‘Dirty money’ stigma plagues the transgender adult industry

Sex work can be a contentious issue in the transgender community. On one hand, trans women are frequently profiled as prostitutes while simply walking down the street. On the other hand, the sex industry has provided a haven for many trans folks who face endless cycles of discrimination when seeking other types of work.

A new project called the Trans Adult Industry Foundation (TAIF) aims to close the cycle by funneling a percentage of profits made by transgender porn companies into community groups and nonprofits that serve the immediate needs of trans people. 

According to a TAIF press release, housing, call centers, emergency shelters, and advocacy as some primary areas of need, “with a specific focus on the needs of the performers in our community.”

The foundation is constructed on a simple idea: make money from trans porn, give money to trans people. However, the people launching the effort—porn star Buck Angel along with two employees of trans porn company Grooby—say their motivations are complex. It isn’t just that they want to help, it’s that they’ve tried to help before and have been turned away.

Angel, like many others in the LGBT community, believes that respectability politics widening gaps between the “good” LGBT movement fighting for equality with the mainstream through marriage and other norms, and the “bad” queer and trans subcultures that reject traditionally straight ideals in favor of BDSM, polyamory, sex work, and radical politics. This tension comes to a head when it comes to charitable or support service-focused donations. 

Feminist, cisgender, queer-identified indie porn star Kitty Stryker said that she sometimes runs into blockades when trying to work as an advocate or donate money: “I’ve had to do it sort of secretly because a lot of these groups think that sex workers money is dirty money.”

And it’s not just the LGBT movement. Stryker said she has repeatedly run into the “dirty money” stigma in academia as well. When asked to speak at the University of New Hampshire in 2013, she recalled, a conservation group created an uproar asking whether the school’s purchase of Stryker’s plane ticket was akin to hiring a prostitute.

“It kind of blew my mind,” she said. “And I only have this problem in the States. I’m being flown out to England next week to speak at the University of Essex about how porn reinforces and challenges obscenity. There’s never been a problem there.”

Trans porn star Yasmin Lee, who crossed over into Hollywood with roles in movies like The Hangover Part II and Red Ice, bemoaned the fact that only “perfect role models” are chosen as the faces of the LGBT movement.

“No organization will say directly why they won’t consider you as a spokesperson for the community,” said Lee of her own experience. “It’s not as if they don’t understand or empathize with our circumstances. They simply want to… put what they think will be the best foot forward for their cause.”

Lee said that the adult industry is “very present in the trans community.” She also said she could ultimately understand why LGBT organizations weren’t rushing to sign up porn stars as spokespeople: “In an upstream swim against ignorance, you want the least baggage as possible.”

Part of that “upstream swim against ignorance” for the transgender community includes a certain adherence to appropriate terminology that has caused tension between the trans porn scene and activists. Earlier this year, the porn company Grooby—which celebrates its 20th anniversary next year and is the oldest company producing adult content featuring trans women—attempted to donate money to the suicide-prevention and education hotline Trans Lifeline. The resulting scuffle is now notorious in the queer and trans porn world. 

Grooby operates a network of porn sites with names like ShemaleYum [NSFW] that shoot roughly 110 scenes each month. According to company founder Steven Grooby over 8,500 trans models have worked for the company since its 1996 inception. In an email to the Dot, Steven Grooby estimated the company’s revenue is “in the mid-seven figure range.”

It’s clear from the numbers that Grooby (the company) is in a position to funnel large amounts of cash back into the transgender community. But when Grooby tried first to sponsor Trans Lifeline, and later to donate proceeds from its annual calendar to the Transgender Law Center, it was rebuffed. Why? Because both organizations felt that Grooby’s use of the term ‘shemale’ to market its content was unacceptable.

“Our Executive Committee checked out your sites and some members raised a concern that ‘shemale’ was fairly ubiquitous not just in the URLS, but in the content inside the pay wall,” wrote Trans Lifeline’s board chair Christina A. DiEdoardo in an email to Grooby this spring, which the company posted on its blog. “After multiple internal meetings and some very spirited argument on all sides, we have reached a decision that  we will not be able to work together with you as a corporate sponsor at this time.”

