The Fabric Factory, Circa 1987

Lauren Finkel/Flickr
Lauren Finkel/Flickr


Last year I listened to a young keynote speaker at the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference patronize those in our community who are not, in his view, “activists.” I thought of how little he knew of trans people from the 1980s, who had no health conferences—or even the word trans. We were graceless, we were desperate, many didn’t survive, and nobody then or now saw us as heroes. But we showed up at the gates, and by doing so we helped keep those gates open for future generations.

“You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here,”
says Roy, the short mustachioed bartender
at the only safe tranny bar in New York City
at a quarter to four in the morning. Nobody budges,
until he turns up the lights and shouts “GTFO!”
But it’s hard to go home. We are closeted
transvestites daring to be seen, if only by this
covenant of fellow misfits. Also Filipino pre-ops
with little hairless wrists chattering in Tagalog
as they scan the sheepish men like suspects in a lineup,
wondering which one will treat them like the ladies they are
and pay for their operations. Also shemale prostitutes
pumped full of bootleg silicone, lost in the mirror,
flipping their hair like Cher, turning, puckering,
whispering pure filth in the ears of tranny chasers,
promising mind-blowing blow jobs in their parked cars.
Also drag queens from the midnight lip sync spectacle,
gay boys tall as NBA forwards with ticklishly deep voices,
cartoonish makeup and hip pads and butt pads
and fake racks you could fold laundry on.
Also weekend crossdressers from out of town,
pilots, salesmen, college professors, building contractors
from Long Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Boston.
Some dress here, ascending basement stairs, teetering
on plastic heels like newborn colts delivered
into an uncertain heaven. Some have dressed at home,
snuck out to their cars at dusk, braved the stares
of toll takers, risked getting pulled over by troopers,
hiked their skirts to show stocking tops to truckers
in the next lane, and held their breath for the approving toot.
Some have stolen clothes from their wives’ closets
to go with their press-on nails and size 14 shoes.
Once in a while we’ll see a wife, a “GG” (genetic girl)
accompanying her decked-out mate, calling her whatever
she wants, making sure only to air kiss to keep
lipstick intact, the much envied childless couple
with an entire bedroom of their house redeployed as a closet.
Also Kylie, visiting from Tennessee, naturally pretty
and growing superb breasts to compete in the Miss
Southern Miss pageant next year in New Orleans
(after that, no more hormones—she swears), meantime
binding in ace bandages to patrol centerfield for her
company softball team. Also Sally Ann, who first tried
on lingerie at age 55 at the request of a girlfriend,
now hooked and looking for boyfriends, when not
working security on Staten Island (“Bruce”—the name
stitched over her uniform pocket) longing to retire
and be a full-time sissy. Also Frank, the Vietnam vet
in his paisley dress and Mary Jane flats, looking like
somebody’s Aunt Matilda, handcuffed to a young
black woman he met at an S&M club. Also, if we’re lucky,
an appearance by International Chrysis, last seen
on cable TV and Page Six of the Post dating some
Hollywood actor, and rumored to be Salvador Dalí’s lover,
trailing her entourage of taciturn queers, her profile
repeatedly demolished and exquisitely revised, glitter deep
in cleavage carved from mail-order Progesterone
that would overtake her liver in three years time.
Also me, dressed like a secretary in a Talbot’s blouse
and pencil skirt, black pumps, clip-on earrings
that ached by midnight, nude pantyhose, arm hair
shaved back for rolled-up sleeves, chest hair
cleared for the top button to be undone,
silk scarf to cover Adam’s apple, blue tint
of subcutaneous beard visible in a camera flash,
but otherwise fabulous.
We all were, for we were us,
if only for a few hours on Saturdays at The Fabric Factory,
which itself underwent a transformation, from the watering hole
where Garment District executives drank their lunches,
to the furtive enclave where a disco ball shined its ever-
receding facets on the faces of people we were
20 years away from having any respectable words for,
drinking and posing, trembling and hoping that four A.M.
wouldn’t come, but it always did, and Roy would say,
“You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here,”
then spell it out angrily: “GTFO!—Get the fuck out!”
and brought up the lights. And we staggered out
onto West 41st Street, scattering like roaches
down midtown blocks, into subways, some
getting behind the wheel to drive drunk back
to their suburban situations, others scampering into cabs
headed downtown to after-hours clubs where “ladies”
got in free, then got in trouble. This is who we were,
and we had other names, and we were nameless,
trying to bargain with urges that ran our lives
like bullies in the shadows, and we had no idea
what to do with ourselves—until the next Saturday,
when The Fabric Factory would open its doors to us,
and Roy—such a gentleman—behind the bar
to welcome us, saying, “What’ll it be, ladies?”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Diana Goetsch (formerly Douglas Goetsch) is a poet and freelance teacher of writing. Her latest book is Nameless Boy.


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