Amber Hollibaugh is one badass woman. I had never heard of her until very recently when I offered to write this feature on her, but the more I learned about her the more she made my head spin.
She was born in rural Southern California, the daughter of a Gypsy father and an Irish mother. In her early life she suffered through her father’s sexual advances and her mother’s physical abuse, along with the constant strain of poverty. She survived all of this abuse and left home at age 18 and joined a Hawaiian dance troupe, traveling with them to Las Vegas, Reno and other like places. To supplement her income, she became a stripper. She explained her choice to take up stripping as such, "I had contacts, I looked right, it was something I could do anywhere. Dancing was by far the easiest work I could find that paid easily."
Hollibaugh eventually became involved in several political movements, and continued to strip by night so she could fund her unpaid work as an activist by day. This made her an outcast in a feminist community which viewed sex workers such as her as victims of patriarchal misogyny. She hid her sex work from her feminist colleagues, knowing that even in the midst of the sexual liberation movements it would not be ok for her to talk about being a sex worker. She was also a pariah among the gay and lesbian movement of the time (this was before the days of the LGBTQ movement) as she was a high-femme lesbian among a movement which saw the butch/femme culture as outdated and offensive.
She takes her wealth of experience into her activism and is able to view things both from the mostly middle-class world of activism and the world of sex work for survival. With her perspective which is rather unique for an activist, she has this to say about sex work in general:
"It's labor, it's not morality, … The work in and of itself is not horrendous. But I am not going to romanticize it, you really can be treated badly, it's a pretty awful life." She insists that it does not always lead to victimization, however. "You have to say, wait a minute, some of us [feminists and lesbians] were sex workers. If you are talking about it as women's work, why are you only allowing women to view their history as victims?"
In the early ‘90s, Hollibaugh became the founding director for the Lesbian AIDS Project (LAP), a project of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in NYC. LAP was designed to provide resources to Lesbians who are either at risk or are HIV positive. This is no simple task, considering that the Lesbian community is generally shrugged off as a community that isn’t really at risk of contracting HIV. This, compounded with the fact no real data had been gathered among the Lesbian community about HIV due to the strong misperception that the lesbian community is middle-class, drug-free, and monogamous. Hollibaugh managed to piece together a strong enough narrative to convince the GMHC to provide funding for LAP. Then began the even more difficult work.
LAP really had its work cut out for it, as it was attempting to target a near invisible demographic. Hollibaugh came up with a different approach to reach her target demographic. She approached public health facilities and community centers assuming that they served lesbians, and then worked through them to reach her target demographic. In less than three years, LAP had a mailing list of over 4000 and had identified more than 400 HIV positive lesbian in New York City alone. This community of women is rarely discussed, and they are often without regular medical providers, are often struggling with addiction issues, and may be in prison or are sex workers. Furthermore, this population is at a growing risk and lack the resources they need to deal effectively with HIV.
It was awesome to learn about this inspiring woman who came from poverty and used her experience to help others like her. That kind of strength is truly astounding, as is her refusal to shed any of her identities. It is thanks to women like her that we can engage with the broader scope of challenges faced by LGBT people in all circumstances.
P.S. Amber Hollibaugh is speaking at the Bingham Center’s symposium this weekend! Come hear her talk tomorrow (Saturday the 14th) in the Gothic Reading Room at 12:30pm. She's on a panel called "Intersections of Class, Race, and Gender from the 70s to the Present." Should be fun, interesting, and inspiring for all.