Review: 'The Stroll' Vividly Depicts Courage, Community, and Trauma among Trans Sex Workers

Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 3 MIN.

Filmmakers Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker take us to the streets of New York City's Meat Packing District and into the personal stories of the transgender sex workers who once worked "The Stroll," a stretch along 14th Street where trans women – many of them of color – found a way to earn a living when other job opportunities were denied to them. What's more, they found community and, when they needed it, protection.

Lovell herself once worked on The Stroll, and there's a sense of camaraderie, and shared history, between herself and the women she interviews, such as Ceyenne (who worked The Stroll for 25 years, from 1980 - 2005), Tabytha (whose tenure there was relatively brief at four years in the mid-to-late '90s), and siblings Stafanie and Elizabeth (both of whom quit The Stroll in 2001). The stories we hear are heartbreaking: accounts of young people – children sometimes – tossed out of their homes for being gay or trans, or else fleeing from family situations where they felt unsafe with their families. And the streets, tough as they were, acted as a relative haven, with established sex workers willing to mentor and look out for newcomers. More than once we hear someone say they found themselves, and found their strength, on The Stroll.

As the narratives unfold – set to striking visuals – a time and place emerges with a palpable sense of immediacy. New York at the time, pre-Giuliani and pre-Bloomberg, could be rough, and stories of police abuse echo strongly with more recent events. But things only got worse on the streets for transgender sex workers once Giuliani's "quality of life" initiatives kicked in and sex workers were more or less lumped in with violent criminals. The aftermath of 9/11 and gentrification heralded the end of The Stroll, but by then the internet had become established and many of the workers had taken their trades off the street and into cyberspace, rebranding themselves as purveyors of "fetish work" to help them skirt laws like the notorious "walking while trans" decree, which prosecuted trans women, especially trans women of color, not just for plying their trade but for innocuous daily activities like smoking on their front stoops or going to the market for groceries.

It wasn't fun and games; "The reality of homelessness, of transitioning... it was difficult," one woman relates, and you get the sense that she's understating the case. Even when the interviewees speak wistfully of some elements of those days, it's clear that the work was dangerous and entailed fatalities, including a shocking daylight murder in 1990 in which a woman was stabbed to death while onlookers jeered and did nothing to help. One nonbinary interviewee, standing on the street as it is today, declares they "hate this place" before breaking down into sobs. The trauma is just as real as the sense of community was.

Still, this is a part of history worth preserving, exploring, and even celebrating, in part because it acknowledges the strength and courage of trans people – qualities that are incredibly necessary today. Also worth knowing is how "mainstream" gays excluded trans people in the civil rights struggle back then, as indeed some are still willing to do.

HBO has provided the LGBTQ+ community with shining examples of representation (the documentary series "We're Here" is another must-see), and does so again with "The Stroll."

"The Stroll" streams on HBO starting June 21.

by Kilian Melloy , EDGE Staff Reporter

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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