Fabulous Five 

Lipstick Conspiracy aspires to rock stardom, but that's a tough sell when you can't even tell your co-workers you're a tranny.

Shawna Love has an enviable talent for driving in stiletto heels. On a recent Saturday, she's driving through a quiet, suburban neighborhood in South Hayward that looks as if it burst out of a Sears, Roebuck catalogue and hasn't been touched in fifty years: All the houses are squat, ticky-tacky things with manicured lawns, window boxes, and identical American flags hanging in the windows. She squints out her passenger-side window, skeptical that one of these stucco boxes actually belongs to her friend Kari, who fronts the all-tranny-girl rock outfit Trans Central Station -- a spinoff of Shawna's own band. Kari is hosting a barbecue and jamboree, and Shawna is dressed for the occasion: dark, smoky pantyhose, a black sequined dress to go with her heels, lipstick the color of cabernet.

She parks in front of a Pepto-Bismol-pink house whose only distinguishing features are the plastic flamingos on its front lawn. A cat jumps on the roof of the car and climbs through the window onto Shawna's lap, trying to claw at her stockings. A woman with poofy hair and culottes scurries over to scoop the critter up, apologizing profusely. Her eyes widen a little when she sees Shawna. "Oh, you must be a friend of Kari," she stutters.

"Yeah," Shawna laughs later, "another man in a fucking dress."

By now Shawna is used to the stir she creates when she hits the streets in all her finery. Driving home recently, she says, she peered in her rearview mirror at the Bay Bridge toll plaza to see a car slink up behind her. She could hear two guys talking in the backseat: "Yo, I think that's a dude. Eh, for real -- that's a dude!" The driver rolled down his window and hissed at her: "Eh, eh yo, dude!" When she turned to look at him, he added, "Yo, where'd you get your weave at?"

Shawna works as a maintenance man by day -- she is reluctant even to whisper her employer's name. She likes her job; the work is fun and fulfilling, and she gets benefits. The catch is that she has to work with a bunch of homophobes. And she can't be Shawna; she has to dress and act like one of the guys. She predicts that if she came out as a tranny at work her co-workers would ostracize her and make the job a living hell. "They'd probably go to my boss and say, 'I'm not working with him or it, or whoever the fuck he thinks he is; I'm not working with a fucking faggot,'" she says. Shawna recalls the time someone at her job started gossiping about another co-worker, saying that the co-worker went to parties "where there's all these punks and motherfuckers wearing wigs and shit." Then the guy telling the story "made the symbol of having a gun in his hand and shooting people."

In her private life Shawna plays guitar and bass for Lipstick Conspiracy, a rock band that features frontwoman and guitarist Sarafina Maraschino, with Marilyn Mitchell holding down guitar and bass duties, Tori Tait on keyboards, and Emme Yarwood on drums. Since its genesis in a San Francisco Victorian in 2003, the five-tranny band has played some 55 gigs -- including two San Francisco Gay Pride festivals -- toured the West Coast, self-released a five-song EP, garnered a Bay Guardian write-up as "Best Girl Band," and built up a cult of adoration in the trans and SOMA bobo communities. After the Lipsticks adopted Martuni's Piano Bar and Cocktail Lounge as their unofficial headquarters, on the far fringes of the city's Castro district, Sarafina says the Zagat Survey published a blurb describing it as a place where you can catch the occasional tranny. One of the joint's bartenders says he's naming a drink after the band. Sarafina says there's even a major label "sniffing around."

But that's all talk. The Lipstick Conspiracy revels in hype -- and in being that rare transgendered band that, unlike most identity-affirming queer bands, is actually pretty decent. Its audience to date is largely limited to the clannish LGBT and Michelle Tea communities, but the Lipsticks are relatively easy for the straight crowd to swallow because they don't whack you over the head with militant tranny anthems or sing the blues about electrolysis and fake tits. Plus, its members are endearingly kitschy. The band name was meant to embody a shtick that combines '60s mod style, Nancy Drew, J. Edgar Hoover, or "James Bond in a skirt," says Sarafina, who notes that "conspiracy" evokes images of cat burglars, jewel thieves, spies, and the like, while "lipstick" softens them.

But there's a more personal dimension to the theme: Three of the band members are undercover agents. By day, they appear as men. By night, women. It's a secret they've managed to keep for years.

Plenty of successful musicians conceal their personal lives (and their sexualities) to safeguard a carefully groomed public image. But Lipstick Conspiracy's problem is the opposite: The band members are trying to develop a public image while hiding it from people they interact with on a day-to-day basis. Like most struggling artists, they fantasize regularly and effusively about hitting the big time, but for them commercial success would mean more than penthouse parties and funding their makeup and martini habits. In their worldview, it would allow them to ditch their straight careers and fearlessly step from behind the curtain to live publicly as the people they are in private.

Granted, it's hard to be a tranny girl in the cruel straight world. Tori, a West London-raised computer software engineer, dubs herself a "128-er," because she spends 128 hours per week dressed as a woman and looks like a guy only at her nine-to-five. The keyboardist has no intention of coming out at work; she isn't so committed to gender transition that she'd risk "going from being a valued professional to being 'that TG person' and then having to start an educational campaign." Besides, she adds, "If you want to be out in the world it's easier if you're on one end of the spectrum or the other" -- you either totally look like a guy or you totally look like a woman. Tori is pretty androgynous, and there's a part of her that enjoys being a geeky software dude. The average Joe, she says, probably gets his ideas about transgendered identity from Jerry Springer testimonials, which have a common plotline: You discover you're a woman trapped in a man's body and come out, then go through this series of operations until you look like the woman you've always conceived yourself to be, marry a nice man, move to a house in the suburbs, and voilà, your suffering is over. "People are comfortable with that," she says. "You still belong to a specific gender -- you were just assigned the wrong one."


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