22 January 2009

The Unabashed Heklina Interview : Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Queen


Trannyshack’s satellite show in Los Angeles took place this past New Year’s Eve. The performances were, in a word, inspiring, each one as good as the next. In fact, I was actually moved by many of the performances, proud to see my queer sisters and brothers onstage in such a raw, unabashed, unique way. The often abstract numbers blended drag performance and performance art illustrating what being queer is all about to me—modernity, progression and revolution. With no ulterior motives, I emailed Heklina, the founder and hostess of Trannyshack, to tell her how impressed I was with her production. Shortly after I happened to book a trip to San Francisco and requested an interview with Heklina which she kindly granted.

As we all know, I pride myself on my unabashedness and my authenticity, and I wanted to get to know the real Heklina—Stefan Grygelko, as his license reads. In preparing for the interview I scoured the internet for information on my subject. Every interview with Heklina was promotion for Trannyshack with the same questions: How did you get the name Heklina? How did you come up with the name Trannyshack? How did it begin? How long does it take you to put on your makeup? In this interview, we delve into his childhood, cruising for sex, addiction, gay assimilation, and of course, Trannyshack.

[Who was the first gay person you were aware of growing up?]

One thing I watched as a child on TV that had an influence on me was Cabaret. I was alone at night in Iceland, I think I was 12, watching TV and that scene came on with Michael York and the other guy where they kissed and I immediately got an erection and that was back in the day when, you know, any kind of reference, we would search for it. And the other thing was a movie about Quentin Crisp with John Hurt, The Naked Civil Servant. I remember watching it and just being fascinated with it.

[Did you know at that point that you were queer?]

I think so. I remember being like five or six and being in the bathroom playing with my penis and thinking about Captain Picard from Star Trek.

[Were you effeminate early on?]

Yeah I wasn’t good at sports, I got called fag…

[Was your father in the picture?]

No, my parents were divorced when I was six. I lived with my mom and would go visit my dad in the summer time. But actually just now I’m starting to get a relationship with my dad again. We were not speaking for a long time. He worked for the post office. A blue collar thing. He worked there forever. He is very masculine. Very macho. He hunts. Which is one thing when I go to visit him and he talks about hunting all the time—hunting deer, hunting duck—you know, he makes his own jerky out of deer meat and he gives it to me and I have to pretend like “oh thank you” and then I take it with me and I always throw it away. So I think he had a hard time dealing with his drag queen gay son for a long time.

[Was there a disconnect between you and your father because of your femininity?]

Well I remember he told me he had a discussion with my mom when I was like five or six. He’s like, “that kid's gonna come live with me. You’re turning that kid into a sissy." And I guess he caught me looking in the mirror brushing my hair like a girl.

I left home when I was 17 and I never looked back. I lived a very independent and nomadic existence for a long time. When I moved to San Francisco I decided to make this home and I lived a very nomadic life here and a very kind of--I was very taken with the quote “underground” and the quote “performance” scene. I just really loved San Francisco and the aesthetic and the sensibility and then Trannyshack happened and that was very organic and very much of an accident that defined me for the next ten--it still defines me.

[And does that bother you?]

No, I’m very grateful for it. I had some trepidation and some resentment of it for a while like most successful drag queens who feel like they’re pigeon-holed into being this person. I know that Lypsinka’s been through that, RuPaul, where like they want to become a serious boy actor known for their boy stuff but people look at them and they’re like uhhh no. People want to see the drag thing. I think I went through that. For a year I hated doing drag and I hated the Trannyshack audience and then finally you get through it and you realize, “I’m really lucky ‘cause I’m not sitting in a cubicle. I’m not working a nine-to-five job. I’m getting to do what I love for a living and people seem to really like it." So you just get used to it and then enjoy it.

[Did you ever think you’d be inspiring people via Trannyshack?]

Tons of people told me that they were moved and inspired over the years especially when I decided to end it. I mean it was never my plan that I would start this legendary nightclub. It happened very by accident. While I was doing it I was never like, "Oh I’m doing this amazing thing," it was just there in front of me to do. I guess my existence is so queer and alien to the nine to five world that I never considered what I was doing extraordinary. I was like, "I’m just doing a show." And because I had not grown up around traditional drag shows or watched traditional drag shows, I didn’t see how different Trannyshack was. I was just like this is my sensibility, this is the sensibility of my friends. So I think it was refreshing for other people who were seeing that.

[You didn’t set out to inspire. I saw an interview with a man who said he used to be shy and Trannyshack helped him to come out of his shell. Does that make you feel warm and fuzzy?]

