The Black Rose Girls
Ten Years Ago...
Early Sunday, evening in San Francisco's Tenderloin.
Attention focuses on the door of the bar, and in comes a tall,
rangy black man carrying a white plastic garbage bag. He makes
the rounds of the bar, hesitating when he sees us and moving on
quickly. He is offering 'lingerie for sale, only slightly used'.
There are no takers amongst the women in the bar, and he
eventually makes his way back out onto the stinking street,
This little dance bar advertises itself as having 'the
friendliest girls in town'. The interior is dimly lit with red
plastic lamps, but it is only a short time before the observer
realizes that, given where he is, it is strange to see so many
women out on the town, dressed to kill. Very tall women, some of
them, rather broad of shoulder...and aren't their voices a little
In the heart of wino country likes San Francisco's favorite
transvestite/transsexual hangout, The Black Rose. There are men
here in every stage of becoming women. Some of them will remain
in the middle forever, existing in a strange twilight world of
androgyny where they aren't men any longer but lack the funds,
willpower or desire to become women in every sense of the word.
But whatever their physical attributes, they all consider
themselves to be women, and after talking to them and hearing
their stories, that's how I think of them, too.
Most of the 'friendliest girls in town' take the maxim
seriously -- The Black Rose is the place to go if you're looking
for a transvestite or transsexual hooker. What else is a girl to
do when she's not quite a girl, and no longer a man? It becomes
difficult to hold down a straight job, though many are waitresses
in the Castro or Polk area, pulling in a few tricks on the side.
There was a mixed reaction to Nancy and me as we entered the
bar Sunday evening. The bartender, Susan, was definitely hostile
and didn't want us in there, but seemed afraid to throw us out in
case we mentioned her in a derogatory fashion. A few of the
girls were openly hostile as well, but most quite friendly and
willing to talk. The first we met was Mona, a transsexual who
looked to be in her late 30's. We didn't interview her until the
following Wednesday, but that evening she introduced us to Jamie.
Jamie is a transsexual from New Orleans. Approximately 30,
Jamie has improbable, enormous breasts that sit high on her
chest, as if they have been stuck in place with Crazy Glue. She
made her way to San Francisco nine years ago, but it was long
before, in the fifth grade, that she began to realize there was
difference between her and her peers.
"They called me names, but it wasn't until I was in the
seventh grade that I realized I really was different. My parents
thought I had a learning disability because I got bad grades. I
was getting so much harassment in school, I couldn't learn
anything. Eventually, that was why I dropped out. I felt like a
girl, but at the time I thought I was the only person who had
ever felt this way.
"When I was fifteen I started going to a bar where the men
dressed in drag. I began dressing like a girl and wearing
makeup, and everything hit the fan. My parents gave me an
ultimatum -- either stop dressing like that, or move out of their
house. So, I did...move, I mean. In the course of running
around dressed like a girl, I had a lot of offers from men.
Eventually I took one of them up on it, and discovered my new
"When I was seventeen, I started dancing in a nightclub on
Bourbon Street. I was underage, but the people who owned the
club were very good to me, and they gave me a helping hand when
nobody else would. I had started taking female hormones when I
was sixteen, and when I was seventeen I started having plastic
surgery done on my face.
"Most trans-sexuals want to blend into society. As a boy, I
was too pretty, and people would call me a fag. For me, this was
the only way I could fit in comfortably. For a trans-sexual, the
only way to be content with yourself is to get more done, to
progress. My nose job cost $1500, my boobs were $3,000. I've
been castrated, and that was $2,000."
Jamie only has sex anally or orally. She doesn't worry
about AIDS, and says that in the fifteen years since began work
as a streetwalker she has never had a venereal disease.
"I put sex into perspective. Being a streetwalker is my
job, and I have a personal life, too. I've been in a steady
relationship for six years. My boyfriend is very understanding.
If I could find another job where it didn't matter what I am,
where I didn't have to get to know anyone, or have any contact
with the public...people are so narrow-minded. Even more so in
San Francisco, where trans-sexuality blends into homosexuality.
Whether you're a drag queen or a cross-dresser or whatever...here
you're just a fag.
"Nobody could ever understand how I feel, including other
trans-sexuals, because most of them don't feel like I do. I've
never been happy with my life, but after my final surgery I feel
as if I have a possible chance to be happy. The more I do, the
more comfortable I am with myself. My best friend is me, and
nobody loves that person in the mirror more than I do, and no one
On one occasion, Jamie nearly died due to her sexual
deception. This didn't make Jamie leave the streets, but she is
very careful now that each of her clients knows she isn't really
"I make certain they know. When I was nineteen, I was shot
by a man who didn't know. I assumed he did know, and he didn't.