Trans Lifeline also requested that Grooby delete a banner on its site that directed users to donate to Trans Lifeline, to which Steven Grooby responded with outrage.

“So how many more calls will be missed because you don’t have the funds to staff the phones?  What happens when a trans person harms themselves because they couldn’t reach out and talk to someone?” asked Steven Grooby in an email response to the Trans Lifeline board. “Personally, I’m incensed that you would allow personal issues to get in the way of genuinely being able to help people.”

According to a July article in International Business Times,  transgender porn is a booming business. With companies charging more for trans porn than cisgender porn, ‘shemale’ is one of the most-searched adult terms online. When the Times analyzed the numbers, it became clear why companies like Grooby depend on the controversial term: using Google Analytics, ‘Shemale’ got 2.74 Million hits, ‘Tranny,’ 450,000 hits, ‘Tgirl’ has 90,500 hits, and ‘Transsexual’ has 60,500 hits.

Steven Grooby has repeatedly used these numbers to defend his marketing—to suddenly switch over from ‘shemale’ to ‘transsexual,’ much less ‘transgender,’ would kill his business in one fell stroke, putting thousands of models out of work.

But those outside of the mainstream transsexual porn market disagree. Several leading figures in the West Coast queer and trans indie porn scene—Chelsea Poe, Courtney Trouble, and Stryker—all told me that they felt ‘shemale’ was  akin to hate speech.

“Personally I believe that by requiring their models to accept that kind of terminology, that is a violent act,” said Stryker. “I feel like Grooby creates and perpetuates a world in which trans women are not treated as women, are ‘other’-ed. And Grooby’s defense of that is that it’s marketable. Which is bullshit. There’s something to companies asking performers to use the terminology that they prefer.”

Poe and Trouble both said that Grooby’s rejection by trans nonprofits wasn’t due to some perceived rift between porn and the mainstream LGBT movement, but to allegations that the company itself is unethical. “Steven Grooby  has a casual habit of ignoring trans voices that don’t conform with his business model,” said Poe in an email to Daily Dot. “I think the best use of his money would be to actually pay his models a living wage due to the amount of his performers that have unstable housing or who are currently homeless.”

The Transgender Law Center recently issued a public statement in support of Rentboy, just a week after releasing a similar statement backing the decriminalization of sex work policy that Amnesty International adopted in August. When asked by the Dot whether it was hypocritical to back Rentboy while shunning the largest employer of trans women porn performers, the response—a joint statement from both Transgender Law Center and Trans Lifeline—was terse. 

“Transgender Law Center and Trans Lifeline condone neither the state’s criminalization of sex work nor the use of transphobic slurs,” read the one-line emailed statement.

Employment in the sex industry leads to an acute awareness of the shifting negotiations that occur around identity, boundaries, and political correctness. Porn is fantasy; that means boundaries are pushed in ways that aren’t acceptable outside of its bounds. Schoolgirl outfits abound in BDSM, but that doesn’t mean fetish freaks are advocating for the molestation of actual children. Lesbian strippers are typically not “out” at work, because the job involves becoming a sort of mirror to the fantasies of male customers. And for many transgender sex workers and porn performers, porn terms like ‘tranny’ and ‘shemale’ are acceptable in porn—but never on the streets.

“I think when it comes to words like ladyboy, shemale, tranny… it’s all about the context in which you use those words and who you say it to,” said Yasmin Lee. “There are many words that I deem appropriate for one friend but not the next, based on my relationship with each. I understand that the term shemale is associated a lot with porn. I wouldn’t go to another trans woman and call her that. I would be very offended if a random stranger… would cross that boundary and refer to me other than by my name and preferred pronouns.”

Lee also pointed out that the sex industry has been around a lot longer than the burgeoning, and slowly mainstreaming, movement for transgender civil rights.

