(Photo of Shawna Virago by Lydia Daniller)
(Big thank you to Zack Marshall who helped with transcription.)
Morty: Alright, great! Good to be here with you!
Shawna: Great to see you, Morty.
Morty: Alright, I like to start at the beginning, or close to it. When you were a kid, were you very artistic?
Shawna: Yes. I did artsy stuff. As a child, I was into drawing. And from a very early age I wanted to be a musician, because I loved listening to music.
M: How young were you?
S: Like, maybe 5.
M: Were you surrounded by music?
S: My parents were not into music. My father left us and so my mother ended up moving in with my grandmother. And I had my uncles and my aunt who were all teenagers…they were between, like, 12 and 15.
M: So, how old was your mother?
S: Yeah, my mother was young. She had me when she was quite young.
M: Where were you born and raised?
S: I was born in Los Angeles. I grew up in several places throughout the country. It’s a long story, but I lived in the South, I lived throughout southern California. I lived in North Carolina, Atlanta, I lived in Honolulu for awhile, Indiana. Yeah. I was fortunate that I was suddenly surrounded by these teenagers who were listening to all this great music like The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. And then I got exposed to some pop country like Glenn Campbell stuff. Because of being there, I got turned on by music and it was all-encompassing for me.
M: When did you actually start saying, I need an instrument…
S: Well, I bought my first guitar when I was 15. So, I’ve been playing that for quite awhile. I bought a used guitar. I wanted to be a songwriter. So, here I am. It’s what I do.
M: It is what you do. You do this professionally, for a living?
S: It’s one of the things that I do for my living. I have to work in other ways, but it’s one of the ways I’ve survived.
M: When did you move to San Francisco?
S: 20 years ago.
M: And you’re 51?
S: I’m 50.
M: You’re 50. Sorry. Tell me about moving to San Francisco…
S: I moved here when I was 30, from LA. I had been visiting here throughout the 1980’s. I just really loved it. I love the city and I knew I didn’t need a car, which I thought was great. And the music was… at that time there was kind of a more vibrant music scene, in San Francisco from the 1980’s to the 1990’s, I think. More clubs. But it was very straight. In the 1990’s it was more of, kind of the Riot Grrl world. Which, you know, both of those worlds were, um, what they shared in common is that they were basically transphobic.
M: Can you tell me a little bit about how Riot Grrl was transphobic?
S: I think the Riot Grrl was a place where you could find allies, and people who were questioning and people who were coming out, but there really was, I think, a lot of strong feelings, overtly… overt transphobic feelings, over trans women who might be showing up at shows or trying to be in bands. There weren’t that many trans women.
M: Let’s do a little bit of a timeline here, so I can get this down properly. So, the Riot Grrl stuff started in the early 1990’s. You were already here. But I just want to back up a little bit. So, where were you mostly between ages 15 to 30? Were you writing music?
S: Yes, I was writing music. I was in a series of bands, like, classic garage bands. I was very serious about my music, so that was, like, my life. I was in Los Angeles. So, I played with a lot of the same guys in one form or another from about the age of 18 to like maybe 27. More or less. And we practiced as a band 3-4 days a week at our rehearsal studio. We were serious about our music. We were good. So, like, we kept getting more of a following and we played some pretty big clubs like The Roxy. But…it was never a perfect situation because I knew I was trans. And so at some point in there I actually came out to some of my band mates who were very…they were not happy. It was like an instant kind of block. The respect they had for me went down several points on the scale. So, that wasn’t necessarily very comforting, you know.
M: So you outed yourself to them…were you actively starting to transition at that point?
S: I wasn’t starting to actively transition until I got into my late 20’s. And here (in San Francisco) is where I got to bring it all together. So, but prior to here, I was already on my path. One of the things about playing music for me, was, I always feel a little bit, that I was, as a trans person, kind of at the end of this 20-25 year approach to what it meant to be trans, like, a trans woman. So, you would transition, and then you would…
M: Could you describe what that means?
S: So, the traditional roadmap was, after you convinced your therapist that you were trans, they could write you a note and you could go to the endocrinologist, that you were supposed to kind of blend in, and disappear. I had to think about that because of being a musician and a singer. I’m like, I don’t really see how… I can’t really blend in. The second I start singing it’s not going to really work for me. So that was kind of good because it kept me from going down the real kind of gender-normative path. I couldn’t have it both ways. Being a musician meant I had to keep going down more of a queer path, I guess you’d call it.
M: Did you have any connection at that point to queer community, at all?
