It’s 10:30 p.m. on a Wednesday in foggy, neon-lit downtown L.A., and La Sirena is working every inch of her body on the pole. Her hair is long and bubblegum pink, the same shade as the silk robe she’ll shed momentarily to unveil a crystalline bra and matching bottoms for a packed audience that can’t seem to reach inside their wallets for $1 bills fast enough.
Dropping to her hands and knees, she crawls seductively down the catwalk amidst a shower of ones, tens and the occasional twenty. The crowd’s been in the palm of her hands since a remix of Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” came pounding out of the club’s speakers. A flurry of cash is thrown onstage as Fine China, the statuesque trans dancer who organized the show, wades around exchanging larger bills for singles. She’s captivating in a sultry black silk robe, but at this moment, the show’s energy is focused precisely where it needs to be: As the music soars and lights strobe, La Sirena takes off her bra.
It’s a simple act, but it feels huge. The impact of an out trans woman peeling off every layer of silk and glitter to reveal her body to a packed room of screaming fans cannot be understated, and it’s exactly what Jolene, tonight’s show, is all about.
Jolene is the only trans-inclusive strip club night in L.A., and one of the only ones in the country (though there seems to be some opportunities for trans dancers in Portland and at spots like AsiaSF in San Francisco and Fairytail Lounge in New York City). Founded by Fine China with the help of a handful of other well-known dancers like Jordan Kensley and Bella Bathory — and named after the Dolly Parton song as a cheeky nod to the “other woman” — the raucous and radically inclusive monthly event has been turning heads and making waves since its first iteration in June. Part of that is because of the talent and names it’s brought in — a famous burlesque dancer and a number of “famous actors” who “shall not be named” have stopped by — but it’s also Jolene’s ambitious mission that sets it apart.
“I’m trying to normalize the attraction to trans women, to put it bluntly,” says Fina China over a cup of tea near the West Hollywood dance studio where she works. “I want to change the narrative that says the attraction to trans women is just a fetish. I want people to come to my show and see women of all bodies, colors and expressions they can be attracted to, and for those attractions to be celebrated and welcomed, no matter what they are. Jolene is all about owning your body, being able to celebrate it and enjoy other people celebrating it, too. That’s the type of environment that I try to nurture.”
To do so, she curates a mixed lineup of both cis and trans dancers who work alongside each other not as distinct entities, but as femmes united under the common umbrella of womanhood (they even mentor each other at times; Kensley, who is Fine China’s “stripper mom,” taught her almost everything she knows). By weaving dancers with multiple gender identities throughout the performance — most of whom are also women of color — a clear message gets sent: It doesn’t matter who’s on stage — they’re all femmes, they’re all hot and they’re all going to entertain the living shit out of you (cut to the ripped gay model screaming “Work!” at the stage with a fistful of dollars). “Everyone has preference, but there’s something for everyone here,” says Fine China. “What guy doesn’t like hot babes on stage? What girl doesn’t like hot babes on stage?”
Glancing at La Sirena and a stagehand scooping up a mound of cash the size of a small dog into a bag before the next dancer comes out, it would appear that everyone here is in agreement. “This is everything right now,” says Keisha, a 26-year-old with short, lilac-tipped hair who’s here with her girlfriend. “There’s no place like Jolene.”
That’s the truth, but thanks to a recent change in California’s employment legislation and a November upheaval at Jolene’s original venue — an iconic, queer-friendly bikini bar and strip club called Cheetahs — it’s become increasingly clear that while there’s no place like Jolene, there might not be one for it, either.
Last September, California passed Assembly Bill 5, which reclassified many independent contractors as employees. While AB-5 was designed to protect workers like Uber and Lyft drivers from being exploited by their employers, no longer allowing businesses to deny full-time employees in all but name worker protections and benefits, the law also reclassified many exotic dancers from contractors to employees as well. Multiple dancers we spoke to including Fine China, Ryder Monroe and the mononymous Malice, describe how some strip club owners reacted to this change by cutting their payroll and firing a number of regular dancers from their lineups before they could demand their rights as employees. These payroll cuts have led to fewer available jobs and fewer opportunities for dancers who are considered “alternative,” including out trans dancers.
“AB-5 made it hard for everyone, but it made it infinitely harder for trans women to find space in this profession,” says Fine China. “There’s so much competition now that it’s even harder for marginalized dancers than before. It’s become bitter and cutthroat. It’s like a shark tank out there.”
Then, in November, Cheetahs underwent a remodel and change in management that resulted in the termination of their “special nights” program (of which Jolene was a part of) and the dissolution of their regular staff (many of whom danced for it). We weren’t able to reach Cheetahs ownership for comment so it’s uncertain what their rationale for cancelling special events like Jolene was, but in any case, the result was the same: Almost overnight, Jolene, which was flourishing at the notoriously and uniquely queer and trans-inclusive club, was left without a permanent home.
