Inside Way Out Club: London's finest transvestite bar

Come Saturday night in the City, business suits are replaced by stilettos and suspenders – but the punters are still men. Time Out meets London's grass-roots trannies and their mysterious army of male admirers at the Way Out Club

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    Getting jiggy with it - high heels and high jinks at the Way Out Club

    If you walk down the stairs into Charlie’s, a basement club near Aldgate, on a weekday evening, you’ll find a bunch of City workers drinking away their office blues. Descend those same stairs on a Saturday night, however, and you’ll enter a very different world indeed. Dorothy’s emergence into the Technicolor of Munchkinland had nothing on this.

    The Way Out Club, as Charlie’s becomes for one night a week, is the heart and soul of London’s transgender scene, and a more exotic, diverse and even alarming crowd you could not find. Every shade of the rainbow is here, from the seven-foot glam-queens in showgirl lashes and killer heels, to the lumpy civil servants in dresses borrowed from their wives. They dance, they pose, they drink (through straws, of course), they cruise – and they have, to all appearances, more fun than at any other club in town.

    The Way Out is at the centre of a scene that’s just beginning to dip a varnished toe into the mainstream. Drag is back in Soho after a long absence, at the weekly Trannyshack in the Soho Revue Bar, and a new generation of transgender performers rules the arty Hoxton-Shoreditch-Vauxhall club scene. Scene makers like Jodie Harsh, Jonny Woo and Yr Mum Ya Dad aren’t just stars in the gay clubs, but are starting to flex some serious celebrity muscle in the wider media. Drag, cross-dressing, call it what you will, hasn’t been this visible since the gender-bending heyday of the ’80s.

    17 trans 2.jpgBut that’s just the attention-grabbing tip of the iceberg; nine tenths is hidden. The girls that come out to play on the hardcore tranny scene don’t want to be famous; many lead ‘normal’ lives during the week, have wives, families and regular jobs, and emerge once or twice a month as glittering, exotic flowers. Some are gay, but many more are bisexual or straight. Some are transsexuals, on the road to surgically achieved womanhood; others keep their femme personas in a suitcase, to be let out when the urge can no longer be denied.

    ‘Bisexuality is the dominant mode on the tranny scene,’ says Tanya Jane Richards, author of ‘Tranz-Mania’, a fictional account of life on the gender divide. ‘It’s got more in common with the fetish scene. Some dress to attract men, certainly, but many are doing it to unleash the feminine side of their personality. Trannies have moved away from the gay scene, because our needs are different. It’s not just about picking up. It’s about expressing a hidden part of yourself.’

    17 trans 1.jpgThe tranny scene covers a broad spectrum. At one end, there’s Trannyshack, the Wednesday-night party at Soho Revue Bar, run by DJ and promoter Dusty ‘O’. ‘We’re open to anyone,’ says Dusty. ‘There’s no dress code, no elitism, no attitude. All the acts, the pole-dancers and the DJs are trannies, but the audience is a real mix. We get the trendy club kids, the glam couture queens, the full sex changes, and what we call ‘manny-trannies’, the old men who just put on a dress. And there’s a lot of young gay lads, muscle queens, cool straight people; as long as you behave, we won’t turn you away.’ In its 18 months of existence, Trannyshack (which lifted its name from the pioneering San Francisco club) has become such a hit that it’s spawned imitations all across town. It’s even releasing a CD and DVD of music by its in-house stars, like the super-glam Lady Lloyd, the very trashy Glendora (‘the slag in drag’) and Dusty ‘O’ herself. ‘We’re at the party end,’ says Dusty. ‘We’re less hardcore than the rest of the tranny scene. It can get pretty messy here, but it’s more about fun and entertainment than cruising.’

    17 trans 3.jpgThe Way Out Club, meanwhile, caters to a more grass-roots crowd. Founded by Vicky Lee and partner Steffan Whitfield in 1993, it’s provided a home and family to generations of girls. ‘When we started,’ says Lee, ‘there was hardly anywhere to go. There was the Philbeach Hotel in Earl’s Court, there was Ted’s Place in Fulham, and there was Ron Storme’s over in Bow but there was no regular weekly tranny party. You could go to Madame JoJo’s, but that was more about drag queens entertaining a straight audience. We started at a little wine bar on Goodge Street; we got 100 people on the first night, and we’ve been going ever since.’

    17 trans 6.jpgOver the years, Lee has witnessed some spectacular personal journeys, and become a mother figure to legions of daughters. ‘I’ve seen guys come down here in drab [‘Dressed as a boy’] with their wives or girlfriends, then a few months later they appear in drag for the first time. I’ve seen a very successful lawyer who was an occasional transvestite who became a transsexual, went through a period of prostitution and has now worked her way back up to the top of her legal career. I’ve been married myself for 30 years; we met when I was 17 and she was 16, and we’ve no intention of separating. But my wife has had to accept that, given the person I’ve become, she is in some senses in a lesbian relationship. There are 1,000 stories like that.’

    17 trans 8.jpgWhere the Way Out Club led, others have followed. Trans-Mission is a monthly party, while ‘T-girls’ from all over London and the Home Counties regularly descend on the Pink Punter in Milton Keynes. And then there’s Stunners, the Saturday-nighter in Limehouse, which Tanya Jane Richards describes as ‘very, very relaxed indeed, to the point of resembling an orgy sometimes’.

    And in this strange, glamorous secret world, there’s one mystery that’s bigger than all the others: the men. Known as ‘admirers’, they are by no means the ‘sleazy raincoat brigade’ of old, says Vicky Lee. ‘The men on the tranny scene these days are like regular guys in clubs, and a lot of them are gorgeous. We get all ages and all races. So what are they doing here? Some are taking a look around and they might be thinking about dressing up for the first time. But there’s an awful lot of them, and I really mean a lot, who are here for the girls. Are they latent homosexuals? I don’t know. It’s a mystery. But you won’t hear anyone down here complaining.’

    Way Out Club, Charlie’s, 124 Globe Rd, E1 (020 7790 1007/

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