Blast From the Past

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Remembering Stone Butch Blues’ Pledge To Sex Workers

"Vampire Days," a self-portrait by Leslie Feinberg on hir 60th birthday. (Photo via Feinberg's Flickr account)
“Vampire Days,” a self-portrait by Leslie Feinberg on hir 60th birthday. (Photo via Feinberg’s Flickr account)

Trans/queer writer and socialist hero Leslie Feinberg died last week. The event rekindled my memories of squatting on the floor of Barnes and Nobles at the age of 17, reading the work zie’s1 most known for, Stone Butch Blues, a bildungsroman set in the lesbian working class bar scene during the Stonewall era. I was blown away by the novel and the way it brought together class politics, trans rights, and queer rights so explicitly. I’m not the only sex worker for whom the book was important. When I wrote to him about Blues, St. James Infirmary program director and sex working trans man Cyd Nova responded:

When I read Stone Butch Blues nine years ago I was just beginning to understand my gender as something other than female, while working as a stripper and seeing the club as the only place that I felt a sense of home…The way it illustrated feeling at odds with the world and the precise quality of needing to find a community who could guide you to your ultimate true self, navigating the path against the tide, was such an important read for me at that point…I would say that this book gave me some of building blocks to understand my desire to transition, before the internet was such a bastion of resources for trans folks.

In fact, my Facebook feed was awash with queer and trans sex workers linking to obituary pieces on Feinberg last week. So many of us could identify with hir writing about finding one’s people and working along with them in factories, bars, clubs, and the street to keep ourselves afloat. That’s why I was aghast at learning from The Toast that Stone Butch Blues is actually permanently out of print. (“How is that possible, when every dyke in America has at least two copies on her bookshelf?” inimitable Toast editor Mallory Ortberg opined.) But what I remembered most clearly was my rereading of the book in my mid-twenties, when I realized just how much of it was about valorizing femme sex workers as an integral part of the queer community.

Motor City Strippers!

When I see a black woman in a filmy something or other, or clutching feathers, or posed elegantly, I have to click whatever it is to see where she came from. That’s what happened when I stumbled onto this story about burlesque dancers in the Motor City on the Metro Timessite. It begins with a line I cannot turn away from: “They called her The Body. She was built like a double order of pancakes — sweet and stacked.” And gets better and better from there. I found myself completely enthralled the entire way through!

I absolutely think burlesque dancers who get paid for their work are sex workers, so to hear these women’s stories is incredibly inspiring. Lottie Graves mentioned that when she traveled, because of her fame, there’d be champagne and flowers in the room…this is something I can deal with. She also mentions that she wasn’t looked down on because “exotic dancing” was “classy.” I imagine the beaded gowns and rhinestone bikinis had something to do with it. Remind me to buy a rhinestone bikini sometime.

Oh, To Be a Housewife!

“I wonder what kind of girls do that kind of work, and how they get into it.”

Victoria Layton is bored. She’s middle-aged by 1968 standards, she used to have a wildly interesting life. Now she’s in Connecticut and she’s fuckin’ bored. She’s so bored that she spends most of the beginning of The Secret Life of An American Wife talking to herself. To be honest, I do this too (we all do), but we’re not under the microscope here so… you know. The film begins as she wakes up on a typical day, rambling about the husband who doesn’t pay attention to her and the life she resents. She gets her old man up and out of the house, drives him to the train, and heads back home afterward for yet another boring day.

Blast From the Past: “Miss Temptation”

“Miss Temptation” is a short story that Kurt Vonnegut originally wrote for the Saturday Evening Post in 1956. You can find it in Welcome to the Monkey House. I read the anthology in high school, but this piece really resonated with me the second time around, oh, twelve years later.

It’s about a soldier who has just returned from serving his country in the Forgotten War. Corporal Fuller has never done well with women, which he credits to his not being good looking or rich enough, and not simply because he’s a jerk. He tells off a beautiful young aspiring actress named Susanna, publicly humiliating her, because he doesn’t like the way she “makes” him feel. He had never met this woman before, yet she incited such a strong reaction that he yelled at her and spent the rest of his day moping and snapping at his mother.

Annie Sprinkle and the Founding of December 17th

photo by Julian Cash

Sex work activist Annie Sprinkle was the mind behind the original International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. After the conviction of “Green River Killer” Gary Ridgway, Sprinkle and activists from SWOP decided that a holiday was necessary to commemorate people in our community who have been the victims of violence, and to draw the public’s attention to the danger of working without legal protection and under harsh societal stigma.

Eight years later, the holiday is unfortunately as poignant as ever, as the Long Island serial killer has been occupying headlines for the past year. Annie spoke with me about the origins of December 17th, and the most memorable moments in her several decades of activism.