Curated by Ruby Zarsky and produced by Unter, the pop-up pushed back against the exclusionary policies that prevent trans women from working the pole
You know a party is going to be good when you hear numerous fashionably dressed, sweat-slicked people walking out of a Brooklyn warehouse and whispering breathlessly to one another, “That was so crazy.” This was the case as I waited in line for ALL DOLLED UP, New York’s first trans-only strip club experience.
Curated by artist, gallerist, and proud trans woman Ruby Zarsky and produced by the underground nightlife collective Unter, the event pushes back against the exclusionary policies that prevent trans women from working the pole. “Dolls flock to New York for safety and opportunity,” says Zarsky in a press release for the event, stating that despite the city’s progressive values, trans dancers are “unable to perform in commercial venues because club owners adhere to an unspoken but universal rule to only employ cis women.”
This issue is particularly pressing because strip clubs are among the few venues where one can engage in safe, legal sex work—and it’s a cruel irony that trans women, who are disproportionately vulnerable to violence, are excluded from working in them. “Trans women have always been one of the most integral parts of sex commerce across the world… [Yet] we are not doted around on rich and powerful men’s shoulders; rather, we are kept hidden. We are considered taboo. Because of this, our sex worker sisters are often working illegally and in unsafe conditions,” writes Zarsky of the project. “This brings us to the performance concept. Where can a woman, cisgender or trans, perform legal sex work in a safe and protected environment? Where can they be publicly revered for their beauty? Where can they be more than a taboo? The answer is obvious: a strip club!”
“Where can a woman, cisgender or trans, perform legal sex work in a safe and protected environment? The answer is obvious: a strip club!”
Held in a cavernous multi-level warehouse space, the event featured music from Nita Aviance, Michael Magnan and performances from the city’s preeminent artists, fashionistas, ravers, and sex workers, as well as the curator herself. Crisp $1 bills floated through the air as nightlife legends like Amanda Lepore took the stage, working the pole alongside it-girl DJ Fashion, porn star Daisy Taylor, and countless other glamorous dolls, who also offered lap dances and private lounge sessions. The crowd was queer, cool, and mostly dressed in fetishwear; people made out in corners, showered the performers with appreciation onstage, or else engaged the dancers in private rooms. Girls clacked their heels, embraced one another, gyrated, solicited lap dances, and set boundaries backed by a no-bullshit bouncer. (“Be respectful. You’re not that girl,” he proclaimed, forcibly ejecting someone from the venue for bad behavior.)
A one-night pop-up may not be able to overturn the Draconian policies common in New York strip clubs, but the event’s organizers see it as an opportunity to support the trans women who are the lifeblood of so many creative communities—and in creating a strip club that celebrates transfeminine women, Zarsky draws attention to the impact of their exclusion from mainstream spaces. It’s an issue not many are familiar with, but one that is of paramount importance to the trans community, for whom sex work is among the most historically reliable (and dangerous) ways to earn an income.
Part Fashion Week party, part performance art piece, part warehouse rave, ALL DOLLED UP demonstrated that countless New Yorkers are eager to appreciate the offerings of the city’s most-talented dolls. And as I took to the streets at the end of the night, just as sweaty and exalted as the people I saw leaving, I found myself whispering not that the experience was “so crazy,” but wishing that all strip clubs were like this.