I’m not a warm and fuzzy person so I can appreciate it but I don’t like to, I guess—the emotional things… I don’t know. That’s a hard question.

[I wonder what that’s about.]

I don’t know. I literally just came back from Hawaii and dealing with my adopted father’s death. I just got back into town this morning and I’m still not even dealing with that emotional stuff. I think what it was with Trannyshack is that I never looked back cause I always had to look forward to the next week. So I never really reflected. I’m not a nostalgic kind of person so I don’t get warm and fuzzy when I look back. But people do—because they have memories from over 12 years of Trannyshack—they walk up and say to me that they met their husband at Trannyshack or this happened during a performance and it meant so much to them, you know what I mean? It is very gratifying to hear that but because I’m not wishy-washy or anything like that. I’m not going to trumpet it or talk too much about it.

[Are you proud of yourself?]

Oh yeah, yeah, I definitely am. I just never sit back and look back at what just happened. My thing—and maybe this is something that I need to work on—but when something’s finished, it’s totally finished and then I’m onto the next thing. You know if there’s a project that I’m doing I’m completely immersed in it. During that project I am totally living and breathing that project and then the minute it's finished it's over.

[So there’s a detachment. Are you in therapy?]

No. There are other things I do besides therapy.

[Are you sober?]

Yeah. Since ’94. Alcohol and drugs. And I know that I’m a sex addict. But part of the 12 steps are character defects. I know its one of the character defects I have I’m just not willing to let it go right now because, I don’t know, it’s like maybe I haven’t hit a bottom with that yet. I definitely hit a bottom with drugs and alcohol. I’m compulsive about work. I’m compulsive about sex. Thank god I’m not compulsive about food. Cause that would be a torturous thing to go through.

[Shopping, food, and sex addictions are very similar in that you can't just put those behaviors down forever.]

I was having a talk with a really good friend of mine in LA. She’s in OA (Overeaters Anonymous) and she lost a whole person off of her body. She knows I’m in recovery from alcohol and drugs and I was eating with her once and she was eating this Caesar salad with chicken, no croutons, and then she reached across and took a French fry off my plate and ate it 'cause she wanted to try one. And I said, “isn’t that a relapse?” and she got really annoyed with me and she said, "Well how would you feel if you were only allowed to drink one thimble full of vodka per day? And you had to control your alcohol?" And I was like, "hmmm that would be difficult." She’s since gained all that weight back. That would be so torturous. It was miserable eating with her. When she was on her diet you could tell she resented you for eating what you wanted to eat and when she was off her diet all she could do is talk about the fact she was off her diet.

[Were you ostracized growing up?]

Yeah and I was moved around a lot. So there were some areas that I moved where I had friends and then I would be moved out of there to a new area where I didn’t get along with the kids so it always kind of changed.

[What was the best move for you in terms of open-minded community?]

I guess Rochester, New York. I lived there for years, had lots of friends.

[Where was the worst?]

Winchester, Massachusetts.

[What was your first sexual experience?]

When I was thirteen. With a man in his forties. I remember being so freaked out by it. But I wanted it. I definitely wanted it 'cause I was so horny. I was so hot for the bullies in school. Those same ones that called me faggot. I was so hot for them. I met the forty year old at a swimming pool in Iceland. He was gross.

[How do you cruise for men and what kind of guy do you like?]

I don’t really go on boy sites anymore. I have a lot of sex as a drag queen with quote straight men unquote. I find that I get turned off cruising for gay sex because so much of them are on drugs. I am attracted to straight men. Maybe that’s damage in a way but that’s just how it is. I wouldn’t want to fuck a drag queen. I’d be lying if I said that I wanted to be with a very effeminate man. I don’t. I want a butch man who's gonna slap me around and whatever.

[So when you fuck men in drag is it more natural drag? Do you tone down your drag?]

Oh yeah. It’s one wig I use. It’s much lighter make-up, smaller eyelashes, smaller breasts, no hip pads. Much easier. Panty hose with the crotch cut out of them. Panties. Just that kind of stuff. Turn the lights down very low. Light some candles. That kind of thing.

[So it's about the illusion?]

Yeah

[Do you use your dick with these men?]

No I make it very clear I’m not into that.

[You don’t want them touching your dick?]

Right. Well most of my friends who are tranny hookers--99% of the guys they date wanna get fucked by a chick with a dick. So I am not into that but of course I’m not charging so I can say what I want. So I make it very clear, you know, don’t reply to this if you want to do anything other than get your dick sucked or whatever.

[I keep hearing you're a Rim Queen.]

