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Not Good For Me: An Interview with Suzy Favor Hamilton

Suzy Favor Hamilton. (Courtesy of Favor Hamilton)
Suzy Favor Hamilton (Courtesy of Favor Hamilton)

In 2012, former Olympian middle distance runner and motivational speaker Suzy Favor Hamilton was outed as a Vegas agency escort. Recently, Favor Hamilton published her memoir, Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness, telling the story of her childhood, her athletic career, her stint escorting, her family life, and her struggle with bipolar disorder. After reviewing the book for Tits and Sass, contributor Katie de Long had a conversation with Favor Hamilton over e-mail about the New York Times bestselling autobiography. The dialogue below is a condensed version of those e-mails.

What motivated you to write your memoir?
When I was outed, I was contacted by several writers within the first couple days. I was still in a heavily narcissistic mode, which […] can be pretty common with bipolar mania, especially when untreated.

At that time, I wanted to pretty much write a sex book, detailing my adventures in Las Vegas, capitalizing on my misfortune, so to speak. No mental illness aspect at all. No running, no childhood, just Vegas. At this time, I had no idea I was bipolar…and saw nothing wrong with me.

As time went along, my motivations changed, and I grew unsure I wanted to write a book at all. My parents were making it clear they did not want me to write a book. Others were advising me against it. Things had settled down, so why bring it all out in the open again?

As I began to achieve more clarity, and what had happened to me began to make more sense after diagnosis and treatment, my motivation for writing a memoir grew again. Before the escorting, I was speaking quite a bit about my brother’s suicide and my experience with anxiety and depression, so that desire to make a difference had always been there. I saw a memoir as the most effective way of making that difference, being better understood, sharing what is admittedly a complicated story, and doing so on my terms. I thought a book could have a more lasting impact on a bigger platform.

What do you hope people will learn about bipolar disorder from your book?
I wanted to show the common elements of denial, silence and stigma and how they prevent good people from getting help, and getting well. I want people to be aware of behaviors to look for, so they can help others or perhaps motivate those not yet diagnosed to seek help for themselves.

There are many people out there who don’t buy the whole idea of mental illness and bipolar and how bizarre behavior can stem from it. The “convenient excuse” argument. I hope my story might open a few minds.

Now that you are receiving treatment and establishing a new normal for yourself, do you find yourself being treated differently? Do some people expect you to be able to return to who you were before the disorder worsened?
My parents want the old me back, but I think they are accepting that won’t happen.

There is that perception that I’m not well, mainly when I speak about sex, dress a certain way, hang with a certain person, use my voice. Or, quite frankly, if I happen to be a little manic or depressed on a certain day (especially manic). I’ve learned with certain friends and family, I…stay away from certain topics…sit on my hands and smile, otherwise…they’ll just give me that concerned look. Others, they like “this me” who’s not afraid to be myself. [They] know my moods might change from day to day, even minute to minute. Those are the people I tend to gravitate to these days.

Those who don’t get mental illness think you have to be a non-functioning zombie when you’re manic…In many ways, you can be more productive, more creative, and go, go, go, etc. I believe my mania was a big reason I was a desired escort…My clients loved my mania. Disney, who hired me for their racing series, also loved my mania when I think about it. Zero inhibitions. Bubbly, sparkly. Life of the party. I had no off switch, no ceiling.

I am that imperfect girl, and I want to be that imperfect girl. What’s the bipolar? What’s the real me? I just know I want independence, [to] do what makes me content. I still want to live life to the fullest, live it with a little edge. Don’t want to live by others expectations. Be myself. But admittedly, I’m pulled into old habits often where I do what others expect of me. People are so accustomed to the old me that they think I’m not well when they see someone else.

Let’s say I were to want to go to Burning Man, go hiking with a couple of escort friends, post a beautiful nude portrait of myself that was done for me…many around me would raise red flags. I’m having to be something to please others and doing what drove me to craziness in the first place. So am I going to get criticized on occasion or told I’m not well? I suppose. Dr. Phil said as much when I was on his damn show.

Her Survivor’s Instinct: Paul Frankl on Roxanne

(Screenshot from Roxanne, courtesy of Paul Frankl)
Roxanne and Lily negotiate breakfast. (Still from Roxanne, courtesy of Paul Frankl)

Roxanne, a short film about a trans sex worker who reluctantly takes in an abandoned child, was recently selected as a Vimeo Staff Pick and has been accepted at 14 international film festivals, including two Oscar qualifying fests.  It will soon be made into a feature film. The following interview was conducted by Sarah and Caty with director Paul Frankl over e-mail. 

