Welcome to Trannyshack Reno
by Havanna Nights
“We had two bags of condoms, seventy-five packs of cigarettes, fifty-five bags of candy, a salt shaker half full of glitter, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored wigs, stilettoes, sequins, painted nails… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of champagne, a pint of moonshine and two dozen whip-its. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious Trannyshack road trip, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”
It’s nearly 11am and overcast on Saturday morning in San Francisco when the light weekend traffic in the Mission suddenly slows to a crawl as rubberneckers drive by in disbelief. This is a city where people in drag are not unusual but on this particular day over a hundred brightly dressed and impeccably coiffed queens and kings are gathered outside of Retro Fit Vintage to sip mimosas and toast the annual Trannyshack Reno field trip. What lay ahead for this eclectic mix of ladyboys, leather daddies, and faux queens was a grueling 36-hour excursion that would take them beyond the familiarity of their city, over the historic Donner Pass, and across state lines to the Biggest Little City in the World, a journey which promised to bring laughter, excitement, self-discovery, and for many, their worst hangover.
First, take everything you know about drag and toss it out the window; no need for preconceived concepts, no need for rules, purpose, or perfection. Trannyshack isn’t looking for glamour or tradition; they are looking for authentic, messy, rebellious realness. It’s time to go Gonzo. Dress and act as outrageously as possible and heartily imbibe alcohol over the course of the weekend but be sure to contribute your unique creativity. This is what makes the annual Trannyshack trip to Reno so unique, the scope and breadth which takes the performance aspect out of the nightclub and creates an entire journey as a living experiment in participation.
“We are going on a journey together and it’s very transformational,” explains Heklina, founder and criminal mastermind behind Trannyshack. “There’s actually a retreat-type quality to it; everyone must leave their routine behind and wear drag during the day. That can be a frightening prospect to people.”
Initially formed in response to a particularly devastating year in which she lost many of the friends who influenced San Francisco drag culture, Heklina set out to create an “alternative” club with no rules but plenty of attitude. Heavily influenced by punk culture and a “DIY ethic”, Trannyshack encouraged performers to engage in alternative approaches to drag and championed the idea that everyone is capable of creative expression. The timing was perfect and soon the shows which “celebrated the freaks, weirdos, and fat girls” became internationally famous, attracting celebrities and legions of fans, but always maintaining its rebellious ethic.
Part of the success of Trannyshack can be attributed to its steadfast inclusiveness, where everyone is welcome but you had better be prepared for raunchy, tasteless, and campy fun. Its outrageous reputation continuously draws in new fans but what keeps them coming back is the guarantee that they will leave with a story to tell. Like the one time a queen was kicked off the trip and left in Reno, or the two adolescent boys from Auburn who tried to sneak onto the bus and run away with the drag circus.
What is more difficult to pinpoint is the popularity of the Reno road trip; from the outside there is an obvious lack of appeal to visiting the desolate desert town famous for quickie divorces and gambling but that just seems to endear it to Trannyshack all the more. Even though the troupe faced opposition on the streets and intimidation by casino security in the early days, “shackers” continue to flood the Truckee Meadows every Easter weekend.
According to Heklina, the allure is simple, “Where else can you smoke inside bars that stay open all night, go gambling anytime, eat tons of greasy food, and still feel good about it?”
I sometimes forget that the small freedoms we enjoy in Nevada are a welcome relief from the ultra-progressive atmosphere of the Bay Area where residents feel pressured to adhere to liberal ideals. Reno, on the other hand, is a grimy party town where residents leave one another to their devices, and Trannyshack has always felt comfortable here. They are appreciated for what they do as well, with local club kids coming out in droves to support the out-of-town characters and thanking the two co-hosts for finally bringing “something fun to Reno.” Growing in popularity over the past sixteen years, the show has had to move venues multiple times in order to accommodate an increasing local fan base, and is now happily settled in to Tronix nightclub.
What amazes Peaches Christ and Heklina is the steady increase in participants from San Francisco who willingly submit themselves to an exhausting 36-hour ordeal which keeps them in high heels and makeup for the duration of the trip. The few hours of sleep to be had are enjoyed carefully, propped face-up on pillows in order to preserve the carefully shadowed cheekbones, because no queen wants to redo a face that takes hours to perfect. Even Peaches resorts to oversized sunglasses by Sunday morning, forgoing her trademark eye makeup for a respite from the pain. “The design is very intricate and involves a lot of spirit gum. My face is raw under here right now,” she explains as Heklina groans in sympathy, declaring “I can’t wait to get home for an all-day foot massage.”
