Trans Media Arts — The Shawna Virago Interview

| Dec 12, 2016

Happy Holidays everyone! As the final Trans Arts & Media Column of the year, I present an interview with Shawna Virago, a local trans musician here in San Francisco. According to her bio, Shawna is a transgender trickster celebrated for her striking lyric-based songs. Her music twists together folk, punk and trans-americana, offering raw observations about survival in a predatory world, queer love, sticking up for the underdog, and gender rebels. Virago has performed as an out trans woman since the early 1990s. Her performances are celebrated for their compelling mix of original songs, storytelling and standup. Her music has been profiled in many publications, including Bitch, The Advocate and Curve magazines and on left-of-the-dial radio.

I have personally met Shawna when I attended The San Francisco Transgender Film Festival in 2014. I knew there was something about her I liked. My friend told me that she was a “person of note” here in the Bay Area. I found out that she was a fellow musician. I was delighted to see that she has a new album out just in time for Christmas. I asked her if she would answer a few questions for our dear readers ranging from serious to silly to wild. Her answers did not disappoint. 

Hi Shawna! How are you doing and how does it feel to have a new album out just in time for Christmas?

Shawn Virago: Hi Amanda, thanks for checking in. It feels good to have a new album out. It’s on Tranimal Records and is titled Heaven Sent Delinquent and is ten new original songs.

Amanda: We met briefly at the 2014 SF Transgender Film Festival. Of course, rock stars or urban folk/punk stars are supposed to remember each and every meeting of people because us fans may run into you in the future and just assume our meeting was incredibly memorable, right? Seriously though, how did you get involved with the SF Transgender Film Festival?

S.V.: My friends Christopher Lee and Alex Austin started the film festival in 1997. I was invited to give a rousing political speech then and in 2003, they brought me in as co-Artistic Director. The San Francisco Transgender Film Festival is the world’s first and longest running transgender film festival.

A.: The Film Festival used to be called TrannyFest. This was in 1997. Things have changed a lot in a very short period of time. Even the Trannyshack in San Francisco, an LGBT nightclub, changed its name in 2015 out of respect for the transgender community. In your live performance, I notice you used the “T-Word” in the song Transsexual Dominatrix. Some have refused to stop using the word while others find it reprehensible. However, in the trans performance and punk rock world, its very “punk rock” so to speak. Even transwoman Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! has titled her new book Tranny. How do you feel about using, and the use of, this powerful and polarizing word today in 2016?

S.V.: I’ve been using the word ‘tranny’ amongst my closest non-gender binary friends since the early 1990’s – people may not realize it’s a word from my generation of trans people that we still use occasionally with each other. I don’t like it when hate filled cis people use the term.

A: So what is your Trans Story? Such as, when did you transition, when did you have feelings, did you wear Mom’s pumps . . . you know. I like to ask this of other trans folks I meet. I have a feeling your story may be book material judging from your music and lyrics.

S.V.: I came out in 1985 and slowly transitioned to “full-time” in the early 90’s. I was always drawn to non-traditional female role models, such as Djuna Barnes and Exene Cervenka, and later on, Lucinda Williams. They are all gals with an edge.

A.: Have you ever run into any rough/hostile crowds onstage, or do you try to stick to LGBT clubs and such? 

S.V.: Even in San Francisco in the early to mid-‘90s, I played “straight” bars and also riot grrrrl gigs and found most audiences receptive to my music. I think it was pretty clear once I was onstage I wasn’t going to put up with anyone’s ignorance. It also helped being taught how to box when I was younger.

A.: Have you ever been a victim of trans violence or hate speech? 

S.V.: Yes, I have experienced street violence, hate speech and police violence. These experiences galvanized me to get involved with police accountability organizing and anti- prison industrial complex activism.

A.: I assume you live locally in the Bay Area. What makes the SF Bay Area special to you? 

S.V.: I’ve lived in San Francisco for 25 years and was drawn to the city for allowing me to live my life as an out queer person, plus I knew people in the music scene. Also, San Francisco is one of a handful of US cities with a strong literary and bohemian history and I wanted to add to that history.

 A.: You seem to have a presence about you that just oozes of wild adventures and great anecdotes. Care to share any? TGForum is a non-censored site. Anything goes. 

S.V.: Let’s see. I did have a mildly embarrassing situation recently in a Motel 6. My partner and I have a standing date once a month that can only take place at a Motel 6. To date, we have visited over 45 locations in the state of California. They follow a script, which I won’t reveal, but basically they involve me strapped into a chair and covered in baby oil. There is also a spatula. My partner had just finished with the baby oil, when a housekeeper barged in mistakenly thinking we had ordered towels. Well we had, but had requested they be left outside the door. She winked at us as she left. I think we’re done with Motel 6 . . . at least until next month.

A.: What is the weirdest thing you have encountered in recent memory?

