Although not explicitly marketed as such, Zackary Drucker and Kristen Lovell’s latest documentary, The Stroll, can be seen as a haunting ghost story. As we accompany Kristen and her fellow former sex workers along their stretch of 14th Street in New York City’s meatpacking district, known as “The Stroll,” where transwomen once thrived and formed a community, the spirits of the past materialize from the shadows. Lovell guides us through the heyday of The Stroll, from the early 1980s to the early 2000s, when it bustled with activity, infusing the now-gentrified space with the psychic remnants of lives and deaths that were paved over to make way for progress.
The Stroll is an astonishing act of conjuration. Lovell, her friends, and the individuals she interviews unravel the history of this place and the vibrant spirits who once inhabited its streets. These few city blocks become a microcosm that mirrors the larger tapestry of American transgender history. The women of color who worked these corners were the very same women who fought for gay liberation, even when the movement turned its back on them. We encounter icons like Sylvia Rivera, witnessing the encampment she established for other homeless queer individuals much later in life. We meet women whose names may be unfamiliar to us, or women like Ceyenne Doroshow, whose names we ought to know. Drucker and Lovell expertly interweave the energies of these sisters, past and present, ensuring that we cannot ignore their spectral presence as we traverse the street.
Having been the subject of a documentary herself, Lovell is committed to granting agency to everyone involved in The Stroll, allowing them to be in control of their own stories. For a long time, many documentaries about transgender lives lacked authenticity because they were often crafted by outsiders with their own agendas. However, with this film, Lovell joins the ranks of filmmakers who provide platforms for trans women, particularly trans sex workers, to share and narrate their own experiences. This not only enhances the honesty of the documentary but also makes it all the more captivating and compelling.
In essence, The Stroll is a powerful testament to the voices that have long been silenced and marginalized. It illuminates a hidden chapter of transgender history, shedding light on the resilience, struggles, and triumphs of those who lived and worked on The Stroll. As viewers, we are confronted with the undeniable presence of these spirits, forever etched in the fabric of this evolving cityscape.
This documentary boldly confronts the traumas and perils inherent in sex work while devoting significant attention to its necessities, risks, and rewards. It delves into the profound bond formed among transwomen who view themselves as both family and colleagues. This bond became their stronghold during New York’s darkest periods—the AIDS crisis, 9/11, and the Giuliani/Bloomberg administrations, which implemented policies that disproportionately criminalized transwomen. Their intertwined arms became a lifeline, ensuring survival on the streets or in prison. Regrettably, even the mainstream gay liberation movement extended assistance only when profit was at stake.
In this context, Lovell asserts a clear stance: This is a trans film, not a gay film or a queer film that superficially includes “all walks of life” while subtly privileging cisgender experiences. Such an approach mirrors the often exclusionary manner in which queer history has been documented. The Stroll serves as a brilliant rebuke to cisgender, middle-class values that underlie the quest for gender reform. It fearlessly unearths footage of RuPaul herself belittling the trans experience for comedic effect, exemplifying how anyone can exploit white supremacist ideology for personal gain.
Many within the Gay Liberation movement viewed transwomen and sex workers as “criminal” and “confused,” marginalizing them to present a sanitized facade that would appease the dominant culture. Sadly, this attitude persists. Cisgender gay individuals still seek to “reclaim” queer neighborhoods or distance themselves from the transgender community, as seen in groups like the LGB Alliance and other hate organizations. Despite often contributing the most to and needing the most from queer liberation, transwomen and sex workers are left to struggle or suffer violence on the streets without protection. Thus, The Stroll’s emphasis on transwomen, primarily transwomen of color, being by, about, and for them is of paramount importance. It provides an opportunity to hear their stories, defiantly dismissing respectability politics and refusing to adopt the role of repentant victims.
While The Stroll centers trans lives, experiences, and culture, it also queers everything, embracing a state of transition. Transgender, local, and American histories are narratives of flux, rarely progressing linearly but continuously transforming from one state to another. Crucially, The Stroll seizes upon the transition beyond life itself, haunting us in revolutionary ways. By presenting sex work as legitimate work, the women as coworkers, and their collective unity as a form of union, the documentary poignantly illustrates how transwomen generate surplus value even as society marginalizes them. While they are occasionally commodified for surface-level representation, such as when white gays mention Marsha P. Johnson only during Pride month, Drucker and Lovell’s pointed documentary reveals that transwomen have harnessed their pain, joy, and labor to build a spirit of community. Women who return to The Stroll, some after enduring years in prison, have transformed the lessons and labor of their predecessors into advocacy and new systems that help one another survive.
Most remarkably, The Stroll revolutionizes our perception of space. Through the insightful and intimate interviews conducted by Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker, intertwined with archival footage, 14th Street becomes a multi-layered archeological diagram, unveiling the strata of struggle and resilience buried beneath what is now an Hermes store. The space becomes charged with the energy of the past, allowing us to truly grasp the corruption of the present and envision a transformed society as we stroll towards the future.