Tonight, the cinematic pageantry on the south side of the road obscures 16th Street's secular delights - the hookers, the pushers, the doughy-faced narcs. Huge spotlights roam the overcast sky above the Victoria Theater; illumination floods the sidewalk and entranceway, spilling light into the street; cabs honk at each other and cars double-park to unload. There are dozens of people with laminates -- elegant women in feathered boas and spaghetti-strapped shoes, stocky gents in zoot suits and watch chains -- lingering outside smoking cigarettes; others bunch up at the box office or wrangle over the VIP list. The occasional roar from inside suggests the theater is already near capacity for Tranny Fest: Transgender and Transgenre Cinema.
As the name might indicate, there are a couple of fabulously decked-out drag queens who immediately catch the eye, but the defining characteristic of Tranny Fest is more subtle and more powerful than that: It is the barely observable Adam's apple dipping above a terra-cotta blouse; it is a slender, delicate hand deftly adjusting a blue-and-red tie; it is soft facial hair framing heavily rouged lips. It is what Tranny Fest is really about: butch girls and femme guys, female-to-male homosexual transsexuals, male-to-female lesbian transsexuals, heterosexual transsexuals of both denominations; it is intersexuals, cross-dressers, drag queens, drag kings, and androgynes. It is every variation of every sexual identity and orientation you have ever possibly imagined, and some you have not.
During the film festival, the Victoria bathrooms are not bipartite. They are not unisex. They are third-sex, fourth-sex, something from the future sprinkled with Ziggy Stardust. Everyone in line knows that M*A*C discriminates against trannys, even those trannys whose protocol excludes the feminine trappings of cosmetics. Everyone knows how to tuck and where to buy the best strap-ons. And everyone knows that visual images are the best way to convey information in this century.
"You have to start with film and video," says Manish Stahl, a very feminine young man with feline lineaments. "Images creep into mainstream society slowly but surely. You know that one showing of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert does more to gain acceptance for transvestites than 100 papers written by 100 scholarly activists. These movies are a form of activism, but they should be entertaining, too. Unless you are preaching to the converted, people are more likely to open up to things when they're laughing."
In Tranny TV, a humorous and scary collection of old television clips, transves-tites make appearances on All in the Family, Soap, Guiding Light, several Clothestime commercials, Queen and U2 videos, World's Scariest Police Chases, and the Joan Rivers Show, during which a self-identified lesbian MTF clearly explains to Rivers the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation: "I feel like a woman inside, but I'm attracted to women." It suddenly all makes sense.
"The thing that makes me most angry is that people try to tell me what it is I have to be," says porn actress Jade-Blue Eclips, speaking at the Tranny Fest panel held at Good Vibrations. "Because I'm muscular and have short hair and tattoos, they expect me to be dominant. Well, I don't want to be dominant. I want to do what gets me off. That's feminism." Eclips has nothing to worry about. In festival co-producer Christopher Lee's S/M porno piece Alley of the Tranny Boys, it is the very macho FTM Angel who takes the upper hand, or knife, candle, gun, blindfold, and dildo, in almost every scene.
But there is also lighter fare during the late-night portion of Tranny Fest: In An Adventure in Tucking With Jeanne B., a charming French-Canadian transvestite runs around his apartment with Scotch tape dangling from his "poor peter" while his girlfriends laugh uncontrollably. It's impossible not to join in.
"You know, after all the political and societal bullshit is out of the way," says Collette, a 24-year-old lesbian exhausted by the day's screenings, "you just want to have a bit of fun. Otherwise, what's the point?"
And what better way than to attend the third annual Miss Trannyshack Pageant, where politics and subtlety are definitely not the name of the game?
In front of 715 Harrison, a large mob of towering pastel wigs and sparkling platform shoes jostles for position. The Electric Company scream "Hey, you guys!" blares from the PA inside, followed by the theme from The Muppet Show. Three queens with a combined height of 24 feet converge on the club doorman.
"They're starting," says the central queen with a flash of her neon-blue eyelashes. "We're going to have to rush the door, dear."
Quickly assessing his predicament, the doorman smiles and lets the ladies pass in time to hear the opening announcement from "Trannyshack" founders Heklina and Pippi Lovestocking.
"We here at 'Trannyshack,' " says Heklina from under a mountain of white-blond hair, "don't pretend to be anything but pure, unadulterated trash." The twinkling, sparkling, teetering, flashing overcapacity crowd applauds without shame. Some throw money ("Three dollars will pay off that dress, Pippi," snips Heklina). Before the judges are announced, Miss Juanita More, "the hardest-working drag queen in town with the biggest ass," performs a number during which she strips down to a ribald body-stocking, lady parts included. Then, it's time for high art -- an opera about the horrors of childbirth featuring judges Miss Trannyshack 1996 The Steve Lady, Puerto Rico's Putanesca, Ireland's Impala Discobar, and "Trannyshack" 's "reigning real fish" Miz Ana Matronic.
As the story is told, The Steve Lady upped the ante last year when she passed down the crown with a multimedia, full-cast production, and now everybody's got to do it. After the ever-embarrassing swimsuit portion of the evening, Miss Trannyshack hopeful Kennedy is joined onstage by a Victorian queen, a German queen, a Spanish queen, and an East Indian queen who play sparkly cardboard instruments during her ABBA montage. Sadly, she is beaten out by Kay White, whose skit includes dancing with a hunky French dockhand, stabbing a red-skirted harlot, shooting three German Nazis, running from the authorities throughout Paris (on video), and being apprehended by the police and executed by a nasty nurse. Not even Lady Sergio's routine in which she rips the still-beating heart out of an explorer's chest and sprays the crowd with blood could beat that.
"This is a very special town," says recent Minnesota transplant Janealle Falls. "A place where women can dress as men and watch men dressed as women ripping the hearts out of other men, and no one cares, it just sells out."
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By Silke Tudor