R: In my 20’s it was kind of like living… in some ways, a dual life. I had several gay male friends and it’s interesting because I actually tried to make it work off and on in gay male communities. Like, it seemed that being a trans person… and this was like 1985… and transitioning seemed so overwhelming to me, that, “where can I fit in in the world?”. I didn’t see any other trans people. Occasionally…
M: Well, you were in LA, so… there were no trans clubs?
S: Yeah, there was a place called Queen Mary, somewhere in LA. And that felt more, like, kind of a cross-dresser environment. I think, a lot of those places that were that way, these spaces also transitioned to people living full-time and transitioning. For example, Transgender San Francisco, when I moved here, was called ETVC, “Educational Transvestite Channel”. Somebody said, you should go to one of their meetings, so I went and, you know, I had on some form of what I’m wearing now probably, and it was obvious to them and to me, oh, we’re very different. And I think it’s, one of the things…that the idea of queer, queer zones and queer community, is so different than hetero zones of any kind, or gender normative zones. Over here, the queer zone, you know, it’s so different. Whatever you want to call it. And for me it’s more liberating. For me it’s more nurturing. It’s more open.
M: You never really felt attracted to the heteronormative scene. You were saying as a musician you couldn’t but you weren’t trying to force yourself into that world anyhow…
S: I had been… in some ways my thoughts had been greatly revolutionized in the late 1970’s by British punk rock. And bands that intersected with British punk rock. Like Sex Pistols or The Clash or the Buzzcocks, The Damned, The Jam, you know? I was crazy for that music. What I loved about that music, not only the music and the attitude and the consciousness, but also the fashion was really interesting. And if you appropriated any of their look, you were really instantly outside the margins. So, that always, I think, helped me later as a trans woman. It’s like I’m already used to people staring at me. Big deal. It’s not going to ruin my day.
Photo of Shawna Virago by Lydia Daniller
M: Yeah, right on. When you moved here (to San Francisco) what was there any kind of trans art scene?
S: Yes, when I first moved here I was… probably for the first two, two and a half years I lived here, I was going out to clubs five to six nights a week. I was going out all the time and I was smoking Export A Ultra Light cigarettes and drinking vodka, mixed vodka drinks, and doing the drugs of the day…
M: What were the drugs of the day?
S: Crystal methedrine, or ecstasy, I would say. Lots of pot, and I… I hooked up, yeah, with little pockets of queer people. They were people who were gay male identified or a few dyke-identified friends. I was normally the only, at that time, transsexual person. That was the language. Transgender came later. I think transgender was getting solidified then as a spectrum term. And a smart one, too. Unite communities for political organizing. I identified a lot of times as a transsexual. So, I had little pockets of friends. We went out to clubs. You could really go days and days without seeing out trans people then. You’d have to go somewhere like the Mother Load to really have any kind of critical mass of trans people. And I would go to some events, like, there were a couple of events called Merkinfest. I believe that was…
M: It was called Merkinfest?
S: So, Mirkin, in Shakespearean plays is the genital covering…yeah, it was called that. Who knows why. It was largely a drag queen event.
M: Oh, okay. That makes sense.
S: But it was interesting because…I remember being in cabs…taking cabs to clubs. And cab drivers would start talking to me as, like, these straight cab drivers hitting on me…Then they realized I was trans, mostly they would have this reaction of, like, they couldn’t believe it, that I was a transsexual. Then their comments were, “You know I’m a straight guy”, or “I’m not really into that sort of thing”. It was very weird. It was so different 20 years ago, just here in San Francisco.There just wasn’t a critical mass of trans people, especially trans queer people, or queer community. At the time I was playing at open mikes, I was putting some bands together, and I would play wherever I could. I would play North Beach clubs, or I played in The Haight, and I would play at dyke places. Sometimes I would get shows at The Coco club, or there’d be dyke parties and I’d get invited.
M: You were an out trans musician. What was it like getting gigs?
S: I think a lot of music scenes, typically, tend to be more open-minded. So, what would be the scary part was being on stage and…Because, again, there wasn’t a critical mass. Quite often I would be, as far as I know, the only trans person in the club.
M: What was that like?
S: Well, first of all, my band was very loud.
M: You were in a band. It wasn’t just you.
S: Yeah, sometimes I played my own acoustic shows. And then I had my band, which was really loud. So people couldn’t really hear me singing. And sometimes I appreciated that because it was easier for dealing with people in the club. Like, if I was playing the Coco Club, the sound there was horrible, and the acoustics, but as I played there more, of course, people knew.