For Fine China and the rest of Jolene, the impact of these changes was huge. Trans dancers lost the only space in L.A. where it wasn’t only okay, but encouraged — not to mention profitable — to be out. While Jolene is still operating as it hops around looking for a permanent residence, the newfound uncertainty about where to host it underscores the difficulty many trans dancers and the fans who love them face in finding a safe space to celebrate their bodies, identities and ability to climb a pole.
“I really liked Cheetahs and I felt really safe there. I don’t want to have to go places where I have to hide that I’m trans and probably make less money,” says Ryder Monroe, a regular Jolene performer and self-described “exotic dancer and porn star extraordinaire.”
“I don’t even want to approach other strip clubs in L.A.,” says Fine China. “Strip clubs are very conservative and usually run by men with these misogynistic, old-fashioned ideas of what a strip club should be. Usually, that means cis women and cis women only.” Even when clubs do offer trans nights — see the insulting but mercifully defunct Tranny Strip, a night which was, paradoxically, also held at Cheetahs before Jolene — Fine China says trans dancers tend to be featured exploitatively, marketed as niche fetishes rather than regular, talented dancers.
In fact, when Monroe and Fine China met, they were both dancing at an event run by a man Monroe described as “problematic” and performing for audiences of men she described with Obi-Wan’s observation of the Mos Eisley Cantina denizens in A New Hope: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Basically, they were “chasers,” or cis men who are attracted to trans people but inflict transphobic behaviors on them instead of affection and respect. “The girls didn’t really have the power to do anything about it, and we all needed the money,” she says. “It was a thing where you grin and bear it.”
So when Fine China started Jolene, Monroe was grateful for the opportunity to dance somewhere she could be out and celebrated, not fetishized. With a trans woman like herself organizing and curating the event, Jolene never took on the exploitative tenor of Tranny Strip, and it attracted a better, safer crowd who saw new possibilities for how trans women could take ownership of their bodies and a crowd’s reaction to them. “That was the hardest part about losing Cheetahs,” says Fine China. “Its original mission statement was that trans women belong and can dance in strip clubs, too.”
Not that they weren’t already there. As she explains, trans dancers been working undercover in strip clubs for years, concealing their bodies and true gender from managers and patrons in order to stay safe and employed in spaces that are, for the most part, expected to be exclusively heterosexual and cisgendered.
Safety is no small concern for any dancer — hence the necessity of “stripper names” — but transgender women experience disproportionate instances of violence and murder, particularly transgender women of color and especially those involved in sex work. According to the Human Rights Campaign, there have been at least 153 killings of transgender people since 2013, many of which were committed by men grappling with transamory. As Addison Rose Vincent, founder of the LGBTQ consulting service Break the Binary, told Vice, this still-stigmatized sexual preference for trans people can make some men feel “less than, inferior and deserving of ridicule,” sometimes fatally so.
Nonetheless, some trans folks turn to stripping and other forms of sex work due to limited economic opportunities in the traditional workforce, creating a situation in which they have to expose themselves to these dangers in order to survive. That doesn’t, however, mean it’s always easy to find work, especially as a dancer. Fine China says she’s auditioned for “tons” of clubs in L.A., but though she’s objectively gorgeous and a strong performer, she’s met with the same response each time. “They’ll check my I.D., which I haven’t gotten changed yet, and tell me they’ll ‘be in touch,’” she says. “They never are.”
Since losing Cheetahs, Jolene has bounced between a handful of different venues — though none have been the kind of location Fine China believes is essential to the show’s mission. Precinct, the historically gay nightclub where Jolene is being hosted tonight, is a workable placeholder, but the show is neither as well-attended nor as high-energy as it was at Cheetahs. A few days prior, Fine China had expressed some concern about this, explaining that while gay spaces like Precinct are perfectly welcoming, there also tends to be an undue pressure placed on trans women to do drag, not just dance.
“For a long time, the only place that we could perform was in drag shows,” she explains. “That’s how I got started, but I was having a hard time with it because of all these weird standards created by the Drag Race phenomenon. I’d have people come in and be like, ‘Oh, she’s not wearing wigs. She’s not changing her hair.’ It was like people were lumping trans women in with drag queens. Some of us do drag and do it really well, and that’s great, but we don’t all connect with it.”
At the same time, though, she says all of this just provides her with more motivation. “I take it as fuel to push to find better, safer spaces,” she says. “It’s time that more dancers started teaming together to create these spaces to change the strip club culture of how these guys run it. I will find a place, and I will set up a strip club.”
As for right now, it’s getting late at Precinct — it’s a Wednesday night, after all — and the ecstatic energy from earlier performances like La Sirena’s has tapered off as the night has gone on and the audience’s supply of cash has dwindled. But there’s at least one person who’s still thrilled to be here. “I’ve never considered stripping before, but these girls make it look so fun! They’re so sexy,” says Tamara, a trans woman in her 20s who’s been dancing and throwing ones beside the catwalk all night.
“To think that I could be that confident in my skin and do what they do is super exciting,” she continues, eyes locked on a dancer whose back muscles ripple as she swings on the pole. “The way all these people are reacting to them is so exciting. I don’t know anywhere else you can be this naked and trans. I love it!”