At the Heels of Queer Femininity

Market Street Cinema series, photography by Leon Mostovoy.
Leon Mostovoy, Market Street Cinema series, 1987-1988.

Shortly before Leon Mostovoy tagged along with a friend to the Market Place Cinema, the site was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. A curious fact, since it closed in 2013, and is scheduled to be torn down. Since its opening as Grauman’s Imperial Theatre on December 22, 1912, this site has always been one of spectacle and reinvention. Before becoming one of the earliest live nude dancing venues with nude lap dances, Market Place Cinema was operated by United Artists, and Loews Cinema.

Eventually, it became the strip club where the founders of the Sex Dancers Alliance began advocating for sex workers’ rights. According to SDA co-founder Dawn Passar, “…the Cinema didn’t have wages, and didn’t pay the dancers, but you got to keep all your tips from lap dancing.” This soon changed when clubs began charging dancers for stage shows, which,  combined with other factors, pushed Passar and co-founder Johana Breyer to organize women via an Exotic Dancer’s Alliance to defend working womens’ rights.

For its time and place, Market Street Cinema girls were not your typical exotic dancers. Their empowerment, sex positivity, self-conscious feminism, and punk ethos must have made clients equally nervous and aroused. From Mostovoy’s photographs, we see the interpersonal camaraderie among sex workers at the club, between 1987 and 1988. The punk ethos of San Francisco is evident in their eyes, postures, and in the dancers’ attitudes both toward each other and their clients.

Focusing on queer femmes, Mostovoy leads our eyes through a buried vocabulary within queer art history: the queer femme. The ones who (mostly) pass for straight, and get accused of “straight privilege,” simply because the literacy of queer femininity remains a distinct language easily colonized by misogynist interpretations. Through a distinct transfeminist lens, Mostovoy shows how queer femmes are central to the role that power and desire play in the reordering of social structures.

Leon Mostovoy’s Market Street Cinema is currently showing at the One Archives gallery at the University of Southern California. What follows is an excerpt from an interview with Leon Mostovoy, from the forthcoming “Purveyorist Edges” issue of Flare Arts Journal.


Leon Mostovoy, Market Street Cinema series, 1987-1988.
Leon Mostovoy, Market Street Cinema series, 1987-1988.

How do you describe the tension between the old school lesbian-feminists, and the young sex-positive feminist femme dykes of the early 80s?
Leon: Feminists and dykes in the first wave of feminism in the 1960s–1970s needed to construct an independent, strong image of self-reliance and power. Women needed to carve out a female-centered place inside a totally male-dominated society and patriarchal paradigm within the US. In doing this, they felt they needed to cut off images and constructs that were traditionally associated with female sex and sexuality.

Feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem preached against all forms of overt female sexuality and attacked sex workers for feeding into a misogynist society. They (the feminists of the 1960-70 era) formulated an analogy that sex work was degrading and anti-feminist. This ideology led women to believe from the late 1960s–1980s (when Market Street Cinema was made) that sex-work, and most traditional forms of femininity associated with the male gaze, was anti-feminist and bad for the new, empowered female image of the 1970s.

In contrast, the young queer femmes of the 1980s created empowerment by taking control of their sexuality and image, emulating icons such as Siouxsie Sioux and Nina Hagen. My friends at Market Street Cinema had a more liberated sexuality. They reclaimed images of classic femininity, such as lipstick, corsets and fishnet stockings. Femme sexuality and queer feminism took on a new look with the queering and blending of music, make-up, politics, rage, and the creation of a new generation of sex positive femmes.

In the 1980s, femmes reclaimed femininity as a power statement, and reclaimed sex work from the ancient times when prostitutes knew the power of the pussy—and used pussy for power.

Leon Mostovoy, Market Street Cinema series, 1987-1988.

Queer femininity carries its own particular form of literacy. In the same way that gay men have had the vocabulary of a hanky code, queer femininity is more nuanced, more layered. I find it very rewarding to read your Market Street Cinema photographs through the prism of queer femininity.
Leon: First, I need to say I am a transgender man and have always identified on the male side of the gender spectrum. So, I’m speaking from the perspective of a femme ally, one who loves, admires, respects, and falls in love with femmes, but I am not a femme. I have to put that out there so that femmes don’t come kick my ass, and rightfully so!

Femme is a gender referent of its own. There are different nuances from the straight girl, and those who are not within our queer culture cannot usually recognize the difference. The typical heterosexual male knows that she (femme) is different, and he is often threatened by her self-confidence and sexual empowerment. But straight males don’t detect femmes to be outside the tribe. This affords femmes an opportunity to infiltrate and conquer, in personal and sociopolitical ways.

“In these photographs, you see femme camaraderie and the unspoken language of women who inhabit the space of both conqueror and survivalist.”—Leon Mostovoy

Leon Mostovoy, Market Street Cinema series, 1987-1988.

At the time that these photographs were taken, what was Market Street Cinema culture known for?
Leon: Market Street Cinema was always known to be dirty, seedy, and filled with sleazy guys. A place where some women turned tricks on the side. At each strip club, the girls set their limits for how far they want to go to earn money. It’s another unspoken rule and it’s different in each club. MSC culture was one of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. My friends were all punk rock, which had much more of a political meaning back then. They were also drug addicts, college students, artists; mostly artists who supported themselves dancing. Most artists have to find alternative ways of making a living and sex work is one way that makes a lot more money than working at a café.

These photographs were taken during the height of the AIDS Crisis. How did that impact the dancers, the clients, and the whole scene there?
Leon: There were a lot of drug addicts that used needles at that time, the other population that fell hard during the AIDS pandemic. The customers of MSC were only slightly more cautious because they considered AIDS only a gay disease. The junkies I knew were in fear and did become more cautious, everyone started bleaching their needles.  All of my friends were politically active and proactive. They started to demand condoms if they were doing risky behavior.

Leon Mostovoy, Market Street Cinema series, 1987-1988.

Was making photographs a natural extension of your thinking?
Leon: Since I was a small child, and still today, I have been fascinated by visual documentation. I pored over National Geographic endlessly as a child.  I love photojournalism in all aspects; cultural photographers, street photographers, war journalists, crime photos, anything where I can observe and study human nature. Still, my most coveted possession is a 1970 copy of Larry Clark’s Tulsa, stolen from a public library! It was a present given to me at 18 years old; I still have the book to this day.

I have always felt outside of the social sphere, and look at photojournalism, portrait photography, and many other forms of photography as a way to view humans in the same way a person from another planet, or another species, might study us. Probably because I do feel like an alien “acting as if.”

Photography is a way to recreate and to explain human nature to myself, and maybe sometimes to other people if they are interested.  Photography is a way for me to give voice and visibility to LGBT culture and to the world around me that few are privy to. Humans fear what they do not know. Hopefully my photos create a pathway of understanding, education and compassion for those who only visit this world through my photographs.

Who have been your influences as a photographer?
Leon: Some of my main influences as a photographer are Mary Ellen Marks, Larry Clark, Danny Lyon, Weegee, Joel Peter Witkin, and Diane Arbus. I like photographers who delve into the intimate human landscape of our being. Those who illuminate the hidden soul, the schism of the deprived, and those qualities that are considered dark and ugly which have always fascinated me.

And your films?
Leon: My films are usually an extension of my photographs. My photographs are fairly narrative, and my films are stories with more narrative than what I can fit into a single frame.


This interview continues in Flare Arts Journal, “Purveyorist Edges” Issue, 2015.