How To Have A Body: A Show About Sex Work, Disability, and Survival
Welcome to Brain-Throbs & Blow Jobs, a column highlighting the great minds and perspectives of Bay Area sex workers through interviews and photo portraits by Maxine Holloway.
On a cold January afternoon in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, I stopped under a flashing rainbow sign on Eddy Street to meet Gina Stella dell’Assunta. Gina is a writer and performer from San Francisco, with deep roots in queer and trans sex worker and disability communities. I followed her glitter combat boots and leopard print cane into a small theater below the rainbow sign. SAFE (Saving the Arts From Extinction) House theater has provided residency programs for artists like Gina to have a place to create and perform. Gina recently built a multimedia solo theatrical show, ‘‘How To Have A Body’, a stage piece that speaks to survival in a changing landscape. Gina invited me to one of her rehearsals, where she gave me a sneak peek of her upcoming show that opens this Friday, January 17th and Saturday the 18th at 8 pm.
MH: What inspired ‘How To Have Body’?
GSd’A: This show is experimental prose and poetry about queerness, sexuality, disability, and chronic illness. I started writing it in 2013, the year after I had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndromes, and was struggling. For many chronically ill folks, there is a complicated process of acknowledging that things are working differently with our bodies. And for many artists, we process our lives, the good and the bad, by making art about it.
It felt like I had all these particular and personal stories to tell, but those stories are all part of a larger, universal narrative of what it is to have a body and try to survive. To explain this story, I take the audience on a journey through public and private spaces: The hustle & bustle of MUNI, BART, the Pride parade, CopWatch, the Welfare office, the Social Security Administration, the queer bar, the s/m dungeon, the strip club, airports, the haunted streets of San Francisco; and the private, intimate respite of a magical cripple femme bed palace, a rent-controlled studio with fruit trees in the backyard, a long-distance lover’s bedroom, an old friend’s living room, a warm bright kitchen…all of these definitive Bay Area experiences for me and many people in my communities.
MH: What is surviving in the Bay Area looking like these days?
GSd’A: San Francisco, from 2013 to 2020, has gone through such incredible change. As someone who grew up in a San Francisco that was mostly working-class, mainly of color, very queer…the ways that the city has gentrified and shifted have frankly been heartbreaking. Disability and chronic illness can impact income levels. I’m a person on Welfare; General Assistance is inarguably an insufficient amount of income for anyone anywhere, but in particular in San Francisco. Getting disability benefits is a grueling and inhumane process; the Social Security Administration does not yet actually believe that I’m disabled enough to qualify. So, I’ve been fighting for actual disability status for six years at this point.
Many disabled and chronically ill people are current or former sex workers. I don’t want to paint a picture of the sex industry as an equivocally rosy place for disabled folks, not to mention that it is exponentially harder if you are not white, cis, straight, thin, etc.– but sex work can offer things like being your own boss and schedule flexibility; the ability to work fewer hours cumulatively for potentially higher pay; and immediate payment in cash. These are important things for people who are managing chronic illness or disability and simply can’t always access a “regular” 9 to 5, 40 hours per week gig. Because of this, it was important for me to not only write about personal changes I experienced but also the sea change that I’ve seen in the city.
There are a lot of things about the Bay that I know are still magical and important. That is why I feel determined to stick it out, to stick around and figure out a way to keep doing work about queerness and disability. That’s been happening in the Bay Area forever, and I want to make sure that that keeps happening.
MH: This iteration of your show has some new and more erotic elements to it. Tell me about them?
GSd’A: I’ve been enjoying a queer and trans strip club event called ‘Drrrty Queer.’ A lot of people were tugging on me, saying, “You should perform! Why aren’t you performing?” I’ve been in the sex industry for a long time, I’ve done stripping and porn, but I was feeling nervous about being performatively sexy in this body that I’m still getting used to. Then I thought to myself, “Wait a minute. While we’re talking about stripping and taking things off, what if one of the first things that I removed was the chronic pain mask?” So I started working on a stage piece called ‘Unmasked’ when I’m in lingerie trying to get around without my cane, I’ve set my cane at the edge of the stage. People will, they’ll see me struggle to get to it, but that’s also part of the point, I am struggling. It’s disrupting and unnerving. The piece then turns into an erotic duet with my cane set to an FKA twigs song.
It’s exciting for me to return to doing that kind of work, where I can be Gina with the body that I have. This body might be struggling but can still be sexy. Bodies in pain and the bodies that are struggling are still valuable.
MH: Tell me about this theater, with the rainbow sign?
GSd’A: The SAFEHouse use to be the ‘Tea Room,’ a theater than screened gay porn, and hosted live performances since 1976. The Tea Room was sadly closed in 2016, but I love that this is like a repurposed queer public sex space. It feels perfect for the work that I’m doing. The fact that this theater is in the Tenderloin, which is a trans neighborhood, a queer neighborhood, also a sex worker neighborhood. So performing this show about San Francisco queer and sex worker history in this neighborhood feels good.
MH: We live in a city that is hard just to survive in right now, how did you get support for this show?
GSd’A: I received a residency from SAFehouse For The Arts, a queer and trans theater space based in the Tenderloin run by Joe Landini, who’s a long-time San Francisco, queer theater person. I love having the support of a theater space that I can perform, practice, and write in. Residencies are hard to come by; space is hard to come by. I know so many artists of all different genres who are struggling for gigs but also struggling for space–space is a necessary creative incubator.
Artists need community, to collaborate and reflect, to encourage each other. Especially in the queer art world and sex worker art world…we don’t make it without each other, you know?
RAW presents Gina Stella dell’Assunta’s new work “How To Have a Body”
Performance dates & times: Friday-Saturday January 17-18, 8 pm @ 145 Eddy St. SF
Purchase tickets online
Tickets also available at the door. No one turned away for lack of funds.