Dear beloved Queer Community, and Paul Soileau,
Recently, here in the Austin queer community, there has been a lot debate and discussion and controversy around the phenomenon of shock drag. Emotions are high, and I really wish for us all to be able to sit down and truly listen to one another because, on all sides we all have so much to learn, myself included. I want us to emerge from this conversation as a whole community that knows how to laugh and push boundaries for the greater good, create amazing art, all while being inclusive and supportive of all our members.
I am writing, because I want to dialogue specifically about the character, Christeene. To do so, I have to write anonymously. I wish the world were a different place and that I could be open with my identity and story. Unfortunately, sharing my story could cost me many things, including my job. However, I wish to share with you on a personal level, because I think it is important to creating understanding. I also want you to know that someone like me, with my story, is a part of this community.
Also, many of you know me, and may recognize bits of my story. You may be able to identify the anonymous person writing this letter. If you do, I am asking that you please ALWAYS respect my confidentiality, and do not share my identity.
Over 12 years ago, I was pursuing my dream: I was studying theater at a pretty fancy school that I could not actually afford to attend. I was getting some help from my family, and some financial aid, but mostly I was taking out a great deal of money in loans, not really knowing how I was going to pay them back. At the time, I did not care, because I wanted this so badly. I also thought this school was the ticket to realizing my creative dreams. I wanted to act, direct, write, and create art that would change the world.
My second year of college, there was a mix-up with my FAFSA, and suddenly I had no financial aid. Meanwhile, my parents had disowned me and I was heartbroken on so many levels. In order to stay in school, I started doing sex work. And it is still a part of my life today.
My relationship to sex work is complicated. There are certain privileges I have in this industry, as a white, cis- passing, college educated person with a body type that fits mainstream standards of beauty. These privileges absolutely inform my experience of sex work.
Sometimes, I feel extremely empowered in doing sex work. I refuse to accept that ‘victim’ label that people would like to give to me. But like any job, it is not always easy or fun, and sometimes I hate it. Sometimes it is really gross – disgusting and hurtful to my spirit. At times, I have felt trapped, like I would never do anything else. However, having sex work as an option has served me.
Over the years, I met a lot of sex workers who did not share the same privilege in the industry that I did. I would like to share a little bit about some of my friends in San Francisco (and for this story I am changing their names to protect their identities.)
First, there is Sara. She was strikingly beautiful – heads turned in admiration when she entered a space. Her hair was always pinned back with a bright flower, and was always smiling, even though her pain was apparent. Sara was brown, trans, and an immigrant to the U.S. from Central America, in order to escape hate violence back home. However, her life wasn’t much easier in San Francisco. She was marginally housed, which meant usually in an SRO (single room occupancy hotel) and sometimes homeless. Job discrimination meant that it was hard for her to get work, so she did street-based sex work so that she could save up for money for surgery. Her daily life was hard, and her visibility left her vulnerable to a lot of hatred, and in order to deal with this, she self-medicated with drugs.
Despite her hardship, she was always pleasant to others. It takes a special type of strength to continually face the world with that kind of grace, even when the world gave her hardship that most people will never have to face. When I saw her after a rough day, she would just smile and tell of her dream of finding a man and settling down.
Sara’s best friend was Karly, who was white, transgender, and from a small town in the south. Karly would often try (successfully) to make to me laugh, and she was pretty good at brightening my day. She would also tell me heart-breaking stories about her life, such as the one about watching her lover from her hometown getting dragged through the streets for being gay. She also self-medicated.
Karly would sometimes get angry and fight, which is one of the many beautiful things about her, but her fighting spirit also got her kicked out of community spaces and made it difficult for her to even get a room in an SRO, so she was usually homeless. I remember when a community organization helped her finally score a room in an SRO and it was such a joyful success.
One day, we got the news that a brown, transgender woman had been found dead, while another brown transgender woman was found alive, but severely hurt in the dogpatch neighborhood of SF. The word on the street was that the perpetrator had been a client. At that point, they had not identified the woman who was killed, but there were rumors that it was Sara, who had not been seen for weeks.
When I heard this, I lost my shit. Even when she was identified as Ruby Rodriguez, who was someone I did not even know, I continued to cry. When I went to the candlelight vigil for Ruby, I could not stop crying. Sara was not at the vigil, but Karly was, and Karly refused to leave my side when she saw that I couldn’t stop crying.
But then, only weeks after Ruby’s memorial, Sara was found dead in Golden Gate Park. We did not know if it was overdose or if she had been killed, but most of us suspected that it was the same bad client. There were in fact 12 deaths of transwomen who were street-based sex workers in the past 4 years in SF that were rumored to be all one guy. There was no investigation. You see, police don’t tend to prioritize investigating violence against sex workers, especially if they are brown, especially if they are transgender, especially if they are homeless.
Karly was so heartbroken. I wish I could have cheered her up even half as much she always cheered me up. She had been doing so well, but this was too much for her. The last time I saw Karly, she was so high that she did not recognize me, and she was pushing a shopping cart full of her belongings, because she had lost her SRO room.
That was a hard year for the entire sex worker community. We all suffered from this violence. And dealing with that pain meant that some of us relapsed into various coping mechanisms. That year, I lost several other dear friends to overdose and suicide.
It hurts so much to tell these stories. There are way too many stories like this. But I want you to understand that when I see Christeene, in her sex-worker boots, wearing almost nothing – when I see her dressed like that with smeared make-up and bruises – I see a loved one who has just come out of a violent situation, maybe with an abusive client, or a police officer, or a hateful stranger. You might not see this because we have different experiences of the world. But I am telling you so that we can be aware that these are real stories and real traumas that are present in our queer community.
Dear Paul, I really respect you as a performer and community member. The first time I saw you perform, was as Rebecca Havemayer, and I really enjoyed watching your physical specificity and clear character work. You are extremely talented, and I admire the work and commitment you put into your art. I also respect you as a community member. I see that you sometimes are vocal about community issues and causes, encouraging your audience to support these things. I also see that you put a lot of time and energy into community events that are so beloved by the Austin queer community.
However, back at Gaybigaygay 2011, I heard Rebecca Havemayer on stage, making a joke about the dirty trick that Christeene was turning out by the portapotties. At that point, I had not yet seen Christeene in action but this comment, alone, hurt.
And, dear queer community, it also hurt me when the joke was made, because I saw you, my friends, laughing. I had just moved to Austin, and that was my first Gaybi. I had enjoyed a magical day, but in this moment I suddenly felt alienated and alone. And I felt betrayed. I expect to see the hatred and the jokes in the straight world, but it hurts so much worse when I see it coming from within my own community. I have watched Christeene – to see if there was something I am not understanding. Since then, I have seen all of the videos, and read many interviews, looking for answers.
I can see that Christeene has evolved over the years. In fact, it seems like Paul, has heard criticism and really tried to address it. But have the issues successfully been addressed? By changing a character is the history erased?
I don’t want to believe the intent is to hurt – I don’t want to believe that anyone who is laughing is laughing at sex workers or transgender women. But what sort of message is being perpetuated? Who might it be harming? Is it possible that this phenomenon is giving people permission to make fun of and hate people who are part of our community? How can we, as a community, address our traumas in a way that is productive? How can we make art that pushes social boundaries towards justice? How can we make art and hold events that are inclusive ALL the queers, especially those who face even more marginalization than those who are on the stage?
Thank you all for your time.
With deep love and respect,
Anonymous Austin Queer