We got into a verbal argument, then a physical confrontation. He
pulled a pistol and shot me. Many of the girls don't tell their
clients because they might kill them; they would never
understand. They just don't allow them to do certain things.
"To me, my male genitals are nothing but a birth defect.
There are multitudes of physical handicaps, and I have one. I've
never had a desire to climax; I don't like to be touched there, I
don't like to touch myself and I don't like anyone to look at me
there. I'm not just some pervert running around in a dress; I'm
serious about what I'm doing. I want to be a complete, whole
"Most homosexuals disgust me. And the people who go to
streetwalkers, the clients...they're the lowest form of pervert
on earth. I knew my boyfriend for a year-and-a-half before we
became lovers. We were friends first; he was a pot connection.
I had a lover then who was predominantly homosexual, and the
thought of him with other men disgusted me. When I couldn't take
it anymore, Greg told me that if I needed a place to live, I
could go to him. We very seldom have sex, because he knows I'm
not comfortable with sex in my present state. If you were a
woman with a birth defect between your legs, would you want your
boyfriend to see it? Sex is an animalistic act.
This is one of the most disgusting lives that anyone could
choose to live."
Wednesday night, happy hour in the bar. The place is filled
with clients for the 'girls' -- most them would pass unnoticed on
a street in the financial district during business hours. Star
and Amy arrive, causing a sensation simply by walking through the
middle of the bar. Star is the most impressive at six feet tall,
with broad shoulders and muscular arms and legs, a melting look
in her chocolate-brown eyes. She would have been a stunning
Star and Amy consider themselves to be Jamie's 'children' --
they refer to her as their 'mama'. Says Star -- "She helped us a
lot when we first arrived, first got into this thing. She was
managing an apartment house and helped us out financially. We
were the youngsters, and she became our mama."
Unlike Jamie, however, Star and Amy don't consider
themselves to be women, born into the wrong bodies through some
fluke of nature. At 22, Amy became a drag queen only two years
ago; before that she was a homosexual hooker on Polk Street.
Until the age of 20, no thought of ever dressing like a woman or
becoming one had ever entered her head.
Star discovered her preference for men in the third grade,
and considers her homosexual tendencies to have been engendered
by the fact that she never knew her father and was raised by her
mother until the age of nine, and then by her aunt.
"I did a lot of sports, and played in the school band. I
wasn't a feminine child, and a lot of girls hung around me. I
never had a problem as a child, and I always had what I wanted.
I was a very good student in school. But as far as having a
father, I never knew who he was.
"Here I am, in this big city. I take female hormones for my
breasts, but I've never had any operations. And I don't think I
would...being a homosexual is what I am, and a female
impersonator. But I still desire the feeling of a man's orgasm."
"You'll gag at my childhood," Amy put in at that point.
"Until the age of 18 I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness. Then I
moved out of my mother's house and into my father's, so I could
be gay. I had a girlfriend named Tracey, who was a trans-sexual.
She moved me here with her, and I started turning tricks.
"I'm a married woman. I've been married for a year-and-a-
half. We have great sex together. I don't have sex with my
tricks -- when I say that, I mean there's never no sex involved!
Well, sometimes I might have to give 'em a blow job, but only if
I have to. Most of the time I get the money and tell 'em to get
outta my house. Give me my hundred and get out before you get
hurt. If it's robbery, they never complain -- most of 'em are
into it. They have wives and kids, a station wagon and a dog,
"I'm married to a man...I'm a woman! My husband is
straight. I've never had an operation, but I have hormone
titties. I want implants."
It was while we were interviewing Star and Amy that Mona
arrived, to listen to the conversation. She looked more like a
woman than she had on Sunday, probably because she was wearing
less makeup, jeans and a tank-top, her reddish-brown hair fluffed
out around her head. Mona could easily pass as a real woman, and
has filled a number of 'straight' jobs as one. She is a great
deal more low-key than either Star or Amy, or even Jamie. Born
in Oakland, Mona has spent her entire life in the bay area.
"I ran away to San Francisco when I was 13 and returned home
when I was 14. From then on, I was back and forth during my
teenage years. The reason I left to begin with was because my
father wouldn't let me live the way I wanted to. I knew at
eleven. My brother told me he knew I was different when I was
seven. I was born sixteen years after what my mother thought was
her last child. Therefore, I was born with a large amount of
female hormones -- that's what a doctor told me.