So why would these two grand dames of San Francisco drag continue putting themselves through such an exhaustive effort, planning, organizing, and monitoring an event for misfits which results in a queens worst nightmare of not getting paid for a gig? As legendary icons with an obvious love for the art it’s a way for them to give back to the community, to share traditions and insight with younger generations who otherwise would never be pushed out into the daylight and past certain beliefs about themselves. Trannyshack is something that can only truly be understood by becoming part of it, which is why participation is so highly encouraged.
“We are challenging people to express themselves in a way that is outside of their comfort zone,” Heklina asserts. “Many of them are channeling deeper issues with their ‘looks’ or characters.”
What ordinarily is secreted away in the dark is forced out into the light of day, encouraging participants to shed the last of their inhibitions and interact with the default world. Those interactions can be quite telling because it’s easy to let down your guard while in character and amplify traits that are normally suppressed. Surrounded by a supportive community there’s no reason to hold back your self-expression and contribute to the ever evolving entity which is Trannyshack.
The zenith of the weekend is a show on Saturday night which highlights a mixture of raw and polished talent in a display that is as bawdy as it is entertaining. The surprising thing about it all is how much everyone else adds to the entire experience simply by showing up and adding their personality to the mix. What you don’t see at Tronix are all the stories behind the scenes, the friendships forged, the laughter shared, and the impact of drag on innocent residents of towns along the way. Few would ever suspect that the two non-descript charter buses steering though the curves of the Sierra Nevada mountains, which are normally reserved for foreign tourists and Elks Club gamblers, were in fact full of garishly dressed and mightily buzzed queers. This is a secret that is only revealed when we pull off the freeway and disembark in Auburn, much to the surprise of the drive-thru line at McDonald’s. By the time my feet hit the asphalt Vesper Synd is already vamping for a photo shoot across the hood of an aquamarine Ford and everyone with a camera is happy to oblige her. Behind the wheel, Auburn resident Nancy giggles at the antics and tells me that despite living in the area for many years she has never heard about the Trannyshack bus that stops here for lunch every year. I ask what she thinks about drag queens taking over the McDonald’s and about Vesper taking over her vehicle, “Oh, this is totally unexpected but fun! I just hope my ice cream hasn’t melted already, I ordered it ten minutes ago…”
Inside, three pre-teen girls stand wide-eyed and curious, clutching their cell phones as if unsure whether they should take pictures or simply get in line like the rest of us. Deciding that nobody at school will believe them without photographic proof the girls raise their cameras and every queen within range strikes a pose, hips popped and lips pouted. Giggling, they begin texting furiously and I quietly encourage them to come back with their friends next year to see a whole new batch of campy queens.
“What? They do this every year? That’s so cool!” the tweens exclaim with delight.
In the early days of the Trannyshack trip response was not always so positive when the participants brought their brand of “guerrilla drag” to small-town locals. The relief in Heklina’s voice is obvious as she describes just how much things have changed over the past 16 years, “We faced more open hostility in the early days, people on the street would shout at us and casino security was always looking for ways to harass us. In fact, we were forced to gamble at the casinos in the beginning.”
The attitude towards drag has become much more relaxed and welcoming these days, in large part due to mainstream visibility everywhere you look, television, movies, nightclubs, and online. Where once families would herd their children away from these larger-than-life queens they now flock to their sides for photos, all smiles and laughter, thrilled to have a story to tell their friends and showoff on social media. The entire weekend, everywhere I looked, these uninhibited outgoing drag queens left beaming faces in their wake, always happy to speak with whoever approached them, no matter how many blisters were torturing their aching feet.
After 17 years of pushing the envelope and rightfully earning its reputation as raunchy, rebellious, and revolutionary, Trannyshack continues to break new ground and find even more ways to change drag culture around the world. No corner of the globe is off limits when it comes to Heklina’s mission of “doing something different” with a blend of uncultured humor, avant-garde satire, and irreverent wittiness. Trannyshack builds relations between different societies by appealing to our primitive need for social interaction invigorated by sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. It doesn’t really matter whether you come to Trannyshack to party, participate, or simply watch; you become part of the phenomena by showing up with your unique contributions. So what are you waiting for? It’s time to make history and take home an unforgettable story of your own!