M: But that was a dyke bar.
S: Yeah, so it wasn’t like I was going to get killed. But there were times when I’d be afraid on stage…especially playing as somebody read as female in front of a group of straight guys in the audience. I think the tradition of women who play rock music on stage is one of what we call the male gaze. The leering is super-strong. What’s interesting is, if you look at the history of rock and roll, you have Debbie Harry happening at the same time Patti Smith is happening. And while I like both of those women, Patti Smith is really it… Madonna got so much praise for being this super-empowered woman that was somehow taking the idea of objectifying the female body and using it consciously. But I always found Patti Smith, in the scheme of things, much more interesting. And saying that, look I don’t shave my armpits. I’m not wearing any make-up. I’m going to wear a ripped up t-shirt on stage, and, work it out. I wasn’t fulfilling any of the male fantasies that Debbie Harry and Madonna were, really.
M: And you’re a completely different kind of musician.
S: Absolutely. Madonna isn’t much of a poet, yeah. And then the acoustic shows would be scary. I’d go to a lot of open mike clubs and perform… you could see the visible pain on the straight men in the crowd at these open mike events. Because prior to performing, they would just treat me in their usual short of limiting and condescending, sexist way. And then when I’d start to perform they were like, realizing, oh, I might have just been flirting with this human, this person, what does that mean for me. And I could see them, like, their body language, grimacing and closing up and stuff. So, that happened a lot. The need to play music was greater than giving in to the kind of fear and insecurity I may have had performing in front of a hostile audience.
M: Was there any kind of trans music scene?
S: There were little pockets of a few trans women that I know of who fronted bands. There were a couple of those. There was a band called Glamazon. We did some shows together. That was always good. We’d play these clubs…who knows… I don’t even know the names of these clubs any more. It could have been the C&W Saloon, Coco Club. I’d play at this collective or co-op house down between Valencia and Mission. You know that little street between Community Thrift and Good Vibes, there’s murals on the walls there…
M: Clarion Alley?
S: Clarion Alley. There was a place over there that would have shows, so I would play there. I was usually more afraid of playing in front of dykes than straight guys.
S: Physically I wasn’t afraid. But like, emotionally, because they could come up and talk to me…and want to talk to me about my gender, which I didn’t really want to talk about. Or just letting me know, “Well, this is a women’s club”. “This is a women’s club. What are you doing here?”. That happened sometimes.
M: So, you did get some kind of backlash.
S: Definitely. I think my experience isn’t as bad as some people’s. I think partly because I was putting myself out there. Also, I was trying to have a feminist analysis of gender. That was important to me. You know, I had been poisoned by the book, The Transsexual Empire, when I was eighteen. And I thought, “Oh my god, I’m going to set feminism back if I go ahead with this”. It was painful to read that book.
M: I’ve never read it.
S: It’s crazy. And I’m like, did she fall in love with somebody that was trans, and they jilted her, or…? But at the same time I realize that when I’d hang out with my dyke friends…what’s interesting is that the gay guys that I was hanging out with, they could care less about my gender expression, you know. It was always more… it was just party time with them. It was going to bars, drinking, doing drugs.
M: But you were entering gay male spaces, as a woman, so what was that like back then?
S: I remember going into The Edge bar in the Castro to have a drink with some friend. I was waiting in line for the restroom and some gay boy said, “This is a man’s bar”. I would think, “great – you’re affirming my gender identity!” So it was like nice. It’s like, one time Sean and I were walking down Castro Street and some older gay fellow said to Sean, “Loose the fish, honey!”, and we were like, instantly offended by him and, you know, also thought how nice that our gender identities have now both been affirmed by this asshole. It’s like holding multiple experiences. But I think trans people have so many stories like this. Like when I first moved here, I basically was fag-bashed by this guy in this bar in the Lower Haight. And then six months later I’m walking down the street with a woman friend and somebody drove by in a car and said “You fucking dykes, get out of San Francisco!”, something like that. And I thought, that’s the same person, you know?
M: It was the same person?
S: No, in my mind. I thought, that’s the same person. They just can’t get over it. You know? They’re just surrounded by queers. But it was like going through that, again…The short is that it was always an adventure as a performer – go on stage and perform, because there was, again, there was not a critical mass of trans… other trans people in the audience, or performers, or trans allies.
M: Now we’re kind of reaching into the mid 1990’s?
