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Kristen Lovell, co-director of 'The Stroll,' knows sex work is real work

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, New York's Meatpacking District is a gleaming luxury shopping destination. Storefronts advertise Apple, Hermes and Louis Vuitton. Back when Kristen Lovell worked the neighborhood, it was a different scene. Here's how a friend of hers named Tabytha describes it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE STROLL")

TABYTHA GONZALEZ: The minute I got off on 14th Street and the path train and I started walking, you could hear the clickety-clack of the heels.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOES CLACKING)

SHAPIRO: In the late 20th century, trans women did sex work on these streets. They called it The Stroll. That's the name of the new documentary Kristen Lovell co-directed. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KRISTEN LOVELL: Hey. I'm happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: This story has been told before but by outsiders, not the people who lived it. So what did you want to capture that other versions of the story have left out?

LOVELL: I mean, I wanted to capture the humanity of trans women and not just this subject matter of sex work and survival. I think a lot of the times that when these documentaries are presented, they leave out certain elements of what trans joy looks like and, you know, community, you know? Especially back in, like, the early '90s, you would see a lot of documentaries. They're always dark and gritty and, you know, the trans sex workers on the streets. And, you know, the conversation becomes about the most dire of situations. And even though those stories are equally important, it's how they're told.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. That sisterhood comes across really vividly. It's clear that people in this community supported each other when nobody else was doing that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE STROLL")

GONZALEZ: The system never gave us resources. We created the resources.

SHAPIRO: We created the resources, she says. How did you all look out for each other? How did you uplift each other?

LOVELL: You know me, Cashmere and Elizabeth and a few other friends - we were homeless youth living in, you know, Covenant House, and we were very out and open. But we faced a lot of discrimination and oppression in that situation not only from inside the shelter with the young people and the staff but the outside world and the broader society. We couldn't work without having to detransition. We couldn't live authentically as ourselves. You know what I mean? Like, we formed a family, and, like, any young person that came in that happened to identify as LGBTQ ended up in our room. And we all looked out for each other, and we built this community. We work together. We live together. We go shopping together. And moving forward, you know, we started to get involved in youth programs that dealt heavily with youth advocacy and homelessness.

SHAPIRO: There's a moment I love where several of the women in sequence kind of describe their superhero alter egos that would come out when there was danger.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE STROLL")

GONZALEZ: And that's when I became the battle bot. You know, you wasn't going to take my money. You wasn't going to beat me up. I was going to get you before you got me.

SHAPIRO: And you all would look out not just for yourselves but also each other. Describe that for us.

LOVELL: There are plenty of times where, you know, sometimes we're not always with one another. And individually we each experienced certain forms of violence, which was important for us to band together and make sure that that doesn't happen. And that was almost on the daily, especially back then. We had to, you know, stick together to fight back violence because as soon as one of us were alone, there was a possibility that we would be attacked or even killed.

SHAPIRO: One of the women in the film says some people choose sex work because they want to. Some choose it because they had no choice. This is Egyptt speaking.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE STROLL")

EGYPTT LABEIJA: Back then, being a trans woman, unless you had your ID changed and Social Security card, you couldn't just walk into a place and get a job. Some people choose sex work because they want to. Some choose it because they had no choice. A lot of us back then did not have a choice.

SHAPIRO: Do you think today trans women, specifically trans women of color, have a choice that they didn't when you were doing the work?

LOVELL: You know, back then there was no choice because, you know, it's either you had a certain trade - like, if you were a hairstylist or you did, you know, drag performance or you were a seamstress, those could have been avenues of work for you. But if you didn't have those skills, then it was sex work. I think now, though, you know, visibility does not mean equity, and there are trans people in general that are still struggling within this new sphere of visibility and inclusion. It's educations. It's jobs. It's so many things that we still don't have access to. You know, yes, it could be a choice, but for the trans community, it needs to be about leverage and equity. Like, before the film, I was willing - you know, I was in film, but it was getting harder and harder for me to gain employment. And then with the FOSTA and SESTA situation and Craigslist down, it was hard to make money as a sex worker.

SHAPIRO: These are the laws that limited the ability of people to advertise online.

LOVELL: Right. It's still a problem. Even getting into the sphere of sex work is still - and especially street-based sex work is very daunting.

SHAPIRO: As I mentioned in the intro, the Meatpacking District has become almost unrecognizable from what you document in the '80s and '90s. And you did an outdoor screening of this movie in the beginning of June right there at the intersection where you used to work. Can you describe that experience? Like, paint a picture for us. What was it like to see this story in a place that was so transformed?

LOVELL: Oh, my God, it was so amazing. Like, I just - I still am trying to process all of what is going on, you know? To see it, it was such a surreal moment. I initially wanted a scene to bring the girls back to the area, but we ended up not doing it. And then, you know, when I discovered that we were going to be premiering in the Meatpacking District, I was just blown away. I couldn't believe it. And it was such a full-circle moment for the community, you know, to reclaim that space. You know, and shortly after, they had a whole photo exhibition now, you know, acknowledging the history of sex work and the clubs that used to be in the area. And hopefully the Meatpacking District will be able to continue on the tradition of acknowledging and uplifting the narratives of its real history.

SHAPIRO: And so on that night, over those couple of hours that everybody was seeing the film in this place where it happened, were you getting goosebumps? Did you feel like it was dissociation? Like, what was the experience?

LOVELL: I just - I couldn't believe it. It's like, you know, all those years that I had stood on that corner, all those years that I had walked through that neighborhood, I could never imagine that one day I would have a film premiere in the heart of it. It was such an honor and a blessing to see, I think, for a lot of members of the community because we just thought it would never happen.

SHAPIRO: You convey really clearly in the film that growing old is a privilege denied to many Black trans women. And so as you have been on the journey of making this film, winning an award at the Sundance Film Festival, now seeing it streaming on Max, how are you thinking about the people who you've lost along the way?

LOVELL: Oh, I think about them all the time. You know, I've known a number of people who have passed - or I don't even want to say passed. Passed is one thing. Murdered is another. And those that passed - they didn't get to have the privileges that we have today. I always said when I was younger that I don't want to be the age that I am now having sex work because I heard so many stories of people had been out there for 30, 40 years. You know? And I didn't want to be like that. I wanted more for my life. I knew that I could have more for my life. It's just a privilege to be in this moment and to have this moment here speaking with you. That's a triumph for the entire community.

SHAPIRO: Kristen Lovell co-directed the new documentary "The Stroll," streaming now on Max. Thank you.

LOVELL: Yeah, I had fun. Thank you. It was nice speaking with you. I'm going to add you on Instagram.

SHAPIRO: Oh, fabulous. Same.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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