In 1987 a Transgender Nightclub became my Sanctuary
Of course at that time, the term “transgender” hadn’t been adopted into the vernacular of the Gay world. This was before there was a “T” in LGBTQ+. Gay boy clubs didn’t want us in their clubs and definitely not the Gay women. In the late 1980’s Trans people had no real space at the rainbow table.
I first heard of the mythical “Queen Mary” nightclub at a clandestine gathering of the “Powder-Puff” group which met at a Holiday Inn in Anaheim California once a month. The Powder-Puff group adopted the word used for women’s tackle football leagues of the time. Powder-Puff advertised in magazines like “Female Mimics International” in the classified section in the back pages. It just listed a phone number and the description, “Herero-sexual cross-dresser group.”
I found the magazine in the “Fetish” section of a porn shop near the corner of Centinela and Santa Monica Blvds. I’d passed it many times but never had the nerve to go in. I was afraid someone I knew might see me. It’s almost charming to think of that now, but people used to worry about things like that. Maybe they still do, but that I left that fear behind decades ago. Finally I mustered the courage to go in and for good measure decided to go in drag. That way I reasoned, no one would recognize me and in addition, I got to wear a dress! Never mind that I’d only once before set foot outside the house in drag before.
The walk from my place which was about 8 blocks away turned out to be a revelation in being potential prey. First of all. I was in drag. I’m 6’1” and was wearing boots with 3” heels. I had on a long black layered skirt with a black blouse and lace gloves. I was also wearing a black shoulder length wig and dark red lipstick and lots of dark eye makeup. I didn’t resemble an average Cis woman at all. Probably something between Marilyn Manson (who had yet to become popular) and Dr. Frank N. Furter from Rocky Horror. I was a pretty obvious target for any “hater.” But if for some miraculous reason they imagined instead that I was actually some very tall Cis post-punk goth girl, I was still walking down a dark set of lonely streets in a pretty sketchy neighborhood all alone. Neither of these concerns really dawned on me until I was closer to the Porn Shop than home.
I did eventually make it into the store and after another new and interesting experience there finding what I was looking for I found a couple of “Cross-dresser” magazines. I even received an unexpected compliment from the clerk at the register, “you look nice.” I walked my magazines home with a little more confidence in my step after that. Once home, I thumbed through the magazine and eventually found the “Powder-Puff” ad and their phone number.
I made the call the following evening with some trepidation. At this time, a man could lose his job, family and friends if it became known he was a “cross-dresser.” I use that term, because we didn’t have any other words to describe ourselves. There was no community and no way to share our experiences. (Facebook was still a decade or more away.) “Transvestite” was another more pejorative term that I always felt seemed severely dehumanizing. “Cross-dressing” or whatever term was used was considered a legitimate mental illness at the time and was associated with other sexual perversions like pedophilia. It had actually been illegal only a decade before. A man could legitimately be arrested for wearing a dress or makeup. Needless to say, there was some anxiety when I dialed the phone number.
Understandably, the man that answered the phone was very careful about revealing any information about himself or the group. I was essentially quizzed and asked to reveal my reasons for wanting to join the “Sorority.” What followed was about a twenty minute interview during which I was asked questions like my marital status, sexual orientation, employment and address. I had never divulged that sort of personal information to anyone at that point in my life and I felt terribly vulnerable and exposed. What if the ad were merely a way of catching people like me so we could be thrown in jail or a mental hospital for “treatment?” I imagined men in white suits pounding on my door. All sorts of wild ideas entered my head as I responded to the man’s questions. I imagined getting shock treatment like Jack Nicholson in “One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” But fortunately none of my fears were realized. Eventually the quiz ended and the man’s tone changed. “Congratulations, “ he said finally. “You’ve been accepted into our sorority.” “Oh my gosh!” I thought, “what a relief! No men in white suits after all!” We bantered a bit and then he gave me the date, time and location as well as the important details about the next “Powder-Puff” meeting.
