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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.

Why You Shouldn’t Study Sex Workers

adontstudyThis is an edited version of a post originally published on Lime Jello’s blog autocannibal

Before I finished my B.A., I encountered a social worker who was working on her M.A. Her politics were generally pro-decriminalization, but she also liked to trade in horror stories about women whose vaginas fell out from having too much sex. She had secured the cooperation of a rescue organization that collaborated with police to be allowed to study their Very Marginalized Whores. She wanted my help nailing down her research question.

“Don’t do this study,” I said. “Find something else to research.”
“OMG why are you so mean?” was more or less her answer.

It does seem a bit mean, since in my first M.A., I studied sex work myself. But it’s for the good of everyone involved that I say this: don’t study sex work. Sure, there will be exceptions—someone out there will have something genuinely new to say on the topic that warrants the research. But academics…we all think we’re that Someone Special. The truth is that most of us aren’t. So let’s find something else to study.

Find Something Else to Study…

1. …because sex workers are human beings, with whole entire lives outside of their jobs.

Once upon a time, I took a couple of classes at a nearby Fortress of Smartitude. The environment was one of relentless bullying by an abolitionist professor, so it was an unhappy time for me, but matters were made worse by my other class. That professor, despite knowing that my interest was in communication and not sex work, pushed and pushed for me to do a “sex positive” project about sex work. After I submitted the first draft of the project I wanted to do, he wanted nothing to do with me. Relatedly, for months after I began my new grad program, my program director introduced me to people as a researcher of sex work—even though my research is on academics’ emotional labor. The point was received: once a whore, always a whore.

But not only are sex workers marked as always whores, they are also marked as only whores. People are truly surprised to learn that I do not plan to make a career out of researching sex work. What else could I possibly be interested in?

Sex work is often only researched in the context of the “empowerment v. exploitation” debate. Making sex work a “special” topic by taking it out of the context of the rest of the world is a way of dehumanizing sex workers. Only when we are seen as our jobs and nothing more can we be carved out of everyday life and marginalized as a field of study unto ourselves.

Tin Horn Gamblers and Dirty Prostitutes: Vice in 19th Century Council Bluffs (2014)

ajennytinI usually regret the rare moments in which I’m prevailed on to cut whorephobes a break. My empathetic nature is almost always taken advantage of in these instances and I’m left feeling as if I’ve been had. As compensation, I exude coolness in interactions with potential whorephobes. It’s come to be the most significant way I protect intimacy and privacy—the first casualties of publicly decrying the treatment of sex workers. So it is with great delicacy that I attempt compassion here in my review of Ryan Roenfeld’s Tin Horn Gamblers and Dirty Prostitutes: Vice in 19th Century Council Bluffs.

I picked up THGDP because I am myself a product of the vast prairie at the heart of the Bible Belt. I grew up in Omaha, NE, a sort of twin city to Council Bluffs, the city of Roenfeld’s historical analysis. I began my sex work career in these cities, too, almost a decade ago. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to read all about my “dirty” sisters in vice, my lewd and despicable ancestors. I must sadly report, though, that the heroic and counter-cultural debauchery of my sisters and brothers are only briefly alluded to in the thin pages of THGDP, their humanity watered down to arrest records and salacious anecdote. Big surprise.

First, a brief note on the word “dirty,” as the title so lovingly refers to us. At one point in my life or another, I’ve been one or more of the following: a dirty hippie, a dirty bum, a dirty lesbian, a dirty heathen, a dirty drug user, and, of course, a dirty prostitute. I’m clearly a connoisseur of the unclean. It’s worth mentioning, too, that somehow the adjective “dirty” has always stung more than the noun following it, namely because “dirty” conjures up specific, visceral images about the body, about my body. I’m not the first to point out that images of perceived dirtiness have historically invoked distinctions between good bodies and bad ones. I guess I just had higher expectations for someone who calls himself a historian.

We <3 $pread

A couple $pread magazines.
A couple $pread magazines.

In honor of International Sex Workers’ Rights Day, the Feminist Press is releasing a retrospective anthology of $pread Magazine today.  Current and former Tits and Sass co-editors got together to write about our nostalgic love for the magazine and the way it’s inspired our work.

