what partying with sex workers taught me about queer visibility
In an extract from her book ‘Queer Intentions’, journalist Amelia Abraham joins the first ever sex worker float at Amsterdam Pride.
Amsterdam Pride. Photography by Kitty Terwolbeck via Flickr.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.
Following a tumultuous break up with her ex-girlfriend, journalist Amelia Abraham found herself faced with a question: at a time when LGBTQ+ people in the West increasingly have the right to marry and start a family, does access to these traditional institutions complement or contradict the nature of what it means to be queer?
Embarking on an extended trip across eight countries, Amelia wrote a very personal account of her journey through a broad range of queer communities in the West, now being published as her first book, Queer Intentions. Covering everything from the decline of gay bars, to the evolution of the queer vernacular, to the monetisation of the world of drag, Queer Intentions is a moving and radically honest survey of the rapidly changing face of queer culture in 2019.
In 2019, LGBTQ+ sex workers are some of the most threatened and discriminated against members of the queer community, with calls for legalisation across the West continuing to be furiously debated. In an exclusive extract, Amelia recalls a trip to Amsterdam Pride that saw her end up at the heart of the city’s sex worker community — and the important lessons she discovered along the way.
After I left Hans, one of the organisers of Amsterdam Pride, to go to drag queen bingo (him, not me -- I was too exhausted from all the cycling), I kept thinking about that sex worker boat. It didn’t seem particularly inclusive to me that Pride would only have a sex worker boat for the first time that year, in a city so famous for its sex industry, and when sex workers and queer people have so much in common; both groups are destabilising to mainstream ideas of sexuality and patriarchy, and as such, we’ve historically been both criminalised and ostracised (sometimes quite literally into the same areas, such as gaybourhoods like Soho).
Luckily, I knew some Dutch sex workers, having done a story on sex workers’ rights in Amsterdam the year before. Two of the women in the article identified as queer, so I asked whether they could help me get onto the boat. “You need speak to Lyle,” Hella, one of the sex workers, told me. She would be on the boat, she said, but Lyle was one of the organisers and he had “a lot of opinions” about the inclusion of sex workers in mainstream LGBTQ+ rights.
I called Lyle. Lyle explained that the boat was going to be a big political opportunity because it was a great way to show 500,000 spectators all at once that Dutch sex workers weren’t all cisgender women, that many were LGBTQ+, and that they came in all shapes and sizes. Sure, Amsterdam had its red light district, but this was about taking people out of that and making them visible. “Pride is one of the biggest public events in the Netherlands so being there as a sex worker, out and proud, without any masks, I think that’s a very important statement.”
I agreed, but Lyle still took a lot of persuading that I wasn’t going to ruin the vibe of the boat by being bigoted, pushing someone in the canal, or asking sex workers stupid questions like how much they got paid. I even had to quickly pen a letter to everyone on the boat, to convince them in turn that I would protect their names and personal details if they wanted me to. Once that got the all-clear he told me to be at a ferry point about a mile from Centraal Station for 9 am. I asked him what to wear and bring and he told me, “Whatever you want,” which I thought was nice and inclusive, but also incredibly unhelpful.
At nine the next morning, no one was at the spot Lyle had sent me to. It was just me, cycling around a closed and empty dockyard, bewildered. Thankfully, I had decided to wear my regular clothes, so wasn’t dressed in anything too ostentatious, which might have made the feeling of being stood up more embarrassing. I had decided to pack two bottles of white wine to help ingratiate myself with everyone on the boat and overcome my nerves about being stared at by 500,000 people -- which had nothing to do with being on the sex worker boat and everything to do with being the type of person who desperately craves attention until they actually get it.
After leaving Lyle a few missed calls, I was about to give up when I located the people I was looking for. One of them was Martin -- who ran P&G292, the catchily titled government think tank that had coughed up the cash for the sex worker canal boat -- and the other was Sharon, our choreographer for the day.
Sharon was dressed in a black T-shirt that said ‘VOGUE’ -- in the same font as the magazine, but in reference to the dance style. My stomach lurched as she explained that we would be doing a dance routine to Lady Marmalade to entertain the crowds along the canals, and everyone --everyone -- on the boat, including me, had to learn it.
Martin was handsome, in his thirties and blond. He was wearing an ever so slightly shiny suit, which I guessed might have been the glitziest thing in his wardrobe: why else would you wear a full suit on a searing hot day in August? Martin explained that the idea for the boat had come up in a focus group P&G ran with male sex workers about three years earlier, but it had taken a long time to come to fruition, mostly because of funding. The boat had cost €6,000 to hire for the day, not including the sound system, decorations, food and drink. Lyle later told me that funding P&G was a way for the local government to reconnect with sex workers after a restrictive policy had closed down a large percentage of Amsterdam’s windows, creating a lot of hostility in the community. This wasn’t a bad thing, he added, because without it the P&G groups the idea for the boat might not have come up.
By 11 am, about a dozen more people had arrived, a few blaming a hangover or work the night before for their lateness. There were a couple of middle-aged Hispanic women, a couple of gay boys in tight hotpants. My friend Hella arrived, wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses because she wasn’t quite out as a sex worker to everyone she knew yet. Lyle arrived, and given his authority on the phone I was surprised at how young he was -- twenty-three, he told me, but he looked even younger. He was short and confident, speaking to the Hispanic sex workers in fluent Spanish, before switching to English and then Dutch.
