San Francisco adult stars storm the red carpet at the AVN Awards, a.k.a. the 'Oscars of porn'
PORN AWARDS In a conference room at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, diminutive porno starlets with improbable racks highlighted by latex or spandex-heavy outfits shifted, stilletto-to-stilletto, as lines of eager fans filed past to express their admiration for favorite scenes — and possibly cop a feel for their buddy's camera. Flatscreen TVs showed avatars having at each other in various positions, advertisements for recently-released X-rated roleplay video games. One booth advertised both granny and midget couplings, another adult parodies of True Grit, Training Day, and Mallrats.
This was the weekend of the AVN Awards, the Oscars of the porn industry that take over Vegas once a year to honor the most compelling orgasms, wittiest titles, and best double penetration scene of the last 12 months.
In the midst of the melee, queer porn star Sophia St. James from Portland, Ore. waited in line to meet one of her idols. "I'm so excited!," St. James told me when I chance across her on my AVN fan expo wanderings.
Most of the adult film aficionados present that Saturday afternoon in January had probably heard of the object of St. James' affections, Belladonna, well-known in the industry for her gonzo-style sex and smoldering-pixie looks. Perhaps fewer of them would have been familiar with St. James, though the Amazon-esque beauty has an eponymous strap-on model and has done scenes for one of the nominees for the Best Alternative Website award, to be presented that night at the awards ceremony.
Later that day, we sit outside a Hard Rock coffeeshop with a handful of St. James' co-stars from the AVN-nominated, San Francisco-produced QueerPorn.TV . I ask her how her fangirl experience went.
"I couldn't believe it!" St. James exclaimed. "I got to the front of the line and was bending over to put down my bags when I hear this voice go 'Sophia St. James.' And I look around and Belladonna is saying my name!" The two exchanged gropes, business cards, and the promise to keep in touch. St. James was beaming.
This is why queer porn went to the AVN Awards. Sure, QueerPorn.TV was nominated for an award, and it was a good excuse for its actors to have a ball and a biscuit in Vegas. But also, queer porn wanted its props. And it turns out, it might be having a bigger impact on the industry than you'd expect for a bunch of Bay Area alterna-kids.
"QueerPorn.TV got nominated for Best Alternative Website. Regardless of whether we won or not, we needed to celebrate," Courtney Trouble said. She was explaining why she booked a luxury Vegas suite for the weekend of the AVNs where 12 queer porn stars definitely slept, and possibly had an orgy. ("I've heard some rumors of that," she wrote me in an email that confirmed the hot tub was flop distance from a king-sized bed with a view of the Strip.)
Trouble is responsible for more than her fair share of the queer porn that is available today. Her San Francisco production company Trouble Films includes QueerPorn.TV and NoFauxx.com (which she started decades ago in Olympia, Washington). In addition, she and co-director Tina Horn make DVDs — most recently, Fuckstyles, a compilation of vignettes featuring trans men, lesbian sex, and pegging scenes that will be released this year on Valentine's Day.
Bereft of even the ever-diminishing profit margins of mainstream DVD porn (which are difficult to quantify — for a bare-all industry, the porn biz is remarkably adamant about hiding its sales figures) queer porn is largely a labor of love for its creators. During the weekend of the AVNs, its stars tell me the genre serves two purposes.
For one, it fills a masturbatory niche for those non-plussed by the heteronormative and Barbie-on-Barbie couplings of mainstream adult entertainment. But no less sexily, queer porn is an activism unto itself. "There are people out there that don't see representation for themselves in porn," St. James said. "Queer porn offers representation for everyone in the community." By having sex on camera, queer adult film stars are taking their brand of sexuality from out of the shadows.
"Politically, trans visibility, queer femme visibility, and feminism are all very important things to me," says Trouble, for whom 2012 marked her fourth year in Vegas for the AVNs. "If I didn't do this every year and try to get as many folks as I could out there on the floor, a lot of us would just dissolve into the background of the industry. Every year I'm like, I'm going to rip this year a new one."