S: Yeah. 1994, 1993-1995 maybe. I think people had a really hard time with what I would call – in dyke communities – with the idea of gender socialization. So, if you went through male socialization many decided they got to ask you a lot of questions about your gender, or your sexual orientation. And what steps are you going to take to, you know, work on your residual male privilege and things like this. So, again, with my gay male friends, it was like, I would go hang out with them in the Castro. It was fine. I’m with, you know, we’re all young and we’re drinking and partying – or maybe some of them actually lived in the Castro – and I’d be hanging out with an apartment full of gay boys or radical fairies, and just hanging out and just talking. Then I would have sex with some people, and it was always confusing to me. Like, what does this mean for me? What does it mean for them? I had to always… I was constantly trying to work it out. And then over here (in the Mission district), same period of time, I have dyke friends. And the conversations were, you know, like, in a place like this, a coffee house, or maybe somebody’s house for Sunday brunch. And it would be these serious conversations about, you know, gender, and what does it mean for an MTF to be in women’s space, like, is this a women’s space. These were philosophical discussions that were mostly very boring. And, people would slip on the pronouns sometimes, so I would just say, “Call me ‘it’. Please call me ‘it’”. And, usually, that would be the last time they would do that, that was all it took. You know? But there weren’t a lot of trans women, out trans women, that were artists, performers, that were intersecting with these various worlds. Also, there were very few of us. And I think that… this idea of kind of being a loner, of being isolated, not having a big, big community, was my experience. I was a tag-along to different communities. So, for example, in 1994 at eight-4-eight community space, on Divisidero, which the artist Keith Hennessey co-founded, they did all kinds of radical performances there. Like, stuff around body fluids and all kinds of stuff. And there was a show where Susan Stryker was going to read, Jamison Green was going to read. Loren Cameron was going to show his photographs. There was a line down the block to go to that show.
S: It was amazing. Because there were so few things like that. And it was a really mixed crowd, of radical queerness, of a spectrum of sexual orientations and gender. And that show was, I think, very important. I know for me it was important because, um, I hadn’t… there was never, as far as I know, anything like that in San Francisco. And so, here was this show that was just packed, in this little room.
M: You said it was in 1994?
S: It was definitely 1994. Yeah. And there I was around these queers, and watching Susan read a poem…
M: It really had an impact on you.
S: Yeah. And it was not very much, content-wise. Again, I think Susan read a poem. Jamison Green read a poem. Photos on the wall. Wine and cheese, you know? That was the show. But that was, um, that was a real coming together, I think, of people that were different kinds of artists or performers or sex-positive activists. So that was a big deal.
M: So, when did you start to feel a shift, an emerging scene of trans artists. Did that take a long time to bubble up?
S: Um, I think looking back now on those early 1990’s, there were things like Trans Sisters, the Journal of Transsexual Woman Feminism – I think is what it was called. I have a few issues here and there. And then there was Magazine Mondo 2000. That was short lived. But Kate Bornstein would be in there sometimes, or people doing kind of radical essays, philosophy essays, and they would talk about – they would equate cyborgs and science fiction with the transgender experience. And looking back on this stuff now, I am sure it would seem super-quaint in a sense. Both radical, and also the language would be a few generations old, the analysis of the transgender experience. I saw Kate Bornstein at Josie’s Juice Joint in San Francisco. She had a one-woman show. And she… I don’t remember exactly when I saw this show. She thinks it was 1992 or 1993. And, you know, it was just amazing to see Kate Bornstein on stage. She was like a hero. This radical thinker and performer. I think she’s a very important figure in transgender history.
As a musician, I equate things to music history and pop music history. So, it would be kind of something like the breakthroughs of the early rock and roll pioneers. That, you kind of have this boring America, really straight-laced America, and then where did Little Richard and Elvis Presley come from? My god. Like, overnight. There was a before and after with these crazy guys doing this crazy rock and roll music.
M: So you equate Kate to…
S: Early rock and rollers in the sense of her instant impact. For example, I know, since I’ve talked about seeing her, and I went up and talked to her afterwards, that there were a few of us there, in the crowd, like…
M: Trans women.
S: Trans women. And it’s kind of, like, the Ramones.. it’s kind of like when the Ramones… they go to England and in 1975 they tour England, right? The next year it’s the Sex Pistols and The Clash. It’s just like, instant impact. People thought, I can get a leather jacket and learn three chords and be in a band. And they did.
M: You think Kate had that kind of impact with those few trans women that were there to see her perform?
