Twenty years ago, Friday and Species were blowing up at the box office. Groove Theory’s “Tell Me” and Notorious B.I.G’s “One More Chance (Remix)” were in heavy rotation on my Sony Walkman. I had just graduated from high school in Philadelphia and was finally dealing with my sexuality. This was the summer sex workers taught me how to hustle.
Despite struggles with unreachable standards of black masculinity since childhood, the challenges with my sexual orientation nearly vanished when I felt the lips of another guy for the first time. I was Sleeping Beauty, awakened from my repression with a kiss (I know, so gay). Only after—as Dionne Farris sang in her mid-90s cut, “Passion”—did everything become crystal clear.
During the summer of 1995, my friends and I were constant fixtures on 13th Street in Philadelphia. Before the City of Brotherly Love was gentrified, the strip was known as “Freak Street,” especially after midnight, which was when most of the white gays headed home and the black and Latino LGBT kids held court. We were street urchins who terrified the white gay community and black heterosexuals. We didn’t believe in same-sex marriage; we thought there should be no marriage. We proudly called ourselves dykes, trannys, fags, queens, butches, and drags—all unacceptable language in today’s PC culture. The intersection of class, race, and sexuality was prevalent in our unique slang, tribal house music, and crafty survival skills.
Like clockwork, I strolled up 13th Street every night, trekking to the club, which didn’t open until 1 a.m. and didn’t get hot for another two hours. There was usually a group of sex workers on the corner of Sansom and 13th, a majority whom were black and Latino transwomen. Initially, I was terrified by these women. They were torn down by a mid-90s economy, never allowed in the workforce, and education was inaccessible due to rampant discrimination. Because of my own internalized phobias, their exterior shook my soul as I hurried past their gaze.
One particular woman, however, was deeply insulted that I wouldn’t speak to her when we crossed paths. “Hey, faggot!” she screamed, after we locked eyes and I turned away. Attempting to channel “Freak Like Me”-era Adina Howard in red, leather pompom shorts, a black corset, and a short hairdo, she spat, “I see your ass down here every weekend, bitch—you ain’t gonna speak?”
“I don’t know you!” I shot back.
“Mothafucka, I know you and you ain’t that cute! Didn’t your mama teach you to speak to people when you see them? I’m a damn human being!” I hurried along as I heard the girls next to her mumble a variation of, “These young faggots!”
The next night I saw Adina back on the corner. On the other side of the 13th Street, I moved quickly hoping she wouldn’t notice me. “There he go!” she hollered. She stomped across the street, her necklaces, bracelets, and earrings jingling in unison. Adina stood before me, blocking my escape. I was scared for my life.
“You are gonna see me,” she said in a surprisingly calm voice.
It was at that point something in my teenage brain clicked. I had not truly seen her before this moment. I had often walked by her like she was garbage on the corner, the same way angry heterosexuals leered at me and my friends if they accidentally wandered down 13th Street after midnight. Although I was never a sex worker, Adina and I were still part of the black and Latino LGBT community living on the fringe of society. I wasn’t an outsider.
From that moment forward I made it a point to see Adina.
Adina, who dealt with the daily horrors of sex work—via harassment from the police or a violent client—illuminated so much brilliance on a young, impressionable teenager. In her own way, she taught me life skills. She clocked someone’s story with one glance and a question. “He’s gonna wanna get fucked”; “He’s gonna be cheap”; or “He’s gonna be a rough client.” Normally, she was right. As frightful as many perceived Adina and women like her, she owned the superpower to make anyone feel comfortable in a matter of seconds. I studied how she spoke to strangers, from lost tourists and drive-by homophobes to a potential trick. I would ask, “How are you able to figure someone out so quickly?”
I never forgot her answer: “All you have to do is ask one question. As long as you nod your head and look like you fucking care, they’ll tell you their life story.”
There were other lessons, too.
