The San Francisco drag queen Heklina started Trannyshack in 1996 as a weekly Tuesday-night event at San Francisco club the Stud. It was a queer-friendly party where anything went. Instead of show tunes or standard house music, there was punk rock and experimental electronica. Rather than being the strict province of drag queens and gay men, the club welcomed fans and performers across the gender spectrum, including "faux queens," biological females Peaches describes as "drag queens trapped in women's bodies." And instead of glamour-heavy, lip-synching queens in ball gowns and towering wigs, there were cross-dressing rock bands, John Waters-inspired performance art and fake abortions onstage.
In the mid-'90s, the punk-rock attitude Heklina and Peaches brought to the Trannyshack made it very much the edgy upstart within San Francisco's well-established gay nightlife scene. Peaches sees the success of the party as due, in part, to a generational shift in queer iconography.
'There's nothing wrong with Bette Midler or Liza Minnelli, and we do that for ironic effect," Peaches says. "But the queens we grew up worshiping were Siouxsie Sioux, Wendy O. Williams, Nina Hagen."
Trannyshack is hardly your grandma's drag show. Rather than Cher or Judy Garland, its totem is more Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It is, however, very much in keeping with the direction of a comparatively new, punk-informed movement in dance music. Bands like Le Tigre, that group's DJ side project Men, and Gravy Train!!!, to name a few, have been making club-friendly electronic music that either directly addresses gender identity or cheerfully subverts it through the band members' own costumes or onstage personas.
Trannyshack " whose shifting DJ lineup (which has included the actor and former New Orleans resident Flynn DeMarco) has spun and supported most of those bands " evolved as a testing ground for experiments in the same vein through music and drag performance. The singer Ana Matronic, whom Peaches identifies as one of those bio-woman "faux queens," met her future bandmates in the Scissor Sisters at a New York club night, Knockoff, that she styled like the Trannyshack after moving away from San Francisco.
In the beginning, the Trannyshack stage served as "a workshop space, a launching pad" for performance experiments from live bands to new DJs to drag shows that favored gore over glamour or celebrated alternative ideals. One queen performing in the version of Trannyshack coming to New Orleans does a character called Metal Patricia, dressed in Joan Jett fashion and singing Guns N' Roses songs.
'Heavy metal was really drag anyway, all that butt rock back in the "80s," Peaches says. "In the early days, I was obsessed with horror and drag being sort of horrific. I'd go to an industrial machine shop and get the loudest, gassiest, funniest chainsaw. I'd take the chain off, turn it on and spray fake blood in the audience. I'm from Maryland, so I worship John Waters." Faux drag queen abortions were similarly gorey spectacles.
It was via the workshop environment at Trannyshack that Peaches developed the project Midnight Mass, a monthly B-movie screening event with live performances that John Waters has attended. Midnight Mass shows are available on YouTube.com.
After 12 years of Trannyshack, Heklina and Peaches are calling a halt to the weekly party this coming August. "If we didn't have the weekly club, it would be easier" to take advantage of things like out-of-town bookings, says Peaches, and to let the next wave have some room. "After a decade, we're the institution," she said. "There's probably a whole new generation now."