"In grammar school I didn't have much trouble, a little
teasing. By junior high, I went to school with my nephews, so if
the kids gave me trouble, they were always there. Out of about
four of us there, I was the only one who was flamboyant. I
didn't care what anyone thought -- I just went ahead and did what
I wanted to. I got in trouble for wearing makeup. I only went
to school through the tenth grade. I couldn't go to any high
school in Oakland because of my lifestyle, so I had to go to
Union City; a boy from a school I went to in Oakland was there,
and he pointed me out. I started to have trouble, and as soon as
I hit sixteen I quit. I'm planning to go back to school to get
my G.E.D. and then do computer studies.
"I've always worked as a woman -- a masseuse, a maid, a
keysmith, housekeeper, barmaid, cocktail waitress in a straight
bar. None of them knew except two, and they didn't mind. For
one of the ones who did know, I modelled for her advertisements
in The Berkeley Barb for three years, and no one guessed I wasn't
"It's very difficult for most trans-sexuals to get straight
jobs, that's why so many of them are hookers.
"I have quite a mixture of friends -- straight, gay,
bisexual. I have all my life -- I've always gotten along with
everyone. I never push myself on anyone. I get along with
straight men easily, because i'm not pawing them or throwing
myself at them. I just want them to treat me the way I treat
them, with respect.
"I almost had the operation. That's what I used to live
for, and I met a man who was willing to pay for it. I had been
to a psychiatrist who told me I was a perfect candidate. But I
wanted a more than 50/50 chance of having sexual feeling. The
doctor couldn't guarantee it, but now they say, although it takes
six months or so I would get the feelings back. I don't know,
though...I'm different. I call myself 'the third sex', and men
like me for that. So many different kinds of men. Straight men,
although I guess you can't really call them
straight...married...judges, lawyers, doctors. I've met a lot in
"They have some kind of fantasy. They fantasize of a
beautiful woman with breasts who has a penis -- they want the
best of both. A lot of them won't go into the bar, but if they
see you on the street they'll wave you over. They don't want to
be seen, and they're very secretive about it. I have a lawyer
friend I've been dating about four years now, and he'll only come
so close to the bar to see if I'm around; he won't go in. He
works up by California Street, and if I see him up there, he'll
just walk past me. When his wife goes on vacation, he invites me
over and cooks dinner for me.
"I was married for four years, but it didn't work out. I
had a drug problem, and so did he. Now we're both drug-free, and
we're not together. He was a straight man, until he met me. He
was married and had a child; they were killed in a car accident.
Then I met him, and we were together four years. He met an older
gentleman; a sugar-daddy, I guess you'd say, and that's when we
started having problems. That totally threw me. I'd taken care
of him for a long time, and when you've done that for someone,
you don't want someone else coming in and taking over."
Both Mona and Jamie have a strong maternal side, that
doesn't seem to be fabricated or falsely developed. Between the
four people I interviewed and the others we observed in the bar,
the group seems to be split between these older, less flamboyant,
more believable trans-sexuals and the younger, wild, drag queens.
The ones who are the most believable as women attempt to fit into
society as best they can, and are striving for acceptance. The
others are, by their own admission, homosexual men who love the
drama and playacting of pretending to be women, but don't expect
anyone to take them seriously.
Nearly all the trans-sexuals and drag queens who frequent
the bar work as hookers, according to the day bartender, Rennie
(who had a completely different attitude to our being there from
Susan, as did the owner's son, who was in the bar on Wednesday).
Their attitude towards sex varies widely, but they all seem to
agree on one thing -- their contempt for their 'dates' or
'clients'. The women I talked to believe the clients are the
ones who are perverted, and from my observations I tend to agree.
These people are sadly misplaced in life and society, and
attempting to live as best they can with what they believe to be
faulty equipment. But the supposedly 'normal' men who go to them
for some strange thrills and probably view them as freaks...these
are the exploiters, as the 'normal' have always exploited the
weaker and the vulnerable.
To be laughed at, to be shunned...to have to drop out of
school because your peers won't let you attend without
harassment. To search all your life for a place in society that
doesn't exist. A desperate existence, indeed. One that makes us
realize we haven't reached the level of civilization we would
like to believe; that man is still too primitive and
superstitious to accept what is different, what cannot be easily
1999. All the 'girls' we interviewed are dead. AIDS, drug
overdoses, a stabbing, a suicide...The Black Rose is gone as
well. R.I.P., ladies.