2.20 / Review

Formerly Known As: Performance by Male and Trans Sex Workers

By Victoria Gannon June 28, 2011

It was a night of hookers telling stories, really—ones about Ecstasy and erections, love and skepticism, rejection and mistaken identities. Philip Huang talked about his grandmother’s vagina, and TT Baum led a trio of naked men pantomiming orgasms on the stage to a soundtrack of sexual anxiety. Cyd Nova, a trans man, talked about getting snubbed by a gender studies academic after peeing on him in a motel bathtub, while black-wigged drag queen Cassandra Gorgeous deconstructed her trademark breathy whisper.

Formerly Known As: Performance by Male and Trans Sex Workers occurred June 9 and 10 at the newly opened Center for Sex and Culture as part of the fourteenth annual National Queer Arts Festival, underway through June. Now in its third year, the event began as a way to highlight the voices of sex workers not normally heard. While female sex workers have gained modest political traction in the past several decades (San Francisco’s Lusty Lady famously unionized in 1997), male and trans sex workers have been less visible.

The June 10 performance, which presented a lineup different from the preceding night, began with organizer Kirk Read’s piece about the thin lines that separate one thing from another, whether it’s a condom between two people or an HIV prevention billboard whose message is protective at first glance, judgmental on the second. “You should try to avoid doing drugs with your clients,” he began, and then fell into a tangle of anecdotes about times when he or his clients didn’t follow his advice.

You shouldn’t do drugs with your clients because, he continued, “you’ll end up fucking him without a condom or getting fucked by him without a condom.” Such dangerous decisions are a perverted sort of liberation, he explained. Condoms are a “bleep,” a censorious skin that feels too much like shame. “And that’s why HIV prevention billboards don’t work for tweakers and fags,” he read. “They become the den of the world they’re trying to escape.” His words were delivered like those from a camp counselor to his younger charges: notes from the field, advice for the next generation. And like a good camp counselor, Read made serious ideas feel like late-night flashlight-lit storytelling.

Two acts diverged from the confessional theme that dominated the night’s six acts. Baum’s cathartic performance piece was a solemn note amid anecdotes, while Huang’s confrontational monologues tested the audience’s tolerance for both his material and him as a performer. The former piece began with four men solemnly walking to the stage like priests approaching the altar. Three wore loose robes; Baum was naked but covered in white latex. On stage, he kneeled while the other performers stood in a half moon behind him and a prerecorded monologue began to play: “Let me tell you about my issues … I can’t seem to have intimate relationships … What’s wrong with my body?” Like a song sung in rounds, each verse was repeated and layered upon the next. It continued: “How do I maintain my erection? I worry I’m not a good lover.” As the loop built in tenor and tension, the three men’s robes fell to the ground. Their naked bodies began to move rhythmically, mouths falling open, amazed but frightened looks in their eyes. One man went to his hands and knees, another gazed into the rafters as though a comet had passed by; the third began to cry, like a seizure had just racked his body.

Their orgasmic highs peaked and fell, and as their bodies stilled, Baum began peeling the latex away. The others joined, freeing him from the suffocating skin. With this exhumation,

Formerly Known As: TT Baum. Courtesy of the Center for Sex and Culture, San Francisco. Video: Mark McBeth.

Formerly Known As: Phillip Huang. Courtesy of the Center for Sex and Culture, San Francisco. Video: Mark McBeth.

the preceding actions gained new significance: the men’s movements, tuned to the repetitive soundtrack, underscored the litany of mental anxiety that can accompany our most physical urges; the material enshrouding Baum functioned as a metaphor for the inhibitions that can curtail our experience of our bodies, conceptually and materially echoing Read’s interpretation of the condom as a confining skin. Although obviously symbolic, the piece’s cryptic and experiential elements kept it from feeling didactic or staged. The night’s most physical (and certainly most naked) piece, it was unexpectedly the most cerebral as well, suggesting that the mind and the body can be in sync after all.

Huang’s dramatic monologues were less successful. Known for presenting transgressive material, the performer began by donning a wig and clip-on earrings. Once transformed into Ellen Foo, hostess of The Ellen Foo Show, he began a faux tutorial on women’s body language. “I’m an average lady with a job,” he said, and “sometimes you have to walk from your job to your car, and you have to be careful about your body language…. What does your body language say to the man hiding in the bushes?” he asked. He sashayed across the stage; this walk says, “Please rape me,” he explained. With an identical gait, he traversed the stage again; this one says, “Don’t rape me.” He repeated the demonstration, the audience becoming more subdued with each pivot.

The piece’s ostensible point was clear: it’s absurd to consider a woman’s body language as either a deterrent to or an instigator of rape. Still, the performance grated on a visceral level, partially due to Huang’s confession that the “transgender progressive community” walked out on him the last time he performed it. “They walked out on me for this!” he distractedly yelled mid-scene. Afterward, he recounted the admonishment he received from an unnamed source following his previous performance: “Rape is not your issue,” he was told. “Rape is never okay to make fun of. Violence against women is not your issue.”

But Huang’s subject matter wasn’t the problem, at least on this night; instead it was the way he deflected responsibility for his material. He seemed to play an elaborate shell game in which the “I” was maddeningly elusive: Was he speaking from his own experience? Was he parodying feminism? Or was he just fighting for the right to say whatever he wanted? If Huang was fighting for his freedom of speech, he didn’t grant his audience the same courtesy. His blatant appeals robbed its members of the right to form their own opinions—to be offended, to be delighted, or to walk out. By describing the reading series and venues from which he’d been banned, his persecution as a performer took center stage; the persecution of women, his supposed subject matter, became an afterthought. Such antics stood in contrast to the other performers, who largely spoke from the implicit position that foregrounding one’s intimate knowledge is paramount.

A set of performances that doesn’t include sex itself performed by people who have sex for work must focus on the act’s non-physical dimensions instead. And they are many. Sex is about the suspension of boundaries: the permeability of self and other, inside and out, even pleasure and pain. Passing through this border zone is like crawling through a barbed-wire fence; to remain unharmed, there must be adjustments, concessions, first-aid kits on hand, and occasional emergency evacuations. There’s so much to talk about, it’s amazing anyone ever gets around to doing it. And so as much as Formerly Known As was about sex, this night was about the thinking and talking that accompanies the physical act. Its strongest moments harnessed the alchemy that occurs when private experience becomes public, when acts of the body become strings of sentences, immaterial ether that can carry all the weight of a physical punch. 

 

 

Formerly Known As: Performance by Male and Trans Sex Workers was performed at the Center for Sex and Culture, in San Francisco, on June 9 and 10, 2011.

 

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