(1986) My in-depth look at Manhattan’s large and lively scene once known as ‘she-male’ subculture, including a meeting with Angie Extravaganza and members of the Harlem ball families
The language used in this article reflects the the common language of its time, including the terms that community members often used to describe themselves. In choosing to retain the actual language and terms of the time I chose to more accurately reflect our history as well as understand our progress.
When the place was Kelly’s Bar, I used to cross the street, to avoid walking into the winos with brown paper sacks who loitered out front on the sidewalk. Then it became a Chinese restaurant and later, “The Phoenix”, a pick-up bar for gay hustlers. “The Phoenix” seemed to be an appropriate description of the place. Like the proverbial phoenix it kept rising from its ashes to flutter its wings in still another incarnation. One day a new sign hung over Eighth Avenue just off the corner of Fourteenth Street, sandwiched between the stationery store and the flower shop. The Greenwich Pub was born, and with it all the spirits from its previous lifetimes seemed to come crashing together in one glorious melting pot.
I began to notice the posters when I went for my morning strolls. The Pub is a few blocks from my apartment. Monday: “Latin Night”; Tuesday: “The Gong Show”; Wednesday: “Go-Go Boy Contest” … But what really caught my eye were the portraits of the drag queens–“The Greenwich Pub All-Stars.” In Paris, in Rio, Hong Kong, Bangkok…in all the world’s great capitals, the most spectacular shows are those staged by the drag queens. “There could be a story here,” I thought as I looked at the Pub’s drab but still intriguing facade. What I discovered inside the Greenwich Pub was more than one story; it was a whole world.
The interior of the club is far from extravagant. There is a video machine and a jukebox. Movie stars’ photos dot ‘the wall-tributes to the real glamour girls; Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Gere, and a great drag queen, Brandy Alexander. A splash of color is provided by the fake Tiffany lamps that hang from the ceiling. The lamps are probably left over from the Pub’s days as a coffee shop. What the Greenwich Pub lacks for excitement in its decor, it more than makes up for with its clientele. Here is a place where people are free to be themselves-or even somebody else. Here is a place where boys will be girls.
Luscious Lucy eyes each new arrival from her strategic perch at the bar. She is the first to see and be seen. Scraggly yellow locks drop to her bare shoulders like a rumpled bed sheet. Her titties jiggle inside a flimsy blue summer blouse. She practically jumps on top of photographer Annie Sprinkle as Annie, our photo assistant Jennifer Blowdryer and I enter the bar ready for still another adventure in our unique brand of “High Heeled Journalism.”
Annie and Lucy once made a sex film together. At the time Lucy was a pre-op transsexual taking hormones to fill out her breasts and enhance her feminine characteristics. “I remember that particular day, I couldn’t get a hard-on,” says Lucy, recalling her life as a him. It is difficult to have a conversation with Lucy. The alcohol has loosened her tongue but she has no patience for questions.
“Cross-dressing? I never cross.dress,” she responds haughtily, “all I do is change clothes.” A better use for her mouth might be to slip a cock in it-or in the new cunt she is so happy to advertise. “I used to have a prick, now I have a pooh-sssy,” says Lucy, slurring the word “pussy” to make it sound very wet. “I used to give it in the pooh-sssy, now I can take it!”
Mykal Jones, the Club’s manager, printed special flyers announcing to the performers and customers that ADAM would be in to do an article. A full lineup of talent is expected.
“I heard there would be some ‘Runway Girls’ here tonight;’ says LaVale. LaVale Peters sits with her friend and escort for the evening, David. “I’m Patti LaBelle and this is Kitty Calor, sometimes David Bowie, sometimes Dolly Parton,” LaVale explains of her and David. “We’re performers from way back. It wouldn’t look that way. Were well preserved.” “Permanent-pressed,” chimes in David.
LaVale has a flawless dark brown complexion. “My mother was the first black model for Wilhemina,” she says. “My father is a sports instructor. I tried to lift weights. I tried to be macho. It just didn’t work. My body took this course by itself. So I said, ‘Let me make some money off it.'”
LaVale explains to me the relationship between the various groups in he club. The “Runway Girls” walk he runways at the balls. They are also called the “Glamour Girls” or “Ball Girls”. They enter all the competitions for body and beauty. The current queen of the “Runway Girls” is Raquel, snow-white skin, jet black hair and a body that won’t quit. Raquel, a transsexual, recently won the title of Ms. Man/Made. The “Illusionists,” like LaVale, perform as women. They are “female impersonators.” Besides Annie, Jennifer and me there are almost no other “genetic” women in the place.
“There’s Chaka Savales,” points out LaVale. “Shes Donna Summer. And there is Shirley Bassey and there is Tina Turner. Oooo, the girls are coming through,” she says excitedly as she recognizes each face in the crowd and waves a greeting.
Some of the illusionists dress as women all the time, others do not. Crystal, who perfoms as “Tina Turner,” tells me, “By day, I’m just Chris-myself-just an everyday homosexual hairdresser!’
