Victoria Cruz on Life as a Trans Sex Worker in 70s New York
"The Black movement, and the women’s movement, was all up and going. And it was time for the gay movement to start." Legendary transgender activist Victoria Cruz reflects on the era of the Stonewall uprising.
Photos by Lia Clay.
This interview is part of Broadly's Trans Legends oral history project. Read more here.
Victoria Cruz grew up in Puerto Rico and Brooklyn, finding solace in the LGBT community in downtown Manhattan. She came of age in the NYC nightlife scene, and was friends with transgender civil rights leaders Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. In 2017, Cruz gained mainstream attention for her role in the documentary film, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, in which she investigates the troubling circumstances surrounding Johnson’s death. Cruz lived through the criminalization of cross-dressing and is a survivor of addiction and sexual violence. Her life experience eventually brought her to the Anti-Violence Project, where she began as a volunteer and eventually became a senior domestic violence counselor. Today she is retired, but continues to advocate for the transgender community and remains an outspoken activist fighting to end violence against transgender women of color.
BROADLY: When did you come to Brooklyn?
VICTORIA CRUZ: I was about four years old from Puerto Rico.
Who is the first trans person that you met?
The first trans person I met that I can remember was my mother's friend, who was gay, and he used to put a turban on. His name was Tong. And that's the first person I ever remember being trans.
What were they like?
Well, I was very young at the time. So I remember that they would whistle at him and all. And he would put like a turban on his head, and earrings. Kind of eccentric. This is in Puerto Rico. When I came here, there was this Black queen who had a restaurant, and they called her Mother. She had a restaurant on Columbia Street, and she was dressed in drag, and everybody knew her. Nobody messed with her, though, because she was an evil bitch. But she was nice to me.
Do you think that Mother recognized you as a trans person?
I think she knew. I was very feminine when I was young, so.
Where'd you go to school?
I went to Metropolitan High School, which had a course in hairdressing and styling. It was a trade school, so I took the trade hairdressing. And this was in the early 60s. The hippies and Beatles started coming out. The long hair was coming in. So, of course, I let my hair grow. And I was taking courses in cosmetology. I was never in the closet, really. I was in the armoire, but never in the closet.
How did they react to you at school at the time?
It was an all boys school, but you know the rest of guys going to school were gay guys. I remember one time they started picking on this Black queen, and she caught one of the guys. After that, they didn't mess around with the the guys in cosmetology and hairstyling.
Did you ever seek out a club or a community of trans people? When was the first time you found yourself in a space with with other girls?
There was this person called Sandy going to school with me in cosmetology, and she introduced me to another queen, but she was a little older—like, five or six years older. Her name was Fernando, but then she called herself Melva. She introduced me to hormones and things like that. Then we found out there was a doctor on Coney Island. His name was Dr. Leo Wollman. He was a pioneer, as far as hormones is concerned. We used to go there for hormones. And of course I lied about my age. We started with the little purple pills, Premarin. We used to go every other week, there. He would take pictures of our titties when they grew, and examined the blood count and all. That’s where most of the girls went.
But then we found out about hormones in the black market and how to get them. The drugstore used to sell hormones back at that time, and we put them in with vitamin B12. Half vitamin B12 and half hormones—estrogen. And that's how I started.
What was it like in the 60s pre-Stonewall?
In the 60s, you know, if you got caught in drag, you got taken to jail, even though the next day it was thrown out of court. You understand? I was lucky enough that I was short and passed. And don’t forget, you weren’t allowed to give alcohol to homosexuals. That was the law. You know that bar Julius? Back in the early ‘69, in May of ‘69, you had the “sip in.” They went into Julius, they said they were homosexuals and they wanted a drink. They called that the “sip in.” And then the next month, Stonewall happened. So, people were getting tired of that nonsense with the police, and getting arrested when they raided bars and things like that. Don’t forget: the Black movement, and the women’s movement, was all up and going. And it was time for the gay movement to start.
Were you ever arrested?
No, I've never been arrested. I've been stopped by cops, but being that I passed, all there was to say was, “Hey, would you like to see my nightstick?” I’d say, “No, would you like to see mine?” They’d say, “What are you a wise guy or something?” Then some other queen would say, “Come on, leave her alone!” And then we’d just keep on walking and they’d leave us alone.