S: Absolutely! I do think so. I would say that we were all doing our own thing already. It’s just like now. The show Fully Functional Cabaret that I was recently in with Annie Danger and other trans artists, I would say that if you were to look at a demographic of who went to the show, probably people that we would identify, or who would self-identify as trans women, would probably be one of the smaller demographics at the show. Because, it’s definitely, it’s also a queer consciousness, the show. And, I would have loved more trans women to come out. But I think those of us in the show were already perceived as radical, and the people that are going to support our art are probably more radical. I don’t know what other word to use. So, there’s going to be a lot of people that don’t see themselves over here. So, it’s kind of like, those of us who saw Kate were already going down these paths. It was a reaffirmation to see somebody on stage like that. And I do think she was very generous with her time, and still is.
M: She certainly still is.
S: Very generous. So. Yeah, that show – I joke, but it was like eight of us and we all went on to, you know, do crazy things.
M: What others were there that I should know?
S: Well, like, you know, even people who weren’t trans women, but trans people. I’m sure Susan Stryker was there, or Jordy Jones was there. I feel like that’s my generation of trans people, which doesn’t have to just be biological age. We don’t have to all be the same age, but we all came out within a year or two or three within each other, I would say. So, yeah, it was awesome to see Kate Bornstein. And Gender Outlaws was just incredible… to read that book. Because there had been a few autobiographies put out up to that point, but it was the same book. “I always knew I was a lady”. “I was climbing Mount Everest and I realized, I’m a lady.”
S: You know? And it’s like, the next thing they’re buying tea cosies and shopping in Harrods for tweed skirts. I’m like, what happened to you? Is it really so simple?
M: So, Bornstein is one of the grandmothers of radical trans feminism… of sorts? Again, to say, it’s hard to use the word feminism. It means very different things to many different people.
S: Yeah. Because you also have your political radical people, which probably Leslie Feinberg or Sylvia Rivera, over here on leftist political organizing. I’ve spent time in that world as well. But then over here with performance, I think…
M: So, when did it start to feel like a movement? Did it ever? Maybe it never did.
S: Right. Um, I don’t know. It’s so…
M: Maybe movement isn’t the right word. When did it start to feel like there was a more cohesive community of trans artists?
S: I think, um, I think really, for me, about 10 years ago. I started to notice a real difference in my lived experience. So, there were clubs that people were putting on, organized by trans people, where I would get invited to perform. And there would be young trans people in the audience that I didn’t know. Trans men and trans women. I remember… so, yeah, 10 years ago, my friend Christopher Lee and I were both nominated to be Pride Grand Marshals.
M: What year were you nominated to be the Pride Grand Marshalls?
M: When did you start working on the SF trans film festival?
S: So, the film festival’s first year was 1997. And I was a volunteer. I then became a presenter. I was representing… I was invited to just talk, some little speech, I forget what. So, I was there at the beginning. And I would do things every once in awhile like that. I would volunteer…
M: Who was the first director of the festival?
S: It was Al Austin and Christopher Lee. They were co-directors. And then they brought me in to be a co-director, um, in, maybe 2002, 2003. Something like that. Another interesting thing was when I moved to San Francisco, I also met through people this little click of these hipster straight artists. I would go hang out with them sometimes and they had parties… it was almost like a salon. They were really educated on the history of performance art, or the history of radical art in the United States. So they loved Joseph Cornell. And they loved his boxes with various brick-a-brack, and they had different themes. And they thought that I should definitely make sure that I’m journaling about my experience and I’m doing things like, maybe, clipping my hair to be a signifier of my own journey, my own physical journey, or… They were giving me all of this advice on what I was doing, because to them just being trans was considered so radical.
And, you know, probably just like now. People would talk all the time about things. I knew someone who… they were Buddhist and they thought, all is an illusion, desire is suffering, and why even bother if this is all not happening anyways. So there’s so many types of questions that we get asked to answer. I mean it’s amazing, the breadth of knowledge most trans people end up having, in the sense of having to justify and defend yourself. You learn about Joseph Cornell. You learn about Buddhism. You learn about Marx. And you learn about the history of gayness and queerness as a bourgeois construct. And, you know, you have to have an answer for it all, literally. It’s crazy.
M: What was your answer?
S: I’m so surly. I don’t remember. I just… yeah. I think, also, I’m probably a person that really doesn’t get messed with all too often, really. Face-to-face. If there was a movie and they needed to cast the transgender assassin, they’d probably cast me. You know, I wouldn’t play the housewife or… like Annie Danger in the show we did, she’s like, “You are the drill sargeant!” I’m like, really? Okay. Who else could do it? Probably nobody, in that cast. Because you have to just scream at this human being for eight minutes straight. And that’s all I think of now when I think of Bryn (Kelly) – in my mind it’s like, you stupid little bitch, every time. I’m sure she’d love that, because that’s my final words to her in the show.
