In ‘The Stroll,’ sex workers reflect on life in the meatpacking district

Kristen Lovell in 2005, as seen in "The Stroll."
Kristen Lovell in 2005, as seen in “The Stroll.”
Samantha Box/HBO Documentary Films

“The Stroll” is an illuminating documentary featuring a dozen-plus trans sex workers of color, several of whom describe what life was like on their turf — 14th street in New York’s meatpacking district. The film, directed by trans filmmakers Kristen Lovell (herself a former sex worker on The Stroll) and Zackary Drucker, recounts the subjects’ experiences with a mix of nostalgia, and sadness.

But these sex workers are seeking understanding, not pity. The engaging and endearing interviewees provide inspiring stories of confidence and empowerment as they discuss their shared experiences. Many of the subjects talk about running away from home and living on the streets of New York as teenagers. It was, as one subject admits, safer to be homeless in New York than living with their abusive family. Lovell, herself, recalls sleeping in movie theaters some nights; she never thought she would get to make a film about her life.

The candor is appreciated as stories the sex workers explain that they “chose” sex work because jobs were not accessible to them. Egyptt remembers the reality of having to perform fellatio for money the first time and the difficulty of that. The trans sex workers often operated out of need and speak with pride, not embarrassment about taking a client into the back of an empty, unlocked truck. “It was like having the privacy of hotel room,” one gushes.

The stories about the clients range from amusing — one guy finished so quickly, $100 was earned in 3 minutes just by turning around — to horrific, as when Elizabeth describes being assaulted and robbed and unable to receive medical attention from a hospital. This prompts a discussion of how the sex workers protected each other because “danger to one, was danger to us all.” 

The police at New York’s Sixth Precinct were also something the sex workers had to contend with, as arrests on The Stroll were a regular occurrence. Everyone recalls having an unpleasant encounter with the police. One subject explains how they performed a sex act on an officer who promptly arrested her after they were finished. Another interviewee spent more than twice her sentence behind bars because of the difficulties she faced while incarcerated. Others talk about the “walking while trans” — since repealed in New York — laws that are specifically targeted to stop sex work in the neighborhood.

As the second half of the documentary shows, many of the workers became activists who fought against Mayor Giuliani’s efforts to “clean up New York” in the 1990s; laws targeted trans women of color and crackdowns in the neighborhood were frequent. Giuliani created a culture of fear and discrimination that marginalized this community further, and in the wake of 9/11, when sex work was difficult to perform on the streets, the workers were forced to mobilize online. Adding to the difficulties was the gentrification of the meatpacking district. 

“The Stroll” also shows how these trans sex workers had to work twice as hard for their rights because they were largely ignored by the greater gay community who pushed them aside in their fight for gay liberation. One potent clip features the late pioneering trans activist Sylvia Rivera. She later gives a tour of a community where she and other homeless trans people lived (until they were forced out). 

Equally powerful is a segment dedicated to Amanda Milan, a murdered Black trans sex worker. Rivera bemoans the lack of attention paid to this case, and the many others like it, and clips announcing Matthew Shepard’s death illustrates how white homophobic violence is portrayed in the national media whereas transphobic violence against women of color often goes unreported and un(re)solved.

The filmmakers shrewdly use archival footage and even animation to make their points or depict the reality of these trans lives. One snippet featuring RuPaul hosting a TV show, is downright offensive as it mocks the trans sex workers of color and their lived experiences. This episode reinforces the film’s point that even members of the LGBTQ community can be tone deaf. 

In contrast, there are a number of impressive and expressive black and white photographs that capture the dignity of these Black trans sex workers and what their life on the streets looks like. But it is the words of the subjects and the strong sense of community that drives the film’s points home. It is impossible not to be moved as a Black trans sex worker gives an impassioned speech to a huge crowd about raising money for trans housing in Queens. And it is gratifying to see how these subjects survived and thrived in a world that was rarely easy. 

The stories told in “The Stroll” are valuable. This is a marvelous documentary that showcases lives that should not be forgotten or erased.

“The Stroll” | Directed by Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker | Available on HBO/Max June 21 | Distributed by HBO Documentary Films