Do you know about Lily Law? The girls used to stand on West Street, and if they saw the cops, they used to scream out, “Lily Law!” Or the Spanish girls would scream out, "camaron!” which means shrimp—because half the cops were Irish and, were red-skinned. And then people would start running. At the time, it was during the West Side Highway, where they had the trucks and the meat rack and things like that—where the Highline is now. Basically, it was all seedy and what not. You know, it was a cruising area.
Is that where you hung out time? Did you stay in Brooklyn, or did you always go out there?
Yeah, sometimes I went to the Village, but you had to be careful. We used to meet by on 8th Street and Greenwich. There was a Howard Johnson [hotel] there. That's how Marsha got her name. Everybody used to meet at Howard Johnson—especially when it was Halloween. To me, that's how I think all of the Halloween parade started in New York City, because all the girls would get dressed up and made up in front of Howard Johnson. And they counted on that, because it was Halloween, [the cops] couldn’t do nothing to you.
Who are some of the girls that you remember from those days?
Well, most of the girls that I was very interested in were the show girls, like, at Club 82. Some of the girls back then was Baby Martell, she was a stripper; Chanel, Monique Taylor; and then later, do you remember International Chrysis? She was more mid-70s and 80s.
What kinds of places would you perform at?
I used to do shows at the Grapevine with Candy Stevens and Cocoa, and I met Dorian Corey at the Grapevine and she used to book me for shows with her and she was nice, you know to me she was very nice. She says, “No, I want Victoria to come and do the show with us.” Those gigs were regular clubs, specially up in Harlem. And some private clubs, too, like what you call Bachelor parties? We’d do a show there, too.
What did you do during the show?
Strip. And we used to do, like, the best man and the groom got free treatments. Everybody else had to pay.
“Treatment,” is that what you called it at the time? Did that always come with territory of being trans?
Well, yeah, in the bars. Unless you had a boyfriend there, most of the girls worked the area, especially the Grapevine.
What was the Grapevine like?
The Grapevine was on 45th Street and 8th Avenue. And it was mob-run. After Stonewall, that’s when we started going to the Grapevine, because a lot more queens went uptown. Stonewall had closed.
Grapevine was a lot fun. It was a campy bar. They had drag shows every Saturday night, that's where I started doing shows. Every Wednesday night, they had a competition—amateur night. And if you won, you did the show on Saturday and got paid. That's how I started off, I got dared. I was drunk, and my friend dared me, so I did it. I did Billie Holiday, “Them There Eyes,” and I won. And I liked being up there.
How much did it pay?
It paid $35, tips.
And then you take a number home...
Of course! Take a number, take Johns. And after they closed the Grapevine, you went to Gigi Knickerbockers, which was right alongside the Knickerbocker Hotel. With the same owners and the same crowd, but it was a much bigger place, and they had a trapeze artist with a net. So I tried doing that, but I fell from the from the trapeze. I fell into the net and I thought, I'm not doing this, this no good. So then I started doing shows there at Gigi Knickerbocker.
I used to work at Plato’s Retreat. It was a 34th, it was a sex club. A straight sex club. I used to work there as a scene starter.
What was it to be a scene starter?
It was a room, like let's say 10 by 10, or 10 by 9. And couples used to come in, and some would be bashful. And I would just go over and touch some guy, and then have this woman come over, “Here touch him, look, oh, he’s big.” [I’d] start sexual things with them, and once they started, I’d just walk away and start with another couple. It was a straight sex club, but there were trans women there.
Then there was Hell Fire, which was an underground club. And each room had a different theme. Sometimes it was a show of candles dripping; sometimes it was a show of daisy chains; sometimes it was a glory hole; sometimes it was somebody swinging on swings, shoving something up their ass. There was a motorcycle room. Whatever the scene called for at that particular time and place.
Do you think that being trans was always like a sexualized identity? It sounds like in your stories that there was almost no distinction between being trans and being a sexual object, which is still true today. I’ve felt that often.
Yeah. Well, you know, it was very hard for trans women to get a job, being trans. So it’s survival sex. To survive, they went into the business. Unless you had some John supporting you or some husband supporting you. You know part of the curriculum at the time was: if you were trans, you were doing sex work or somebody was supporting you, or you were a hairdresser.
And if you had somebody supporting you, it wasn't a forever thing, anyways. It was like you're stepping in and out of sex work when you weren't being supported.
Right. And that's why I went to college. Because I says, you know, being young and being pretty and all this is not going to last forever. You got to do something. So I decided to go to college in 1976. This is while I was working at the Grapevine, in the 70s. Then started going to Brooklyn College to get my degree in theater and in the Fine Arts.
