WILD Stories: Pier Kids
by: Elegance Bratton with Nathan Proctor
photography by: Sam Evans-Butler
November 26, 2013
I climb out of the 1 train and weave my way around the throngs and up the stairs, my bag stuck to the sweat of my shirt, finding myself on Christopher Street and looking up at a historic inn. It’s Saturday night. But unlike the crowd that surrounds me, I go to the West Village, not to party nor to cruise. I go there to work. I’ve been filming on Christopher Street and its surrounding piers for the past three years,documenting a community that exists in a blind spot. I call them “Pier Kids.”
It all started with a fight. In the summer of 1969, a group of queer customers at the Stonewall Inn decided they’d had enough. The New York police had for years been raiding the bars and arresting anyone who looked or acted “gay.” But no longer. In standing up for their right to be treated as human beings, this group, armed with high-heels and beer bottles, spawned a revolution that became the Gay Rights Movement.
This part of the history is well known. What’s not is that the riots were led by two transwoman of color, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. And that on the very same streets where they fought for the right to be treated equally, there lives a community of homeless queer youth of color. The question is why. Why are the gay children of Sylvia and Marsha still homeless? Why are these exiles forced into a life of prostitution, drug use, and violence? Why, nearly fifty years after Stonewall, are Pier Kids still being kicked out of their homes and tossed into the street for something beyond their control?
“Bitch, I’m cunt,” exclaims Lexi. Although I can’t see her, I recognize her voice—artificially high and intermittently deep. I press record as I turn to find Claudia, Lexi’s “ride or die” bitch, leaping across 7th Ave and into moving traffic. Lexi’s platinum blonde wig glows in the street lamp. “You look like Edie Segdwick,” I say.
Over the past year, I’ve filmed Lexi and Claudia fixing each other’s make-up, feeding each other, getting high together, and, on occasion, taking a “date” together. It’s a vigilant yet caring sisterly relationship, built out of need. But make no mistake: life on Christopher Street is largely transactional. On an average evening, it is common to see both gay men and transwoman walking the street to get their “coin,” which is what makes the Village one of Manhattan’s premier red-light districts.
“Can I get your comb?” asks Claudia. “This new piece ain’t sittin’ right.” But Claudia’s wig isn’t what most people notice about her. It’s her legs. Long and slender, she resembles a runway model you might see during fashion week.
“I love your hair,” I say. “You givin’ me Jessica Rabbit vibes.”
On the street, keeping up your appearance is an act of survival. One must dress in the latest Forever 21, Rainbow, or H&M garb in order to get a “date.” In fact, these youths, dressed to the nines every night of the week, look so fabulous, look so ovah (over
the top), it’s difficult to tell the difference between the “housed” and the “unhoused.” As Daniella, a trans-woman who presents herself without the aid of hormones or surgeries or injections, once said to me, “Nobody wants to date a bum bitch! You gotta look like money to get money.”
This is where one’s “realness” becomes a necessity. Can a date spook your T? In other words, can a date see that this beautiful girl in front of him was born a boy? Can they tell that this “thugged out” black boy, or trade, who must surely be an aggressive top is really a submissive bottom? Put simply, it’s fashion week every night on Christopher Street, except the clients aren’t the most exclusive designers. They’re Johns.
Further down the street, I stop to exchange fashion kisses with a young trans-woman named Milkshake who’s been on the streets since she was sixteen. I ask what brings her to Christopher Street tonight. “Sucking dick and making money,” she answers.
Someone else taps me on the shoulder. “You work for World Star Hip Hop?”
“No,” I say. “I’m making a film on the black gay families that live here.”
With the rejection of the blood family comes a strong and necessary street family. China, a black trans-woman living on the street for years, has become the gay mother of many children, including some older than her. She knows the ins and outs of the shelter system and non-profit world, and warns her sons and daughters who to avoid, who to attract, and how to overcome being young, black, gay, and homeless on Christopher Street. The conditions of family may be different, but the reasons for it remain the same. China, like any mother, works to protect her young.
It’s late now and my feet are starting to hurt. I have another few hours to go though, I turn into a diner and get some coffee. I often wonder how they do it. For that matter, I wonder how I did it. I’ve been coming to Christopher Street since I was sixteen. Like so many of the youth, I was also forced out of my home because of my sexuality and spent most of the next ten years homeless, drifting in and out of various housing situations across the Northeastern Seaboard. On the streets, the youth spend six, seven, eight, sometimes nine hours walking from Sheridan Square down to the piers and back again. Imagine how that must feel. To walk over ten miles in your six-inch stilettos, yet end up going nowhere, like buoys floating in the current, drifting along this
corridor of a street.
Ralph Ellison once said of those who society has rendered invisible: “You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.” I would add, however, that it’s necessary.
At night, Christopher Street, for lack of a better term, is a “gay hood.” The social politics of the black ghetto are played out amongst queer bodies. “Everybody gets down,” a trade once told me. “The corner boys are either gay or out for some T-gurls. The gurls have big titties, phat asses, and dick.” “Everybody’s black and gay out here,” Country, a pier kid I’ve known for three years, tells me from behind his sunglasses. “And that’s why it’s home.”
Be sure to check out the trailer for Pier Kids: The Life and donate to their Kickstarter here.