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How One Trans Couple Keep Their Fire

Sean Shawna

Sean Dorsey and Shawna Virago fueled a creative insurgency and, in effect, kept their relationship young.

Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst -- an award-winning producer and filmmaker respectively -- are media darlings who were recently featured on the cover of Out magazine, and who are part of the growing trans Hollywood community. But Drucker and Ernst pale in comparison with another trans power couple when it comes to elevating the work of other LGBTQ artists.

For decades San Francisco's Sean Dorsey and Shawna Virago have had their pulse on the trans and queer arts scene. Virago has been a bitchin' trans rocker and Dorsey a critically acclaimed dancer and choreographer since the 1990s.

Their relationship has fueled their creative, cultural, and political accomplishments -- and helped them elevate the work of other trans artists. Dorsey established the Sean Dorsey Dance company and then (in 2002) launched the Fresh Meat Festival of transgender and queer performance. The next year, Virago took over as the artistic director of San Francisco's Transgender Film Fest, which the couple now produces.

The two firebrands met at a trans performance event in May 2001. "It was the first event of its kind," Dorsey recalls. "Shawna played a set with her band -- this was before she went solo. Shawna strode onstage in an ankle-length skin-tight black stretchy dress and big boots and her guitar -- and my heart went wild. Hasn't stopped since."

"There was an after-party at a bar," Virago remembers. "I was introduced to this tall handsome Canadian guy. I was smitten. I also was obnoxious and kept asking him to say the words 'house' and 'about.' Next, we ambled up to the bar, had drinks, and exchanged numbers. I was gobsmacked he was single."

More than a pretty face (and sexy accent), Virago says, "Sean was a cosmic upgrade in the partnership department, and many, many things are different and improved [with him versus previous partners]. First, he is emotionally regulated. He is accountable for his emotional life and helps me be accountable for mine. Also, no one looks better in cowboy boots than Sean, and as an experienced line dancer, I know about these things!"

They've been together 15 years now, but their passion still burns so bright, they're often mistaken for newlyweds. "People sometimes lean over on the bus and say, 'You two are so cute, newly in love,' Dorsey admits. "We're very affectionate with each other, and must say 'I love you' about a hundred times a day."

Dorsey says the secret to their longevity is, "We don't take each other for granted. Plus, Shawna is so foxy!"

"We've always tried to have a conscious partnership," Virago says. "Plus, Sean is very sexy, so that makes staying together very painless." She adds, "It's also helped that we both come from anti-oppression activism."

Although some couples would get burnt out working closely with their partner, the two seem to become more entwined the more time they spend together. "We collaborate and work together a lot, obviously," Sean says. "And it's true: we never tire of each other!" In addition to creative collaborations (Virago has helped score Dorsey's dance performances, for example), Dorsey says, "We also share a meditation practice [and] leftist politics and consider our relationship itself a joyful practice."

The dancer says the time they spend together is balanced out with their own artistic interests and careers. "After a morning cuddle, we each spend an extended period of artistic and creative time alone. Then we'll come together for breakfast and talk about our projects or ideas. It's really important for couples to have time alone, separate projects, and separate time with friends."

"Later we meditate," Virago adds. "And we make sure to have a couple date nights each week, usually at a bookstore, followed by a French dinner -- we are avowed Francophiles."

Dorsey reiterates the importance of their meditation practice, "I cannot say enough about both people in a couple having a meditation practice, in order to become more conscious of our own behavior, mind, impact and triggers."

Dorsey and Virago identify as queer. They embrace the term that still disturbs some old-timers for whom the word is forever entwined in the jagged scars that being the target of hate can leave burned into your soul.

"There is nothing heterosexual or straight about us," Dorsey explains. "We don't aspire to fit the gender binary or assimilate. We are very proud to be trans."

Virago goes a step further: "We identify as avowed enemies of the gender binary and heterosexism."


"It is glorious, affirming, and wonderful being in a relationship with another trans artist and activist," Dorsey says. "Shawna's brilliant mind, foxiness, genius artistry, deep consciousness, and passionate politics are so much of why we're in such a healthy and loving relationship after 15 wonderful years."

"It's really important for trans people -- and all humans -- to be in relationship only with people who deeply love and enjoy -- not just accept -- all parts of us," Dorsey says. His advice to other couples -- especially those in which a partner is transitioning? "Open, honest communication up front on both sides. Be willing to be patient with each other; be willing to try new things and new ideas several times; continue to express love and appreciation for each other."

"If someone won't stick with you through a transition, then they weren't the right person for you to begin with," Virago adds. "Consider it an opportunity they are out of your life and take the chance to fill yourself with lots of self-love and friends who will spectacularly celebrate you."

Asked how they feel about marriage and children, Virago jokes, "I prefer a good cassoulet and a glass of Cotes du Rhone." Dorsey chimes in, "Or a soul mate and a good book. Oh, wait, I have both! Lucky boy."

