As in previous years, the BFI’s Flare Festival opened with a film focussing on transgender people. The Stroll is a documentary about gay transvestite prostitutes. Of course, these openly gay men are now deemed ‘trans women’.
The blurby bit
When you think of the history of New York, it’s unlikely that a singular street in the Meatpacking District makes the cut. But for Kristen Lovell and other trans women of colour, from the 1990s to the mid 2000s, 14th Street was the centre of life. The street was a place to make money doing sex work and to find a community (even a place to be supported and educated by trailblazer Sylvia Rivera), but it was also a target for brutality at the hands of customers and the police. In this insightful and compelling history lesson, directors Lovell and Zackary Drucker position The Stroll as a crucial location not just in the lives of its inhabitants, but in the history of New York itself. Comprised of intimate narration from Lovell, interviews with the girls who walked The Stroll, and a wealth of archive, this is a resonant film about gentrification, sex work, trans rights and what it means to fight to survive.Promotional material from BFI selling the documentary
Prior to the viewing of the film we were treated to an excruciating presentation from the BFI Flare programmers. Diverse bunch they were too, the women all being being very young, black and ‘queer’ in the nominal sense (if we were to go with our spidey senses) and the men being older, white and gay (again, spidey senses).
The outgoing director told us that the festival began 37 years ago and was called (?) Gay Zone Pictures and only nine films were screened, presumably just about gay men. My understanding is that it then became a Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (not that she admitted that), then LGB, then LGBT, until finally now it is an ‘LGBTQIA+’ festival. It is a core part of the BFI’s calendar.
She thanked the sponsors, who included Campari, American Airlines (also provides the flights), Mischon de Reya (corporate law firm, I believe they also represent the Southbank in actions), PGIM (investment bank), Interbank LGBT+ Forum (very influential financial staff network group), and special thanks went to FACTSET (data analytics corporate) for being the Festival’s ‘accessibility partner’. Just gives you that warm fuzzy feeling, dunnit?
The senior programmer was then invited on stage, who told us Flare was his ‘favourite thing to do in the year’ and invited his team one-by-one to join him. Two of the team were new to the BFI and it felt very much like they were in their first job having just left university. One asked old-timer, Brian, how this year compared to previous years. Brian told us it was ‘fucking good’ and that the films had gone way beyond ‘two people thinking they might fall in love with each other’. They certainly have.
Brian also told us that the ‘science moves on’ and there were things in the Festival he didn’t understand and wanted to know from fellow programmer Ulrich ‘What is homosexual expanded reality?’. This was a series of pieces of what the ‘homosexual experience in VR is’ and in particular Ulrich wanted to draw attention to He Fucked The Girl Out of Me, describing it as a ‘beautiful and personal experience’. Though hats off to Ulrich for correctly identifying that a man fucking a trans woman is indeed a homosexual experience. Bit transphobic though.
The centrepiece film for the BFI Flare festival was Who I Am Not a film about ‘intersex people living in Africa’. ‘Intersex’ activist, Valentino Vecchietti, claimed to have persuaded the BFI to include intersex as a strand at the Festival and here it was reaping benefits. Indeed she was in the audience behaving like the clown she is. I also saw the odious Morgan M. Page. Basically it was troon central.
Finally, before the directors of The Stroll were invited onto the stage, who were to do a Q&A after, we were told several times that the film we were about to watch was about women. Not ‘trans women’ but just plain simple women. We unfortunately didn’t stay for the Q&A because there was a tube strike in London, but plenty appeared prepared to stay. Enjoy this video instead.
Anyway, onto the documentary
The documentary’s strengths lies in the clever use of archive footage, managing to create the impression that extensive research was done, assisted by shots of Lovell in the editing suite (I discovered later they had simply looked on YouTube) and also photographs from the time the Meatpacking District was an area of active prostitution. There is interesting use of zine-type artwork (‘zines’ are popular with trans culture, given the opportunity they present to make any old shit up and make it look like an authentic document) to narrate scenes which didn’t have footage. Inventive. The filmmakers had also been careful to engage with fairly interesting talking heads. However, as is always the case with these things, the mania in evidence from the get-go.