Roxanne is played by a genderfluid drag queen performer, Miss Cairo. That adds an interesting layer to her portrayal of Roxanne, because a lot of trans workers exist in gender variant spaces. Sarah noted that Roxanne is a character she could actually imagine working alongside her in a trans parlor, and she’s never seen that done on film before. Can you tell us more about this casting choice?

Casting someone of fluid gender was not something I initially set out to do. I auditioned eight trans and genderfluid women (because I knew I wanted someone from the trans community, as an ethical choice), and of them, Cairo was the one I wanted for the role. We then had many discussions around gender (her own and Roxanne’s) and it was her who brought the genderqueer aspect, which I wanted to embrace and thought made a great extra dynamic to the film. Exploring someone as genderfluid is something that’s rarely seen in the media (even less than representations of trans people given the rise in awareness over the last couple of years), and something I think is definitely worth exploring more in film.

Another thing we loved about the short was the way you holistically represented all the aspects of Roxanne’s life—her morning run was given just as much if not more film time as her nightly sex work.  In your Hunger TV interview, you stated that, “by pushing the fact that she is a trans sex worker to the background, I hoped to humanise her and make her a character that everyone can relate to.” Why do you think it’s so hard for mainstream audiences to see beyond the label of “trans sex worker” and understand trans workers as whole persons beyond their jobs and gender identities?

I think films can allow people to connect with others on an emotional level, in a way they can’t through many other mediums. This is why it’s a great way to help change attitudes towards trans people and sex workers, because the audience can see their hopes, fears, and daily life—things that we all have—and relate to them. Too often, trans sex workers (and sex workers in general) are presented as victims, crazy, or drug addicts. I wanted to show a trans sex worker who was in control of her life—with her own issues, but ones that don’t revolve around her gender or career. In this way I hoped to be able to change some attitudes towards sex workers of those watching. Hopefully, this can be done more (to a wider audience) with the feature.

We were surprised by Roxanne’s agreement with Lily’s statement that she puts on her makeup to be someone else, rather than telling Lily that the makeup is just part of being the woman she is. In the Hunger TV interview, you also said that “[p]art of the key to the film was differentiating between the light and dark aspects to Roxanne’s life. We wanted to visually separate the day from the night scenes, and show the duality of her life—her real self vs. her masked self…” What is Roxanne’s “masked self”? A common stereotype about trans women holds that they are pretenders to womanhood. How is Roxanne not being her real self when she puts on makeup and displays her femininity?

Her ‘mask’ relates to the glamorous role she feels she has to play on the scene. The line about her “being someone else” when she puts on all the makeup, refers to her playing this glamorous person that doesn’t connect to her daily self—the one you see in the day time, who has interests outside the clubbing scene. It can be lonely to present a beautiful and glamorous person all the time. This is her mask—it has nothing to do with her womanhood or transness. But I think in general, makeup does disguise who you are somewhat—it physically changes the way you look. She feels she has to portray this person in order to get clients, rather than presenting herself as the sensitive, (hurt) person she really is.

Activist Spotlight: BARE on the Mass Closure of Strip Clubs in New Orleans

via BARE’s Instagram

An unholy mix of gentrification and trafficking hysteria created the perfect political climate to allow law enforcement to shutter several New Orleans strip clubs, leaving scores of dancers unemployed. The Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers rapidly sprung into action; they disrupted the mayor’s press conference and organized the Unemployment March the following night, which drew national attention. I talked to them about the situation in NOLA, their strategy, and their future plans.

So, to start, what is BARE? How long has BARE existed and what kind of activism does BARE do?

Lindsey: BARE is the Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers. We are an organization run by strippers, for strippers. I started coming to meetings a few months ago, but some of our members have been at this since the Trick or Treat raids of 2015. What we do first and foremost is provide a voice that’s been previously underexposed during the city’s assault on strip clubs: the voice of actual strippers. We’re attempting to work with city officials to influence policies and decisions that affect us. Outside of that, we really just want to foster community among dancers and show the people who don’t understand us that we are valuable members of the New Orleans community. During our first ever charity tip drive, participating dancers donated all of their tips from a Friday night’s work to a women’s shelter. Strippers literally paid that shelter’s rent for six months!

