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The Power That Was 

Wednesday, Feb 10 2016
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Live in San Francisco long enough, and addresses of certain long-gone places will make you a little wistful. After 22 years, the ghosts that haunt me include the former Dark Room at 2263 Mission St., the original Le Video at 1239 Ninth Ave., and the second location of the Power Exchange at 74 Otis St.

The original Power Exchange opened in February 1996 at 960 Harrison St., with a second location on Otis Street opening three months later. Dubbed the Main Station, the Harrison location was pansexual, while the Substation on Otis was for gay and bi men. (Never quite enough places in this town for them, are there?) Both locations ran afoul of the city for assorted permit violations, and in 1999 the Harrison location was closed for good, though by then the Otis location bore the distinction of being not only the city's largest sex club, but the only licensed one, too — thanks to legislation introduced by then-Supervisor Tom Ammiano in 1996 to establish standards for their operations. Power Exchange owner Michael Powers supported the legislation, noting that without it his club wouldn't be acknowledged as a legitimate business, while Mayor Willie Brown opposed it.

I was a regular at the Power Exchange for a few years in the mid-aughts. Most nights, I just hung out in the fenced-off area of the basement Dungeon known as the Cage, where I made many new friends, and felt a sense of community stronger and more welcoming than anywhere else in San Francisco's sex culture.

Early on one of my first nights there in 2006, I went into the upstairs women's restroom. Studying myself in the mirror, I took out my eyeshadow and made a dark band across my eyes from temple to temple. With my bleached-blonde bangs edging close to my eyebrows, the makeup job resembled Daryl Hannah's replicant Pris in Blade Runner. That was the intention, anyway.

Upon arriving downstairs, I was promptly invited into the Cage by a transvestite named Robin, and she soon became one of my best friends there, someone I always looked forward to hanging out with. (It's something that can't be overstated: so many people were just so nice at the Power Exchange.) Robin was about 6 feet tall with a long brown wig, and tended to wear demure blouses and skirts; she wasn't shy about lifting up those skirts, or anything else.

The consensus among the regulars in the Cage was that I belonged, and being a carny at heart, Robin enjoyed showing me off: "Isn't she hot? Look at those legs, and that face." It was nice of her to say, but it didn't stroke my ego as when different people throughout that evening said I looked like "that one woman in Blade Runner." Hotness is subjective at best, but you either look like Pris or you don't, and independent verification suggested that I was pulling it off. Mission accomplished! And I'd found a new home.

By the way, Pris' incept date is Feb. 14, 2016. Celebrate Valentine's Day accordingly.

When you arrived at the Power Exchange in 2006, an imposing yet polite man at the door checked your ID, made sure you had a rudimentary understanding of what the club was about — i.e., that it was a wholly consent-based club where "no" meant "no," and all sex was safe — and sized you up to ensure you weren't drunk or otherwise likely to cause trouble. This process could take a while with newbies, especially as the pricing was explained: Thursdays and Sundays, men got in for $15; hetero couples were $10 total; and women got in free, whether they were cisgender or trans*. The definition of the latter was necessarily expansive, running the gamut from transgender women such as myself to weekend crossdressers, and were referred to in the local argot as "T-girls." (I was fine with that term, and it's still used as a positive self-identification in some circles, perhaps because it never leaked into the mainstream like certain other words that are now considered slurs.)

On Friday and Saturday nights, couples were a mere $20, and once again women — cis or trans* — got in free. Men in men's clothing either shelled out $75 to enter wearing their street clothes, or paid $35 if — once inside — they took off their pants and wore a towel around their waist or went naked. Single men were referred to as Tourists, and those wearing towels were Towelboys. (All Towelboys were Tourists, but not all Tourists were Towelboys.) On the third Saturdays, for the monthly Fetish Ball — themed nights, such as the self-explanatory Swalloween Ball in October — everyone paid $20, and those were usually the busiest nights for cisgender people.

The pricing is a crucial detail: other than Fetish Ball nights, T-girls of all stripes got in free, and were always welcome and protected inside, with zero tolerance of transphobia. This effectively doubled the number of completely safe places we could go late at night, the other being the trans* bar Divas on Post and Polk streets (which is another article altogether), and there was usually an influx of sex workers at the Power Exchange after Divas closed at 2 a.m. This is not to suggest that Divas and the Power Exchange were the only two options after sunset, and I knew many respectable trans* women who avoided both as a matter of principle, considering them ghettos to be risen above. But to me, it was important that both places existed, particularly in a queer community that worships and rewards masculinity so much.

This was also why I wasn't bothered by the Tourists or the Towelboys, many of whom had their penises in their hand at any given time, just as the Power Exchange's sub-gutter reputation suggested. I find cis male penises icky, but they did me no harm; boundaries were closely guarded, and nobody ever got closer to me than I wanted them to. Yes, they would often staaaaaaare, even when I was just sitting in the Cage writing in my notebook (and I got a lot of writing done there), but those men paying to get in subsidized me being there for free, and I owed them nothing in exchange. It bordered on a scam, and I loved it.


About The Author

Sherilyn Connelly

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