S.V.: Besides the current presidential election? I don’t think anything can top that.

A.: What are your musical influences? 

S.V.: Musically I feel most aligned with the British punk bands of the late ‘70s. I also love classic country music and Irish rebel music. I find inspiration in these three story telling musical traditions.

A.: What is your opinion on drag performers and how they differ from the trans experience? I am sure being in and around the scene, you have met some real characters. 

S.V.: There are so many creative ways to challenge the gender binary, whether you’re doing drag or living trans experience. There’s enough room for all of us to coexist.

A.: Tell us about your songwriting process.

S.V.: Songwriting is my vocation, the activity I need to do. 

A.: How long have you been playing music?

S.V.: The Sex Pistols were still a band when I started.

A.: Does your music provide an escape from the drama and the sometimes depressing world? 

S.V.: It hard not to be depressed by this mad world of ours. Sometimes I write songs that need to engage with that madness, other times I need to escape or make them very personal. I go wherever the muse takes me.

A. Why punk folk? How did you evolve into the artist you are now?

S.V.: Folk punk is a distillation of two great lyric traditions, folk music and punk music, obviously. It allows for maximum lyrics expression with emotional directness and punk bedlam. 

A.: Do you like being trans? If it were possible, would you rather be cis-gender?

S.V.: I would never want to be cis-gendered. Being trans is a blessing and a privilege. It’s not always easy being trans, but it creates this rare opportunity being forced to live outside the margins of the gender binary — and it also allows you to continue smashing down other binaries and margins and try to live a self-defining life.

A.: I notice you have a certain clothing style onstage. What is the Queer Folk Punk Princess style and how did it develop? 

S.V.: I liked the style of Sooo Catwoman, who was part of the Vivienne Westwood scene of the 1970’s, plus a bit of British glam rock. Add some ripped up jeans and voila! My fashion secrets are revealed.

A.: Tell us about your new album Heaven Sent Delinquent.

S.V.: My new album is ten new acoustic storytelling songs that articulate escape — real or imagined — by a cast of outsiders, queer rebels and loners. Each song spins an odyssey by these escape artists: from stifling, oppressive, dusty towns; from the crushing weight of a questionable past; from the potential violence transpeople face every day. 

The production on the album is sparse, to best highlight the escapades of the brawling women, dandy provocateurs and queer rebel misfits that the songs are about. It can be purchased at CDbaby.

A.: And finally, I have to ask some of my stupid/silly/inane questions. 

Who is your favorite Beatle?

S.V.: Stu Sutcliffe. He had the best hair.

A.: Do you prefer Starbucks or Peet’s coffee?

S.V.: My partner and I are real espresso snobs and have an espresso machine with a steaming wand and espresso cups and saucers. Plus we have the little French sugar cubes you get in Paris. Caffeine is the only vice I have left.

A.: Paper or plastic?

S.V.: This is a very tough question! Do I use paper and kill trees or do I use plastic and support the oil industry? I feel a song coming on.

A.: Mac or PC?

S.V.: I am a very analog person and prefer my typewriter, but if I must choose, I would say PC. Macs are prettier but PC’s are more egalitarian.

A.: Drag Queens or Drag Kings?

S.V.: Definitely Drag Qwings.

A.: San Francisco by day or by night?

S.V.: I remember a time even in San Francisco, as a younger trans person I rarely ventured out during the day for safety reasons. Everywhere I went, I thought “Am I going to get hassled by some asshole?” This was my first thought for at least 15 years when I left my place. Was I going to get hassled today? On the bus, coming home, on the street. Also I wondered, Are the cops going to leave me alone? So I preferred the night. But now I prefer the night because it hides all the gentrifiers.

A.: Wine, spirits or brew?

S.V.: I grew up surrounded by hearty Jack Daniels drinkers and carried on the tradition myself for a long time. Now I only drink Kilchoman whisky, from the Scottish Island of Islay. It has a real peaty taste that goes perfect with a good cigar.

A.: Would you ever “sell-out”?

S.V.: Not in my DNA.

A. Cherry lips and soft skin or bulging muscles and hairy chests?

S.V.: Give me a sexy boy with muscles in blue jeans and a rockabilly quiff and I’m in heaven.

Great answers! Thank You to Shawna for being a good sport and and sharing her time with us. Shawna’s new video is just below.  Check out her website.

Happy Holidays everyone! Stay safe out there and Thank You for reading my column. I always cherish comments and suggestions. Enjoy the season and I will see you next year.

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Category: Music

Amanda F. Steele

About Amanda F. Steele: I am a transwoman originally from Pittsburgh, PA. I have been living full time for 4 years. I work in retail but am an artist/Graphic Designer and aspiring writer. I tend to address the controversial in my writing. I would love to change the world one article at a time. I moved here to The San Francisco Bay Area to start over, again. The adventure continues...

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