Lyn Archer: I arrived in New Orleans after being laid off from two seasonal jobs in a row, one in secretarial work and one in hospitality. I was on unemployment and got a job cocktail-waitressing at a Larry Flynt drag club. One night, a few weeks before Christmas, the club closed without notice and let everyone go. That’s when I saw how quickly fortunes could reverse on Bourbon Street and how little protection there is for workers. My first week on Bourbon, I was the likely the only stripper that didn’t realize that Operation Trick or Treat had just happened. I entered a work environment where strippers were scared, mgmt was over-vigilant, and customers were scarce. Everyone seemed confused about “the rules.” I later learned that’s because what’s written into the city code about “lewd and lascivious conduct” is different than state law and different than federal law. But these supposed “anti-trafficking” efforts are a collaboration of badges. Undercover agents from many offices move through the clubs. I began researching and writing on this for my column in Antigravity, called “Light Work.” I began to see how a feedback loop between press, law enforcement, self-styled “anti-trafficking” groups and civic policymakers can cause so much destruction for people they haven’t even considered. The club I started at was the first to close. The club was inside a building that was the house Confederate president Jefferson Davis lived in. The house I live in was the home of a Confederate general. We are working against, while inside-of, unfolding histories that are deeply, deeply violent. The more I learn about the history of sex worker resistance in New Orleans, the more I know this fight is lifetimes old and will replicate itself if we do not end it entirely.

Activist Spotlight: Alex Andrews on SWOP Behind Bars And Service Work

Alex Andrews.

Alex Andrews is the 53-year old lead organizer of both SWOP-Orlando and SWOP Behind Bars and the new North American representative to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP). For almost a decade and a half in her younger years, she did various forms of sex work—beginning with stripping to supplement her hair dressing income, she went on to do escort and phone sex work, as well as to run her own escort service. She bowed out of active sex work in 1998 because, she explains,”multiple arrests and incarceration put [me] at risk for spending way more time in prison than [I] was willing to serve.” But she continued to represent sex worker interests in local anti-trafficking organizations and to do community work supporting incarcerated sex workers. In 2016, she started SWOP Behind Bars specifically to serve the needs of imprisoned sex workers, and in its year or so of operation, the organization has been extremely effective, providing vital resources for this population. The interview below is a condensed and edited version of an e-mail correspondence I had with Andrews on her work at SWOP Behind Bars.

How did SWOP Behind Bars get started?

We got started when I engaged an anti-trafficking corrections officer from a local women’s prison in a Twitter fight. I was on my civvie Twitter account and some other sex worker activists joined me and we [were] just hammering this guy on his philosophies and the way that women were treated in prison, particularly sex workers. After about an hour of just being humiliated by some of the most respected activists in the U.S. responding to his patronizing tweets, he suddenly direct messaged me that he hated his organization as much as we did.

He turned out to have been one of the key factors to [as to] why the Lowell Women’s Prison was investigated by the Miami Herald and these articles […resulted in] getting about six people fired, including the assistant warden. I met with him the following week and then Dr. Jill McCracken joined me for another meeting a couple weeks later. Katherine Koster jumped in and suggested we ask SWOP-USA for some money. And next thing you know, we had a website, Facebook, Twitter, and a newsletter. It went out to about 200 people the first month (May 2016) and we have almost doubled our requests every month.

Why do you think there wasn’t a peer organization specifically formed around supporting incarcerated sex workers before, since so much of the U.S. movement is focused around the injustice of sex worker arrest and incarceration? Is it because usually sex workers are only incarcerated for prostitution for relatively small periods of time, even though they may often be incarcerated for longer for other survival “crimes” such as trafficking charges, assault or murder charges incurred in self-defense against violent clients, and drug possession?

Well, there are actually a lot of people who are working inside of county jails all over the country. Jacqueline Robarge has been working with incarcerated sex workers in Baltimore for more than 10 or 15 years. SWOP-Baltimore has an active book donation program. Sherrie in San Antonio recently got her chaplain’s license so she could actually go into the prisons and jails and meet with incarcerated sex workers. We are far from the only prison program. LGBT Books to Prisoners sends resource packets inside every three months. Black and Pink is almost legendary in the work they do with pen pals.  Everything they do is a study in perfection!

But the great thing that kept sex workers from really digging in?  Fear.  There is within all of us a terror of engaging with the criminal justice system.  We try so hard to avoid cops and probation officers and courts…I still get incredibly nervous when I get pulled over or find myself behind a uniformed cop at the grocery store.  We didn’t know what we would find.  There are many of us that have worked within our county jail systems and done street outreach but I think the idea of engaging with women in PRISON was just terrifying. [It’s]  “whorearchy” and though many of us reject that idea…we all recognize it exists.

