The Stroll Electrically Merges Trans History and Trans Present

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The Stroll Electrically Merges Trans History and Trans Present

Though it may not be marketed as such, Zackary Drucker and Kristen Lovell’s new documentary The Stroll is a ghost story. As we walk with Kristen and her fellow former sex workers along what they used to call “The Stroll”—their little section of 14th Street in New York City’s meatpacking district where transwomen once lived, worked and formed a community—the spirits of the past emerge from the margins. Lowell escorts us through the early 1980s until the early 2000s when The Stroll was most active, charging the now gentrified space with psychic residue from the lives and deaths that were paved over to make it possible.

The Stroll is a staggering work of conjuration. Lovell, her friends, and her interviewees unpack the history of the place and all the vibrant spirits who once teemed in the street. These few city blocks become a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm of American transgender history. The women of color who worked on these corners were the same women fighting for gay liberation even when the movement turned their backs. We encounter icons like Sylvia Rivera, and the encampment she set up for other homeless queer people, much later in life. We meet women whose names we might not know or women like Ceyenne Doroshow, whose names we’d better learn to know. Drucker and Lovell expertly weave all these energies of sisters past and present so that we cannot unsee their specters as we walk down the street.  

Herself once the subject of a documentary, Lovell is keen to let everyone in The Stroll feel in control of their story. For a long time, most documentaries about trans lives were spiritually dishonest because it was usually an outsider coming in with an agenda. But with this film, Lovell joins the impressive collection of transgender history films like Kokomo City, which give trans women—trans sex workers in particular—access to show and tell their own stories. This not only makes the documentary more honest but also more interesting.

This is a documentary that acknowledges the traumas and dangers of sex work while dedicating more time to the necessities of sex work, the risks and rewards, and the bond that transwomen form by seeing themselves as both family and coworkers. That bond became the bulwark of survival as New York endured the AIDS crisis, 9/11 and the Guliani/Bloomberg administrations, whose policies dramatically increased transwomen’s criminality. All too often, their linked arms served as a raft, helping them stay alive on the streets or in prison. Not even the mainstream gay liberation movement would throw them a lifeline unless there was a profit to be made.

With this in mind, Lovell makes one thing clear: This is a trans film. It’s not a gay film, and it’s not a queer film that talks about “all walks of life” and surreptitiously privileges the cis experience. That would be too much like how queer history has so often been written. The Stroll is a brilliant stand against the cis, middle-class values at the heart of the march for gender reform, even unearthing unseemly footage of RuPaul herself belittling the trans experience for laughs, thus exemplifying that anyone can use white supremacist ideology for their political gain. 

Many in the Gay Liberation movement perceived transwomen and sex workers as “criminal” and “confused,” and they were marshaled to the side in order to present a whitewashed front that would appease the dominant culture. This has never gone away. We still see cis gays wanting to “take back” queer neighborhoods or trying to divorce themselves from trans people as part of the LGB Alliance or other hate organizations. Despite often giving to and needing the most from queer liberation, transwomen and sex workers are abandoned to struggle or bleed out on the street with no protection. Hence the importance of The Stroll being by, about and because of transwomen—mostly transwomen of color. It is a chance to hear their stories with a bold disregard for respectability politics, one that refuses to play the repentant victim. 

While The Stroll is a trans film because it proudly centers trans lives, experiences and culture, it’s also a trans film because it queers everything into a state of transition. Transgender, local and American histories are stories of flux, rarely “progressing” but changing from one form to the next. Most importantly, The Stroll grabs hold of the transition beyond life and brings it close to us again, haunting us in revolutionary ways. By richly contextualizing sex work as work, the women as coworkers, and the coworkers together as unions, The Stroll divinely demonstrates what becomes of the surplus value generated by those that society casts aside. While still sometimes capitalized on for superficial displays, like when white gays only talk about Marsha P. Johnson in June, Drucker and Lovell’s pointed documentary shows that transwomen have transformed all that pain, joy and labor into community spirit. The women who return to The Stroll, some after over a decade in prison, have taken the lessons and labor of those who have gone before and transformed it into advocacy and new systems that help each other survive.

Most miraculously, The Stroll transforms the way we think about space. Through Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker’s insightful and intimate interviews and interspersed archival footage, 14th Street becomes layered like an archeological diagram, allowing us to see the striations of strife and survival that stack on top of each other underneath what is now an Hermes store. The space becomes electrified by the past, allowing us to truly see the corrupt present so that we might imagine a transformed society as we stroll into the future.

Director: Kristen Lovell, Zackary Drucker
Release Date: June 21, 2023 (HBO)

B! is a writer, scholar, and Pisces from Northern Illinois. B! writes queer and critical words for Paste Magazine, Into Magazine, The Spool, and Honey Literary Journal. A champion hermit, they enjoy reading, the indoors, afternoon naps, and doing nothing at all. They are the inaugural recipient of Rotten Tomatoes & Chicago Film Critics Association’s Emerging Critics Grant for their excellence in film criticism.

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