SEX

Trans Porn Stars Take On The Mainstream In Groundbreaking Shoot

Change in the industry has been slow, but legendary Wicked Pictures just shot its first scene with transgender performers, and some are calling it a historic moment

SEX
Aubrey Kate poses for photos — Tracy Clark-Flory/Vocativ
Jun 07, 2017 at 11:41 AM ET

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Venus Lux, a porn star wearing fishnets and an elaborate black bustier, is sipping water through a straw while waiting to perform — and, for once, she’s nervous. She’s worked in the industry for four years now, but when she holds up her hands, they are slightly trembling. “I’m shaky, because this is something new,” says Lux.

That’s because Lux is transgender, and this is the first time in 25 years that Wicked Pictures, a legendary porn company, has ever filmed a scene with a trans performer.

This particular scene is for a splashy, big-budget showcase film for the popular, award-winning cisgender star jessica drake, who has never before worked with trans performers (and who also asks that her name is written in lower-case). The adult industry generally treats all porn featuring transgender stars as part of a small and edgy niche, often categorized with derogatory terms like “tranny” and “shemale.” That is despite these categories being incredibly popular and marketed to straight, cisgender men. Trans stars would normally never share the spotlight in a major feature film, and it’s typically seen as taboo — and potentially career damaging — for “mainstream” performers like drake to work with trans co-stars.

This has become especially glaring as trans celebrities have gained mainstream visibility everywhere from a hit Netflix series to the cover of Vanity Fair. But, slowly, there have been subtle signs of change within the porn industry in the last couple years — this particular scene being a notable one.

“Today is definitely a groundbreaking moment,” says Lux. “This is a huge privilege.”

The longstanding stigma around stars like drake performing with transgender women is partly around sexually transmitted infections. Many within the mainstream heterosexual porn industry believe that transgender female performers carry a higher HIV transmission risk — in part because it’s assumed that they are having sex on and off camera with cisgender men. A similar attitude exists around so-called “crossover” stars, cisgender men who perform in both gay and straight porn. This is contrary to the approach of the Free Speech Coalition, the trade association that manages the industry’s safety protocols, which does not make these risk distinctions. Instead, they require all performers to either adhere to rigorous STI testing or strict condom usage, or both.

Since signing on for this scene, directed by Brad Armstrong, word has spread in the industry, and drake has heard whispers of people essentially saying, as she puts it, “Oh, wow, aren’t you afraid that other people won’t work with you now?” — even though Wicked requires both testing and condoms on its shoots.

She originally brought up the idea for this scene, which features her and three trans women, to Wicked three years ago. “They were like, ‘Are you sure?'” she says of the initial pushback she received. There were concerns about whether it would appeal to the traditional Wicked audience, how retailers and distributors would react, and whether it would have, as she puts it, “repercussions.” But she didn’t just want to do a scene with trans co-stars, she wanted to include it in a mainstream feature, and without explicitly labeling it as a “trans” scene.

“I don’t want to quote-unquote ‘warn’ the viewer because I think that when you do something like that you’re feeding into the assumption that there is something peculiar about this scene,” she says on-set, while a hairstylist teases her hair and applies blonde extensions. “If they see something they don’t like then, hey, fast-forward.”

‘I never thought this could happen’

Adam Grayson, chief financial officer at Evil Angel — which is known for award-winning, as the industry often terms it, “transsexual” content — argues that it’s unlikely that Wicked’s typical audience member will be drawn to this scene. “Porn consumers tend to have one or a few different genres that they stick to,” he says. “It’s a very different audience, at least from my perception.” But in the last few years, he has seen a couple of A-list stars who have performed with trans co-stars — including Adriana Chechik, one of the very top performers in the industry right now. Still, it’s a rarity.

Domino Presley, one of drake’s co-stars, clad in a black fishnet top, says she is frustrated by the tendency to keep trans porn entirely separate from mainstream heterosexual content. “They want to label everything, put us in a box,” she says while waiting to shoot some glamor shots. This is in part, she argues, because of straight men’s insecurity about their sexuality — or, one might argue, homophobia. “God forbid a guy is attracted to a trans woman and thinks he’s gay,” she says. As for this Wicked shoot, she says, “I never thought this would happen while I was in the industry.”