My first meeting with Powder-Puff took place at a Holiday Inn in Anaheim. It was about an hour and a half on way from my apartment. We were to come dressed normally. There would be a room to change into our female selves and then we would gather in a hotel conference room. I became increasingly excited as the date neared. You would have thought I was getting married. New makeup, clothes, jewelry and even lingerie and shoes. Acquiring each item an exercise in fear management. Buying jewelry for a girlfriend was of course, no problem. But buying a dress for your girlfriend was definitely a little odd at the time. Buying lingerie was perhaps stranger, shoes and makeup even more unusual. Each purchase took a resolve and commitment to purpose I didn’t realize I had. But my drag fashion was now my driving concern. Unfortunately nothing could be tried on at the stores, fortunately I had worked out my sizes more or less after years of borrowing things and a few odd purchases in thrift stores. My final purchases were a little suitcase, makeup kit and jewelry organizer for my big outing. I was ready!
I arrived at a joyless hotel around 6pm and parked. It was a hotel in an area without any love and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why anyone would want or need to stay there. But it was the gateway to finding my tribe so I disregarded the sad exterior, gathered my new suitcase and makeup kit and headed for the lobby. I had shaved everything before I left and even my guy clothes felt slippery as I walked across the parking lot and entered the building. There was a young woman wearing glasses and looking very bored sitting in front of a computer at the reception area. “Can I help you?” She asked. “Oh boy, here we go.” I thought. Another opportunity to out myself. I pondered how to phrase my question without saying anything about cross-dressing or necessarily belonging to the group. “Where does the powder-puff group meet?” I asked. “Oh my God!” I winced. “That was SO OBVIOUS.” “Down the hall in the meeting room on the right.” She said pointing over her shoulder nonchalantly. Clearly she had no problem with it. The only problem was my obvious anxiety. I still hadn’t learned that lesson about just owning something so others don’t suspect you’re nervous. I was still quite fearful about being clocked in any way. I muttered a quick “Thank You” and walked in the direction the clerk had pointed.
It wasn’t twenty feet before I encountered a fluorescent lit meeting room with linoleum floor and gray metal folding chairs. A woman in a salmon business suit was bent over a folding table arranging name tags and pens. “Okay,” I thought, “here we go again.” “Excuse me,” I said. The woman turned around. She was blonde and about thirty-five. She was roughly 5’9”, wearing nylons and heels. She looked very put together. Her lipstick and nails matched perfectly. “Yes?” She responded in a familiar man’s voice. “Woah!” I was taken aback. If this was a “Powder-Puff” member, she was setting a high bar for appearance. “Um, I’m looking for the “Powder-Puff” group I said trying not to gawk. “Oh, you must be new.” She responded. Please sign in and I’ll get you a name tag. “I’m Stacy.” She added. “Oh, yes,” she continued. I spoke to you over the phone.” Now I realized why her voice sounded familiar. “Stacy” had been my interviewer. “Just write your name on the name tag.” She directed. I was just about to write my legal male name when she stopped me with, “your FEM name.” Hmmm.., now that was a good one. I’d had a name for my fem side since kindergarten. I had adopted the name of the girl I most admired in my class at the time. I decided to use it. I wrote down, “Jennifer” in very loopy feminine handwriting. (I changed this some years later but for that night that’s who I was.) “OK Jennifer,” Stacy said taking the pen from me. Now we’re all getting dressed in room 205. Make sure you knock on the door like this. She proceeded to rap on the little table with her knuckles. “Tap…. Tap, Tap…..Tap. “One, two, one.” She instructed. “The room is down the hall, across the parking lot and up the stairs.”