The two haven't let that impact their ability to build a family. "We are really blessed by our chosen family," they say. Their "small group of deep friendships," includes trans musician StormMiguel Florez, filmmaker Annalise Ophelian (Diagnosing Difference and the new documentary Major! about trans activist and elder Miss Major), writer-performer Tina D'Elia (Looking, Pursuit of Happiness), choreographer Eric Garcia (Detour Dance co-director and spring 2017 choreographer-in-residence at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance), sound engineer Laura Dean (LEDrecording); and Virago adds, "wise crone Mauryne Lees, and all-around quiet rebel Meredith Peters. Sean's dancers AJ, Brian, Nol, Will and tech director Emily are also real family for us."

The fact that they surround themselves with a queer family of other LGBT creatives, is in perfect keeping with their on-the-job efforts to elevate the work of others.

To Dorsey and Virago, queer is not just a convenient moniker for the ever-broadening rainbow of the LGBT community. As an artist Virago in particular willingly, intentionally, embodies the other meanings of queer (according to Merriam-Webster): "eccentric, unconventional: mildly insane: touched: not quite well." That's not to suggest she's not good at what she does, but rather that she embraces dirty misfits, rebels, and outsiders in her lyrics and stage presence. She's a troubadour for the trannies, the queens, the sex workers, the street kids, the homeless, the drug addicts, the starving artists; the kind of people who once colored San Francisco's Tenderloin district, before the City by the Bay sold its soul to Silicon Valley and gentrification drove queers out of the nation's gayest city.

In a press release for her latest album, Heaven Sent Delinquent (self-produced on her record label, Tranimal Records), Virago said, "These are the stories of my generation -- a generation of transgender people who came out long before the internet, before transgender celebrities and reality TV stars -- before anybody gave a shit about us."

She continued, "Too many of us were runaways, survivors. But we never gave up. These songs are the stories of myself and my friends. How we managed to find each other in an unfriendly world, fought together, loved each other."


Virago is a badass guitar player, but her songs are driven as much by the lyrics as the sick licks she lays down in a twisted tangle of folk rock, British punk, and trans Americana. Her raw observations about scraping by in a predatory world, being seduced by queer love, fighting for underdogs, and celebrating gender rebels, play center stage in Heaven Sent Delinquent. The album sees the reinvention of the rocker in ten solo acoustic songs that tell stories of escape; escape "from stifling, oppressive, dusty towns; from the crushing weight of a questionable past; from the potential violence trans people face every day."

Yet for all the talk of escape, Virago also seems to mourn what has been left behind. Her melancholy may seem similar to the one that has captivated Trump supporters, but the object of their nostalgia couldn't be different. Conservatives long for simpler times when women, queers, and people of color knew their place -- because that's when white men ruled America. Virago offers a requiem, to a similar period, when LGBT people bore the brunt of discrimination, harassment, and violence -- but she does so because she misses the camaraderie born of desperation, the moments when society's rejects banded together, picked up a bottle and started a riot that turned into a movement and created a community of outsiders who together faced down a hostile world.

The genius of Virago is in how she takes that longing for the unpolished queer community -- before we were cleaned up, packaged for television, and granted equal rights (as though the Supreme Court had the ability to grant them, as though we didn't have unassailable equal rights as human beings) -- and transforms it into a rallying cry for a new vanguard, for today's resistance, for tomorrow's trans leaders. This should be the album that garners Virago the wider audience she has long deserved.

In 2012, Virago heralded the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival for providing "a powerful counter-narrative to the increasingly assimilationist world of transgender reality stars and celebrities." She added, "Hollywood gets it wrong, very wrong. Come see trans people telling our own stories. Come see trans characters played by trans actors."

Five years later trans people are taking over, becoming the new Hollywood, transforming the entertainment industry in the process. Even as Virago welcomes that, a part of her will always celebrate the raw beginnings of trans filmmaking, the early, unpolished works that dominated the screen when the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival (November 9-12, 2017) was still called Tranny Fest.

"Virago's alternate longing for acceptance and reveling in being outside of the norm create a beautiful tension," No Depression's Rachel Cholst writes, speaking about Heaven Sent Delinquent, but capturing a broader truth about the singer-songwriter-filmmaker and the twilight zone where she's most comfortable.

"I do it for the leather, I do it for the power, I do it for the pleasure of $250 an hour." Those were the lyrics Frameline chose to introduce Virago's music video Transsexual Dominatrix, adding, "Local rock goddess and edgy provocateur Shawna Virago whales on her six-string while delivering a lyrical lashing with this leather anthem."

In addition to playing the 2011 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, Transsexual Dominatrix was screened at more than 30 film festivals around the world, and crowned Best Music Video at New York's CineKink Festival.

Virago doesn't just write songs about down-and-out queers, she's been in the trenches for more than two decades as a trans and LGBT antiviolence activist. In 1998, she cofounded TransAction, San Francisco's pioneering police accountability group (which went on to produce the "Walking While Transgender" report about law enforcement discrimination of trans women).