(Laughs.) Yeah that’s something I became famous for very early on. I used to do it onstage but I’m not so much into it anymore. I still like to do it but not as much as I used to. That’s so funny.

[How has cruising for sex evolved for you?]

Well when I left home I moved to California—I was 18, 19—and back then, when you’re a young white boy and you’re 18 years old, you don’t have to go far to get picked up and um I’d have sex every day. I wouldn’t even have to cruise them, I’d just sit in the park and people would come cruise me. And I was kind of a hustler, into drugs, very much of an on the edge lifestyle until I moved to Iceland in my early twenties. There’s nothing going on in Iceland so when I wanted to get away I’d go to Europe, Berlin, or Amsterdam or London, and you know that was before the Internet so if you wanted to cruise you’d go to a park. All the bars in Europe had back rooms. When I first moved to San Francisco it was cruisy everywhere. Buena Vista Park, Dolores Park…nobody was on the Internet. It didn’t exist, it was actually phone lines back then. And sex clubs like Blow Buddies were big. So I think the Internet has really killed classic gay cruising as we know it. In America anyways. Not as exciting as it used to be. It is true that sex is like a drug. It’s like getting a rush when you go out and look for drugs. It’s like you’re always looking for that perfect high, someone whose gonna be as good as that guy you had five months ago.

[Are you having sex out of drag at all these days?]

Not so much. Although I’m going to London so I’ll probably go to the bath houses. They have great bathhouses there. It’s different than in America, it’s more of a cultural thing. Guys actually go there after work. Not everyone’s on crystal meth.

[Have you ever had a relationship?]

Yes.

[Were you ever in love?]

I think so.

[Do you have any desire for love?]

Not at the moment. People ask me that. They ask me like there’s something wrong, they go, “really??” like they feel like I’m not telling the truth. And I’ve looked at it and it has been a while, just too much into my work and not mentally there to be in a relationship. But it’s kind of like I don’t ever think about it until somebody asks me. I don’t ever think that’s weird until somebody asks me.

[It's not weird but I wonder when you’re having sex in drag is it intimate? Is there passionate kissing?]

No. I don’t want it to get like that. And guys will ask me if I kiss and I say no 'cause I don’t wanna kiss 'cause it just gets my lipstick and makeup everywhere. Of course rimming somebody does too.

I feel like there is a hole inside me where I don’t really take things inwards. I think there’s definite fear of intimacy. When I got sober--and it started around the same I started Trannyshack--that became my focus and the times I’ve dated over those years, the minute anybody is like relationship-y with me or they call me and they’re like "where were you last night I tried to call you," I immediately get like, "okay back off I don’t want any of that.” I think I did see in my childhood both my parents in a lot of relationships just for the sake of being in a relationship no matter how sick those relationships were. 'Cause they were so afraid, both of them, of being alone. I think I’m totally fine being alone.

[How often do you feel lonely?]

Um I don’t even know if it’s lonely. Sometimes I’ll get bored and I’ll go do something with friends. Usually if I’m in a position when I’m at home and the phone is not ringing it’s a good thing. I’m seldom at home for long periods of time.

[When you were fucking out of drag were you butching it up while you were cruising?]

(Laughs.) Yeah, I guess so. Butching it up meaning you don’t talk. And hopefully the other guy won’t talk, too, so you don’t automatically ruin the fantasy. Gender is all drag--the whole masculinity thing. If you go to one of those dances and everyone is all pumped up and wearing leather—it’s such a forced masculinity. Those guys are probably bigger queens than me and you both combined. These are the same guys that are gonna go home and take a fist up their ass. And snort a bottle of poppers. Even when I did poppers I was detached.

[Where does that come from? Which parent?]

Probably my mom. She always was drawn to men who abused her. And then if she ever had any man in her life that was good to her she treated them like shit. Very fucked up. And one loser after another. I just can’t see that. I can’t see why you would want some loser in your life. Then I see my friends in relationships and then when those relationships break up they’re so miserable and they want to talk to me about it and all I can say is, “Honey I could have told you.” Relationships don’t work. I’m very cynical about relationships. I have seen some relationships where it really looks like it’s working but I think a lot of those are non-sexual. Like marriages where it’s been like long-term and it’s a partnership.

[Is it harder to find a man as a drag personality because the average gay man isn’t accepting of that?]

Absolutely.

[What would it feel like if there was a guy who really appreciated your work and supported you?]