First lie one minute in
We are told by the film’s main protagonist and director Kristen Lovell that he left home at fifteen, got a job in a coffee shop but was fired because he transitioned. Cue sad piano playing. This meant he had to turn to ‘sex work’ on The Stroll (the area where transvestite men would prostitute themselves). I don’t doubt Lovell’s claim about being a homeless child, I do disbelieve the idea that he entered prostitution of his own free will and suspect the hand of an older man, probably someone he thought was a boyfriend, grooming him. Lovell spent ten years trapped in prostitution, the majority of the time on cocaine and even starred in a documentary about the lives of the young men who worked the area.
Lovell tells us he made this documentary because he wanted control of his own story, how long ‘trans women’ had been coming into the area (ultimately not addressed) and how long sex work had been part of trans women’s stories (ditto). Cue bittersweet music.
The cast of characters
Lovell first meets with Egypt, the old timer, a black trans-identified male who had spent more time on the street than most. Then is a bearded man who considered himself to be of ‘transgender experience’ as he spent ‘half his life as a transgender woman’ but now identified as a ‘non-binary boy’. A third, Ceyenne Doroshow, claims that he was from a prominent black middle class family and was always noticeably flamboyant. And then there are two white brothers (who now identify as ‘sisters’), who both transitioned around the same time, and worked the same patch. There are several other talking heads.
The extensive focus on Sylvia Rivera and the white brothers makes the BFI’s claim it is about ‘trans women of colour’ clearly nonsensical.
With music suggestive of a train moving, we are told the story of the runaways. They couldn’t get regular jobs because they didn’t have IDs which proved they were women. Some, however, chose sex work but mostly, it is claimed, they were forced onto the street because of who they were and what they looked like. I suspect a number of them were probably a product of the care system but home situations are barely mentioned.
The johns would come to The Stroll because they knew that both gay men and transvestites prostitutes would be there. Everyone knew the score. Poppy music accompanies the bit where Lovell explains where the Meatpacking District was.
Hatred of improvement
Perhaps nothing sums up better the hypocrisy of the film than the existence of the weird squashed-face woman who moved to the Meatpacking District in 1985, eventually setting up an art gallery, who bemoans its gentrification, utterly unaware of her contribution to the same. (Her apartment is 1,800 square foot, according to this article.) Harp music plays as she tells us the nostalgic story of how she came to occupy a building in the derelict area, which in the daytime was known for its slaughterhouses. She decided to move into the area after learning that the grimy prostitute-ridden area was not dangerous at all, even if stank to high heaven and you might often be stepping over the body parts of dead animals. A meatpacker, who worked the abattoirs at the time, tells us that trucks would speed off so fast dead bodies would often fly off the back. That was how fast the trucks were and how overloaded.
One of the prostitutes was attracted to working the area because he had questions about his sexuality and the area was also known for its fetish clubs and, of course, because it was a popular red light area with tricks being turned 24/7. He too got misty eyed about the falling apart buildings and general trash.
They all had penises
One trans-identified male had this reminiscence:
When I first went out there it felt like we were going through a secret passage. I just saw all these beautiful women and I was like ‘Oh my god, what is all these girls doin’ out here, they’re so beautiful’. I remember one particular night this girl asked me to block her while she fixed her top. I said ‘top, what is that?’ and this girl looked nice. So while she was fixing her top I turned around and I looked and I said ‘Oh my god, you have a penis!?’
We can be sure that this is bullshit as the area was notorious for transvestite prostitutes. In fact, the film includes several photographs of the men exposing themselves and their rather large penises in public on the streets.
Tarts with hearts
As per usual for any kind of representation of prostitution, between themselves they are all tarts with hearts. This is emphasised by quirky music and hackneyed observations about having each others backs and teaching each other how to survive. Scrapping over rich johns or disputes about drugs apparently never happened. Reminisces about doing tricks are told for laughs, e.g. the stupid men who just wanted them to twirl around. And of course, they weren’t just there to be ‘bottoms’ for the johns, since a lot of the johns wanted to be penetrated by a man. (Tee-hee-hee, went the audience.)
On a serious note, we learn that a lot of the boys were just fifteen years old.
At the end of the segment we learn about the awful things which happened, one was beaten up by a gang of men and then refused treatment in the ER, stories of attempted rape, or men who took their pleasure and refused to pay up. The men would arm themselves against such dangers.
