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.”

The reality is more nuanced, of course. Lipstick Conspiracy’s 38-year-old frontwoman Sarafina Maraschino — one of the quintet’s two full-time trannies — is the one who is most habituated to her female identity and who is most attached to the timeworn fantasy of suddenly being discovered and propelled to fame and fortune. She also is the band’s alpha diva, resembling a stern, bitter-chick version of Disney’s Snow White: slinky and raven-haired, prone to wearing ruffly red tops and shiny knee-high combat-ready boots. On a recent weeknight she is decompressing after a show at the Center for Sex and Culture at SF’s 11th and Harrison streets, sipping her signature Bombay Sapphire martinis and smoking slender Marlboro Ultra Lights outside Martuni’s Piano Bar — the popular tranny-rock chick quips that she and bandmate Marilyn Mitchell sometimes receive mail there. Sarafina readily admits she wasn’t always this fabulous: In past lives she has been a Stockton-raised farmboy, an Air Force sergeant, and well-heeled dot-commer among other things. In her current incarnation the singer knows she’s a hot ticket, especially in the rarefied world of transgendered divas. And she’ll be the first to tell you so.

Born Scott, Sarafina chose her new first name because it sounded gothic. Besides, it matched the “S” engraved on a compact mirror one of her ex-girlfriends had given her. As for her last name, she had a moment of clarity while standing next to a bar tray laden “with all those olives and maraschino cherries and shit.” When she takes the stage she often looks as if she’s dressed for a futuristic space battle: knee-high rubbery white vinyl boots (she says she owns nine pairs in different colors), white headband, white leather skirt of the Barbarella strain. She wishes her jokes were accompanied by a laugh track.

All these flourishes may explain why Sarafina is so particular about the company she keeps. Even when she put up a profile on the online tranny network URNotAlone.com in early 2003 — supposedly with the intention of making friends — she made sure she looked fierce enough to scare off most people. According to bandmate Tori Tait, Sarafina’s profile said something to the tune of: “I’m stylish, I’m intelligent, and I’m already in a relationship — don’t e-mail me unless you’re smart.”

When Tori first found Sarafina’s online profile, she figured she’d “have to write something witty” to get this gal’s attention, so she shot off an appropriately sassy e-mail that said: “I’m putting together a band of t-girl adventuresses. Do you want to come play?” Tori had meant this figuratively, but Sarafina took it literally. “I got really excited and replied with my whole CV,” she recalls, “plus a list of all the bands I’d been in.”

As luck would have it, Tori had been playing keyboards her whole life. They recruited the tranny scenesters Marilyn Mitchell and Shawna Love to switch off on guitar and bass, and, a few months later, brought in drummer Emme to replace Oswald and Monica, two drum machines they’d given appropriately conspiratorial names. Initially the band was just a great excuse to meet up for drinks and talk, but before long the girls were rehearsing in Sarafina’s San Francisco apartment.

From then on, it was straight to business. Being in Lipstick Conspiracy, in fact, is a bit like being in the Girl Scouts, even the military. Sergeant Sarafina brags that she fronts the only rock band in the world — the only one she can think of, at least — that is on time for everything, including soundchecks. On the day of a show, she calls everyone and tells them what to wear. “It’s like, ‘Okay, we’re all wearing black,’ or ‘We’re all wearing chartreuse’ — something like that,” Shawna says. If a member doesn’t have anything in that color, Sarafina pulls something from her girlfriend’s closet. “A band is a military operation,” Sarafina says. “I know how to manage those bitches.”

Her past life, after all, has required her to commandeer far more than five trannies. In the Gulf War, she headed a six-person maintenance crew. Six years later, as a product manager at Military.com, she ran an office of up to ten people. “I didn’t have any problems firing anyone,” she says.