Bettie, Tits and Sass founding editor emeritus: $pread magazine was walking (gracefully) toward its end when I was a bouncing baby ho, but, gee, what an amazing lil era. For a generation of workers who were lucky enough to see it begin I imagine it felt like what starting Tits and Sass felt like: Exhilarating, frustrating (deadlines are for nerds), and always eye-opening.

Sex worker-created media is a fascinating thing. It’s a lot like us, right? Sometimes hard to pin down, intelligent, always changing, and steady spilling tea you didn’t even know you were thirsty for. This book is as important as the magazine itself and I wish you could still get back issues! $pread existed to remind us that we have to keep telling our stories. No one else can do it for us. Even if they are constantly trying.

Also, $pread taught me that I should pay my taxes, so thanks for keeping the IRS off my ass.

Catherine, Tits and Sass founding editor emeritus, former $pread editor: I remember the first time I heard about $pread, in an article in Bitch, during an era when feminist publications didn’t cover sex work politics with nearly the frequency they do today—or, at least, didn’t include sex workers’ own voices, rather than speaking for us. I had already begun stripping in San Francisco, but was somewhat unfamiliar with the term “sex worker” or the burgeoning media movement. The Bitch article had me fascinated, and I soon found my own copy of $pread in my local indie bookstore.

How Sex Work Got Us This Far In Gay Liberation

Marsha P Johnson, Stonewall riot participant, STAR House founder, ACT UP activist, and Black trans woman street sex worker. (Screenshot from "Pay It No Mind: The Life And Times of Marsha P Johnson")
Marsha P. Johnson, Stonewall participant, STAR House founder, ACT UP activist, Black trans woman, and street sex worker. (Screenshot from Pay It No Mind: The Life And Times of Marsha P. Johnson)

Like many of my LGBT peers and allies, I am grateful for the contributions made before and for the possibilities ahead. This summer, the Supreme Court acknowledged the humanity of LGBT individuals. And one of our pinnacle liberation symbols, New York City’s Stonewall Inn, the site of the 1969 Stonewall riots, was made a national landmark—all substantial markers of the rapidly increasing acceptance of LGBT individuals in mainstream America.

Over the past decades, important work to raise awareness and funds for the #gaymarriage movement has dominated the LGBT landscape. Each $1000-plate dinner and garden party brought together the well-dressed and privileged of the LGBT community to establish a strong presence against prejudiced, formidable foes. Many of these participants called on the ghost of Stonewall as an emblem of retaliation, reaction and unity. Simply by uttering the “S-word,” the President inspired LGBT people and their allies nationwide to have confidence to continue pushing for broad rights and protections. This summer our victory cry has been #lovewins.

But something is missing in all our gratitude. While it’s great that gay men and lesbians are building wedding registries, shopping at malls, and openly holding hands in places where it was previously forbidden, many of our most high profile spokespeople risk encouraging a spineless edit of history. We are so swift to lionize Stonewall and all of the early LGBT civil rights movement that the process has forced us to acquiesce to an acceptability politic which punishes many identities which represented the very heart and soul of our liberation mantras.

We must challenge our collective desire to strip a story that subverts a normative way of seeing the world. We as LGBT individuals and allies must tap our recent tragedies and triumphs to prevent our own story from disappearing into the exact same narrative most embraced by the bigots who used that norm against us.

The riots at Stonewall are, in fact, the perfect example. Conversations about its history selectively ignore significant components of the rioters’ identities, often including the vital presence of trans women (Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major, Marsha P. Johnson) and gay men but excluding the fact that many of these individuals were hustlers and street workers. Look for the biography of Sylvia Rivera, one of the most well-respected trans activists and Stonewall participants, and you will find her experience of street work excised. This, despite how sex work may have formed her only available opportunity at that time to afford to engage in her activist work. She was hardly the only trans woman of color involved in the sex industry supporting the riots. And then there were the hustlers, the young men working to support themselves after escaping to the city from lives that would have ended up in false marriages, depression, or, as it did for many, suicide or deaths by gay bashing. These were the people, harassed by the police to the point of exhaustion, willing to publicly engage as LGBT people at a time of great risk, the people who actually make up our liberation narrative.