So despite being there to party and bang each other, the queer porn stars were out to make a point. Sometimes explicitly. On Friday night, I sat on the floor of a mid-range hotel suite for an expert panel on the queer porn biz that featured Trouble, St. James, Horn, actors Tobi Hill-Meyer, Dylan Ryan, and to the glee of all involved, the legendary Nina Hartley, a bisexual feminist porn star who rose to fame in the 1980s. An intimate crowd wearing equal parts street and fetish wear listened to frank, cerebral discussions of what it's like to be in the queer porn biz, about the disappointments and the rapturous moments when a particularly good physical or mental climax is reached. I left feeling uplifted, like I'd witnessed something important.
Chris Thorne is the founding editor of Xcritic.com, an adult DVD review site. He's a member of the AVN Awards academy, and I called him pre-AVNs to get the inside scoop on the arduous process of voting in the 41 porn categories — but we would up talking about the rise of non-traditional porn titles.
"The biggest growth category for adult film right now is lesbian sex on film," he said. "Hands down. Girl-girl porn has three dimensions right now. On one side, it's a male fantasy, on one side you have girl-girl porn that appeals to females and straight males, then you have queer porn that is lesbian porn. The lines on all three of those are not clear. That middle part is where there's a huge growth."
The queer porn crew isn't the only one that considers its offerings an alternative to mainstream skin flicks. All too early the next morning, I was at the fan expo interviewing Jincey Lumpkin, director of the Juicy Pink Box films, distributed through Girlfriends Films. The media is fond of calling Lumpkin "the lesbian Hugh Hefner."
Lumpkin falls into that middle part Thorne was talking about. Queer she is not — she shies from the term and is also uncomfortable with "dyke," attributing her preference to her religious upbringing in Carrollton, Georgia (she says her move to New York five years ago the first time she was exposed to any kind of queer community.) Lumpkin used to be an attorney who specialized in banking litigation, working 80 hours a week. Her coworkers — mostly straight, mostly male — were intrigued by her love life, and to satisfy their curiosity she started a confessional blog called Single White Femme.
Through means that are not quite explained during my interviews with Lumpkin and Girlfriend Films' founder Dan O'Connell, the blog led to O'Connell granting Lumpkin directorial control over a subdivision of his company [CORRECTION: O'CONNELL AGREED TO DISTRIBUTE JUICY PINK BOX THROUGH GIRLFRIENDS]. "I like that she's a lesbian," O'Connol told me. "You can't say it's not lesbian porn." Still, he says straight men like himself account for 40 percent of the films' audience. He guesstimates single women make up 30 percent, and couples the remainder.
Is Lumpkin's porn alternative? It's up for debate. She tries to "break away from the traditional script" of girl-on-girl porn, a style that has long been a part of the traditional porn canon. Lumpkin dismisses this kind of "fake" lesbian scene as "let's flutter our tongues together"-style porn.
She says her vignettes exclusively feature actual lesbian or bisexual women. Lumpkin won't work with women with obvious plastic surgery or fake nails. But when I asked her to compare her work to that of the queer genre associated with San Francisco companies like QueerPorn.TV and Crash Pad Series she says "my work has more of an emphasis on aesthetics. I'm sure they hate it when I say that."
Her scenes' artful lighting might only account for part of this statement. "I would imagine if you asked someone in the Valley what San Francisco makes they'd say they make really nasty queer shit and really nasty kinky shit," comments Horn on the perception of the Bay Area in other realms of the porn world. Still, the boundaries between the Valley and the Bay aren't so defined — many actors like Arabelle Raphael and Ryan work in both places.
Everyone, it would appear, has a different notion of what makes queer and lesbian porn authentic. The Juicy Pink Box series, for example, does feature scenes with women scissoring. Lily Cade, a butch actor who is called "Porn Valley's gold star lesbian porn star" because she's never shot a scene with a man, eschews scissoring scenes on her own label Filly Films. "That's stupid," she told me at the AVN expo, clad in a suit ("I'm a professional, so I'm going to dress like one," she said of her outfit choice). "I'm not aroused by that, so I'm not going to ask my actresses to do it."