For 13 years, Virago was also the domestic violence program director at Community United Against Violence, and she was the first trans woman to serve on the board of directors of San Francisco Women Against Rape. She has also served on the San Francisco Transgender Civil Rights Implementation Task Force, and the boards of the Transgender Law Center and the Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex (TGI) Justice Project. Virago was the first transgender woman ever chosen to be a San Francisco Pride Grand Marshal, and she's been featured in documentaries Diagnosing Difference and The Believers.

Meanwhile, Virago's writing has appeared in the anthologies Gender Outlaws: Next Generation, Trans/Love: Radical Sex, Love & Relationships Beyond the Gender Binary, and Take Me There.

In America, pioneers are not only those whose covered wagons flooded the West 150 years ago, but also the brightest tech minds of today, and those who will colonize Mars in the future. Virago is that kind of pioneer, someone who was one of the nation's first openly transgender musicians to perform and tour nationally, someone who is still blazing a trail today, and someone who'll be inspiring the next generation for years to come.


Above: Sean Dorsey Dance

Recognized as the U.S.'s first acclaimed transgender modern dance choreographer, her partner, Sean Dorsey (above far left) has a body of work stands out for numerous reasons as well. One is that his biggest productions have been about capturing and sharing LGBT history. It began when a deep dive into the Lou Sullivan archives (and a diary discovered in a used bookstore) inspired his company's Uncovered: The Diary Project. Then Dorsey spent years traveling the country, leading artistic workshops, and conducting oral history interviews with dozens of LGBT elders -- collecting the stories that formed the basis for both The Secret History of Love and The Missing Generation.

The Secret History of Love revealed how LGBT people found love and community in previous, less tolerant decades when they had to survive underground. The Missing Generation gave voice to long-time survivors of the early AIDS epidemic -- and those who were left behind.

After the years developing each of these productions, Dorsey spent an additional 100 hours in the sound studio, crafting richly layered soundscores through which the elders' voices are incorporated into music, and into the show. After another year choreographing and rehearsing the performances, Dorsey lead his company on a 20-city tour.

There's something almost magical about how Dorsey works. Like many of the great masters of art and architecture, the choreographer can make something seem remarkably simple yet utterly incomprehensible. He weaves what you already know into something vibrant and startling, and somehow it teaches you more than you could possibly imagine.

It's not just Dorsey's dedication to the craft, or his devotion to preserving the voices of LGBT elders, or how he's always inviting the queer community to become more involved in the creation of art -- even in the creation of his art.

It's how he steals our histories; the way a lover would, enticing them to fall from our own lips before he disappears with them into the night. When he emerges from the dark abyss years later we realize he's been cohabiting with those stories this whole time, and the two of them -- with a little help from queer friends -- have birthed a child. Then Dorsey brings that child back to you and presents it to you as a gift. His dance performances are that gift child. A child you take home and nurture into your own creative muse. The gift becomes your inspiration to tell your story.

In other words, Dorsey gives our stories back to us but they've been transformed in the process and even though we gave them to him, when he gives them back to us, we are the ones inspired by what is essentially our own story. Somehow, our story inspires us to tell our story and we create another work of art: a book, a film, a dance to do so. Each sparks another, which sparks another.

It's not surprising that Dorsey's consistently sold-out contemporary dance, storytelling theater performances are celebrated by critics and audiences alike and have garnered him awards and accolades from San Francisco to New York. He's received three Isadora Duncan Dance Awards and a Goldie, has been awarded major commissions (including from National Endowment for the Arts, National Dance Project, New England Foundation for the Arts, and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation) and has been named "San Francisco's Best Dance Company" (SF Weekly) and listed in Dance Magazine's 25 To Watch.

Dorsey's Fresh Meat Productions, was the first organization in the country to create, present and tour year-round multidisciplinary transgender arts programs, including the annual festival, national LGBT community residencies, programs for emerging trans artists and arts organizations, and Sean Dorsey Dance's performances.

This year Dorsey fashioned the Fresh Meat Festival as an artistic antidote to Trump. "I curated this special lineup as a love letter to LGBTQ communities," he said in a press statement. "To give us much-needed spiritual nourishment, comic relief, sass, mood elevation, love, and power in the face of the Republicans' continued attacks on our communities."

In June, the celebrated trans and LGBT performance festival featured vogue dancing, trans opera, gender-bending boy bands, and a hip-hop dance-theater piece by Embodiment Project, which addressed the school-to-prison pipeline.

Sean Dorsey Dance company's upcoming (2018) show Boys in Trouble (sneak-peeked in this year's Boys Bite Back) addresses gender, conformity, pack-animal thinking, toxic masculinity, resistance, fem-phobia, trans peer pressure, and being "butch enough."

"The emperor has no clothes," Dorsey said in a statement. "When you really look at it, the whole binary system of gender is as false as George Washington's teeth."

What isn't fake is the strength of the love this couple have for each other, or how their creative passions have continued to empower and incite us to demand not just trans rights but space for the creative exploration of a world that isn't limited by violence, misogynist patriarchs, gender binaries, racism, or heteronormative pressures.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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