Despite the band’s seemingly high aspirations, the Lipsticks appear willing to play alongside any transgendered, guitar-strumming Ponderosa Pine who wants to perform on the same stage, which means they’re typically the stand-out act at their shows. They have landed on bills with the best- and worst-dressed of transgendered performers: the capable, if Guidoish, flamenco-folk guitarist Storm Flores (né Stormaldo); the pouty-faced chanteuse Shawna Virago; and, best of all, the honky-tonk drag husband-and-wife duo Buck Shot and Bebe Gunn, who play most of their songs in only one chord and deal with one theme exclusively — they even cover Patsy Cline’s “Stand By Your Man,” changing the hook to “Stand by your trans/Give him all the T [testosterone] you can.” While singing the line, Bebe mimes poking a needle into Buck’s ass.

What makes the tranny-rock genre particularly painful is a fondness for spouting the scene jargon, which only makes the typical lyrics less accessible to outsiders: There’s FTM (female to male), GG (genetic girl), TG (trans girl), “pre-op” and “post-op”– and the list goes on. As you’d expect, this makes for brazenly schlocky music — such as when Buck Shot and Bebe Gunn regale their audience with a cover of Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man,” but change the chorus to “Secret FTM.” In the midst of Stormaldo Flores’ set during a recent “Rock Out Without Your Cock Out” all-tranny show at Edinburgh Castle, one of the few genetic boys in the audience elbows his date and audibly whispers, “I think I’m here to reify gender.”

After such openers, the crowd often heaves a collective sigh of relief when Lipstick Conspiracy takes the stage with the wallop of a regular ’80s-style chick-rock band. (One fan captured it perfectly: Josie and the Pussycats, all grown up. Except in this case, they’d all be squabbling about who gets to be Josie.) It’s comforting to finally hear conventional songs about falling in love and being jilted in which the music is more … well, musical than the average tranny-camp, and the lyrics, thankfully, are devoid of clinical LGBT patois. The set’s highlights are Shawna Love’s melodic, soft-rock tune, “Kelly’s Song,” which is based on a poem about feeling left out, and Marilyn’s “Just a Girl,” a straight-ahead rock song with electric organ glissandos — the group’s only obvious tranny anthem. In it, the girls sing cheekily about all the ways in which they’re like any other sweet gaggle of decadent chicks: Like my martinis dry, cosmos I won’t deny/Smoke those long cigarettes/Thank God I’m not dead yet/Done all those crazy things, short of a wedding ring.

But long cigarettes and martinis are just small scraps of the glamorous life. Lipstick Conspiracy now thinks it’s ready to make it big.

Many a fledgling musician grapples with lust for success — that’s an all-too-familiar story for any poor music critic who has to listen to every unsigned emcee’s projection of how many Beamers and Rolexes he’ll own … five years from now. Lipstick Conspiracy is no exception. The girls bill themselves as “the next Beatles” — really; they even designed their CD sleeve as a play on Abbey Road, with the San Francisco skyline as a backdrop. Stardom, they believe, will let them be who they really are. Sarafina figures that once the band leaps into the stratosphere, its members will just quit their jobs and be girls full-time.

There’s a big problem with this dream, though. You can’t throw a tennis ball in the Bay Area without hitting a musician who thinks he’s on the verge of getting signed, nor move two inches without bumping into some starry-eyed indie rocker with fantasies of being the next big thing. To actually get a major label interested nowadays, you typically need a few indie-label releases, plenty of college radio interest, and a strong following, which means you have to be out in the public eye, touring and self-promoting. It also pays to be young, and this is not a young band. The upshot is that Lipstick Conspiracy’s closeted members would almost certainly be outed long before they could afford to live off their music. And that’s where things get even more problematic.

Take Marilyn, a tenured science professor at a Bay Area university who, according to Sarafina, is well known in her field. Marilyn pussyfoots around the idea of coming out at work. It’s not totally out of the question, she says, but it does have ramifications in the straight academic science community, and would cause the guitarist plenty of problems. “Coming out would be a huge story, because it’s just a novelty,” she says. “I would alienate some people and gain a lot more friends. I just have to decide, at some point, when it would be the right thing to do.” In fact, the band has even performed at her campus, and Marilyn, hidden beneath a platinum Dolly Parton wig and stage makeup, has spotted some of her own students in the crowds at Lipstick Conspiracy shows — none have recognized her, she thinks. “Right now, not being out at work is not that big of a deal,” science girl says sheepishly.