“Tap….tap,tap….tap, I rapped on the door of room 205 anticipating a group of equally put together cross-dressers like Stacy on the other side of the door. I heard a deep man’s voice say, “I got it.” Then the door opened. “Hi, welcome!” said a middle-aged husky man in a bra and panty house. “I’m Lori.” He said waving me in. “Uh hi. I’m Jennifer.” I said as I stepped into the small hotel room. “Hi Jennifer.” Said Lori. “Hey everyone, this is Jennifer.” Lori said to the room that I now saw was occupied by five other men in different stages of transformation all around the room. “Welcome Jennifer!” Each one said somewhat in unison. “You can put your things here.” Said a man with wiry vascular arms and tanned face. “I’m Roxy.” She said holding out a hand. “Hi Roxy.” “Thank You.” I said as I set my suitcase and makeup kit on the bed. “Okay, they weren’t all Stacy.” I thought looking around. Far from it. It was a motley group of considerably more masculine men. “Lynn” was shaving her face in the bathroom, “Betty” was putting on some heavy foundation in the room mirror while “Carolina” was squeezing a significant hairy belly into a girdle over next to the television. I had a moment of sadness thinking, “this is my future,” as I noticed most were at least five years older than me. What followed was, “What am I doing here?” “Why do a need to do this so badly?” Lots of negative self-loathing thoughts.
“C’mon girl! You gotta hurry!” Said Roxy. The meeting starts in fifteen minutes!” I snapped out of my cloud and opened my case. “It’s your first time being out?” Roxy asked. “Don’t worry sweetheart. We got you!” “Just let me know if you need anything. We all help each other if we’re missing something.” I looked up at her then. She was black and balding. Probably 5’11” or 6’. Stocky chest with thin legs and about forty-five. Her warm brown eyes were lined and she was wearing fake eyelashes. “We stick together.” She smiled looking right at me. Peering into those friendly eyes I suddenly realized I had found my tribe. These were people, just like me who had struggled to arrive at this place for the opportunity to share and discuss the drive we all shared to feel more feminine. It was a profound moment and it kicked me out of my funk. “Okay!” I responded. “I better get going!”
We all eventually got ourselves assembled as best we could. I learned a lot just being with these other women and trying to present myself as femininely as I could. They had tips on covering my beard or shaping my eyebrows, putting on fake nails etc. that I really found helpful. Finally we walked down the stairs and crossed the parking lot chatting and laughing like any group of women. Stacy started the meeting and ran the gathering. There were non-alcoholic beverages and I had the opportunity to chat with my new friends too. It was here that I learned of a magical place called, “The Queen Mary” in Studio City on Ventura boulevard. This was a pivotal piece of information.
I never went back to another “Powder-Puff” meeting but graduated to the next level by going to the mythical “La Cage Aux Folle” club in Studio City called “The Queen Mary.” It had a drag show up front for the “Straights” and an all “girls” bar in the back. To say I blew my mind when I first entered the back bar is an understatement. It was filled with glamorous “Transsexual” women as those of us that hoped for or had made a transition called ourselves. It also had male admirers which at first surprised me. I had a hard time believing anyone would find us attractive. But some of the women there were stunning, and set a new bar for me to try and meet. I invested more and more in my wardrobe as my fears of being “clocked” or “outed” melted away. But the most important thing about this magical sanctuary were the other women and their stories of struggling with being Transgender. With being “different.” Each person there in that club shared that same bond, and it really connected us. No matter our petty differences or catty remarks towards each other, we really did care for our community and felt real empathy for the other women and even our male admirers there in that club.
The Queen Mary shut down about a decade later due to the expansion of our community’s world and a less restrictive social environment as well as the brand new world of the Internet. But during the 1980’s and for many years before it was a haven and sanctuary for women like myself when there was nowhere else to go. These days you can go to virtually any town and there’s a Gay bar or LGBTQ+ community that embraces Trans people, but back then, it was unbelievably unique and special. I don’t miss the society that limited my possibilities back then, but I do miss the fierce commitment we had to each other and our community when the “Queen Mary” felt more like “the Alamo” then a nightclub.