RuPaul footage from 1992
Interestingly RuPaul filmed in the Meatpacking District in 1992, the same time that Lovell was apparently working the street. This short clip directly contradicts the impression conjured up by the documentary that most of the prostitutes were black since RuPaul talks to, and shows, mainly white men. The clip below was used in the documentary but edited, showing the first interviewee, and then directly to the black man at the end, cutting out the middle. It was also interrupted by narration from Lovell, who implies it was very difficult to get his hands on the clip because the word transgender wasn’t used. It has been publicly available on YouTube for the last ten years.
After Lovell butchers the clip, the sad piano music begins again, and he tells us that it wasn’t possible for the men to find work unless they presented as cis. ‘I had to sleep in the movie theatre,’ Lovell tells us, eyes misting up. But he refused to let the world beat him up. ‘We’ve been taking [punches] for decades.’
Greenwich Village archive footage
The clip shown refers to homosexual men being involved in prostitution repeatedly. However, Lovell’s talking heads quickly turn this into a ‘walking while trans‘ narrative. They complain that they had all been arrested multiple times, as this weren’t par for the course. The fact that the police treated prostitution as a crime is treated as evidence of prejudice rather than law enforcement.
Visiting the archives
It’s a meme of trans culture that one must ‘visit the archives’. Lovell claims that during the period that he was selling sex and off his face on coke he would take shelter in the public library and research ‘trans history’ whilst there. Cue the deification of Sylvia Rivera, who is described by one as the ‘mother of the community’. Then we have Marsha P. Johnson. A clip is shown of Johnson, it was from the same reel of footage the clip below came from.
Lovell tells us about STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, which Rivera and Johnson set up together.
You can watch Rivera’s speech at a gay pride rally here – https://youtu.be/Jb-JIOWUw1o?t=94 – he finishes screaming out the letters of the slogan Gay Power, I can’t post the video as the account which posted it, Love Tapes Collective, has turned off that feature. The clip that is used in the documentary is cut in such a way as to suggest that Rivera did not think of himself as gay (the full clip makes clear he did) and Lovell tells us that both Rivera and Johnson had been pushed to the side for being ‘trans’.
Further footage of Rivera make clear that he is a mentally disturbed and desperate individual affected by long term drug abuse and homelessness. His demeanour is pitiful and his train of thought incoherent, it says something that even at the time he was considered by the gay lobby to be an important activist, despite his obvious pathologies. Below are some of the clips I have found on YouTube, some of which were used in the documentary.
Cracking down on crime
It was New York Mayor Rudi Guiliani who wanted to crack down on prostitution and as the area gained more home owners there was a push to squeeze out prostitutes from the streets. This is framed as regressive and mean. The ‘wealthy straight people’ who moved in eradicated the young queer people who had been there for ‘decades before’ – an obvious nonsense. A resident who experienced the street prostitution at the time, unaware I’m sure how he was to be depicted, explained how people would have sex in cars outside residential buildings all day and night.
One ex-transvestite prostitute reflects that despite residents’ vilifications and picketing, he would just stick his finger up at them and have sex down the side of their houses anyway. This was played for laughs, and the audience did laugh. And why not? You can bet no one in the room genuinely had to live in an area where used condoms were being thrown on their doorstep.
Residents put up banners which said ‘JOHNS AND HOOKERS BEWARE, WE NOTE LICENCE PLATES AND INFORM YOUR JOB AND HOME’. At that time for a small fee you could get the name of the car owners and the resident action group would ring up and threaten to ring their wife, employer and the neighbours. It was very effective. (We were quietly punching the air at this bit, whilst the rest of the audience frowned.)
We are told about the murder of transvestite Amanda Milan, but confusingly the story segments directly into the story of Matthew Shepard’s murder, who was murdered for being gay. His tragic murder is used as a justification for complaining that no one cared about a ‘trans woman’ being murdered. A clip of Sylvia Rivera shows him apparently bemoaning that only 200 people turned up for the ‘Amanda Milan action’, describing it as a ‘disgrace’. (I suspect there was some sleight of hand and that a fuller clip will reveal something else, or else Rivera was simply running at the mouth again.) Lovell claimed that he attended that action and that was when he met Octavia St Laurent, star of Paris is Burning. (In current times Paris is Burning is understood to be a film about ‘transgender women’ but the trailer tells a very different story.)