Well, actually, it is a big deal when half of your life revolves around an alter ego you’ve developed and inhabited. Marilyn, like Sarafina, has Hollywood dreams for Lipstick Conspiracy; she says the short-term goals are to get signed to an indie and to increase the band’s visibility. “I would like our music to outlive us,” she says. “How we do that, I don’t know — the standard way of doing that, of course, is to get a recording contract and all that, but there’s a lot of strings tied to getting a recording contract.”

A few extra strings in this case. For starters, how can the band hope to appeal to a mainstream audience when half its members are afraid to come out at work? Marilyn says they’ve “done a few things,” such as adding a couple not-ostensibly-gay clubs to their Pacific Northwest tour, and performing at large mixed events like Oakland’s Art & Soul Festival — even if the band was relegated to the new LGBT stage. Asked whether she’d be willing to abandon her academic career to go tour with a mid-level band, Marilyn concedes that giving up her post would be “kind of foolish.” On the other hand, she muses coyly, professors are allowed to go on sabbatical.

In fact, Marilyn dreams of living daily life in girl mode even if the rock star fantasy never pans out. Hanging out by the bar at SF’s Edinburgh Castle before a show, the guitarist gushes about a prospective teaching position in a master’s program in Walnut Creek, where she thinks she might try teaching “as a girl.” The only way to really pull it off, she figures, is move someplace where nobody knows about her past.

As for the Leading Lipstick, the singer claims her parents should have predicted that little Scotty would grow up to be stylish Sarafina — growing up on a farm in Stockton, he was the only boy who hated getting grease under his fingernails — but it took years of cross-dressing and flirting with the lifestyle before he actually committed to the things you have to do to change your gender. Stationed in Germany in 1988, Scott met and married his now ex-wife. At the time the young soldier was what you might call a Christmas-and-Easter tranny who would “spread her wings” at occasions like Carnival, when everybody dressed in drag. After returning to the States with an honorable discharge in 1993, he studied world history at UC Berkeley and began singing — still as a man — for Vacaville indie band the Occasional Orange.

Scott’s transition to full-time trannydom was episodic as he started going to fetish events and dressing as a girl more often. “My wife knew,” Sarafina says, “but I didn’t wear it on my sleeve.” They divorced in 1998, the same year Scott embarked on his five-year dot-com stint — the wife ran off with his old band’s drummer, Sarafina explains, adding that she is still friendly with her ex. Scott then moved to San Francisco, where he fantasized about singing Cole Porter in drag: “I figured every bar would have a tranny torch singer,” Sarafina says.

But in 2002, before that dream was realized, Scott got laid off from his lucrative Internet job. “I decided everything in my life was wrong, from who I was to how I was trying to sustain myself,” Sarafina recalls of the aftermath. “I had all this money laying around. Some of my old business partners and I were scrambling to put together business plans for another company, but we couldn’t agree on anything, and I loaned out a bunch of money to help my friends pay rent or buy groceries. The only thing that gave my life meaning was getting dolled up and going out.” Following a period of navel-gazing, Scott emphatically concluded that “she” was living in the wrong body. So she decided to fix it.

As Sarafina describes the transformation, it’s pretty onerous. There are the expensive electrolysis treatments, the hormone regimen, the wardrobe makeover — plus you’ve got to grow your hair out, change your name, and, toughest of all, explain to family, friends, acquaintances, and co-workers that you’re a girl now. And this is without surgery — which most people can’t afford, by the way. “Transition is incredibly difficult; you basically go into what we used to call ‘the gender hideout,'” Sarafina says.

When you come out of that hideout, everyone still looks at you sideways, Sarafina says, even in the seen-it-all Bay Area. “We’re always going to have biology working against us,” she notes. “We’re all tall; some of us wear wigs. As long as we’re a band and people get it, and they realize that when we perform we’re not a train wreck, and we’re not a bunch of drag queens. The only things we want to be respected for are being musicians, and being girls.”