“The transsexuals are totally female looking,” says LaVale. “There are a lot of little cliques in this society. People are just starting to learn that we are not all the same. The cliques really don’t mix. Some people pass through. A boy may pass through from transvestite to transsexual but then ‘she’ might not talk to a transvestite again. The ‘families’ really don’t mix. Some.times there are jealousies. It takes a lot of guts to go from a man to a woman, without being ridiculed too.
“Some people get very confused. They get all of this surgery done and then they don’t know if it’s right and they take it out and they put it back again. There are a lot of psychological problems. People don’t know. They think it’s a whole bunch of fun. But you have to know what you are doing or you will go mad. You can wake up in the morning and not know what to call yourself: Sharon or Sam. It’s ridiculous. Lucky, my name is perfectly perfect. I was born with the name Val. It works both ways:’
“What would you call the queens who seem to be hustling guys at the bar?” I ask LaVale. She laughs. “Honey, they truly are just plain old prostitutes.”
The show begins. Emcee Chico Starr delivers a few pop tunes. He is as smooth as a Las Vegas lounge singer. His mood is relaxed. He banters easily with the audience but he also issues a warning. “Don’t conduct your business on the sidewalk in front of the club,” he says. “We are under surveillance.”
“Some of the queens are really not cool,”says Adrian “Legs” West, the hostess/performer who lives with her “husband” Kevin, the Pub’s bartender. “This is one of the few gay clubs in the City that still welcomes queens.” Some queens earn a living through prostitution. When they conduct their business in the bar, the bar can get closed down. “One queen closed down The Grapevine with a single blowjob,” says Adrian ruefully, “when she happened to suck the dick of a vice cop.”
Out pops “Xerrocks” as the show continues. He is a short, slim, very hip black comedian. He imitates all the “girls.” “Here is how a Puerto Rican girls looks when she wants it,” he says. He lies on his back, throws his legs in the air and his ass towards the ceiling. The crowd hoots and hollers as the lavishly dressed ladies, all perfomers in their own right, jump up from their seats to applaud appreciatively.
The parade of beauties begins. Sandra as “Sade” flows like water, an elegant bird, graceful and sensuous. L’Oreal de Paris dances on the tables. Her thunder thighs bulge under blue sequins, high heels pounding next to bouncing mixed drinks. Raquel does a Latin number in a brief costume of sequins, beads and tassles. Her body is in a state of perpetual motion. The tassles glitter and twirl as she sends sparks flying over the room. Vernon Hart pounds the legs right off the piano as he and Donna sing live at the same time the illusionists perform their lip sync.
“The Greenwich Pub presents its first production number,” announces Chico. “Angie Extravaganza” lives up to her name. She sends a half dozen gorgeous “girls” in corsets to parade over the room. Angie joins them as the lyrics begin. They shake ass to the tune of “Big Spender”: “Bop … Bop … Bop-Bop … Bop … Bump…” Smooth boy/girl flesh bumps and grinds like the raunchiest whores. They crack gum. Wigs fly. Feather boas twirl about their necks. The sight is fantastic. In an hour, they are back strutting their stuff in thousand dollar gowns.
People from the audience get up to stuff money in the performers’ clothes. It is a sign of appreciation. It is also part of the show. For each one of these ladies who strolls into the spotlight to deposit a dollar in her girlfriend’s brassiere does not miss the opportunity to malke sure that everyone gets a good look at what she’s wearing tonight.
Fashion is as much a part of this scene as fantasy. Some of the queens are known for their skill as designers and seamstresses. Others have reputations as excellent “boosters.” “It’s amazing what some of these girls can carry out of a store in their Louis Vuitton bags,” says Adrian.
Adrian explains to me about the families. “I belong to the family of Avis Pendavis. Avis is my ‘mother.’ She is the head of our family and she has other ‘daughters.’ Earlier in her career, Avis passed as a female stripper down South, and she did that without hormones. Now Avis is the very best costume designer. She taught me how to strip, to drop my g-string in one easy movement. There are nieces and nephews, etc. in our family. For instance, Kevin, my husband, is Avis’ son-in-law.
“If I brought a new boy into the house, he would be my son and Avis’ grandson. We do not live in the same house. But we all belong to the House of Pendavis. There are other families: the Extravaganza Family-Angie is their mother; the House of Cory, and more… Each house has its ball, one always trying to outdo the other.”
Some of the men in the club look like they drove in from the suburbs. A big man in a cowboy hat eyes a pretty girl from across the room. She looks like an art student, all dressed in black. He walks over and when there is no chair available, squats down next to her as if to chat for just a minute. He stays on bended knee for an hour and half through the length of the show.
T here is a friendly feeling in the club. Only one man acts belligerent when I pass the microphone in front of him. “I am not gay,” he responds before I’ve even asked him a question.