People have asked me if it is hard to debate on live television. In many ways, not hard at all—I learned from the streets and sex workers like Adina. On the corner, the ladies debated politics, pop culture, and fashion, passionately talking hot topics years before The View arrived on morning television. They were plugged into the world unlike anyone I knew.
“Bill Clinton is a fucking joke, girl!” I remember one argument. “Ya’ll dumb bitches think because he played a damn saxophone, he’s for you? He kicked women off welfare! He is locking up more niggas than ever! He is ignoring AIDS. Child, please!” When locked in debate on TV or among friends, a look of derision might wash over my face, my head slightly askew and lips pursed; it is a signature rejoinder I employ from time to time. The stare says all I need to say: Child, please!
Unlike drug dealers, trans sex workers are a subculture within a subculture that has never been eroticized. The stereotypical dealer is sometimes valorized as sexy, masculine and “doing what you gotta do” to survive. Trans sex workers, especially the percentage that are transwomen of color, are considered by some to be disease-infested night predators, abominations. Once, I remember stupidly asking Adina, “Why are you out here? You are so smart. Do you really want to do this for the rest of your life?”
“You think I want to do this?” she snapped. “Look at me, Clay,” she explained, opening her arms. “No one is going to hire me. Someone is gonna hire you. You got it made and you don’t even know it.” Adina didn’t fit the often unattainable standards of “realness” nor did she have access to proper healthcare, education, career opportunities, or even protection from the law. She was constantly pushed deeper into a structure of exploitation. “Some dreams don’t come true,” she said as a horn blared in the distance. She adjusted her breasts and turned to me, “How do I look?”
“You couldn’t look any better,” I replied, soaking in her sadness. She understood the look in my eyes. “I need to live,” she said. “It’s fast money, baby.”
I moved to New York City a few years later and, over the course of a decade, my writing career kicked off. I was interviewing celebrities, writing editorials, but not getting paid a dime. I did the work to build my credentials as a writer. I’d walk into a room using the skills I learned from Adina, no matter the celebrity or politician; I was now a master at figuring someone out in seconds.
I vividly remember the first time I was paid for an assignment. I earned $150 for a twenty-minute interview with Terrence Howard. “That’s fast money!” I thought at the time. In that moment, I knew my walk, as a journalist, would have been vastly different without the unique jewels I received from Adina and the women who orbited the world of 13th Street. They were witty, knowledgeable, and selflessly understood people more than people understood them.
I am a bit more polished now. Not many would think once upon a time I was “one of the children.” Based on the choices I’ve made, my life could’ve unraveled in an opposite fashion. I was fortunate enough to transition out of the neighborhood, but for many, escaping wasn’t an option. The HIV and AIDS epidemic ravaged my era of 13th Street kids. We were black, Latino, poor, and LGBT, which meant we were invisible. But I will never forget what I learned the summer of ‘95. Adina’s demand to be seen, her unique life lessons, and unknowing encouragement uplifted me more than she could’ve imagined. Fortunately, the dominant narrative of transwomen as sex workers is shifting. But it is important to honor these nameless, faceless women—before, now, and always.
The last time I saw Adina was in 1998. It was right before I moved to New York City. Philly was starting to gentrify and all of my old haunts were now closed. Freak Street was on the verge of becoming another Fifth Avenue. It was the middle of the afternoon and I spotted Adina applying for a job at a fast food restaurant. Divested of her signature nighttime attire, it took me a moment to recognize her—hair in a bun, big sunglasses, clothes lacking vibrant color—considering I’d never seen her in the daylight. In my excitement I rushed over, curious of her whereabouts. Months had passed since we last saw each other. Without looking up, she uttered, “Clay, all I wanna do is be real. All I wanna do is walk down the street. All I wanna do is get a job, pay my taxes, and have a place to live.” This was not the Adina I knew, although her conviction for survival was there, the spark was gone. All I could think was how society had claimed another victim in its war against transwomen of color.
Adina passed away the next year.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]