I don’t know. I’ve seen some of my friends it's happened to and I think it’s weird. If somebody is a fan of Heklina--I’d almost rather date someone who didn’t know what I did. Or that knew but didn’t care or ask about it. Sometimes it can become tedious to talk about it. Maybe I’m just so done with it at the moment because of ending Trannyshack. I did so many interviews. And I'm so tired of talking about it. But still when I go to dinner parties or go out with friends they still wanna talk about it.

[What do you want to discuss? What does your future look like?]

I don’t wanna discuss that either. I’ll discuss anything else. News. Everybody asks me what’s coming up.

[So what’s next for Heklina?]

(Laughs.) The reason I’m not so nostalgic about Trannyshack at the moment is that it hasn’t been that long. It was only five months ago that I gave it the big Kiss-Off.

[Do you appreciate the fact that you’ve affected gay history in San Francisco?]

Oh absolutely. When people ask me what I hope my legacy is I say I hope that Trannyshack has defined an era of nightlife in San Francisco. That people will look back at the mid and late nineties as the Trannyshack years--shaped how people look at drag. That would be gratifying if that was the case.

[Who is a good representative for the gay community?]

John Waters. I just saw him and he said you know what we should do if Prop 8 passes is just make heterosexual divorce illegal. Because if what you’re fighting for is the sanctity of marriage then the next step is making divorce illegal. That will really shut them up. If it’s so sacred how can you get married and divorced the next day?

[Would you ever want to get married?]

Probably not. I wasn’t that passionate about Prop 8 and I got a lot of flack for it because they wanted me to post things on my Myspace but I wouldn’t do it. Of course I voted against Prop 8 but I don’t feel—I think one of the worst things that ever happened to the gay community is when it became mainstream. I remember back in the eighties we were all diseased pariahs and we were all freaks and I really prefer that. I don’t want this white picket fence normalcy. Whenever I go visit my family in Minnesota or Idaho and I look around at the suburbs I think, "This is so horrible who would want this lifestyle?" And eighty percent of America lives like that. And these are the same types of gays—A friend of mine was in drag leading a protest against Prop 8. She got so much hate mail from gay people saying you are bringing us down by being in drag. I’m like you know what, fuck that, that’s why I’m not going out of my way to support "No on 8" because you just wanna be like everyone else with their white picket fence. And every year at the Freedom Parade they say its about diversity but gay people are some of the most closed-minded people around. Absolutely wanna be like lemmings. The truth is eighty percent of straight people are tired and eighty percent of gay people in the world are tired. They just are. They don’t have any desire to be any different from anyone else. They all want to drive the same car, watch the same TV shows, sit around the water cooler talking about those TV shows. They wanna vacation at the same place, buy the same clothes. And before I came to San Francisco I was so despondent because everywhere I would go in the world I would go out to gay bars and I would feel so alien to everybody else. When I moved to San Francisco I thought, "thank god there are people here who are trying to do something different and be themselves."

[Does that still exist in San Francisco?]

Yeah definitely. Unfortunately HIV killed a lot of those people off. Everybody I was influenced by when I moved to SF--they all died in one year right before Trannyshack started and that was a really dark year. And you would literally see somebody on the street, talk to them, and a week later you’d see them on the street and not recognize them. They’d look so different. And a week later you’d see their obituary in the B.A.R. (Bay Area Reporter), the local gay paper. So it was very scary. You’d turn to the obituaries and it was literally four pages full of obituaries every week. Now there are no obituaries. It’s a different time. It was a very hard time.

[I think there's ambivilence on the part of gay youth about everything our previous generations went through. Where's the respect? Do they care? It's like they're not cognicent of the people who paved the way for us.]

Yeah, I mean, I don’t think about that too much.

4 comments:

Sarah T. said...

That is a great interview! Very well done. He says he's not in therapy but it's almost like you were the therapist! I loved your questions.
xo

andalusian said...

"I remember back in the eighties we were all diseased pariahs and we were all freaks and I really prefer that. I don’t want this white picket fence normalcy."

So true. It's a catch 22 though because you have to appear "normal" to get respect/protection from the man.

Colonize DON'T assimilate.

Sammy Pants said...

You are a great interviewer, with your no-holds-barred question. Asked some very interesting things that you would not always see in mainstream media, but that everyone would like to know.
Thanks!

ampersan6 said...

Great interview + subject. There's truth in this: "I think one of the worst things that ever happened to the gay community is when it became mainstream. I remember back in the eighties we were all diseased pariahs and we were all freaks and I really prefer that. I don’t want this white picket fence normalcy."

I'm in two minds about gay marriage, and tots love John Waters' line about making divorce illegal. I mean, if you follow the logic of the definition of traditional marriage, then that's where you go. Of course, it's political innit.