M: Let’s talk about the festival… you joined Christopher and Al in 2002, 2003?
S: Yeah, after I had kind of been in the orbit, earlier than that….
M: Were you making films?
S: I made a film, um, around maybe 2000, or 2001.
M: What was that film?
S: It’s called Almost Human. It’s a short film.
M: How could somebody find that work?
S: Um, they can’t. I have maybe one VHS copy of it, that I have. Yeah. It will be the great missing film of my life. [laughter] Who knows.
M: Does it have to be your missing film? We could dub it and you could give me a copy and I would put it in my archive.
S: Did you ask for a movie awhile back, and I never got it to you? I can’t keep track.
M: Yes, I am trying to build a film archive along with these oral histories…
S: That’s so good. It’s awesome. Eventually we’ll have a transgender art history museum, won’t we?
M: Well, hopefully. We’re a ways off, I think, from a transgender art museum.
S: What’s interesting - and I’ll just go there a little bit – is having now been around for 20 years, is personally, um, I never would have believed there would be so much trans stuff at one time. I never would have believed there would be all these trans people, or trans people making art for each other, or people caring about us, people finding us attractive. All of it. I never would have believed it…
M: Yeah, it is pretty amazing. It’s a great moment to be trans or gender variant right now.
S: It is.
M: A lot of trans and gender variant artists I interview say so.
S: It is good. And I was going to say, back to being Grand Marshal, we got nominated, and I got a call from Christopher, he called me up, and he said, we’re going to win. And I told him, you’re crazy. We’ll never win. Who would vote for us. And so, what we did, we started to… San Francisco Pride had voting areas and voting days and the very first voting day where you would select the nominees, and there were like ten or fifteen of us, was at 18th and Castro. And we were standing out there and we couldn’t get anybody’s attention. They were all voting for whoever the popular gay men were, who were also out there with us. And there was us, you know, the little trannys, with our little “vote for us” badge. And Leslie Mah drove by from Tribe 8, who was our pal, and she was like the one vote we got that day. She drove up on her bike and she was like, “Hey, Shawna and Christopher, what are you doing here?” and we told her, you know, we’re trying to become Grand Marshal’s, would you vote for us. Sure. And that was the first vote that we got, was her. And we ended up winning, you know.
M: You’re saying how hard it was to find votes, then you won. So what did you do?
S: Yeah, we realized we need to go away from where Pride is saying you can vote – it’s like all the gay bars in the Castro, or the Gay Men’s Chorus headquarters – wherever you could go. So, we started to go wherever we hung out. So, for example, our friend Jordy Jones organized a big party at the community centre – it was a transgender party. So we’re like hey, vote for us. Suddenly we had people in there voting for us. Or we went to queer women performing events, like Sini Anderson or Michelle Tea and their circle – “Hey, vote for us”. So, we just… we ended up actually going to queer community and we threw some parties. We threw a couple parties at the Lexington. We threw a party at Café du Nord. So we also made it fun. And we were on a mission. We were on a mission to show that this system, the voting system, was obsolete and inadequate for trans people to get elected. We’re going to show them by going to our people, and we ended up winning that year.
M: I love that story!
S: Yeah, we were the first, in the history of San Francisco Pride. We were the first elected Pride Grand Marshal’s. Yeah, it was cool. We took it very seriously. This opportunity to sort of broadcast trans issues. So Pride puts on events like pancake breakfasts and meeting the mayor and stuff, and we always had messages about, you know, trans political issues. We put it out in the room, like, around police abuse, or homelessness, or gender rights. We always did that, every time we were invited somewhere we put our words out there.
M: Where’s Christopher Lee now?
S: Christopher’s just, he’s doing his own thing. He lives in the Bay area.
M: You did a lot of activism as part of your work as an artist.
S: Absolutely. We took is seriously, but we also, we had fun doing it. We had parties. We dressed up, we dressed fabulously. I think there were people who had not paid attention ever to Pride or had given up on Pride for being too vanilla or too mainstream that had a little burst of interest. Yeah. So that also corresponded with these other clubs popping up. Just kind of this flowering, I think, of transgenderness in San Francisco. It was something that was going on. I don’t really understand it, but something had happened.
M: What was the film festival like at that point?