That’s harder than you might think. It’s not just a matter of shaking off those well-meaning but clueless indie-rock kids who run up to the band after a show exclaiming “I love you guys! I fuckin’ love drag queens!” It’s a matter of always being compelled, tediously, to convince people that yes, you walked into the right bathroom or that yes, they should make that check out to Sarafina Maraschino because Sarafina Maraschino is real, and that, no, you’re not another fuckin’ drag queen running around with your B-52 bouffant and your platform heels and your Priscilla, Queen of the Desert accent. “I never want to throw my drink in somebody’s face or yell,” Sarafina says. “I have the casual, just, ‘Look, sweetie, I’m not a drag queen.'”

Now they just have to convince a whole nation of that.

Shawna Love, 42, always felt like the token something-or-other. Born in East Oakland in the early ’60s, she spent half her childhood living in a Hayward neighborhood not unlike Kari’s suburban habitat, except a little swankier, she says. When she was eleven, her mom bought her a cheesy electric guitar, which she learned to play by ear, copying licks from her favorite songs by Kiss and later Prince and AC/DC.

As a teen, Shawna became the one black stoner dude who hung out with the white boys at Hayward High because “they had kickass weed, they introduced me to rock ‘n’ roll, and they didn’t judge me,” she recalls. “They didn’t have any trannies back then, so I was wearing my mother’s underwear, but not dressing.” After getting her GED in the early 1980s, Shawna moved back to Oakland, bought a blue Fender Stratocaster from a crackhead, and started jamming with her friend Jerry.

Shawna was still living as a man in 1993, when her girlfriend put her in a suede skirt as a joke. “I noticed that I liked it, and I looked good,” she recalls. The couple got married two years later. “Then one day I got this wild hair up my ass to put on some of her lingerie, and I did, and that was it,” she says. “Something just came over me; it was powerful. I didn’t want her shit — I wanted my own shit. She had experience in beauty school, so she taught me how to put on makeup, how to walk in heels, and how to not walk like a dude.”

Shawna began dressing as a woman as much as possible. When Jerry caught wind of it, he decided they could no longer be friends. Despite his wife’s initial support, their relationship went on the skids because Shawna had a drinking problem, she says, and the cross-dressing didn’t help. The couple got divorced in 2000. Their two children — ages seven and eleven — have seen pictures of “Shawna” but have never met her in person, so to speak. Shawna says she isn’t trying to shelter them, but sees no need to flaunt it, either.

Being a part-time tranny is actually quite an ordeal. You have to stay aware of what you’re wearing at all times, and whether you took off all your makeup. Shawna is so accustomed to her wig that she sometimes catches herself trying to brush hair off her shoulders at work, and then realizes she has none. Co-workers sometimes tease her about the way she talks, she says. When she gets calls on her cell phone from work, she’ll modify her voice from femmie and fey to more gruff and percussive. It’s a hassle, Shawna says: “Why I gotta do all this shit to be the Shawna that everybody else sees as Shawna?”

But for her and other members of Lipstick Conspiracy, the alternative is worse. Like anyone, Shawna needs money, a stable home, and health insurance. Ultimately, she says, “I just want to pay my rent off this shit; to sustain myself from music. To be able to get up in the morning and do my thing.” She’s not really sure what steps the band has taken to get a record deal, but Shawna says she’s started taking measures into her own hands. Her new gambit: “Wear less clothes on stage, and play my guitar louder.”

The girls may be far from landing a contract, but one thing they don’t lack is bravado. Gathering at Marilyn’s condo in South San Francisco on a recent Sunday night, the bandmates discussed their future over oily falafel sandwiches and red wine. Marilyn had Coldplay on the stereo. “This is currently the number one band in the world,” she said.

She followed it with a track from the Houston-based tranny rock band and Lipstick Conspiracy imitator Gurlfriendz. Predictably, they sucked: The song sounded like it was recorded on a cheap-ass four-track; the rhythm section was weak; and it had no solid groove. Then she played the beginning of Lipstick Conspiracy’s EP, Don’t Tell a Soul, which kicks off with “Just a Girl.” Sarafina and Andrea sat on the couch grinning smugly, with a look that could be translated: “Our tranny band just kicked that other tranny band’s ass.”

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