The end of The Stroll
Along with the Guiliani crime crackdown, 9/11 and the advent of the internet, street prostitution died away. Lovell told us that he quickly turned to making internet ads. Another reflects that it improved safety as he now could screen clients more safely and was able to move into fetish work, rather than have to deal with having sex with men. It turned out most much preferred ‘working from home’. So much for the solidarity The Stroll offered.
When Bloomberg becomes Mayor. He also enacted Operation Spotlight which successfully bought crime rates down, so rents shot up, ‘Samantha’ from Sex in the City moved in and the meat packers moved out. The gallery owner pops up again to bemoan the fact that the area was no longer gritty and the film noir-ish ‘inviting environment where you could do anything’ to a plush shopping district (though I note she hasn’t moved out, holding onto her prime real estate for when retirement beckons). Another whines that his memories have been ruined because nothing looks the same.
A lot the men ended up in prison at Rikers Island as a result of the crime crackdown, including Lovell himself. When the ‘girls’ got off the bus on arrival, they would be greeted by shouts of ‘fucking faggots’. We see footage of one of the men being admitted to the prison, humorously flirting with a guard about his ‘ass and tits’. Building 5 was where they housed the homosexual men. We see a young gay man in his cell. He likes doing drag and tells us that his family is fine with his sexual preference. Yet more notes at odds with the premise of the film.
Another, whose criminal behaviour was so intransigent ended up being sent to a jail out of state. When he realised that only violence was respected he admits he had to turn into a monster. Of course, this is framed as a trans issue, but the fact is a lot of men do exactly the same in prisons for all sorts of reasons. Once his sentence was finished he was turfed out with nowhere to go, again, just like most prisoners. He discovered a lot of his contemporaries were dead and decided not to go back into prostitution. ‘The Stroll was over,’ he says. Again this realisation is framed by the filmmakers as if it were a bad thing.
A return to The Stroll
Lovell and the now non-binary man return to the district to reminisce, in particular about Josie, who came onto the streets aged 12-13 because, we are told, his family didn’t accept him. They hint at murders. Then the non-binary man suddenly bursts into tears, and through uncontrollable sobbing we have perhaps the only honest reflection of the entire documentary:
I can’t believe the things we had to do. I hate this place. I fucking hate this place.
Egypt returns to tell us that from the thousand ‘girls’ which worked the area there may only be five left (clearly contradicted by the number of talking heads in the film). Then another croaks ‘trans women don’t get to live past 35 or 40’. The gay movement is blamed for leaving ‘trans women’ and sex workers behind. An argument for the decriminalisation of sex work is made.
Black Trans Lives Matter rally speech
Ceyenne Doroshow is shown giving a hysterical speech at the Black Trans Lives Matter rally held during the Covid pandemic lockdown in New York (remember when the whole world was at risk and no one could go out, except people who wanted to break things because, ya know, George Floyd). Interestingly back in 2015 Doroshow set up GLITS, which stands for Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society. Despite its name suggesting an organisation which serves gays and lesbians, its actual focus is on trans-identified males, and when you look at the GLITS website, like so many transgender projects, it just looks like a front.
Predictably Lovell returns to the ‘tarts with hearts’ meme and makes the observation ‘You can take the girl out of The Stroll, but you can’t take The Stroll out of the girl’ (instant face palm from us).
Despite the documentary being put together with flair and eliciting the exact audience reactions the directors clearly wanted, it is very poor factually. What rankled most is the absence of the pimps, who no doubt existed. In fact, it was strongly stated throughout they were all free agents, despite actually being children in many cases. You would think that someone might offer an opinion at some point that they should have not have been being raped by older men and better off in school, but no one does.
The misuse of footage is indicative of our times that anyone can find film content from the internet and shoehorn it to fit whatever narrative they please. Trying to make out Rivera was a coherent deep thinker is brave and stunning though, but you don’t have to scratch far to find that historically most of these men would have identified as gay (as indeed many of the clips attest to), somehow that has been disappeared though and the BFI has chosen to celebrate it.
We look forward to next year’s offerings.
Thank you for reading! Sign up to my blog by going to the bottom of the page.
Please share on other forums if you liked it, as I only do Twitter.
You must be logged in to post a comment.