Out of drag, but not entirely unrecognizable even after trading her signature blond bouffant for a pair of cargo shorts, some slip-on Vans, and a parody T-shirt (Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald holding hands with the iconic naked nine-year-old girl fleeing a Vietnamese napalm attack—it's one of Banksy's crasser creations), Heklina is doing a very un-Heklina thing: She’s springing for venti iced coffees at a Starbucks on the edge of Levi’s Plaza. For a San Francisco nightlife legend who has made a career out of giving a big middle finger to conformity of all kinds, this is a very conventional coffee choice.When the barista asks for a name on the order, she uses the one on her license: Stefan.
Today, as on every Wednesday morning, the drag queen most famous for founding the 18-year-old club night Tran- nyshack is supplying caffeine for the 99.7 NOW morning show hosts, Fernando and Greg, and their token straight guy, Jason. The four of them record a weekly Side Show podcast that’s essentially an unrated bonus version of the morning show. Today’s topics: one-legged men on Grindr, the protests against Facebook’s policy requiring posters to use their real names, cocaine-fueled car accidents, rim jobs, nosy neighbors, a ranking of bodily fluids—and the elephant in the room, the reporter who is following Heklina around. When her cohosts ask her what makes her such a worthy journalistic subject, she retorts, “If I put my voice behind something, it immediately becomes worldwide news. Everything I touch turns to gold.”
A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but lately Heklina has grasped an even larger than usual share of the spotlight. Earlier this year, she mollified transgender rights activists who objected to the term “tranny” in Trannyshack and decided to rebrand the club (it’ll soon go by the name Oasis). When a recent Facebook policy requiring real names on the social network outed scores of drag queens, many of them in the Trannyshack family—leaving them susceptible to the sort of online bullying that the policy was supposed to prevent—Heklina was one of the first to speak out, making the controversy international news.
With the podcast in the can, Heklina drives her sensible lime-green compact SUV across town to SoMa. As we zoom past film crews shooting Looking in the Tenderloin, she tells me that HBO offered her a speaking role as herself in an upcoming episode. But after the producers cut her lines and her fee, she backed out—once the role of Heklina became just another piece of background dressing, she didn’t see the point.
After securing parking outside of upscale diner Citizen’s Band, Heklina checks her phone while waiting for a bowl of pork belly ramen. Tomorrow, she’ll be six inches taller and covered in leopard print, standing on the steps of City Hall to protest Facebook’s “stupid” real-name policy. But before the check arrives, her phone buzzes with a Facebook notification from Supervisor David Campos, who organized the protest. (Heklina is acutely aware of the “very meta” irony in coordinating an event on the platform that you’re protesting.) The 1,300 people who RSVP’d won’t need to show up tomorrow at City Hall after all—Facebook has reversed its policy. “Now what do we do?” Heklina asks no one in particular. “Do we still have a protest?” She orders a whoopie pie to go.
After slipping into her third parking space of the day, Heklina knocks on the door of what will eventually be Oasis, her new bar and venue at 11th and Folsom Streets. She plans to open Oasis (named after the club that used to occupy the space) in time for New Year’s Eve, when the Trannyshack label will be put to rest. There’s still much work to be done—a lot of dust and debris remains from the club’s bric-a-brac days as a Latin joint called Club Caliente—but Heklina has already picked out her green room. Finally: a permanent place to store her heels.
Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco