There’s a long history of sex workers at Mardi Gras.
There’s a long history of sex workers at Mardi Gras.

The hidden history of sex workers

When we imagine a sex worker - who they are, how they look, what they do, the clients they see - we probably don't always imagine a queer person.

The vast majority of brothels cater to men or heterosexual couples who want to see cisgender women and while escort listings certainly include male and trans workers, they're frequently outnumbered by cisgender women who cater to a predominantly male client base.

Strip clubs and peepshows usually feature female performers, while male strip revues are more likely to appear as a headline act at your local casino.

While we might think that the sex work community and the LGBTQIA+ communities run as parallel strands, the two intersect far more often than you'd think - and share a history that some worry is being quickly washed away.

"I was a part of the first Mardi Gras parade in 1978," Sex worker Cameron Cox told me.

"I say part of it because I wasn't in the march, I was walking on the strip of Darlinghurst Road between Oxford and Burton Streets known then as The Wall."

Since the 1960s, 'The Wall' - one side of the old Darlinghurst Gaol - has been one of Sydney's better-known gay beats. It wasn't only a pick-up spot for men meeting other men, but for street-based sex workers of all genders meeting clients.

"That night, as we waited to get sex work jobs, a tall trans worker came running by yelling, 'Quick, up the Cross, the cops are bashing the poofs'. So we all ran towards [Kings Cross], gathering up trans and cis female workers as we went, to where the police were indeed bashing and arresting people in the first 1978 Mardi Gras parade. So we all waded in against the cops."

The people gathering in Kings Cross that night had held a protest, followed by a street festival and a parade, to commemorate the Stonewall Riots that had occurred almost ten years earlier in New York City and to protest continuing discriminatory laws and police harassment against the gay and lesbian community. Although permission had been obtained for the gathering, it was revoked during the night and the parade was broken up by police.

53 people were arrested that night, with many more suffering violent beatings at the hands of police. Although we now know the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras as a night of fabulous fun and celebration, the first Mardi Gras held anything but a joyful evening's end for the participants.

The presence of sex workers in Kings Cross that night isn't often discussed, nor is the role that sex workers played in the Stonewall Riots. When police raided the Stonewall Inn in 1969, it wasn't only gay men and lesbian women who fought back: it was drag queens, trans people, and sex workers.

"Stonewall was never a gay bar. It was a sex worker bar and more specifically a bar for trans sex workers of colour which gay male sex workers sometimes drank at," says Cameron.

"As being gay has turned respectable, we are being washed out of the history of gay rights."

Tilly Lawless has been working as a sex worker in Sydney for almost six years. Although she is a queer person working in spaces that primarily cater towards heterosexual pairings, the line between work and home isn't drawn as sharply as you might think.

"The most interesting part of being a sex worker who sleeps mainly with men for money, but is in to mainly women, is the delineation between my work and my private life, and when they blur in to each other - such as when I'm paid for lesbian double bookings," she says. "Being pretty gay has always given me what feels like an emotional boundary with my work - I'm always more concerned with what the other workers in the girls' room think of me rather than the clients."

"For a while, I was conflicted about the fact that I encouraged the fetishisation of lesbian sex at work, but really, if I am selling a lesbian fantasy to survive in my lesbian reality, what's so wrong with that? Especially when I started to work alongside an ex-girlfriend, selling sex that we would've had together regardless, I realised it was so much more complex than simply work versus private life."

Still, brothels aren't completely safe from the prejudice that exists in the outside world. I can recall sitting in the girls' room of a brothel and hearing other workers turn up their noses in disgust at the thought of working alongside queer or trans women, something that not only made me angry, but also confused.

As sex workers, we are almost constantly fighting for our right to be able to determine what we do with our bodies and arguing that the kind of sex we have and the relationships we choose to engage in are nobody's business but our own.

Haven't the queer and LGBTQIA+ communities fought for the exact same thing? So why do we so often stand apart?

"I don't think there's ever been an actual community space that I've found complete acceptance in," Tilly admits.

"I think you can find it in yourself and in individuals and that is the beauty of close friendships. But in spaces of many people there are always people who other you, who are fascinated or repelled by your differences and reduce you to them as if that is all you are.

"And tokenisation is just another form of dehumanisation. You know though, I've let go of the utopian ideal of spaces of complete acceptance and understanding.

"As a cisgender white person I am physically safe in most spaces, and if I have a few friends that know me and accept me I think that's enough."

- Kate Iselin is a writer and sex worker. Continue the conversation @kateiselin