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Gizelle Marie, a Bronx native who has been working in New York strip clubs for over 10 years, launched the #NYCStripperStrike in October 2017 to combat pervasive racism, colorism, and unfair labor practices in New York City’s stripping industry. The movement she started has brought unprecedented attention to the discrimination and abuse experienced by exotic dancers in New York City and across the country—issues that are often left out of mainstream movements for labor rights, women’s rights, and racial justice.
NYC strip clubs are largely divided into what those in the industry call “upscale,” which favor light-skinned dancers, and so-called “urban” clubs, which don’t discriminate based on race, but are more dangerous and less profitable for dancers. One of Gizelle’s central goals is to root out what many feel are unspoken race quotas against black dancers in upscale clubs, including Sapphires, Rick’s Cabaret, Hustler, Penthouse, New York Dolls, and HeadQuarters.
“What we’re trying to do is address the fact that black women aren’t allowed to work in upscale clubs, so that can be one of the reasons why they’re enduring all the issues in the urban clubs,” Gizelle explained. “In certain upscale clubs there will be like 150 dancers, and less than 10 of them will be black women. Some of the clubs have just one, two or three black dancers.”
Gizelle and other organizers are developing a multi-pronged approach to combat industry discrimination, which may include lawsuits, legislative change, and working with individual clubs to change their policies. There have been a number of successful lawsuits against strip clubs, including 2,000 dancers in New York who won $10 million in a 2014 lawsuit against Rick’s Cabaret for unpaid wages. Lawsuits are an effective option to hold specific clubs accountable, but organizers also hope to push for new laws that advance systemic and lasting change across the stripping industry.
In December, Gizelle and other dancers began working with the SOAR Institute, a sex-worker advocacy organization, to create a long-term organizing strategy. “What Gizelle and many other women have done since the fall is to start to shed light on the egregious labor violations that exist in their industry,” said Melissa Broudo, co-director of SOAR, “I’ve been in the sex-worker rights movement for over 15 years, and to see broader movements and organizations embrace sex workers is really beautiful. That is really what Gizelle and her colleagues have done.”
In New York, like most states across the country, strippers are classified as independent contractors. Clubs charge dancers a house fee, sometimes over $100 per night; they justify this by classifying dancers as performers, who they charge to use the stage. NYC dancers also say they are forced to compete for tips with bartenders, who clubs hire for their large social media followings. Club management routinely treats dancers as employees who are expected to stick to a regular work schedule and follow house rules, they say, despite failing to offer them basic benefits or wages workers are entitled to. Dancers also allege that clubs force them to share tips with various staff members and routinely fine them for supposed infractions. Much of this treatment falls into a legal grey area, making it confusing for dancers and advocates to combat. But advocates say that when clubs classify dancers as independent contractors but treat them as employees without paying them wages, this is illegal.
While the movement is still in the early phases of building a concrete agenda, the Stripper Strike has already made a difference for many dancers. “Girls have told me there has been a bit of change in some of the clubs. The money has shifted toward the dancers in some places,” said Gizelle. “A lot of women have reached out [to me] and been very supportive. They’re like, ‘you’re doing a great job. We thank you so much for speaking up for us.’”
Working with SOAR, the Stripper Strike brought a cohort to the NYC Women’s March in January. Gizelle also marched with sex workers at the Las Vegas Women’s March. “So often within the broader feminist movement, and we’ve seen this happen specifically within the Women’s March, sex workers are either explicitly not included or implicitly not included as part of a broader women’s rights platform,” explained Broudo. “We wanted to have a vocal and notable contingent around sex worker rights in that space.”
Organizers from the International Women’s Strike USA are also working with the Stripper Strike. The group aims to connect dancers to other labor groups organizing women workers in sectors such as restaurant work and domestic labor, and invited Gizelle to speak at their rally in Washington Square Park for International Women’s Day on March 8. Despite the bad storm that hit NYC that day, an estimated 1,000 people were in attendance. “Sex work is work,” she said during an emotional speech. “Stigma perpetuates exploitation and drives violence. Black and brown women are amongst the most marginalized and exploited people in this country... I’m here today on behalf of all strippers, all sex workers, and my black trans sisters to raise awareness and demand the right to protection.”
“What we can provide is a platform to come together with other struggles that can strengthen the struggle that the strippers are waging,” said Ximena Bustamante, an organizer with the Women’s Strike. “Usually people understand sex work as an exceptional kind of work, but it generally shares conditions of many women workers, in the sense that it’s precarious and they don’t have contracts, security or retirement. They can also be fired at any time, harassed or discriminated against.”
With the support of these organizations, Gizelle hopes to develop Stripper Strike contingents in cities across the country and to develop a national advocacy agenda. Gizelle is also working on forming a nonprofit organization that has an online presence to raise awareness and resources for the Stripper Strike movement. She hopes to garner enough donations to provide financial and legal support to dancers who experience abuse in the clubs.
Gizelle continues her boycott of clubs that don’t treat dancers fairly. She’s been working at Club W, a “pro dancer club,” which charges low house fees and allows dancers of all races and skin tones to work. Other dancers in the movement continue to boycott the clubs in the city they say are discriminatory, instead working at Club W or in other states. Yet with all the forms of marginalization that many dancers, particularly those of color, navigate on a daily basis, it’s been hard for Gizelle to convince a critical mass of dancers to join the movement. The confusing laws regulating their work, combined with the abuse they often face both in and outside the club, make organizing seem fruitless to many dancers. Although their work conditions foster the instability they face, many strippers feel their struggle is tough enough on the day-to-day without potentially risking their livelihoods, according to Gizelle. “Not only are we dealing with the problems inside the club, we’re dealing with the systematic oppression outside of the club as well,” she said.
The circumstances under which NYC dancers currently work not only open them up to financial instability, but also make them vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse. Due to the house fees and other fines dancers have to pay to work, it’s possible for them to leave work owing money to the club. “Dancers can show up for a shift and be down $200 or $300,” said Broudo. “It puts the dancers in this situation where they have to hustle that much harder to get tips, and that creates such a severe power imbalance with the customers, the managers and the promoters.”
Legislative change to improve working conditions for strippers could include harsher enforcement against race quotas within clubs, and strict limits on or the elimination of house fees. These changes could also include more clearly defined job descriptions and baseline pay for dancers, which could prevent the competition between dancers and bartenders fostered by club management in New York.
The attacks that Gizelle says she sustained from club management when she started the Stripper Strike have largely stopped. “The clubs and the promoters don’t say anything anymore, because they know that I’m right,” Gizelle said. “They just don’t think that there’s going to be a change.”
As the NYC Stripper Strike continues to develop, Gizelle is determined to prove the naysayers wrong. “My focus is trying to fight for women’s rights,” said Gizelle. “It has affected me financially, but I feel like because I’m bringing so much awareness and getting so much support, I’m going to be ok.”
Rachel Anspach is an independent journalist examining the intersections of American politics, race and gender. Follow her on Twitter @RachelAnspach.