For the past seven years that she's been in the industry, Chelsea Poe has worn a lot of hats. But these days, the 27-year-old filmmaker, performer, and activist stays busy with her independent productions, the latest of which is XØXØX — an experimental queer porn made in collaboration with Australian musician KT Spit.
The kind of DIY work that Poe's become known for, it makes sense that the film isn't a distant cry from her Midwestern noise punk roots. Because while she initially wanted to pursue music upon graduation, Poe found it difficult to find creatively fulfilling job opportunities in the midst of the Great Recession, especially as a trans woman. Instead, she began playing in punk bands, throwing shows, and camming to supplement her income.
Around the time she was camming though, Poe also started to become influenced by alt pornstars like Stoya and Jiz Lee, whose practices appeared to be a more queer-friendly, art-driven alternative to mainstream porn. After all, Poe hadn't started really looking at porn until she was around 18 and, as such, approached the medium not just as an artistic outlet with a steadier paycheck, but as a way to also "reclaim my sexual desires."
"I saw it as, 'I can be a person who does these extreme things, but still be vocal,'" Poe explains. "There's a way you can do this and have it be an artistic expression, rather than have it be something that just destroys your life, which is such a pre-set way of how people view being in porn for a few years."
From there, Poe moved to the Bay Area. And though she initially rose to prominence as a performer with a dedicated fan base, she also garnered a fair amount of notoriety through her activism for trans performers — even though it initially got her blacklisted by a lot of companies. Her largest contribution? A Change.org petition asking the industry to get rid of the derogatory, transphobic slurs historically used to market performers.
"The use of transphobic language within pornography furthers the stigma that all trans people face in all walks of life," the petition's description stated. "Trans women have the right to identify as they want and market their porn how they want. Non trans people have no right to profit off of these slurs thus this petition is calling for removal of terms like 'Shemale' and 'Tranny' from all non trans owned porn sites."
"Our society is becoming more aware of trans issues, but there's still a long way to go."
In addition to being terms linked to the fetishization of trans identity, Poe also points toward an old argument she used to cite during the campaign's height: The fact that these slurs are the words "trans women hear when they're being attacked or murdered, and that's just not appropriate."
Thankfully though, Poe says that "a few sites that used to use derogatory terms ended up working with me" and changing their interface — a switch that also led to other sites, especially the ones that "considered themselves 'premium trans content,'" to follow suit. Poe also notes that she began seeing award shows changing their names, as well.
However, according to Poe, a lot of people at the time pushed back by asking her why she was mixing porn with politics — though it may have just been an indication of how far ahead of her time she was.
"We're in a very strange time for porn now, because it's more visible than ever," Poe explains. "Most Americans can name three pornstars right now, just based on the President's relations to them" — referencing performer Stormy Daniels.
"This isn't a place we've been before," she continues. "It's so bizarre now how porn and politics are combined." That said, Poe also points out that European porn collectives like Fuck the Fascism have been "doing that radical, political stuff."
"There's just so much crazy stuff happening in porn right now," she says. "I think it's so important for people to look beyond getting off on Pornhub, because there are so many radical, political ideas in both mainstream and weird, indie-punk porn."
And for those who would refute that porn can instigate social change, look no further than examples like the Trump-Daniels scandal. In our world today, porn and politics are now inextricably intertwined with the industry's visibility within mainstream pop culture.
So as an activist, Poe should be over the moon, right? Well, while she admits that things have gotten marginally better as society-at-large has embraced the LGBTQIA+ community, Poe has mixed feelings about the increased visibility of trans performers within the mainstream porn sector.
"A lot of them aren't afraid to work with trans performers anymore," Poe says, acknowledging the "night and day" change she's seen within the past seven years. However, while there's less "overt discrimination," Poe says there's still a lot that needs to change. Because while she may not be competing at the AVNs — the Oscars of the adult industry — under the "shemale/tranny" category anymore, aggressive, backhanded comments still happen.
"It's just a lot more subtle now," she explains, pointing toward the fact that even though the AVNs are sponsored by MyFreeCams — a site that still doesn't allow trans performers — the television broadcast is now showing the winners of "Best Transsexual Performers of the Year," albeit extremely belatedly.
"Our society is becoming more aware of trans issues, but there's still a long way to go," Poe observes, before stating that she believes the next step is for the mainstream industry to expand this reach to Black trans women in the industry.
"They've done a really poor job of that so far," Poe says. "There's a long, long, [much further] way to go there."
Welcome to "Sex with Sandra," a column by Sandra Song about the ever-changing face of sexuality. Whether it be spotlight features on sex work activists, deep dives into hyper-niche fetishes, or overviews on current legislation and policy, "Sex with Sandra" is dedicated to examining some of the biggest sex-related discussions happening on the Internet right now.
Photo courtesy of Courtney Trouble