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‘The Stroll’ Review: A Story of Survival, Sisterhood, and Erasure, Told by the Trans Women of Color Who Lived It

There is a moment when the eyebrows go up The stroll — a simultaneously celebratory and elegiac documentary for HBO about the transgender sex workers who once roamed New York City’s Meatpacking District — made more damning because it involves an apparent ally. It’s a gritty 1980s clip of RuPaul storming down 14th Street and pretending to interview what were colloquially known as “transvestite hookers,” but in reality making them the butt of one big condescending, classic joke.

The clip’s insensitivity is especially shocking because of the first-hand accounts we’ve heard of the harsh realities of “life” — of women shunned by their families, denied legal employment, subjected to violence, homelessness, racism , police harassment, brutality and repeated arrests, often by the same officers who forced them into sex. Not to mention that trans and non-binary people were for years barred by gays and lesbians from the same rights they had fought for on the front lines.

The stroll

It comes down to

Powerful and gripping.

Event venue: Sundance Film Festival (American Documentary Competition)
Drivers: Kristen Lovell, Zackary Drucker

1 hour 25 minutes

But one of the captivating paradoxes of Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker’s lovingly curated chapter on queer history is that while it never downplays the marginalization, persecution, and physical danger of being a trans woman of color who makes a living through sex work, it gives equal time to the resilience, sense of community, proud sisterhood, and shared survival skills that flourished in that bloc long before social justice activists took on the “Trans Lives Matter” cause.

“I am my own liberation,” says one of the interviewees, reflecting on how they created their own resources and paved the way for the freedoms that are now becoming more accessible to young trans women, albeit with rights yet to be won.

Lovell has a personal interest in telling this story. She ran away from home at age 15 and was fired from a coffee shop job when she started transitioning. Since mainstream jobs for trans women did not exist at the time, she began working on the Stroll – the stretch of 14th Street between 9th Avenue and the Hudson River – in 1997 and continued until 2005. After being approached to star in a documentary ( from 2007 Strange streets), Lovell used that as her own transition into filmmaking, taking control of her story.

In addition to her testimony, she sits down with 11 trans women who practiced their trade on the Stroll over a period of 2 to 25 years. They share dark stories – about bizarre customer requests; of handbags with club and hammer for protection; of assault and subsequently refused treatment at St. Vincent’s Hospital; of being arrested just going to the grocery store, because “walking while trans” was considered grounds for questioning and trans women were automatically categorized as “drug addicts and whores.”

What unites the subjects beyond their shared experience is their refusal to speak about sex work with shame or stigma. “Sex Work is Real Work,” as one protest sign reads, and these veterans of the Stroll make it clear that they deserve and demand to be treated with humanity and respect.

Anyone familiar with the post-gentrification Meatpacking District knows that it was colonized by flagship stores for Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen; by now-defunct fashionista hub Jeffrey, an empire so ridiculously chic it spawned a string of SNL sketch; by the huge Apple Store; by cool boutique hotels like The Gansevoort; and restaurants like Pastis and Buddakan popping up often Sex and the city to increase their stock as desired destinations.

It’s hard to imagine what it was like in the early days before the decline of the urban meatpacking business when there were two or three hundred businesses as opposed to the remaining handful and the overpowering stench of open meat trucks made most of the people wandering there love hold their nose. One of the interviewees, the fabulous Lady P., recalls how the backs of those trucks often remained open after hours and she took customers in there as if it were a hotel room, “to do what Mother does best.”

Aside from the black and Latina trans sex workers, pretty much the only people who ventured into the neighborhood during those years were gay guys who went to fetish bars and underground S&M clubs. Now even the tame gay bars are gone.

Given the shadowy film noir atmosphere of the Stroll years, the footage is somewhat limited. Yet it is surprising how much rich archive material Lovell and Drucker have found, cleverly supplemented with nice graphics and animations. Those elements are used to illustrate what one of the regulars describes as her “Wonder Woman powers,” when there was a threat of violence. And if one of the women got into trouble, the others nearby would quickly assemble to provide reinforcements.

Some of the most eye-catching parts of the doc go back to the Rudy Giuliani years. The former mayor took his oath of office in 1994 on a platform to take back New York’s dangerous streets. He adopted the since-debunked “broken windows theory,” equating things like sex work, graffiti, and homeless camps with serious crimes, including rape and murder, arguing that by cleaning up the little things, you’ll end up with the big things. curbs.

This made the trans sex workers a target, especially as the affluent homeowners in the area came on board. A Giuliani-voting West Village resident, when challenged that prostitution is a victimless crime, replies, “No, no, we were the victims.”

When Michael Bloomberg succeeded Giuliani as mayor in 2002, the Stroll was already disappearing, with the post-9/11 police tape across 14th Street keeping things quiet for two or three years. Many of the women who depended on the area for work found themselves unable to survive in any way; others had to learn to adapt by taking their businesses online, often without computer skills.

By throwing all his weight into economic growth and real estate development, Bloomberg accelerated the city’s gentrification, perhaps nowhere more abruptly than in the Meatpacking District. To clear the streets of sex workers and drug addicts, he introduced Operation Spotlight, a “three strikes” rule, meaning that offenders could be sent to prisons in New York State with harsher sentences after a third arrest. One woman describes being released after 12 years to find that the community had disappeared and many girls she knew from The Stroll had died.

These accounts make the history that the filmmakers have collected all the more vital. Much attention is paid to pioneering trans activist Sylvia Rivera (Lovell spent 10 years working in her Hell’s Kitchen safe space), who co-founded STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, with another legendary figure, Marsha P. Johnson. (Perhaps because Johnson was the subject of an extensive paper by David France in 2017, she is only briefly mentioned here.)

STAR was a direct response to the 2000 murder of Amanda Milan, a Stroll sex worker who was stabbed near the Port Authority bus station, bled to death and died in the street, with no one coming to her aid. The filmmakers make the sad note that while Bill Clinton had drawn attention to the vicious murder of Matthew Shepard less than two years earlier, fueling people’s anger over homophobic hate crimes, Milan’s murder was largely ignored, featuring only her sisters. of the Stroll at the Funeral.

The Doctor acknowledges that progress has been made in transgender visibility and sex workers’ rights, with many former Stroll regulars now holding jobs with transsocial justice or human rights organizations, legal services and anti-street violence groups. Their survival is a badge of honor. But Lovell and Drucker’s film – winner of a Special Jury Award at Sundance – also ruefully acknowledges that New York’s story is one of continued marginalization, of people being driven from spaces where they were once part of a thriving community.

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