we were now living in a separate reality, an alternate universe, and that the new predatory digital world order had started its ravenous march of destruction on the places where we bought our books, music and art supplies, as well as the places we worked, the bars we met up in.
Still, even with the Internet some things remain the same. I see my young gender rebel friends walking the streets with their heads down, their fight-or-flight brain elevated, like mine was, and living in shadows, with fists clenched and tongue ready to lash out, ready to attack. But now with too many fractions of gender variant people cyber-bullying one another, and with the perpetual Miss Manners lessons coming from the conservative gender-normative fringe, I don’t know how a young person stays sane. I’d be overwhelmed by information overload if I was coming out now, beleaguered by the vastness of the digital information at my fingertips, which ironically I feel has made the world more narrow. I was recently at a party and a guy kept checking his phone and correcting everybody’s facts. I wanted to punch him.
Aware I sound like the reactionary crank who yells, “Get off my goddamn grass!” I stop typing. Looking at my analog wristwatch, I realize I’m late. Dale, my retired mechanic friend in his 70s has invited me over to his house to partake of a peat-bogged Scottish whisky and a rare long-playing marching band album. He is the West Coast’s foremost expert on John Phillip Souza, for what it’s worth. He owns no television, no computer and no cell phone. “Why would I want a surveillance device in my own home?” he tells me. I worked for him briefly, when I was first transitioning to full time. My first day on the job he told me, “Lad, you’re no mechanic.” Six months later he kindly said, “Mechanic, you’re no lad.” We’ve been friends for over twenty years.
After watching Dale stomp around the house like a Field Commander for the fifth time to ‘Gallant and Gay We March Away’, I need some air. I walk next door to the café, getting a table by the large plate glass window. Across the street is a park filled with hordes of mostly youngish white people enjoying themselves in the sun. San Francisco’s digital elite. They get paid lots of money to do important tasks, like designing apps that let you order pizzas faster than a telephone call. Mostly though, they throw beach balls around, eat artisanal cupcakes and take selfies. Watching them preen to their smartphones is like the musical equivalent of the Grateful Dead: I don’t know if it’s good or bad, I just don’t get it. Actually, I know it’s bad. Really bad.
It seems like yesterday I was hanging out with my friend Mickey, driving down the Hollywood freeway, the crackling voice of Husker Du punishing the left of the dial radio. Once, on our way to a party, we got lost. Pulling off the freeway we found a phone booth and tried calling our friends, but no one answered, probably couldn’t hear the ringing above the band. “Fuck it,” I said. “Let’s go to Frederick’s of Hollywood and buy ourselves treats.” That was a good day.
SHAWNA VIRAGO is a transgender trickster celebrated for her striking lyric-based songs. Her solo anti-folk music twists together folk and punk, offering raw observations about survival in a predatory world, queer love, and sticking up for the underdog. Virago is celebrated as a music pioneer – she was one of the US’ first openly transgender women to perform and tour nationally, and has performed as an out-transwoman since the early 1990s. She is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival.