Volume 21, Number 16 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Aug. 29 - Sept. 4, 2008
Downtown Express photos by Laurie Mittelmann
Debra Zion, one of the transgender women who goes to Christopher St., said, “I dress how I feel.”
The fashion queens of Christopher St.
By Laurie Mittelmann
On Staten Island, 20 wigs crowd the public housing unit of transgender model and prostitute Shawn Rachel, 28.
In the West Village on a recent late night/early morning, long, straight black hair, pushed back with Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, framed her face. It matched her “devil” bag: a black leather purse with spikes around the strap, one small remnant from her gothic period.
Thirty blocks south of Fashion Ave., Christopher St. is the runway for transgender divas strutting down sidewalks blowing kisses and hollering at each other, “Hey Sexy, I like what you wearing.” Fashion is their social lubricant and how they embrace female glamour — it’s their key to beauty, self-esteem and money.
Over the years a mood ring has followed Rachel’s style, from when she was angry and dressed “like a complete zombie,” before a 16-month admittance to an Upstate asylum, to her current classy look. The sophistication that she achieves without lace, glitter or makeup is reminiscent of what one might wear on a movie date.
“Everyone has a sense of style,” she said. “It’s like a Britney Spears thing: She pops on that pink wig and goes crazy.’’
Rachel wears “sexy maternity” shirts, with loose fabric deflecting attention from her stomach, and low necklines emphasizing her recently developed cleavage.
“I would describe it as ‘Take me,’” Rachel said.
Jeans and capri pants are her top
choices for leg wear, because she said that skirts make her thighs rub together.
But one transgender woman, in a turquoise dress so short that her behind was exposed, let no chafing interrupt her freak dance later that night. She grinded between the outstretched legs of a man sitting on a Christopher St. stoop between Hudson and Greenwich Sts., as he held onto the back of her hips like a steering wheel. He stared at her soft, round butt twisting under the steady yellow streetlight.
Tight dresses that show off curves achieved with hormones are popular apparel in the transgender night scene. Alexis Lbajela has been sashaying her way down Christopher St. for 20 years in different one-piece outfits. Recently, she wore an orange lace Giorgio Armani dress, with a black shawl and garters.
Unfortunately, the loose knit of the floral lace, and the long tassels at the hemline gave her the appearance of an ornamental mat: Doily chic. A black bustier bra also tackily peeked an inch and a half above her neckline.
“It keeps your breasts firmer,” Lbajela said, long black bangs falling in front of her face. She wore a simple necklace with a pendant the shape of the number 8 on a chain, which she said was an up-to-date style. Bangle bracelets dangled on her wrists just inches above long nails, neatly filed into square tips.
In her hands she daintily carried her shoes, complaining that the high heels were hurting her feet when she walked.
She does not suffer alone. Carey Smith, 26, from Brooklyn, stumbled down Christopher St. a few nights later, holding sparkling gold, 3-inch heels that she said a friend bought her for $600.
Smith looked like a tomboy fallen into a basket of laundry. She wore a red sleeveless dress that tied around her neck and showed off her lean, muscular arms, but she also sported a black corset-style belt that jarred the sleek red fabric. It made the material bunch up below her chest to resemble breasts she didn’t have and probably would have looked gorgeous without simulating, like a female athlete who makes up for lack of curves with the attraction of a strong, healthy body.
With her hands on her hips meeting her long mane of straight glossy black hair, and batting long fake eyelashes, Smith said, “During the day I wear jeans and a T-shirt because I like to be discreet, but at night I wear tight clothing because I like to be sexy and I love being a woman.”
Then Smith hopped off the cement into the vestibule of an apartment building.
“My feet hurt,” she said. “I’m going to get another pair of shoes from a friend.”
While shoes may also pain the feet of males and females, underwear can present unique problems for pre-operation transgender women. They want foxy little numbers, but still need to cover bulging male genitalia.