I chatted to a beautiful man called Ricardo, who told me he was from Bonaire, a Dutch colony in the Caribbean, but had moved to the Netherlands to study tourism. I also got acquainted with Foxy, a pink-haired porn star from Utrecht, and as Sharon started coordinating us into formation, we decided to crack open the white wine I’d brought.
Foxy told me that she mostly did gang bang or shame porn, as well as BDSM work, which I could have guessed from the ‘joy’ and ‘pain’ tattoos on her knuckles.
“Don’t you think Lady Marmalade is a little trite?” I asked her, as everyone started rehearsing in the car park. Foxy agreed, but Sharon was beckoning us over. She was very strict in enforcing her routine, explaining that we would have to restart the song and launch into it anew every time we emerged from one of the bridges along the canal over the four-hour period we’d be sailing.
“How many bridges are there?” I whispered to Lyle. “About fifty, I think,” he replied.
I looked over to Foxy, who was also trying to copy Sharon, and wondered how this level of humiliation compared to shame porn.
More people were assembling in the dockyard now, canal boats sailing across the water to pick up the various Pride parties. One was made up of drag queens dressed in pink. Another had people all wearing white polo shirts and looked very wholesome, perhaps linked to a brand. I felt we were especially malcoordinated as a group; a motley crew of about twenty people, nobody seemed to be able to memorise the dance routine and everyone was dressed very differently -- some in leather, some in sequins, some in jeans and a T-shirt. We also seemed to have fewer people than the other boats, maybe because not everyone wanted to make their debut as a sex worker on Dutch national television.
In that moment, I felt a pang of respect for the sex workers who had turned up; as many of them reminded me throughout the day, they knew well the stigma that came with choosing to do sex work, particularly as an LGBTQ+ person. Lyle had given me examples of this before we’d met: LGBTQ+ sex workers might be less likely to come out as such to people they knew. Trans women who were sex workers were often prone to violence from men struggling with their own sexuality. And then there were migrant sex workers who had come from homophobic countries and were doing sex work to survive.
Being an LGBTQ+ sex worker didn’t necessarily grant you respect from other LGBTQ+ people either. Lyle said he often encountered discomfort in what he called ‘normalised or integrated parts of LGBT culture’: people who didn’t want to associate themselves with what they saw as promiscuity. I could see why that made being in the canal parade so important: by outing themselves as queer sex workers, the people around me were doing what little they could to erode all of these stigmas, not just for themselves but for other sex workers too.
The boat set off at around midday, and the moment it started moving I became extremely conscious of the fact that I wouldn’t be able to get off for four hours. As we entered a kind of queue where the boats were lining up to start the actual parade, we practised the dance routine one last time without Sharon, who had left for another appointment. We poured glasses of box wine and lined our stomachs with catered sandwiches. I didn’t ask anybody what kind of sex work they did, but no one minded telling me as I chatted to them.
Some of the guys worked in boys’ clubs -- closed establishments where punters could come in, have a drink and take a guy upstairs, they explained -- others were window prostitutes. There was a girl who did webcam sex, a straight porn actor, and Lyle was an escort who went to his clients directly. He later told me he’d seldom been in a space full of sex workers in such diverse areas; often they were segregated along class lines. The boat itself was decorated like a window brothel, or at least that was the idea -- along each side there were windows which were, inconveniently, too tall to pass under the canal bridges, meaning we had to collapse them every time we went through one or else the boat would be destroyed. As we approached the first bridge, the crowds along the water were beginning to thicken: families waving rainbow flags, drinking from plastic cups. Some onlookers stared, others didn’t, and I couldn’t decide which I found more offensive.
We assumed our positions.
“Where’s all my soul sistas? / Lemme hear ya’ll flow, sistas.”
We glided through the waterways seamlessly, but the routine was a mess. No one could remember what Sharon had taught us, and the more we drank the more disbanded we became. The sun was glaring down on the entire event, and as we sweated through the nineteenth chorus the crowds seemed to be giving us an A for effort. People were cheering, throwing flowers, raising their glasses to us. And if they weren’t, we didn’t care because we were too drunk on warm box wine and adrenaline and pride. I wasn’t a sex worker but I still felt emancipated as a queer person, openly dancing in front of all those people, and my face hurt from laughing as Foxy and Hella rubbed their fingers together and pretended to solicit from the boat, poking fun at the ridiculousness of the song playing.
By the time we had heard Lil’ Kim’s voice for what must have been the fortieth time, the boat had descended into a sort of Bacchanalian orgy -- most of the boys had taken their shirts off and were kissing. I too had taken my shirt off to reveal my bra, and didn’t really think about it until later when my Dutch aunt sent me a clip from the TV coverage with a message saying: “Is this you?”
The boat was strewn with empty cups and fag butts and clothing. Everybody was embracing. Ricardo and I swapped numbers so that we could stay in touch. It felt as if something magical had happened, but we’d probably need a few days to process just what that was.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.