The aim of including this scene in a mainstream showcase scene, says drake, is to send a message to her fans: “Question everything you think you know about sexuality.”

Queer and independent porn has long challenged notions of what content featuring transgender performers looks like, the audience it draws, and how it’s branded. For example, a scene featuring two trans women might simply be marketed as lesbian — because it is two women having sex. Chelsea Poe, a trans porn performer, works for the indie porn site Gods Girls, which doesn’t market her any differently than it does cisgender women. “That’s how I want to be treated with my art,” says Poe. These independent studios long ago opened the door not just for trans women, but also transgender male and non-binary performers.

Buck Angel, a longtime transgender performer, says he’s suddenly gotten interest from mainstream companies in just the last year. He also just recently became the first trans man to film a showcase, a feature film in which he stars in all of the scenes. The work is welcome, of course, but it also feels long overdue.

“Why has it taken until now for this to happen, when I’ve been doing my work since 2001, and not one of those companies would touch me? Why now all of a sudden are we getting these opportunities?” Lux suspects it has something to do with the greater visibility of transgender people in pop culture, what with the rise of celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox. “[It’s] thrown the word transgender into people’s vocabulary recently,” she says.

Slow as it’s been, the porn industry has seen significant changes in this realm. In the late ’90s, Evil Angel was the first mainstream porn company to release porn featuring transgender performers, according to Grayson. In those early years, transgender women in the industry often fit a very specific vision of blonde, big-breasted femininity and performed with cisgender men, he says. These films were shot on a small budget and in a gonzo style — there was no character development or story line.

Resistant to change

In recent years, much as with cisgender female performers, the pool of transgender talent has started to look somewhat more diverse and less restricted to a particular archetype. “There’s a lot more diversity of depictions,” says Grayson. “It’s not nearly as narrow as it used to be.” At least one brand-new company, TransSensual, has begun filming features with bigger budgets and fully developed storylines.

Still, the mainstream industry has been resistant to change around one of the top complaints by trans performers — the use of derogatory terms like “ladyboy.” “I will forever be uncomfortable with [the term] ‘shemale,’ which irks the shit out of me,” says Presley. “I hate those words, I wish they would stop using them.” But, as she points out, terms like that also helped to build her career, and most people don’t rely on politically correct terminology for their porn searches.

As Lux puts it, “I understand that, from a business standpoint, it’s just a word. It’s just a word that’s great for SEO.”

In 2014, Poe publicly campaigned for the industry to stop using terms like “shemale.” As she wrote in an xoJane essay, “If there wasn’t a trans woman being murdered every 36 hours I think the argument of ‘It’s just a word’ could be valid, but when our sisters are being murdered I believe these terms which are further de-humanizing add to the lack of worth society puts on trans bodies.”

It seems Poe’s activism might have had some impact. Before the campaign, 12 of the 15 transgender movies nominated for the AVNs, the so-called Oscars of porn, had slurs in their title; last year, three did. It was only three years ago that the adult industry’s “Tranny Awards” changed its name to the Transgender Erotica Awards.

But shoots like this one with drake remain the exception to the rule. “This is very elaborate — in the trans world, we don’t have elaborate sets like this or a crew of fifteen people,” says Lux. Trans performers are typically limited to working with a very small number of producers, which means that their income and longtime career prospects are limited. They also have fewer opportunities to shift into other roles within the industry. “A lot of the money is still in cisgender power,” says Lux.

While Poe says it’s great that trans performers are getting more mainstream opportunities, like the Wicked shoot, she questions just how much progress it actually represents.

“I think trans people becoming filmmakers and directors is the way you’re going to see more trans-positive narratives come out,” she says. This doesn’t just impact porn performers, it also affects viewers. As she puts it, “Trans women who are going on a porn site and finding positive depictions of their sexuality, that stuff really matters.”