Like Audacia Ray, I have three distinct personas. There is the illicit sex worker segment of the self who interacts with clients (and, in one of our cases, writes Slixa articles); there is Realname McNormalperson, who has a weird dad and a brother and a mother; and there is the audacious activist-model persona, who interacts with the world the way the whole tripartite self wishes it could. Me, myself, and I listened in awe at the familiarity of Audacia's struggles of a segmented existence. It was only the very beginning of The Red Umbrella Diaries Gala, and I already felt an overwhelming sense of belonging.
Ray was the first storyteller to take the stage for the gala on November 14th. She's also the founder and executive director of the Red Umbrella Project, which works to produce just that sort of feeling of belonging among sex workers. In more specific terms, it's a nonprofit that "amplif[ies] the voices of people in the sex trades." Storytelling events are one way RedUP achieves this goal, and the event that took place last Thursday at New York City's Joe's Pub was the largest and most elaborate yet. It was a celebration of the four-year anniversary of RedUP and the subject of a forthcoming documentary. It was also a coming-together of the sex worker community and an incredible showcase of creativity.
The seven stories told that night ranged broadly in subject and tone, and the storytellers themselves were just as diverse. Following Ms. Ray was Ceyenne Doroshow, a black trans woman with a natural theatrical flair (though her sequined skirt and sparkling corset certainly added to the drama). Her tale included some of the painful realities of growing up queer and Christian, but Doroshow deftly brough out the humor that often lurks behind life's darker moments. Her comedic timing was the best of the bunch and she left the crowd cheering with the revelation of what she did for fun while living in ministers' homes as a teen kicked out by conservative parents. (I won't spoil it here.) Then there was Dominick, whose expertly composed narrative about his early desire to be a gigolo -- "I wouldn't call it an ambition as much as a condition"-- revealed a real writerly talent.
Each performer that followed held their own in a different way. Former stripper and breathtaking beauty Essence Revealed captured the crowd with her dignified yet brutal honesty; the quietly charming Sailor bared his soul with a how-I-got-into-sex-work tale; and charismatic girl-next-door Paige Campbell warmed hearts with her story about what it means to be a second-generation stripper. Despite these many strong voices, it was clear why Anna Saini was chosen as the show closer. Her story trumped them all in terms of outrageousness (she had the crowd gasping), but her performance wasn't an exercise in being sordid for its own sake. The core of her tale touched on the complexity of the sex worker experience: the difficulties, the responsibilities, and the fact that sex work, as wild as it may sometimes be, is truly just work.
At this point, the enthusiastic crowd of fellow workers, former workers and allies sipping drinks would have been more than happy with what we'd seen for the price of admission. At various points we'd been moved to sympathetic tears and shouts of support and wild laughter, and there was a suffusive air of camaraderie. But there was still one more act, and it was the perfect capstone for the gala. The Trans Women's Theatre Troupe (which will star in its own documentary short made by the same filmmakers behind the full-length Red Umbrella Diaries project) performed a series of emotionally moving, interrelated sketches. The major themes were the discrimination and violence trans women face, but the piece had a positive spin. It highlighted what had really been the major themes of the night: resiliency, strength, and sense of community. By the end of the evening, the nine women of various ages, races, and body types had come together to bring the crowd to its feet.
There is more than one kind of communion that happens in sex worker spaces. There is this obvious coming together of friends, acquaintances, and strangers, but there is also a sort of personal communion, or perhaps reunion, of the frequently fractured sex worker self. I had arrived at the event right from my evening gender studies class, having snuck out just before the scheduled discussion of prostitution commenced. I was desperately grateful for the excuse to leave, as staying would have meant a battle between Realname McNormalperson to maintain her academic respectability and Lori DiLetto to maintain her sense of humanity. In the space of forty minutes I had gone from sharing space with a 19-year-old for whom sex work was no more than an abstract theory, to a table with colleagues who shared my lived experiences. Being among people who understood dissolved my conflicting interests, removed the boundaries I had to maintain between the facets of my life and my self. Audacia Ray rightly pointed out at the start that reconciling personas is continuous work; there is no instant healing. But The Red Umbrella Diaries allowed the performers and the audiences the much-needed space in which to safely continue the effort.
Disclaimer: This review reflects the author's honest opinion and is not a paid endorsement. However, the author has recently started working with the Red Umbrella Project for the upcoming issue of their literary journal, Prose and Lore, and Slixa provided the author with a ticket for the gala.