The Red Umbrella Diaires: No Justice, No Piece (…of ass)

Last night I took a break from the Cinekink film festival to attend the Red Umbrella Diaries, a sex-worker and activist storytelling event run by the Red Umbrella Project, at Happy Ending on Broome Street. I had no idea what to expect from an evening of stories told by sex workers and former sex workers, and as such had little option but to be delighted by what I got!

The event, held the first Thursday of every month and organized by Audacia Ray, sex worker rights activist, formerly of $pread Magtazine, and a former sex worker herself, is a chance for those who work in the sex industry, or simply care about the stories of those who do, to get together, have a few drinks (15% of the proceeds from which go to help fund The Red Umbrella Project and Speak Up!), and generally inhabit a safe and friendly place together.

Last night (which, by the way, was International Sex Workers’ Rights Day! Woot!), while my girlfriend and I got pleasantly sloshed on the expensive but absolutely delicious Lychee Martinis that Happy Ending is known for, we were treated to a readings by Richard Berkowitz, author of The Invention of Safe Sex and a sex worker and activist since the early 80’s. He read part of his book about his entry into sex work in 1980. In Barney’s one day, he suddenly realized that he was walking a fine and exciting line on the wrong side of the tracks: “For a man, the worst thing to be is a queer,” he read. “For a woman, the worst thing to be is a whore.” Now that he was both, he figured, he might as well enjoy it. Have the time of his life at it. Throw away all the fears he’d been living with his whole life and just go with it; after all, what did he have to lose? As it turned out, he had everything to lose, since the AIDS explosion was jut around the corner. He’s gone on to become a well-known activist and author, and one of the leaders in the safe sex movement in the 1980’s, when AIDS was devastating the gay population.

Following Richard, Melissa Ditmore, a sex worker awareness activist and writer, read a passage from her essay on the 1942 Sex Workers’ Strike in Honolulu. I’d never heard about this little piece of wartime history before, but I was tickled to learn that after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, part of the war effort in Hawaii became the liberalization of brothels outside the massive military bases in Honolulu. Brothels and military bases, of course, go hand in hand, because the military believes strongly that “A man who can’t fuck won’t fight.” The military during WWII saw the presence of prostitutes as integral to keeping up the morale of the men they were training to send overseas, and when martial law was declared in the US, Honolulu became a bastion for the freedom and fair treatment of prostitutes, who had been treated as less than human before. They’d not been allowed to go to most public beaches, any bar or nice restaurant, or to live anywhere outside of Honolulu’s red light district. They were not permitted to own property or land, or even a car. But when the military, who valued their bedroom services and the temporary roles they’d played as triage nurses after the Pearl Harbor attack, took over, these rules and regulations were lifted. The prostitutes were free at last to be real people, and they took full advantage of their personhood. During martial law, local law enforcement frequently clashed with the military police over issues of prostitutes’ rights, but the military had the final say… until regular law was reinstated, at which point, of course, the local government cracked back down on the prostitutes. These whores, of course, couldn’t continue to be allowed to roam around free like respectable citizens! They were expected to return to the red light district, heads lowered, and start paying off the local police to leave them alone as they had before.
But the prostitutes, now that they’d had a taste of what being an American is supposed to really mean, were having none of it. For 22 days in 1942, hordes of hookers ran picket lines and refused to go back to work until their basic rights and freedoms were returned to them. A gaggle of prostitutes, complete with posters and chants–and, no doubt, their shameful lady bits under their skirts! scandalous!–struck for almost a month until at last the local law enforcement gave way and ceded them some of their rights.
I was floored by this story. How fucking fantastic! Can you imagine? In 1942, a bunch of hookers forcing their government to give them their rights back, much to the chagrin of the locals, I’m sure. But I bet the troops were laughing themselves silly the whole time.

At any rate, after a short break, Drew Deveaux, queer porn star of the most highly educated and articulate… and sexy… variety, took the mic and spoke to the crowd about her experience with queer porn and mainstream porn. As a trans woman, she told us, she can’t see that being an activist and being a trans person can be separated. As a post-op sex worker, she says, she sees the life of privilege she leads every day and is so thankful that she can be who she is. As a woman, she can fly “under the radar” and get herself onto mainstream sets and everyday gatherings without raising any eyebrows: “seduction as activism,” she calls it. There was so much in what Drew spoke about that I dare not try to rewrite it here, but do stay tuned: I will be interviewing her tonight or tomorrow and publishing the results on sometime next month!

Overall, I was interested to hear a theme emerging from the night’s presenters: sex work and activism are not separate things. Until legalization and/or less discrimination happens… and that will be a long time in this country… being a sex worker and being an activist are two almost indistinct parts of being a human with respect for one’s body. In America, where sex workers are denied the right to their living and whose bodies are seen as public, criminal, property, the very act of using one’s body as one decides to and making money from doing so is an exercise in activism, no matter what the situation. To disobey the law and do so in an empowered and conscious way: what else could this be but activism? Civil disobedience is an integral part of American life; it has forced change where nothing else could for so many things in our history. So to the prostitutes who work outside of legal Nevada brothels, I salute you for being brave and doing what others are scared to do. For owning your sex and using it to your advantage and with the knowledge that you are existing outside the boundaries of an unjust legal system… and moral system. Keep acting. Keep fucking! Keep rocking!

In the meantime, I’m going to keep attending the Red Umbrella Diaries events, because those Lychee Martinis are fantastic, and because being in such a happy, accepting space is a great way to spend a Thursday night. Next month, on April 7, the theme will be “Boom and Bust.” See you there!

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