Updated: Oct 24, 2022
BY SLOANE HOLZER
My Daddy and I are getting matching tattoos” read my tweet. An accompanying jpeg pinned to the bottom of the Twitter post displayed the curve of intricate script on a white forearm, the proposed location of our chosen bond that would state our permanent link to one another. They responded soon after, showing off their own hypothetical tattoo, which I remember as something like “Daddy to a Crazy Daughter.” My eyes felt fixated on that last word in their response, the way a hunting dog’s posture can hold itself like a living arrow. They called me their Daughter, I thought, over and over again. That sentiment, that declaration, was a taste I wanted to roll around my mouth forever. The close friend who I called my “Daddy,” first jokingly and then with painful emotional candor, was my first of so many things. The first queer stranger I bumped into at a bar who became more than just a one night social engagement. The first person who, after a crushing breakup, helped me to feel seen in my gender. And the first person who didn’t see me beginning to pursue sex work as a dangerous or poorly informed decision, but rather, as a former sex worker themselves, saw the decision as a financially understandable way for a trans woman to find regular work that paid well. We fell into a deep emotional connection quickly. The difficulty each of our father’s had with our gender transitions served as an emotional undergirding for much of our early relationship. If our family of origin wouldn’t care for us in the ways we needed, we could define the way we chose to care for one another.
Despite how emotionally serious I felt our connection was, we fell out just as quickly. Our last conversation was just a single text message, a lonely patch of blue sky punctuating a careless overcast day. The abrupt nature of it all brought into sharp focus how losing one of the first chosen family members I had made in the Bay Area upturned my entire social world. I felt aimless and cast out of a social fabric that had come to define the way I moved through so much of my life – the way I celebrated holidays, who I turned to when I needed care. A few months after they chose to leave I sat in a crowded Castro Theater watching Paris Is Burning. In that dark and vast theater, the words of Pepper Labeija reached forward in time and through the screen. “When someone has rejection from their mother and father, their family, they — when they get out in the world — they search. They search for someone to fill that void.” Labeija speaks about how immediately young people in the ballroom scene “latch” onto her, because of their shared experiences facing disapproval for their gayness or transness.
I had sought out someone to fill that aching familial void, a void that had been left open since my own painful coming out process with my family of origin. Because of a sudden death in the family just days after my coming out, I was left to figure out navigating access to gender affirming care on my own. That self-reliance I was forced to cultivate in order to become the vision of myself I had ultimately calloused into a sense of detachment—one that I have only recently begun to work on softening. When the friend whom I affectionately referred to as my “Daddy” stopped speaking to me, I was in the midst of going to bottom surgery consultations, and had just 4 months left before my FFS procedure. But just as those mounting fears around planning my surgery recovery began to take the familiar shape of solarity hyper-independence, I met the woman who I would come to call my Mom. A mutual friend connected us while I was seeking sources for an article I was writing on the history of the Folsom Street Fair. Afternoon tea began with questions about the leather lineage of women at the Fair, but the tone shifted as she brought out a scrap of leather. It was a piece of Cynthia Slater’s dungeon equipment. A realization washed over me as she placed the moisturized black hide into my hands. I had rarely, if ever, been afforded the privilege of heirlooms or hand-me-downs from maternal figures in my life. But this piece of leather, this point of connection, continues to be the most valuable familial gift I have ever received. The night before my FFS procedure a dear friend (whom I had extensively built out the first week of my surgery recovery plan around) called to cancel. As I began spinning anxious hypotheticals about recovery going wrong, my trans Mom reassured me saying she’d pick up the slack.. She arrived at 5 am the next morning to whisk me off to my predawn call time, and visited as often as she could over the following weeks. Part of the procedure entailed work on my jaw so I was only able to eat soft foods for the first week of my recovery. She arrived for dinner with a grocery bag full of supplies and painstakingly made me a souffle from scratch. My vision of chosen love is her face in the dim kitchen light, pulling a stockpot laden with a silken mound of aerated egg out of the oven. As Aren Aizura, Assistant Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota explains in the 2021 Vox article “Modern Family”, queer and trans sex workers have been invaluable in forming chosen queer kinship networks because “they can’t come out to their biological families as doing sex work.” Aizura states how the support and resources often available to people through their family of origin do not exist when there is “an everyday part of your life that is difficult to reveal to family.” While I see sex work as an understandable economic decision in a capitalist world that exploits trans women like me, I know that some of my family has moral objections. Being able to reach out to my trans Mom (a retired sex worker herself) when I need support is not just helpful, but a precious and life-affirming connection. I feel profoundly grateful for these threads of care that my Mom and her extended queer family have woven me into. They pass on knowledge systems for joy and survival, and emphasize how every queer, sex working, deviant life is made possible because of these interconnections. As I began to step back into sex work following my recovery, I saw a noticeable uptick in the amount of clients who wanted to roleplay a Mommy/son dynamic with me. Whether it was a change in my branding or just the happenstance social spread of a fetish, I was happy to accommodate. The dates themselves were generally sweet and easy, with each new client softly supplicating themselves into the shape of someone eager to please me. And while I deeply value the clientele, many of whom have seen me multiple times, the dissonance between the family I choose and the family role I am chosen to play is sharply noticeable.
When the OnlyFans policy change took place in August, I was having a difficult time staying in contact with my clientele. Between freelance writing work, a civilian job, and the psychic toll of being a worker in the world, I felt stressed and overburdened. The delay in my availability frustrated one of these clients, and he became increasingly more agitated with me. During the week we began to discuss details for our date, OnlyFans announced it would reverse course and continue to allow adult content on the site. My client immediately texted me and said, “See? It’s all better,” as if to imply my worries had been hysterical and unfounded. Throughout 2021, these clients’ vision of my motherhood was one of endless availability, without consideration for how the relationships we were building felt unreciprocal. But when I found time to visit my Mom to discuss how I had been feeling, her care and support felt like a reprieve, not just from the world but from relationships that were familial only in name. Another one of my Mommy/son clients asked, as we were wrapping up our date, that I not acknowledge our connection if I happened to run into him in public. Beyond the confusing act of requesting the kind of obvious discretion I have for all of my clients, I was a bit insulted. His asking felt more like a request for my personal blessing, so that he could ignore me in public, free of any potential guilt. Perhaps, as a trans woman, I feel more sensitively attuned to the nature of public disavowal. I have had enough casual, civilian dates ask for similar requests that I know the intention goes beyond personal safety – extending fully into transmisogynistic disposability when I am no longer valuable or needed.
When you are someone who occupies a socially disposable role, forming bonds to strengthen, protect, and care for yourself is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. And when that disposability is a present facet of everyday life, writes Aizura, “then you have to organize a much wider and more comprehensive vision of queer family.” In late January of 2022, I tested positive for Covid. Multiple times throughout the week, my trans Mom checked in on me, even bringing loads of groceries up to my apartment door. Our connection, unlike many that I have had with previous purported “chosen family”, is one firmly rooted in reciprocity. Chosen families, just like families of origin, are imperfect things. But every single day that I wake up and choose the work of love, I am reminded of how many beautiful queer, trans, sex workers have built new communities and new worlds by making that same choice.
WORDS BY SLOANE HOLZER
ILLUSTRATION BY PENELOPE DARIO