Julia Query and I are wandering through a brick housing complex built by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in Manhattan. Query, who needs a set of keys to get into an apartment to get her luggage to leave for her flight back to California in 45 minutes—long story—is blissed out. Out on the sidewalk, she coos at an elderly man in a union hat. In the complex’s administrative offices, she coos over photos of New York labor leaders and the handsome Jack Kennedy at labor events. At the front desk, she tells the woman who may hold the keys, “I’m a labor organizer.”
But identity is a tricky thing. With her baby doll top and three-inch heels she doesn’t look much like a typical labor organizer. And with her feminist attitude and equally feminist ideology, she doesn’t look much like a sex worker. And with her sex workers’ union tee-shirt and multiple facial pierces, she doesn’t look like a “nice Jewish girl.” And yet it becomes clear once the apartment is opened and she downs half a vat of whitefish salad with a kugel chaser—left for her with a goodbye note from her mother—that Julia Query is all of these.
Query’s most recent role is filmmaker, which she wears well as she promotes her popular documentary “Live Nude Girls Unite!” at openings across the country. The film tells the story of Query’s own time as a dancer at a San Francisco club—the day job she took to support herself as a comic—and of her successful efforts to turn the Lusty Lady into the first-ever unionized sex club in the country. It follows the women in an industry that, increasingly, is staffed by educated women—students, artists, mothers—looking to make a living wage in flexible hours.
“It’s a real win in this country right now when anybody organizes a union,” Query says, “so when a group of stigmatized workers, female workers, do it, it’s a miracle.”
The movie walks us through the dimly lit world of the Lusty Lady and into the dawn of a new age: unionized sex work. At the same time, filmed mainly with a hand-held camera by Query herself, it follows the unhappy process as she reveals her line of work to her mother. This drama holds great irony: Query—born into a “family of do-gooders” and raised “to be the kind of Jew who fought for social justice”—is the daughter of a physician, Joyce Wallace, who has devoted herself to crusading for the rights and safety of New York City prostitutes.
Query’s union effort began at the Lusty Lady over many issues: no sick leave, scheduling of dancers based on race and breast size (seems the busty blonde still wins out), arbitrary firings and docking of pay, and videotaping by customers for porn sights. The workers’ effort was supported by the Service Employees international Union and by long-time club patrons who refused to cross the picket line.
Still, says Query, when news of the unionization broke, newscasters who announced it did so “with a smirk. And it was that smirk,” she says, “it was the bad puns, that just sent us over the edge. When we unionized, people didn’t just jump up and say, ‘Wow, strippers are organizing a union, that must mean strippers are workers.’ People laughed and they made jokes and because they laughed and made jokes, we felt insulted, and I felt inspired to make our story.”
Still, for all her pride in union work and movie work, it’s clear that being a stripper—she’s still at it five years later—and talking about it, are hard on a college-educated, Jewish woman who really wants to be an artist. Her mother’s judgments hang over the film, and over the conversation. “I don’t think she’ll ever really accept me for doing sex work,” Query reflects. “She fought so hard to go to medical school at a time when women weren’t accepted in medical schools, at a time when women were getting jobs based on their looks and that was just acceptable … so of course she feels a real pain that her daughter is now an object for strange men’s gaze. And I feel for her on that. I do. And sometimes I don’t like it, either.”
For information on the film, tee-shirts or organizing a union shop, visit www.livenudegirlsunite.com.