There have been several films about the transgender community in New York. Paris Is Burning and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson are just two films that remain topical. However, a Black transwoman is rarely at the helm of these films, turning the lens on herself and history, enabling her to take back her narrative. With The Stroll, actress/ activist Kristen Lovell and her co-director, Zackary Drucker, examine the decade Lovell spent on The Stroll. This was a strip in New York City’s Meatpacking District on 14th street between Ninth Avenue and the Hudson River. From the 1970s until the beginning of the 21st century, transgender sex workers worked, lived, and died on The Stroll until it was paved over and erased.
With her soothing tone, Lovell talks openly about her experiences. She also interviews other women, including Egyptt LaBeija, Lady P, Ceyenne Doroshow, and countless others who dated on The Stroll for years. All topics are up for discussion. The women open up about the hardships they experienced, from being thrown out of their family homes to being attacked while working. These women are the very few that survived.
Many of these stories are devastating. However, The Stroll is also infused with humor and moments of levity. Looking back on their time on The Stroll, the women discuss the camaraderie they shared as they learned to survive. Drucker and Lovell also highlight activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who gave everything to offer a better path forward for young trans women, sex workers, and non-binary people like them.
Yet The Stroll goes even deeper than that. With Lovell acting as a guide, the show addresses the tensions between the transgender and the gay and lesbian communities, especially when it came to speaking out against violence and attacks. One standout though shocking moment is a clip of a young RuPaul, who saunters down The Stroll, interviewing girls in almost a mocking tone that reeks of disgust and cruelty. For transpeople, especially those who made their living through sex work, being marginalized within their community emboldened them to stand up for themselves and each other. The death of a young trans woman named Amanda Milan in 2000 at New York City’s Port Authority in front of hundreds of onlookers became a turning point in the community.
While the reality of trans life and sex workers’ lives are the heart of The Stroll, the history of New York City, especially its laws and politics, frames the story. Lovell and Drucker illustrate the Meatpacking District as it once was. The streets were sparse, with the smell of rotten meat wafting through the air. However, the unjust policies of Mayor Richard Giuliani (1994-2001) and the attacks that the women were constantly under from NYPD’s 6th prescient (who often were also clients) began to make things more volatile for sex workers. The film also unpacks Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (2002-2013) policies and the gentrification that stormed the city following September 11, 2001. Bloomberg’s laws pushed many sex workers off the streets and often into jail, allowing luxury retail and housing to come into Meatpacking. At one point in the film, Lovell says, “I can’t believe how many times I had to go to jail for this Highline Park to be built.”
Lovell and Drucker use stunning 2-D animation to recreate the past. In one striking scene, a former sex worker named Tabaytha recalls her incarceration from 1998 to 2012. Upon returning to The Stroll following her release, she stumbled into a completely transformed neighborhood and learned that most of her friends were dead. The Stroll’s North Star is the film’s ability to address trans erasure, not just in the Meatpacking District, but in society overall.
A tribute to the trans girls and women who are no longer here, The Stroll is a history lesson and a wake-up call for many who act as if trans rights and visibility are just hot topics. A beautifully done and frank documentary, The Stroll is a reminder that trans people, sex workers, and those who exist in between won’t be destroyed, no matter how hard society (and the city of New York) may try to blot them out.
The Stroll premiered on Jan. 23, 2023, at Sundance Film Festival.