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I Think I Just Figured Out SlutWalk

By Man Alive! on flickr

It was Sunday night at the club where I dance, near the end of my shift, when my friend and bartender introduced me to five of her childhood friends. They were all male of course; she’s such a tomboy that I wouldn’t expect anything else. I politely did my rounds, shook hands and made introductions. Hello, Wes, friend since kindergarten. Hi, Brian, friend since sixth grade. How is Arizona? Welcome to Portland, Oregon. My bartender pulled me aside quickly and whispered in my ear how she had brought them here to see me dance. “I told them all, ‘You’re gonna fall in love with this girl Elle.’” I was flattered and thanked her and squeezed her hand as I continued onto the small stage.

The rack was full. There were three young women who looked like newbies, the owner and his date, and the bartender’s male friends at the end of the row. Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” began.

I’ve danced to that song dozens of times, and I allowed the beat and lyrics to direct my movements and maintained eye contact with each member of my audience as the dancing would allow. The truth is, I was exhausted. Money had been horrible that evening and I was simply relieved to be nearly finished for the night.

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.

Leaving Las Vegas with Laurenn McCubbin

A few months ago, I came across an article about Laurenn McCubbin’s  recent art show, which featured a variety of sex worker stilettos, in the University of  Nevada Las Vegas student newspaper. I recognized her name as the former art director of Kitchen Sink magazine, and the illustrator of Rent Girl, Michelle Tea’s 2004 graphic novel/prostitution memoir.

Laurenn and I have both spent more time in Las Vegas than we’d like to: me in strip clubs hustling for money that’s just not happening in my hometown these days, and her finishing a degree at the University of Nevada. I caught up with her days after she completed her MFA as she was plotting her next move to Duke University, where she’ll be getting a second MFA in Documentary and Experimental Art. On a typically nasty hundred-something-degree afternoon, we sat down to talk about her recent projects, Nevada’s hypocritical politics, and post-Vegas plans.

Blast From the Past: The San Francisco Stripper Wars

Hustler August 1997

This isn’t so much a blast from the past (although, I was shocked to learn that 1997 was fourteen years ago) as it is déjà vu (no, not the place with the three ugly girls). I randomly came across an old issue of Hustler last week because I had a part in an indie movie that takes place in the nineties and it was a prop. It contains an article written during the first round of stripper employee-status and back wages lawsuits that started in San Francisco, focusing on the legendary Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater.

It was an interesting read despite the opening sentences: “Six nude nymphs rise into the air. Writhing together, they kiss and giggle, licking one anothers’ perfect pussies, nibbling nipples, tickling and fondling pert breasts.” What else do you expect when you have to sandwich something substantial in between a photo editorial of a woman whose “favorite pastimes” are “tanning, exhibitionism, and masturbating” (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and an illustration of Abe Lincoln with a raging boner? I learned a few things, most notably that very little has changed. The independent contractor vs. employee debate is just as relevant as ever.

A Nation of Sex Workers: An Interview with Tracy Quan

photo taken by Stanton Wong
photo taken by Stanton Wong

I’ve been reading Tracy Quan since before I was a sex worker, when a prequel to Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl was serialized on Salon.com, and I’ve been chummy with her online since 2003, when she graciously replied to my e-mails. I’ve learned so much from Tracy, her callgirl comedy-of-manners novels, and the quirky takes on sex work, relationships, and public figures in her articles. I imagine many of us have.

One of the first of the sex worker literati, Tracy was also one of the first to successfully transition from out sex worker and sex workers’ rights activist to in-demand freelance writer, modeling a career trajectory that helped bring our voices to the mainstream. Yet, her street cred as part of the sex workers’ rights movement is unimpeachable.  After reading about the history of PONY (Prostitutes of New York) collaborating with ACT-UP in the 90s, I asked Tracy to talk about her involvement with PONY’s work during that era, as well as many other things.

You started working quite young, at 14 years old, as a way to gain financial independence from your live-in older boyfriend and your parents. Nowadays, there’s a whole lot of tangled discourse about youth sex workers, from a law in NY state that may be able to retroactively erase youth convictions , while another NY State law  diverts those now arrested into “state protection”, to anti-sex work feminists shrieking fallaciously that the average age of entry into prostitution is 13, to the sex workers’ rights movement trying to figure out a way to help homeless queer and trans youth who subsist on survival sex. As a former teenage sex worker, what do you have to say about all this?