Out, Not Inside Out

14Aug08

Many years ago, when I was in my late teens, I came out with a bang about living with a mental illness that few people understood or realized existed back then. I was fresh out of a hospital and telling my story to anyone who would listen, except for most of my loved ones. When I made this decision, it was after realizing with an out-of-air sensation, that if I didn’t speak up, no one else was going to. Rather than waiting for another Phoenix to rise up and tell my story while I nodded in silent agreement, I was going to have to open my mouth and tell a story only I could: mine.

It’s been years since that time. Others have picked up where I left off and months go by without me uttering a word about this to anyone. I grew incredibly weary of such extreme outness. I had strung my guts up on the city wall, the insides of my skin, so that even one person might learn something from my lived experience. I withdrew quickly. After they explode, aged stars collapse on themselves.

Recently, I have been contemplating what it means to be out as a sex worker. Out as really anything. I have a sizable list of things I could (and sometimes am) be out about: sex work, mental illness, a queer identity. For the most part, I am the kind of person who will tell you if you ask, but will not go out of the way to explain. Most things I feel no pressing desire to hide in everyday conversations. Except sex work.

There is no stunning lack of pioneers before me. Very wonderful, brave people who have not shied from self-revelation. Women like Robyn Few, Carol Leigh, and Margo St. James, the foundation of the current sex workers rights movement. And certainly, the forms of sex work I have engaged in have less societal stigma than those in which they have worked.

It comes down to this, essentially, for me, a reason which keeps most sex workers silent, endangered, and hidden: the law. Except for a few states with misguided sodomy laws, it is not illegal for me to be queer. I can’t be fired from my job for the mental illness I have. In fact, I am protected by disability laws. But I can be fired for being a current or former sex worker. There are no laws that protect against discrimination based on other jobs.

I recognize that until the general public realizes that sex workers are everywhere, the law won’t change. Until my neighbors, my family and friends, my doctor, the clerk at the grocery store, realize that a sex worker can look and act like someone like me, not a Monster Charlize Theron or a Pretty Woman Julie Roberts, things won’t change.

But I also realize that we all must pick our battles. The fragility I felt during that initial flurry of outness haunts me. My skin is still raw in the places I was vulnerable. I know that I sound like I am throwing my hands up in resignation, that I am claiming a get out of jail free card because I’ve already served my time. I haven’t. I know I haven’t.

Sex workers have to infiltrate the system as well. Some have to stand outside and attack the walls. Some must sneak in, disguised as presents, and tear the wall down from the inside. And some must stand by and wait until the time is right for them. This is the way it has to be, for now. I’m still figuring out where I belong.

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One Response to “Out, Not Inside Out”


  1. 1 Being Amber Rhea » Blog Archive » A job like any other job?

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