POLES AND POLITICS: STRIPPER AND ACTIVIST GIZELLE MARIE’S FIGHT FOR SEX WORKERS’ DIGNITY
BY ARIEL HERNANDEZ
“This is going to be a movement that will forever go in time. I’m not going to stop. This is beyond New York; I’m speaking for women all over this country.”
Gizelle Marie has spent the last 12 years working as a dancer at strip clubs throughout the nation. Her experience has led her to become the voice of the sex-workers movement in New York.
The turning point for Gizelle came a couple of years back, while dancing at a Las Vegas strip club. That is where she learned about the prevalence of pimping. It was a wakeup call.
“I talked to the women like I talk to the women here, and it dawned on me that a lot of these women were being trafficked,” said Gizelle. “A woman told me she couldn’t leave until she met her quota, which is cool because the clubs out there are 24 hours so if I had that option, I would hustle the same way. But when I asked her about her quota, she told me, ‘If I don’t meet my quota, my daddy is going to be mad at me.’”
Gizelle said it wasn’t just the young women being manipulated and trapped into the pimp game. Older women were falling victim to it as well.
And it wasn’t just an issue in Vegas. Gizelle said there’s a pimping system in New York, which is much more upsetting because the strippers and bartenders are being cheated out of their money and forced to do more than they signed up for.
“People don’t think there are pimps out here in New York but there are. There’s just a different term for it—they’re called managers,” she said. “These owners and these promoters created what I call a pimp system. It’s where they’re controlling how the women make their money.”
Gizelle said the pimp system kicked off in 2017, not too long after New York’s highest court ruled that clubs could no longer skirt a 2001 zoning law through the “60/40 loophole,” which permits adult businesses to remain open as long as no more than 40 percent of their floor space is devoted to adult material. The court decision forced more than half of the city’s clubs to close, limiting jobs for strippers and forcing them to compete with one another to make ends meet.
The legal ruling has changed the face of urban strip clubs and given birth to the city’s pimp system, Gizelle claims.
“When I first started dancing, men came to the strip clubs, bought individual drinks and paid the dancers,” said Gizelle. “Now people go to strip clubs in groups. Owners and managers grew focused on selling bottles and incorporating these promoters so you have these groups of people buying bottles instead of individual drinks, forcing bartenders to work harder to sell bottles. This was a major issue because now we have scammers using fake or stolen cards to buy bottles, or you have people spending so much money on bottles that they’re not even paying the dancers. The money got so dry and the competition grew so much that women were resorting to having sex with the promoters just to keep their jobs.”
Sometimes, even sleeping with a promoter under duress wouldn’t save a woman’s job, Gizelle said. When Gizelle spoke up about this, she was banned from a number of strip clubs in the city.
“Promoters, and even bartenders, started getting mad at me because I was telling this truth. Promoters started telling me if I don’t like it, I could move away and leave. I was like why would you tell me that? Do you know how hard my livelihood is? Imagine telling this to a woman with four kids, trying to get them through school. So because she’s trying to speak up because she doesn’t like the way she’s being treated, she should just move away and start a life someplace else. It’s not that simple,” said Gizelle. “This is the misconception. There’s so much stigma behind dancers that we’re dirty, we’re nasty, but really we’re just working women like everyone else, doing a job to survive.”
Gizelle said that on top of the change in the way clubs were run, the limited number of open strip clubs in the city also forced women to compete against one another.
“It’s not fair that we’re getting our money cut short because we have to battle against another woman,” said Gizelle. “We shouldn’t be doing that. We should be working together, but the government created this environment where it’s like a patriarchal system. They made it that we go against each other. And it’s not fair because we’re the same but yet they made it a competition and it becomes even more difficult when you have to make money and feel like the next person is going to take it.”
An incident in October 2017 took Gizelle’s advocacy in another direction. Strippers from Starlets Gentlemen’s Club, located in Queens, were complaining after more than $100,000 was thrown on the dance floor in one night. Bartenders went home with approximately $20,000 each and the dancers weren’t paid.
Gizelle was in Washington, D.C., when it happened. She had just finished dancing at a homecoming party at Howard University when she opened Snapchat and saw the videos of dancers and bartenders tussling for money.
“The difference between me and the women on Snapchat is that those women were complaining to their fans as if they’re the only ones going through it,” said Gizelle. “All of the women in the sex-worker industry are being shortchanged and taken advantage of because they think they don’t have rights. These women are living paycheck to paycheck as if they’re working a 9-to-5 job. They can’t manage their money because they’re not making a plethora amount. The people benefiting off of us being there are the club owners and the bartenders. This is a job where we’re being paid to entertain people. Why are we being treated like animals?”
While many use social media to stay in touch with the world, Gizelle used her platform to advocate for sex-worker rights, starting the conversation.
“It ended up blowing up because people started chiming in and getting defensive because I started speaking up,” said Gizelle. “I’m not going to hold you; there was a point where I got so scared because I wasn’t sure what sorts of reactions I was going to get, so I turtled in until I started hearing positive feedback from women that were glad someone was finally willing to speak up.”
Gizelle said her movement became so big and widely recognized because she’s a black woman speaking up in an extremely racist industry.
“Race is a big problem in all strip clubs,” she said. “Upscale strip clubs don’t hire black women. For every 100 women in a club, there are only about five to 10 black women, and that’s in all states in this country.”