“Long before the Internet and this social storm, this abandoned group was kept alive by the girls that walked the street,” Lee said. “Without that, the world wouldn’t even know we existed.”

Buck Angel said that Grooby would be committing “business suicide” if it ceased the use of the term ‘shemale.’ He also said that any outreach organization that refused to take money from him is “full of shit.”

“You’re saying our money is not as good as someone else’s money, when you’re basic goal is to save lives? And the only reason you aren’t taking our money is because of the use of words? That makes it seem like you’re lost the focus of what your goal is,” Angel said with palpable frustration in his voice. He also stressed his belief that the more often slurs are used by LGBT people, the less hateful they become.

“The sex industry is about money and sex, let’s not kid ourselves. You have to play a game. Those words might be offensive in the real world, but the sex industry is a fantasy world,” said Angel.“It’s the same way with [words like] ‘queer,’ ‘dyke,’ ‘fag.’ I call myself a tranny all the time and so do lots of my trans friends. We empower these words by taking them away from people who use them against us.

Controversy over ‘shemale’ aside, money is desperately needed in the transgender community. According to the largest community survey ever compiled, 2011’s National Transgender Discrimination Survey, about a third of transgender people have annual incomes of less than $20,000. The trans population is four times more likely than average to live in extreme poverty (making less than $10,000 a year), and job discrimination is rampant. With twice the rate of unemployment as the rest of the U.S. population, a distressing 90 percent of those surveyed said they had experienced harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination at work because they were trans.

In such an environment, the trans porn industry is uniquely poised to both offer jobs to trans people, and to funnel money back into the community. Like it or not, the business is booming—and as more people inside and outside the industry become educated about the plight of transgender Americans, they feel increasingly compelled to help.

In May, the transsexual porn site Trans500 (which markets colorful titles such as “OMG my stepmom is a TS”) launched a charity of sorts devoted to helping trans women receive grants for gender reassignment surgeries. But the Trans Porn Industry Foundation isn’t necessarily operating its own scholarship fund; rather, the TAIF board plans to create a coalition of well-heeled adult companies that will donate large sums of cash to existing nonprofits and transgender outreach projects.

Grooby’s marketing director Kristel Penn said that not only does the company work with trans models, there’s also two trans employees. Penn herself identifies as “lesbian or queer” and says she personally cares about the lives of the models and performers she works with.

“You see things like trans people having problems with emergency services like housing and healthcare. We want to give back to the people that have made us successful,” said Penn. “[TAIF] is a good incentive to encourage other companies in our industry to donate, too, and centralize donations and maximize the ability to help.”

Currently, the TAIF board is working on becoming a 501c3 nonprofit and reaching out to other companies that profit from trans porn. Grooby plans to donate five percent of all its model fees as well as proceeds from its annual calendar to TAIF, and is also fundraising for the Los Angeles AIDS Walk in October.

Buck Angel is still brainstorming his longterm goals for TAIF, which could eventually include direct services like job training. He said that aging out of the industry is a major problem that leaves many porn performers and sex workers in sudden poverty even after years of steady income.

“I know one woman who’s been in the industry for a long long time,” said Angel. “This person contacted me and said ‘Buck, I’m in poverty now. I can’t get a normal job, I don’t have any skills.’ Now I’m thinking if we could help train people with job skills for when they need to go to a 9-5 job. A lot of the girls are scared or nervous about that.”

Angel himself has slowed down his adult work in favor of the speaking and advocacy circuit. But he remains a committed advocate not only for sex workers’ rights, but for sex and porn as stand-alone benefits to humanity.

“[The sex industry] is a real business. It creates real jobs, positive jobs, for trans people,” Angel said. “But there is an end to this eventually. I want to help people train their way out of the business. There is something after porn.”

Illustration by Max Fleishman

Update: 10:18 A.M. CT, Sept. 8: This piece has been updated to reflect that the founder of the Grooby network of sites is Steven Grooby.