Rachel has a drawer full of underwear, varying in color from black to silver with rainbow stars, but mostly of booty style to sufficiently cover her most private areas. Her underwear is still visible through her white cotton pants.
“My friends say my sense of style is bitch,” she said, with barbell-style piercing jewelry glinting as her tongue flicked inside her mouth.
Piety is not lost on transgender women of the Village night scene like Rachel, despite her own promiscuity. The Virgin Mary is tattooed on her right upper arm, for her father who passed away several years ago. She said that she wears a wooden bracelet depicting different saints for protection — along with needle-nose pliers, which she carries with her on the streets at night, “to stab and open inside clients” who physically assault her.
One self-described “plain and conservative” woman, leaning against a car parked on Greenwich St. at Christopher St. in DKNY jeans and a red shirt of “long-john material,” seemed more afraid of revealing personal information than of facing the other people who hang out in the West Village at night. She claimed not to care about “materialistic things like fashion,” and, accordingly, she looked like someone dressed to perform yard work.
When asked about a dark-colored tattoo on the left side of her neck, she leaned her head into her shoulder to cover it, and asked, “Why do you want to know?” saying that it had nothing to do with clothing, and to have a good night and a good morning.
Dedra Zion, 24, from Brooklyn, cares enough about fashion to go shopping with her best friend Milk every single day. She has perfected the naughty schoolgirl look. One night, she wore tight jeans supported with a wide belt that had a buckle with a studded letter “M,” which she said stood for the name of her boyfriend for whom she was outside searching. She also wore a plaid, cotton zip-up hoodie.
The next night, she wore a different belt with a buckle of the letter “M,” and again was searching for her boyfriend, this time, donning a belly-exposing plaid halter top and large-framed gold glasses without lenses.
“I dress how I feel,” Zion said. “Right now, I’m just chilling.”
Both nights she wore the same jewelry, a long chain around her neck with a cubic zirconium heart pendant swinging between her breasts, and 2-inch cubic zirconium hoop earrings, a popular item in the Christopher St. scene.
Rachel wears similar ones, but an inch larger in diameter.
“My friend stole them for me because she said they’d look cute on me,” Rachel said.
As the moon hung lower in the sky, Moenae Johnson, 19, of Queens, hung out at a bus stop on Hudson St., looking like the nice girl next door. She wore a black-and-white-striped, long-sleeve dress, black stockings and black-and-white sneakers. Strands of fake pearls hung at her collarbone. The only flaw in her ensemble was that her dress was so short that the more opaque panty part of her stockings was visible at her upper thighs.
“Today is classic and simple, but I’m usually a flashy person with bright colors and labels, and I like to be a little slut in the summer and show some skin,” Johnson said. “Sometimes, I’m just randomly throwing stuff on, but other times it takes hours. When I was younger I used to stick to trendier clothing, like what was in for the season, but now I mix and match whatever I want.”
While few transgender women wear shirts with bold logos, designer labels are important to them. When asked what she was wearing, one transgender prostitute, in a red, spaghetti-strip tank top with rainbow hearts, said that her top was nothing special — just from H & M — before excusing herself to attend to a client, who was waiting quietly at the dark corner of Charles and Hudson Sts. to escort her down a staircase.
Rachel even recalls johns by the color of their shirts and ties, and by the vehicles in which they pick her up. Last winter a man in a white limousine stopped her and her best friend to ask them questions about sex, and then gave them a ride back to the projects where they live.
Not all johns prowl the streets in business attire, however. One man with a scraggly white beard recently walked up and down the side streets north of Christopher St. in a blue T-shirt advertising a Seattle fish market. He said that he wanted “rocks and sex,” and that he understood that wrist accessories might come with that search. Apparently, he thought there was a chance this reporter was an undercover cop.
“You’re either going to hook me up with some fun, or hook me up in cuffs,” he said, licking his lips and kneading his pants.