"I'm here for the TransGender San Francisco Cotillion rehearsal," I explain, edging through the crack in the door.
"Oh," says Lynnea Stuart, taking a quick second look before becoming visibly self-conscious, "I guess I didn't recognize you."
I follow Stuart, a licensed steam engineer and construction estimator in blue sequins and high heels, who once made a bet with his (proper pronoun, at the time) daughter: If she held a 3.5 grade point average during her senior year, he would attend her graduation in drag; she didn't, and he didn't, but that wasn't the end of it. The following Halloween, Stuart dressed as a woman, and she's (proper pronoun, today) been continuing to doing so on weekends ever since.
Stuart still seems awkward within female trappings, but eventually she hopes to transition completely, a fact that doesn't sit well with her wife of 21 years. (Stuart suggests their impending divorce is as much a result of religious differences as gender similarities, since Stuart is Gnostic and her wife is a devout Seventh-day Adventist.) Despite a lack of support on the home front, Stuart is happily contributing to the Los Angeles-based TV Epic: A Medium for Cross Dressers, and competing in this year's Millennium Cotillion, the pageant that will decide who becomes the 16th annual Miss TGSF.
"Two months ago, if you said I'd be competing, I'd have said you're nuts," says Stuart, whose opposition includes several full-time transsexuals, "but the work TGSF does is important."
The nonprofit TransGender San Francisco, which was born out of the Educational TV Channel in 1982, offers educational, social, and recreational information to the transgender community, and society at large; as spokesperson, Miss TGSF is vital in carrying that information to the public sphere, where labels and classifications are abjectly unavoidable, clumsy, and confounding.
"People must understand," says Dear Diva, syndicated advice columnist and director of this year's cotillion, "the TransGender Cotillion is a straight-world phenomenon, not a gay-world phenomenon."
That is to say, acceptance in the gay community notwithstanding, transitioning MTFs (male-to-female persons) who are sexually attracted to men would not consider themselves homosexual, because they are -- in their hearts, minds, and, eventually, bodies - women; and MTFs who are attracted to women may consider themselves "lesbians" by today's vernacular, but their female spouses may not. (Not counting Stuart, there are three transgender contestants this year whose wives must navigate this slippery slope of sexual clarification and linguistics.)
"'Transgender' is just a parent term," says Miss SGA, the Sacramento Gender Association's Nicole Cook, who, along with wife Debbie Cook, shares the position of social chair for TGSF. "It includes transsexuals, both MTF and FTM, who live full time as their chosen gender and who will undergo medical procedures such as hormone therapy and surgery. It also includes cross-dressers [and bigenders] who want to experience both their male and their female aspects without giving up either. And drag queens and kings whose intent it is, from the outset, to be flamboyant and get noticed. The term just allows different gender-alternative groups to come together as a single, supportive community."
In the rehearsal studio, under amber lighting and the scrupulous eye of Dear Diva, the 10 Miss TGSF hopefuls line up for the second to last of what has been months of practice events. The stories are as diverse as the ladies: There's Tianna Marie DeVil -- TGSF's statuesque, meticulously coiffed, bigender education co-chair -- who began cross-dressing as a child in Nebraska, but came "screaming" out of the closet only a year and half ago as a "brown sugar" club girl who identifies as a lesbian, but works as a male nurse. There's former TGSF Secretary Jamie Fay Fenton, a 45-year-old research software engineer and systems administrator for the online Transgender Forum, who began transitioning eight years ago and who lives with three horses, three cats, and her wife of 13 years; Meredith Memaran, a delicate enchantress from Iran blessed with a sweet, lilting voice and an understanding family, who works at an insurance firm; Michelle Garcia, a 51-year-old nutritionist/musician whose rocky past includes a six-year marriage to a woman who vanished with their three kids, as well as musical performances with Bonnie Raitt, and whose glowing future includes two books, a new CD, and nuptials with her boyfriend of two years; Jennifer Antoinette, a 30-year-old native of China, who's both bigender and bisexual; Nicole Cook, a college instructor both as a man and a woman who is searching for her second title of the year; Kalani, a 29-year-old from Hawaii who began dressing in public five years ago and was named first runner-up at the 1998 cotillion while still maintaining a balance between her female and male identities and a desire to marry and have children; Roxanne, TGSF's secretary, whose enthusiasm and dedication are palpable; Lynnea Stuart, who will get a story, if not a title; and 55-year-old Miss Didi Mau, a flagrant bisexual who is an "ugly, baldheaded guy" when she's not turning heads in a curly wig and 5-inch heels during her Tempest Storm tribute.
The inside of the luxurious San Francisco Design Center Galleria is swimming in sequins as debutantes and vanguards from as far as New Zealand rub loofaed elbows over chilled asparagus and chicken piccata. Above the stage, over a blinking cityscape, Ed Ivey and his band provide musical accompaniment for Finocchio's star Brian Keith in tux and drag, and San Francisco sensation Trauma Flintstone in all sorts of things. Between bus-sized projections of herself (Miss TGSF 1999, and former Teamster), Serena graciously recounts her year and welcomes MCs Empress Sheba! and Emperor T.J. Istvan of the Imperial Court System, who swap kisses and barbs.
As with other pageants, the judges -- San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno, sexologist Dr. Carol Queen, cable talk show hostess Chablis, and photographer Jeanette Vonier -- must consider the applicants in several categories: a pre-show interview that counts for 40 percent of the total score; active wear, which counts for 10 percent; talent, 15 percent; formal wear, 10 percent; and answering an onstage question, which provides 25 percent of the score.
In active wear, DeVil and Garcia make quite an impression, in fetish club gear and French Riviera style, respectively, but Memaran comes out ahead with a slinky halter top and miniskirt clinging to her 120-pound frame. The talent competition is more difficult to judge, with Didi Mau's startling striptease, Kalani's bewitching "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" hula, DeVil's dynamic update on Janet Jackson's "Boyfriend/Girlfriend," Memaran's seductive Persian belly dance, and the Cooks' touching duet "After All," but it is Garcia's live flamenco guitar playing ("With nails, no less") that is the show stopper, guitar-solo faces, runway-model smiles, and all. In the formal wear category, Memaran again takes the lead with a form-fitting, floor-length dress made of black lace, but her onstage question, the first and most difficult in the bunch, does her in. Here, Cook and Kalani shine, with warm, funny anecdotes and big smiles.
Without seeing the pre-show interview, the decision is impossible to predict: Nicole Cook as second runner-up; Tianna Marie DeVil as first runner-up; and Michelle Garcia as Miss TGSF 2000. There are revealing looks of disappointment as months of rehearsal are vanquished in a single moment, but as is characteristic of such affairs, the final passing of the crown is accompanied by standing ovations, happy tears, and flowers.
The strongest emotions and lasting memories are conjured during half-time, when the women's bathroom becomes a central nervous system of sisterly advice on everything from hems to hairlines, and when the debutantes line up to walk across the stage in their newly acquired shoes. They are apprehensive and uncomfortable onstage. They are nervous and ungainly. But there is exuberance in their eyes. They are programmers and mechanics, doctors and officers, teachers and carpenters, from all parts of the world, at all stages of life, with all manners of style and skill, and they are all welcome.
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