Given that Gizelle is both Puerto Rican and Bahamian, she received some backlash from members of the black community, who felt that as a Hispanic woman, she had no right to speak for black women.
“I can’t express this enough: There are black Hispanic women,” she said. “But I found a way to fight against all the bashing I got and this became a thing. There were far more people supporting me as a black woman speaking about the injustices towards women in this industry where you don’t hear it loud enough.”
It was because of Gizelle’s loud activism that strippers—like Nuni, a 25-year-old stripper in New York City—have become more open about what really goes down in strip clubs.
As an African American woman with non-straight hair, Nuni was only landing stripping gigs at Queens clubs, which have an aggressive environment, demanding managers and patrons who prefer “twerking” to “talking,” she said.
Nuni said she hated working there and the pay was not good, but she did it because as a graduate student at the New School in Manhattan, she had to find a way to make full-time money working a part-time job in order to pay for school.
After her bad experiences dancing at clubs like Show Palace and Gallagher’s, Nuni said she finally realized that it was her hair that was preventing her from getting a job at strip clubs in Manhattan. She went from braids to straight hair and began to get hired at upscale Manhattan strip clubs, making as much as $1,500 on a good night.
Nuni said that rather than see strip clubs close, leaving women out of jobs, she would have preferred to see owners make changes so the clubs could remain open. Closing them down just leaves a lot of the dancers out of work, she said, especially if their bodies or overall appearance doesn’t fit the criteria to dance at strip clubs in Manhattan.
“In black strip clubs, you can’t dance if you don’t have body augmentation. But you can’t work in white strip clubs with that, so a lot of girls will have to travel very far for work or be out of a job. And it seems unfortunate to me that a lot of the women who do spend a lot on their body strip because they don’t have another option,” said Nuni. “So for someone that doesn’t have another option, to be out of a job that they changed themselves to get, but can’t get a job in a similar place because of it, is very problematic.
Nuni also openly shared with The Press that she’s not only been sexually assaulted a number of times, but was also raped once at a strip club. She said a manager at the club helped arrange the interaction with one of the club’s regular patrons. After the rape, she had to seek counseling.
Gizelle addressed this issue, saying,“In the strip club industry, women that were raped are scared to speak up because of the stigma we’re automatically affiliated with. “We’re entertainers. We dance for money. Just like any other woman in this world working any other job, we should never be forced to do something we don’t want to do. There are women that have sex for money by choice. But then there are women that don’t. Not all sex workers have sex for money. ‘Sex worker’ is just a blank term for anything or anyone that is in the sex-work industry, whether it be strippers, porn stars or prostitutes. We are still women and we deserve the same rights!”
“Women in the strip-club scene that were raped are scared to speak about it,” she added. “How could you believe someone that says they were sexually assaulted when they’re already looked at as a sexual product? We’re still women at the end of the day.”
With more than 82,000 followers on Instagram, Gizelle has been so vocal that just recently she was asked to speak about her movement at a class at John Jay College.
“It was one of those situations where I realized that my voice is really powerful,” she said. “And what a lot of people in this industry fail to realize is that we’re all one and the same. Whether we’re in here or not, we’re still dealing with the same issues, so why not try to make the change over all? A lot of sex workers feel like nothing is ever going to change. When I started this whole thing, I started to look outside of just this industry and I started looking at different parts of the sex-worker industry. And when I started seeing that there’s laws being changed on us, I was like that’s not good.”
Her overall goal is to secure services for sex workers, particularly strippers who are undergoing financial struggles because of the bad economic times at strip clubs. She hopes to provide housing options to women left homeless, and ultimately provide a path for strippers out of work to go back to school—potentially with a focus on getting a psychology degree so they could offer mental health services to other sex workers.
Gizelle also aspires to open her own club one day—and be the first black woman to own a strip club in New York City.
So far, Gizelle has partnered with nonprofits that focus on providing services for the transgender community, and has been vocal at marches such as the Whore Walk in California and the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.
Gizelle also has hope for positive change for sex workers following the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress. A former bartender, Ocasio-Cortez has openly opposed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) that President Donald Trump signed earlier this year in an effort to end sex trafficking online.
Ocasio-Cortez went on the record as saying, “It is important that we make a clear distinction between sex work and human trafficking.”
Gizelle said this could mean that there is finally momentum in the fight for women’s rights—and could ultimately usher in a lasting sex-worker movement that would educate the public and eventually lead to legislative change.
Earlier this month, more than 100 women were elected to the House of Representatives for the first time, which also gives Gizelle hope.
“We don’t only have Cortez; we also have [Ilhan Omar], the Somalian woman that just won the Congress seat in Minnesota,” said Gizelle. “Sex work is huge in Africa. It’s survival out there. I’m hoping and praying that there’s women like her that speak up for the injustice of the women that use sex work for survival.”
Although Gizelle has faith in the new women in power, she said they can’t do it alone. That is why she plans to work tirelessly to get out the word, whether it be on social media, through word of mouth or at women’s marches to let women know that they need to speak up and let their voices be heard.
“People need to realize that it’s not just the politicians that have to do all the work. It’s us, the women, that need to invest in us women,” said Gizelle. “The same way it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to create change.”