Film Review: “The Stroll” — Illuminating the Lives of Trans Sex Workers in NYC

By Sarah Osman

In this superb documentary about the experience of trans women in Manhattan, it’s beautiful to see how a powerful sisterhood was created and sustained.

 The Stroll, directed by Kristen Lovell. Streaming on HBO.

A scene from The Stroll. Photo: HBO

For years, trans stories have been told by outsiders, which was the case for Kristen Lovell, who was featured in the 2007 documentary Queer Stories. This experience inspired Lovell to tell her own story, and the result is The Stroll, an inspiring documentary on the transgender women of color who engaged in sex work in the meatpacking district of New York City. By reclaiming her own narrative, Lovell presents a nuanced history of her sisters that ends on an appropriately triumphant note.

Lovell sits down with her sisters who also walked the stroll, each of whom share their own trials and tribulations. Many of the women ended up homeless because they were kicked out by their families. It’s heartbreaking that they turned to sex work as young as 13. Multiple subjects point out that there was no other means of employment for them: sex work was their only option. It’s infuriating that the city and its government offered no support to these women; instead, they were subjected to regular arrests and beatings. The one saving grace was that they had each other. It’s beautiful to see how this powerful sisterhood was created and sustained; how the older ladies protected and mentored the younger ones. This nurturing comradeship is at the heart of The Stroll — it is a strength that trans stories told by outsiders tend to overlook.

The documentary doesn’t shy away from the enormous violence these women faced. One woman recounts being beaten, walking into a hospital to be treated, and being turned away. Others describe the multiple times they were arrested and sent to Rikers Island. Even more disturbing is how Rudy Giuliani cracked down on “crime” by targeting these women as well as how drastically their lives were changed post-9/11. It’s disconcerting to hear from “neighborhood activists” who supported Giuliani’s campaign. The women were removed without considering what would happen to them or how they might be helped.

The Stroll also chronicles the fascinating history of one small facet of Manhattan. The meatpacking district in the 1980s/90s is described as sketchy; most New Yorkers didn’t venture there alone. The Stroll itself was located up and down 14th Street, where the women confidently sauntered. Archival footage and black-and-white animations bring the former activities to life. We learn of the vibrant personalities who hung out on the pier, how they handled unruly Johns, and how they dealt with a corrupt police force. Queer icons of the time, such as Sylvia Rivera, are highlighted; they created an encampment for homeless queer people and fought for trans rights, when other members of the queer community turned their backs. But The Stroll is not a queer film; it’s a trans story. Lovell acknowledges how the Gay Liberation movement saw trans women and sex workers as criminals and freaks; they were swept under the carpet because the movement wanted to present itself in an appealing way to mainstream culture. Even Emmy-Award-winning RuPaul is shown to be transphobic. This isn’t by any means a new revelation, but it infuriates nonetheless. We are given video footage of RuPaul interviewing the trans women of the stroll, then mocking and belittling them. This lampooning is followed by stats detailing the number of trans women of color who are dead.

Today, the meatpacking district has been fully gentrified, a comfy home for luxury stores and quaint cafes. One interviewee asks, “I was arrested 68 times for The High Line to be built?” Still, while “the stroll” may now be a memory, the sisterhood nurtures on. The women have kept up the fight for rights for trans women and sex workers, even securing housing for trans women in Queens. And this uplifting note is necessary at a time when trans women of color continue to be murdered and trans rights are politically on the line. The legacy of “the stroll” is that trans women are no longer going to be passive victims — they have meaningful lives to lead.

Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman

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