“I find it very funny that men will pay to see me naked and these are the same kinds of men who when I was younger probably tried to beat me up,” says Jeanette. Jeanette just began a new job today. She is working at Show Center, a new peep show on 42nd Street that caters to the clients who prefer to view pre op transsexuals and transvestites.
“Are you into hustling?” I ask Jeanette. She answers, “When I was younger I used to hustle but now, to be quite truthful, I take it as an insult. The younger queens are more into hustling. Myself and my friends are more into coming out for the evening to have a good time. If you meet a guy, fine. Like last night I met a guy but he asked me out for dinner, not home for the evening. There’s a big difference. Yes,” she emphasizes, “even in this world.”
“So you still have a cock?” I ask Jeanette. “Yes,” she answers. “For a long time I wanted the operation, but now I’ve decided that I don’t want it. I like the person that I am now. That operation would in my opinion have done nothing but mutilate me.”
“What about hormones?” I ask. “I’ve been living as a woman since I was sixteen. From years of taking hormones, I know exactly what they do for me. They don’t grow breasts on me. They fill out my upper leg and they make my skin look fabulous. I take them as a beauty aid.”
Since many queens who take hormones are known to be impotent I ask Jeanette, “Can you still get a hard-on?” “Yes,” she says, “I make it a point to do that. When I decided that I was not going to get the sex change operation, I decided that I have to like the person that I am. I used to be very heavy into taking Tuinols-you know, barbituates. But I stopped doing all that and now I’m on a health kick. I take vitamins. I do exercise. I’m a vegetarian.” She says the word as if this fact surprises even her.
“I have myself on a program of taking the hormones where I still can have a ‘normal’ sex life.” Suddenly realizing what she has just said, Jeanette begins to laugh hysterically.
“What about your family;’ I asked.
“My family disowned me after my mother died. I hope they see this. I really do. Let them know that I am alive and well and very, very happy.”
Not all of the queens left home at a young age. China tells me, “Even though I don’t have the sex change, I’ve lived as a woman since I was 14. I will be 29 this November and I still live with my parents and my younger brother. I don’t come from a broken home. My father is not an alcoholic. I come from the Walton family.”
Michelle Liemont is a classy lady. By day she is a woman in a largely man’s world, a professional optician. By night she is “Shirley Bassey.” “Honey,” she says confidentially, “I wish I had between my legs what you have between yours. What you have is a treasure and men will do anything for you until they get it. Once they get it, they stop doing. The reason I’ve gotten so far in the company is because they haven’t gotten it. And the reason they haven’t gotten it, though they don’t know it, is because I haven’t got it to give.
“When I was a kid in Puerto Rico my father took me aside. He pointed to a gay boy who was walking down the street. He said, ‘That’s what you are but that’s not what you are going to be.’ When we moved to the states a year later, he changed all of my papers. I went through high school, college and everything as a woman. But you would not recognize me during the day. I don’t look the way I do now. Show business helps me to release myself. There is a part of me that lives up on that stage and a part of me that lives every time someone says, ‘I can see with the glasses you gave me: My only regret is that I can’t experience motherhood. I think I would make a great mother.”
“The art of drag is like sculpting,” says Adrian. “You dress up. Then maybe you take some hormones. If you want to go further you can have the sex change operation. You can fill in the flat spots with silicone. Hormones cost me approximately $55 every two weeks. When I don’t get them often enough, I get very temperamental. It’s like I’m on the rag. All that’s missing is the tampon. As soon as I take the hormones again, my panties begin to smell very feminine.”
Candy Sanchez is a wide-eyed blonde. ”Your eyes are beautiful,” I tell her. “Oh yes,” she says. “And the body? And the titties?
“My father can’t understand it. Even when I came up to him and said (as she lifts her tit out of her dress), ‘Poppy, look at this! You can’t tell me I’m your son. You have to call me your daughter. And he accepted it. My family loves me.
“My body so far has cost me $4000 and I made all the money myself. I’m castrated now. It’s a step before you get the pussy. I’ve got a dick but no balls. You get castrated and then six months later you get a pussy. It’s one step at a time. Three years ago, I was a boy…I make my money by just walking around, meeting dates. One hundred dollars. Two hundred dollars. But all the money goes to myself. To the body. This dress is a Calvin Klein. Three hundred dollars.
“I don’t got no balls. When they put their finger in me they feel the hole and they think its a pussy. They don’t know. They feel the hole. But it’s not a hole.
“You don’t have to go to bars to make money. If you look good you make money just walking around. If you look good, they come to you. I’m having more fun as a woman…and as a blonde,” she says with a confident laugh. “Forget it!”
The world of the drag queens is an entire subculture, peopled with individuals each of whom as her own unique story of how she got there, where she comes from and where she is going. One thing these boy/girls all have in common: They make their sexual fantasy and their sexual reality come together.
Originally Published in Veronica Vera’s New York, Adam Magazine, 1986. Photography by Annie Sprinkle