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A Missing History 

Former sex worker and AIDS activist Amber Hollibaugh shows a complex and contradictory picture of lesbianism

Amber Hollibaugh is an ex-hooker, incest survivor, biracial radical feminist, high-femme lesbian, working-class, white-trash organizer and AIDS activist--her range of perspective is enough to make you dizzy. Born in rural southern California to a Gypsy father and an Irish mother, Hollibaugh suffered through her father's advances, her mother's physical abuse and relentless poverty to emerge as an important political activist in both the gay and lesbian civil rights movement and in the fight against AIDS.

How Hollibaugh escaped her past isn't the question. Rather, it is how she incorporates her history with her activism that she discusses in My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home, her newly published collection of autobiographical and political writing. Throughout her life Hollibaugh has occupied so many disparate roles simultaneously; she has experienced her life at a virtual intersection of the complicated debates surrounding race, class, gender and sexuality in America. Yet the most unusual aspect of Amber Hollibaugh's experiences is that they may not be so rare after all, just rarely heard.

In My Dangerous Desires, Hollibaugh offers her own history--or more appropriately, histories. Leaving home at age 18, she traveled as part of a Hawaiian dance troupe to Las Vegas, Reno and other such venues. There, she took up stripping to make more money. "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," she explains.

Hollibaugh also became involved in a number of political movements, and stripping by night funded her unpaid activism by day. Simultaneously a prostitute and communist, she was a hooker among feminists who viewed sex workers as victims of patriarchal misogyny, and a high-femme lesbian in a gay and lesbian movement that regarded butch/femme as outdated, offensive role-playing. One way or another, Hollibaugh was an outcast, and she hid her sex work from her fellow activists. "I knew that even in the midst of the sex liberation movements, it wouldn't be cool to talk about [being a sex worker]," she says.

Although she eventually gave up sex work, Hollibaugh maintains the perspective of a woman who has lived in both the mostly middle-class world of activism and the world of sex work for the sake of economic survival. It is this perspective that informs her activism. Her views of sex work are both realistic and radical. "It's labor, it's not morality," Hollibaugh says. "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 1990s, Hollibaugh became the founding director the Lesbian AIDS Project (LAP) of the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) in New York City, a project designed to provide resources to lesbians who are either at risk or are HIV positive. The project was not an easy undertaking. Despite rising concerns, lesbians for the most part are not considered to be a heavy risk population, so garnering support was not easy. "A group of dykes got together to dialogue with GMHC but it was very problematic," she says. "There was not data, and you need data to get funding. So we tried to construct a narrative out of stories and experiences but we couldn't say, 'these are the numbers,'" she says. The narrative was compelling enough however, to challenge the mainstream image of lesbians as middle class, drug-free, monogamous and relatively out of danger for HIV transmission. The LAP was given funding for a three-year period, and Hollibaugh began searching out a population that is virtually invisible. The rationale was simple: Approach social service organizations, public health facilities and community centers with the assumption that they serve lesbians. "If you define welfare and community programs differently, if you assume there are lesbians there, then you can reach that population," she says.

In less than three years of networking and community outreach, LAP had identified more than 400 HIV positive lesbians in New York City alone, and had a mailing list of more than 4,000 people, approximately half of whom are HIV positive. Although they are rarely discussed, this community of women--who are largely without regular medical providers, who are often struggling with addiction issues, who may be in prison or working as sex workers--are at growing risk and lack the resources they need to deal effectively with HIV.

With her candid sense of humor and generous laugh, Hollibaugh speaks of being poor and a prostitute, and posits that experiences like hers are not uncommon, even among feminists and lesbians. She says that resources, not actions, most starkly define experiences and risk--especially where HIV is concerned. "The more your life is impacted and the more you struggle to survive, the more you put yourself at risk. It's not what you do--it's not like middle-class women don't do drugs. The difference is how much control you have to protect yourself," she says.

For Hollibaugh, beginning the Lesbian AIDS Project was "like coming home. It was very important to me that this group of women gain credibility, women who were not invited into the gay and lesbian movement," she says. In her activism, Hollibaugh helps legitimize women whose circumstances or economic necessities have led them to choices that are rarely vocalized. She reaches across lines of race, class and sexual expression to advocate for a messier, all-inclusive LGBT movement. In her writing as well is a brave refusal to shed any of her identities, to hide any of her choices, no matter how complex or contradictory they may seem. As she writes in her introduction, Hollibaugh's dangerous desire is "to re-create a missing reality, a voice I knew but rarely heard spoken around me, a history I could scarcely find."

Amber Hollibaugh will read at Internationalist Books on Feb. 11, at 1 p.m., The Regulator Bookshop on Feb. 12, at 7 p.m., and Duke's Zener Auditorium on Feb. 13, at 7 p.m. EndBlock

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