SWOP Behind Bars was unifying is some weird kind of way.  We all felt it pretty strongly.  The entire community wanted to reach out to these folks and we found the least frightening—and yet the easiest—way to do it!  Completely by accident.

As a fellow white woman, how do you deal with the racial disparities that must come up in your work? It’s much more likely for imprisoned sex workers to be people of color and for the sex workers with the time and privilege to do activism to help them to be white. How do you accommodate for that fact and the power imbalance involved in SWOP Behind Bars’ work?

I have found that being a white women of privilege working with incarcerated people of color is much like being a man talking about abortion.  Shut the fuck up.  People of color can and DO speak for themselves if we white people would just get out of the fucking way.  We shoot ourselves in the foot time and time again because we keep thinking we have to “Do Something For Them”, when really the best thing to do is make sure we haven’t gobbled up all the access to resources.  I would never try to tell someone what they need or how to get it…I’m absolutely rigid in requiring consent before working on behalf of someone else.

White people have oppressed and exploited people of color for centuries.  I may not be able to stop that, but I intend to exploit every ounce of my white privilege to make lots of room for voices that want to be heard.  If we concentrate really hard on including people who might be different than us to lead the way instead of insisting that they follow us…well, that’s a good start.  The next step is making sure we are doing that for the right reason and not tokenizing them.  And after that, step down!  Take a back seat and be supportive and don’t suck all the air out of the room.  For the love of all things holy—it’s not about us, so we should let the people who know what they need make the decisions.

SWOP Behind Bars has a significant service component to its work. Though there are some powerful service organizations in the movement, such as St James Infirmary, many peer organizations don’t have the resources to maintain direct service action. What tips can you give other peer organizations and sex worker activists in general about how to sustain service work in their communities?

PARTNER!  Stop doing things alone!  Put aside personal dislikes or differences and engage with other organizations and do meaningful work.  Sex workers self-isolate for lots of different reasons.  But we share the social media spaces and we get to know each other a little better.

Some of us have infiltrated service networks.  Others have partnered with like-minded human rights community-based organizations. There are a LOT of sex worker rights folks already doing stuff in county jails—they just don’t come in waving their red umbrella.  Go to meetings that are outside your comfort zone because you know they may share some—if not all—of the your viewpoints.  Start explaining decrim to people who don’t understand the difference [between decriminalization and legalization].  Carry copies of the Amnesty International policy recommending full decrim world wide and hand them to people who just saw headlines and didn’t get it.  Engage with your public defenders’ offices.  Especially if they have a social worker component.  Public defenders LOVE the idea of decriminalizing sex work because it would take a load of work off their desks.

And don’t be afraid to LISTEN. We TALK a lot because we have a LOT to say…but sometimes it’s important to let other people talk, and they will reveal how they feel and then we can tailor our response to meet their need.  I go to anti-trafficking meetings and take lots of fact-based literature with me and hand it out. They don’t have to hear me say everything out loud.  Understanding sex worker rights has to be absorbed slowly.  They need to have time to fully understand how the things they are doing—like end demand and raid and rescue—harm us.  They digest it a little more slowly by reading it at home when they have time.

Believe me—when a sex worker rights activist goes in an anti-trafficking space, we are unicorns.  Most [of them] have never seen one.  They don’t know we exist.

The Joke Has To Be Funny: An Interview With Vee Chattie On Their New Podcast, The Comedy Whore

Vee Chattie. (Photo by Mandy Flame, courtesy of Vee Chattie)

One of the best people I have met through sex worker groups is undoubtedly Vee Chattie. We met in person a couple of years ago in the back seat of a car on the way to a hearing at the Capitol.

Vee develops hard-hitting performance art and organizes activist events, but the bulk of their work is stand-up comedy. They took a brief hiatus from stand-up when moving to Seattle a few years ago, but came back to it with force, hitting multiple open mics per night and making a name for themselves as not only a hilarious stand-up, but a tough person who is cool to hang out with. What follows is an edited and condensed version of an interview I did with them via text messaging:

What was the impetus behind The Comedy Whore?

Basically, every time I went to an open mic, comedians (mostly the young male ones, go figure) would ask me questions about work. At first, I just told them I’d answer the question if they bought me a drink, and that request was completely ignored. So, I thought I could just invite them for a sit down and they could ask the questions in a more formal way. And also I could record it and use it for the entertainment value rather than just going home annoyed.

Also, you’ve got them on record being ridiculous. So they can’t ever deny being shitty (if they were being shitty rather than ignorant).

Honestly, it doesn’t take that much to get a comedian on record being shitty.