Longform

From Queer to Paternity

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One role of which he wanted no part was that of a college student. As it turned out, the scholastic world wanted no part of him, either, and after a disastrous freshman year at the University of Cincinnati, in 1972 he packed his bags and headed for the West Coast.

Few clichés of '70s counterculture wanderlust went unexplored. Looking back with not a little chagrin, an embarrassed X recalls a misspent youth that involved, among other things, a run-in with the law when the sheriff of an Arizona backwater discovered a small quantity of speed in a traveling companion's backpack, a stint as a projectionist in a Hollywood Boulevard gay porn palace and a period in which he pretended to be mentally deranged to qualify for disability payments in San Francisco.

During one especially low point upon first arriving in San Francisco, X even teamed up with a young woman for a con artist routine. "We called ourselves Dexter and Anita Vargas -- Don't you love those names? -- and we posed as brother and sister -- eating off people, drinking off people . . . . Basically, we were grifters." And somewhere along the line, he found time to participate in that time-honored San Francisco tradition of the period, the green-card marriage: As a favor to a friend, he married, then divorced, a drag camp follower from Australia so she could become a U.S. citizen.

In 1997, his ex-wife, by then the owner of a trendy biker hair salon called the Pink Tarantula, was gunned down in her shop in full view of customers and staff members. Later this year, two men -- including victim Carmel Sanger's second husband -- are scheduled to be tried for their roles in her death, a murder-for-hire plot in which they allegedly hoped to collect on Sanger's life insurance policy.

In 1979, X formed a professional marriage of far longer duration when he co-founded Sluts A Go Go. That alliance was the result of a meeting with kindred spirit Doris Fish, a lantern-jawed queen from Down Under whose drag incarnation was reminiscent of Catherine O'Hara's glamour-addled "Lola Heatherton" character on SCTV. Completing the troika was the ingénue-like Tippi, a Tippi (The Birds) Hedren fanatic characterized by one pal as "the oldest living child star in captivity."

Although Sluts A Go Go was not the first theatrical group to lampoon drag (X and company were preceded by The Cockettes and The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, both much larger troupes with a roster of rotating members), the Sluts captured the public's fancy in a way the others hadn't, perhaps because it's easier to identify with three Charlie's Angels than an entire stageful of Rockettes.

"I always played the Joan Crawford type, the hardened bitch," says X, who bolstered his fashion savvy with a day job at Lillie Ann, a prestigious manufacturer of women's apparel. "I was the bitch, Tippi was the sympathetic one and Doris was, well, Doris, so it made for a nice mix." Then, as a philosophical aside, "Plus, I could get all my nastiness out onstage and that made me a better person offstage. Or so I'd like to think."

Not that the ensemble was ever far from the limelight. In addition to their own productions, benefits and a four-week tour of Australia, the mascaraed ménage performed at a debutante's coming-out party, modeled in a runway show, appeared in seat-belt safety spots for a local TV station and generally kept their curling irons very much in the fire.

"Back in the '80s, the Sluts were everywhere," recalls longtime San Francisco resident Robert Lazzara, now manager of the city's largest chain of legitimate theaters. "They were always putting on shows, being quoted in the paper or appearing with bands like The Tubes or The ZaSu Pitts Memorial Orchestra. They were definitely part of the fabric of the city."

Not surprisingly, the Sluts' fabrics of choice ran to lamé, mink and fake animal prints, preferably laced with sequins.

As for their material of choice? Well, forget those slavishly reverential tributes to Judy Garland, Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand that have long been the mainstay of traditional drag entertainment.

Instead, the Sluts' approach to this arcane art form might best be summed up by their parody of "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," Rizzo's big showstopper from Grease: "I could do a show where no one laughed/Say 'I'm working on my craft'/Draw an audience of two/That's a thing I'd never do."

Says X, "We never took ourselves seriously. If we had, that would have been the end of it right there. When we first started, people would come up and say, 'Nobody's ever going to believe you're really women.' To which we'd reply, 'Thanks -- we must be doing a good job then.'

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Dewey Webb