You'd be hard pressed, by way of another example, to find fisting scenes in a Filly or Girlfriends movie [UPDATE: Lumpkin writes to say that she is in full support of, and has shot fisting scenes, but that Girlfriends Films will not accept them on their label due to obscenity laws. More on that distinction here ]. But Trouble's scenes have them — in fact, on October 21 the SF auteur inaugurated an international day of celebration for that particular rough sex act. Filly and Girlfriends stick to cis-gendered actors [ANOTHER UPDATE: That should read "tend to stick to cis-gendered actors." Drew Deveaux was the first transgendered actor for Girlfriends Films, in the Juicy Pink Box feature Boutique], and rarely use body types besides the taut standard of the porn industry. Trouble, a woman of size herself, is committed to portraying sexy fat people.
Perhaps another difference lies in the intended audience of each scene. Cade allowed that much of porn's audience — even the "lesbian" films of Filly and Girlfriends — is men. "Wet dreams!" wishes a note inside Girlfriends Films' Poor Little Shyla, whose plot line centers around Catholic school girls given hands-on lessons in lesbian sex by their wiser, big-boobed mothers. Though the blessing could hypothetically be geared towards women watching the flick, one suspects it's not.
But all these types of porn share things in common. "I think we are all outcasts," Trouble told me when I ask if there's a big difference between queer and mainstream actors. "You have to be pretty courageous and strong to be in the porn industry. I think even Jenna Jameson would admit to being a total weirdo."
The weekend's climax for queer porn did not take place at a podium. Best Alternative Website didn't win its category, which turns out is among the B-list honors that are announced in a quick scrolling of names on a Jumbotron at the AVN ceremony's terminus anyways.
The high point instead, was the red carpet. "That's where I shine the most," Trouble told me. Arms draped around each other's tuxes and sequined mini-dresses, queer porn stalked the lane in front of the flashbulbs and broadcast press with aplomb. It looked like they'd been doing it for years, which speaks to their professional talent — actors James Darling and Charlie Spats were walking as the second and third trans men ever on the AVNs' carpet (Buck Angel, winner of 2007's AVN for Best Transsexual Performer, was the first).
Queer dominatrix Princess Donna of San Francisco's Kink.com walked the gauntlet arm-in-arm with Bobbi Starr, who would later accept the AVN for Best Female Performer. Hartley was there with her husband, and chatted with me about her role in queer porn education. "It helps that I can pass for a normie," she laughed. "The presence of my physical self allows the message to sink in. I believe in this [queer porn] to my core."
In the moment, it seemed that queer porn was truly a force in the industry. The week after the awards, I forwarded Trouble a photo of herself with an arm around a beaming Ron Jeremy on the red carpet. She cropped and lightened it before reposting on her Facebook page with the note "Ron Jeremy, you have made some seriously hot porn. I am a fan!"
But when it came time to watch the awards themselves — a drawn-out, logistically disastrous affair whose 2012 highlight was Best Anal Scene champ (and winner of seven awards in total) Asa Akira's acceptance speech: "I'd like to thank my asshole for putting up with all my shenanigans!" — the core queer porn team was nowhere to be found. Beat from hours on their high heels in front of the cameras, Horn, Trouble, and co-stars went out for a "steak and a Manhattan," rather than settling in with overpriced drinks to watch teleprompter flubs and malfunctioning clip reels.
Once again, the queer porn stars were taking what they wanted from the adult industry and leaving the rest. Explains Horn: "everyone was on their magic phones and on Twitter people were saying how terrible everything was. I was putting marrow on toast and I was like, eh, I don't think I'm going to make it."
But they met up with those who did attend the awards for the after-party. And yes, there was a hot tub involved.
Special thanks to Broke Ass Stuart  for supplying the headline of this article. Porn + words = Stuart.