This week, the S.F. nightlife community was rocked by the news that legendary nightclub Trannyshack was going to rebrand itself, in the interest of not offending the trans community. Yesterday I spoke with Trannyshack founder and host Heklina, who since ending the weekly incarnation of the club in 2008 has taken it on tour to Seattle, Portland, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, as well as doing larger, monthly events at DNA Lounge in SoMa. I wanted to better understand the genesis of the club and the context in which the name came into being, and how the political weight of the word "tranny" has changed.
SFist: Tell me about the initial inspiration for the name “Trannyshack.” I gather it was the name of a crash pad used by some of your friends, several of whom were actually trans?
Heklina: Yes, the original name came from an apartment in the Lower Haight. Bambi Lake, Ruby Toosday, Miss Chocolate (Trannyshack’s door-girl), and Pippi Lovestocking all lived in a dumpy, smoky basement apartment on Laguna in the mid-'90s. I used to call it the Trannyshack. When The Stud asked me to start a night there, I just used the name. The club was only supposed to last a couple of months, the rest is history, or herstory.
In the early years of the club, you say the name felt edgy and transgressive. Did anyone ever give you flack about using the word “tranny” in that era, online or otherwise?
Well, in 1996 there was no “online,” and even having a cellphone felt like a novelty. No, I never got any flack for it. People may remember this but for years at Trannyshack, while the show was going on on the dancefloor, over on the upper level by the pool tables a whole other scene was going on. Trans women and their “admirers.” It was a major hook-up scene.
Do you think that as the trans rights movement has grown in visibility, there are more trans people who feel alienated by, rather than welcomed into scenes like the one you created at The Stud?
Possibly. I think trans people continue to feel marginalized even as they become more visible. I haven’t seen many at my shows for awhile, although this could also be that my shows have become more mainstream and huge. It’s no longer a tiny punk rock party. As a movement, as far as visibility, trans rights seem about 20 years or so behind the gay rights movement. So, while the term "faggot" seemed to have much more of a charged meaning 20 years ago, it may take 20 years before the word "tranny" stops being the new N-word.
Do you feel like there is some over-sensitivity at work here, when gay and lesbian people have long been quick to reclaim the words “fag” and “dyke” amongst themselves? Or is it simply a matter of drag queens not being allowed to use this word anymore, the way straight people aren’t allowed to use those other reclaimed words?
Personally, I never have cared about words, so yes I think there is an over-sensitivity, not just from the trans community but from everyone. I don’t care if someone calls me a fag, unless there is hate behind it, so I firmly believe words can only hurt if there is some hurtful intent behind them. But, it’s not my place to tell someone to get over something. If you’re hurt by something, those feelings are your feelings. Oh My God, EVERYONE this week has been telling me “Don’t change the name, RuPaul says it’s OK." Haha! How is that hers to decide, and why would I base my decision on what RuPaul thinks or says?
What do you think the name means to San Francisco fans vs., say, Portland or Seattle or L.A. clubgoers? Is it a younger generation specifically that you think reacts more negatively to it? Is it just a matter of not knowing the context of the S.F. club?
I think whether or not you know the context of the club, this fact remains: When I started the club, the word "tranny" was not seen as a hurtful thing; today, it is. The reaction to my open letter from a few days ago has been overwhelming, and I am truly flattered and touched by how much Trannyshack means and has meant to people. But people have taken things way out of context and things have been framed as “Heklina caves in to pressure” and "Political correctness killed Trannyshack." I came to this decision personally after agonizing over it for months. Once I made the decision I instantly felt this relief. Like I said in my letter, I don’t want to seem hopelessly out of step with the times, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to seem LESS enlightened than Jerry Springer! I’ve seen so many comments directed at me like “What happened to having the courage of your convictions?" My convictions to what, hurt people?
But, I digress. Yes, to answer your question, it is a bit of a generational divide. Almost everyone who objects to the change are people who went to club back in the '90s and don’t see what the big deal is. It meant a great deal to them and, again, I’m flattered. But on the other hand I’ve gotten so much great feedback from younger people who are maybe more aware of the baggage the word has taken on.
What sort of negative reactions have you received in other cities that have surprised you? When did the uptick start?
Really, because Trannyshack is so beloved, I have gotten very little flack for the name. In the past year, as I mentioned in my open letter, it’s become more of a "thing" that’s been on my mind.
Is this perhaps an inevitable move when it comes to taking a club national — the same way that “Fag Fridays” probably wouldn’t fly in St. Louis or even Seattle?
Haha! Yes! Change is good. People are afraid of it. But, if I (when I’ve been sleeping, eating, breathing, and living Trannyshack for 18+ years) can adjust to the idea of a rebrand, I think most people can. To be clear, Trannyshack will continue through 2014 and the rebrand will launch in 2015 (I have 6 more San Francisco Trannyshacks in 2014, and 2 in Los Angeles).