S: You know, it was not much different than now. It would be over a weekend. I would say the thing that’s true is you just see there’s more and more people making movies. And that’s continued to be true. We have just made the decision to show short films, like 20 minutes or less, now for several years, because there are so many trans film makers, and we want to show as many movies as we can. That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s tricky because we don’t have the budget, we don’t have the financial resources…
M: Would you show movies that weren’t directed by a trans person, but had a trans person on screen?
S: Um, that has happened. But the real focus has always been work made by trans and queer people, definitely.
M: So right now, are you the only director?
M: And how long have you been the only director?
S: For maybe like eight years or something.
M: And so it’s just you? Or do you have a crew of people that work with you?
S: I have people that help. This year I’m trying to get some new people to be on a screening committee to help me watch movies.
M: Great. Let’s get back to your own work. You’ve toured a lot, yes?
S: I’ve toured a fair amount.
M: I mean, you’ve toured with Fresh Meat, and with the Tranny Road Show and on your own. Did you ever feel a palpable difference with each tour in the way people responded to you?
S: Yeah. Absolutely. Without question. Absolutely. Like, especially, um, at universities, where it… it’s pretty unbelievable. There’s all these students who come out for trans stuff who are really passionate about transgender issues. They’re trans themselves, or queer themselves, or they’re attached to trans communities in some way, they’re pretty supportive.
M: When did you start to really feel support from universities?
S: I would say, um, I mean for me personally, maybe around 2004, 2005. So, a friend of mine, a trans guy, we were invited to give a Trans 101 at San Francisco State. It was like, 1997. And it was this huge human sexuality class, in this huge room. There were around 200 people there. And we were on stage, and there was like some baseball players or some jocks that were there. They started to think they were funny and made some transphobic comments. And, I just went with it. I think I was throwing the microphone around over my head and just entertaining the crowd. But my friend took it really personally and got really angry on stage, which, I understood where he was coming from with his emotions, but I felt, you know, don’t let them see you that way. It’s like 5 assholes. And people came up afterwards and were really apologetic to us. And I think about something like that to what it’s like now…it’s not a deal breaker being trans. In fact, people are curious about it. And people think it’s kind of… it’s good and bad. What’s good is people are going to come out and see you and support you as a performer. What’s bad is you can get complacent because it’s sometimes not about what you’re doing or your art, but being trans in their mind is cool. It’s, you know, you’re oppressed, therefore you have some kind of credibility that non-oppressed people have. And I think it’s important to, as a performer, to be aware of that, and to keep engaging people with compelling art that might even push their buttons a little bit. But, if you’d asked me 15 or 20 years ago that I’d even have this conversation, or that there would be places throughout the country that would want you to come and perform for them, I never would have believed it.
M: This is the question I ask in every interview, do you call yourself/consider yourself a “trans artist”?
S: Um… [pause] it’s an interesting question because whether I consider myself a trans artist or not I’m perceived to be a trans artist. It’s like the playwright, Tony Kushner, who has said, I’m many things, I’m many labels to myself, I’m not just a gay playwright, but of course, you know, probably if we would look at his Wikipedia entry, the first thing that it would say is he’s a gay playwright. So, I think, on the one hand, we can identify however we want to, but we’re still going to have to make sense of how people perceive us and identify ourselves. I go back and forth all the time on how I identify as an artist or as a person, even in my own gender expression, so… um… I don’t really know if I identify as a trans artist, because the people I listen to, most of the music I listen to, or the artists that I’m interested in, they’re not trans people. And not all of my lyrics are about being trans. I’m well aware that, as a performer, I’m perceived as a trans performer. That’s just almost a given wherever I go. Am I a trans femme performer? Am I a trans Americana performer? Am I a trans folk performer? But the trans is always first…I believe strongly that we have a history of trans people trying to get to a place where they no longer have to be out about being trans. Success by our culture is to be a trans person not readily perceived to be trans, that means you’re a successful trans person. And I think, I’m like, trans is enough. I’m glad I’m trans. I’m proud that I’m trans. It’s good to be a trans person. It’s probably the best thing you can be, right now in our culture.
I think the most interesting stuff is going on now, you know? Interesting art. Interesting political work. Interesting battles are being fought. Things like, to change the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of us. People changing or challenging law enforcement agencies. People whose art is doing all kinds of… like my amazing partner, in the modern dance world. You know? Sean (Dorsey) is very brave. And he’s brilliant and beautiful, but his art is astounding. And, he, there’s no one like him, really, in this world. And I think that’s just true for all of us, that we’re carving a unique space, and I think, who knows where it will go. Success doesn’t mean assimilation. Success will be to keep opening up and shifting our culture, and we need all of us to do that.