I know that you worked for many years at the Anti-Violence Project. Do you think that there has been increasing violence as trans people have become more visible over the years?
It might have been always like that, but they weren't as vicious as they are today.
There's always haters. There's always guys that have something against gay people, or trans, or whatever. There's always going to be bias; but the more visible we are, the more increase in violence—especially with the haters.
I did a lot of my shows on 47th Street with the Grapevine, but then when this “gay cancer” [HIV/AIDS] came out, it was like oh no, something’s going on. So then I started going to the bars. I met this guy who I so-called fell in love with. He turned out to be a crack addict, and he got me into crack. So I was a crack addict for about eight years. Lost the money for my operation, which I say, thank God, I didn't do it.
And then I remember one night, it was December or January, and it was cold. And we were doing crack. And I couldn't breathe. Kevin put me in a cold shower. I wanted to go to the hospital, but he was afraid that if I went to the hospital, they'd find out that I was doing crack, I’d and probably get arrested or whatever. So he didn't bring me there. Once I came down from the crack, I was able to pick up my breath and breathe again, so I says, “I'm not going to do this anymore.” So then half my money wasn't going to the crack, so there was less crack available. So he was upset that there wasn't that much crack, so then he became abusive.
He was used to be a sailor or Marine, you know, in the Navy. So I took him to the VA Hospital there, but they only kept him for a week for his crack addiction. He came back out and same shit, abuse. So I says, “Oh no, no, no, I can't take this no more.” So I brought him to Samaritan Village, where he got treatment. He went away for three months, and that's where he broke his crack addiction. But then I was the cause of his crack addiction, because I was trans. They said that he wasn't with a “real woman,” that he had to find a “real woman.” And that's the last time I saw him.
So here I am, broke and everything. And I went into [the] public assistance [office], but because I had crack in my system, they didn’t want to give me public assistance. So I went into hooking for a couple of months. I went back to public assistance, but I went to a different office. And I was passing, until I went for the physical. By then, I had already changed my name, back in the 80s. And when I went for my physical as a female, they found out that, you know, if I put my legs up on the stirrup, you weren’t going to find a vagina, darling. That was a scene and a half!
He says, “Go into that room, shut the door, put the smock on, put your legs up in the stirrups. So I did! And when he came in...” The doctor screamed, “You’re in the wrong area!” But I had already gotten Public Assistance. Anyway, so Public Assistance put me up in the Web Program.
The Web Program was that you worked for your public assistance grant. And at that time they used to put people either cleaning parks or doing something in other areas. I didn’t want to go clean parks, because I remember some of the girls were getting, you know, harassed and beaten up by other people in Public Assistance in the web program. So they put me to work in a nursing home. And then I was sexually assaulted in the nursing home by nurses and nursing aids, and that's how I got to the Anti-Violence Project.
My case lasted a year, and AVP was with me all the time. I wanted to give back to them, so I volunteered. And once I volunteered, I liked it. Christine Quinn [the executive director] liked me. She says, “You know, I want you in my group here in the office,” and sees if there was a spot open as administrative assistants. So she called me, she says, “Come on, I want you in my office here.” I said, “But, I don't know anything about fax machines or answering phones, or anything.” She says, “You'll learn, don't worry about it.” She was very supportive. I loved her. I still love her. And then I worked myself up from administrative assistant to counselor, advocate, and then domestic violence. Then I became the coordinator of the domestic violence project. And then I was senior domestic violence counselor; and then I retired. Some of the girls who used to throw bottles at me during the early ‘70s became some of my clients.
Yeah, one time this girl came in and says, “I know you.” I say, “I know you, too. You used to throw bottles and rocks at me because you didn't want me working the area.” But then, you know, I helped her, we became friends—well, couldn’t become friends because she was my client, but I counseled them and things like that. Christine gave me that opportunity, you know, to lift myself up from the bootstraps. And then to pay it forward to my family and my community.
What are some of your survival strategies and what advice would you have for young trans people in the life today?
Always let them know the tea. You know, if you're trans, let them know, honey child, because they don’t want no surprises.
If could you relive what one moment from those years, what would it be?
There were so many. Despite my hard times and things like that, I wouldn’t change my life for the world. I really wouldn’t. I would have done things different. But, no, it’s got me to where I am.