M: In what ways do you feel being a “trans artist” is limiting?
S: If that’s all people are interested in. And that was one of my concerns when I got into the Fully Functional Cabaret with Annie, was to make sure we were in charge of how we were perceived, because I told her, I said, you know, we could honestly sit around for the next month and read comic books and go into cafes and have coffee and then the day before the show decide we’re going to put on some interesting costumes and put sparklers over our ass, and guess what? People are going to like that show. And we could travel all across the country and people would love that show, just because it’s… right now, the trans piece, people find interesting. That is interesting in mainstream America. That is interesting in university settings. Just that alone. But as artists, we have to do more than that. We can’t… it might be fun to put sparklers up our ass, and who doesn’t want to do that once in awhile, but it’s not enough.
M: Are we doing a good job in supporting trans artists and writers?
S: I think we need to be supporting all of our artists more as a culture. We don’t create the conditions to be a sustainable living in the United States, whether you are an artist or not. Universal health care education opportunities, employment opportunities. Yes let’s pass ENDA – let’s sign it into law, but that’s not going to create even one job. There is no money for education or economic empowerment, so I don’t think we support any of our artists enough. I don’t pay attention to mainstream music and those who get selected by multinational corporations… I don’t care who the latest rockstar is because they are just a corporate creation. What is so good now is there is so much more going on, even if we’re all struggling more economically.
M: The interview is winding down but I wanted to ask a little bit more about your music. You write about a lot of different feelings, people etc. in your music. Where do you usually find inspiration to write a song?
S: I would say my music and my songs are very noncommercial, so…I’m definitely into the folk realm now and I have been for several years. For really long time I was trying to figure out whether or not I would work with a band. Being an alternative folk artist seems to be the best for my music and the best thing that I should do. Without a band. Lyric based songs. That’s what I am interested in continuing to do. And, you know, there is a whole great tradition of people doing that. It’s another from of writing, taken just as seriously as a writer would be about writing a book. Sometimes I’ll want to write about something specific like police brutality, which I’ve done. I think writing about my relationship is important to me now but doing it in a way that makes it an interesting song. I think in the last few years I’ve started to write about some of the places I’ve lived and trying to make sense of some of my upbringing. I grew up around a lot of Christianity, so I’m writing about making sense of that as a trans person. One of my personal beliefs is that Christianity is one of the foundational problems in the United States with how it’s practiced around gender expression. I think we are a Christian culture, whether we want to be or not. And the gender binary is being strongly adhered to in the US according to the old and new testament - it’s one thing that, if we could shift that, then there would be less bullying. And less teen suicides. And I think we are afraid to call it out and say Christianity and the way it is practiced in the United States will necessarily lead to violence against people perceived as different. So, it’s important to me.
M: Your album came out 2 years ago, yes?
S: Yeah. And I’m starting to record a new album, little by little. It’s going to be an acoustic record. I have to be okay with that because it’s going to be so stark and vulnerable - I think that is what the new songs need. Objectified, my last record, was very folk-punk. There was a very small drum set, my acoustic guitar, an acoustic piano…I had a couple of people I was working with on that album. The new album will be just me. The thing about my music is not many people who interview me want to know about it. For me, music is a nonverbal form, so the people who do music criticism are really focused on the performer or the lyrics and they don’t have the language to talk about the music itself. It’s very hard to talk about music… music is fascinating within the melody and sound and I am always trying to find a compelling melody, or a compelling guitar part. I really care about craft, it matters to me.
M: Okay, last few questions. Where do you think trans/gender variant art is headed?
S: Oh, I have no idea. I do see that we are now in a moment where people are coming out as trans in many different stages of their lives, not just young people. So, that will surely change things. We seem to be having more trans academics, so that will be interesting as they publish and broadcast ideas - it may be good ideas or it may not…who knows. We may have transgender movie stars at some point which would be great!
M: What is next for you?
S: More music. Getting my album made is a priority. It’s been piece meal - Probably between now and the Spring of 2013 it’ll get finished. The film festival is coming up - the call for submissions is out there.
M: It was such a pleasure to talk with you, Shawna!
S: It was a lot of fun. Thanks, Morty.
Please check out some of Shawna’s work in the links below:
Her website: http://www.shawnavirago.com
Clips of Shawna playing music:
Shawna reading her piece “Jolly Jumper” from the anthology Trans/Love: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXbbPwcOqOo