The concept is simple: bid on a lap dance from Melbourne’s sexiest, most immaculate, dumbfoundingly hot dancers. Receive the lap dance of your life. Know that the former contents of your drained wallet went directly to supporting and saving trans lives.
The tiny room in East Brunswick is filled with people. In the darkness, bodies squeeze in from all corners, forming a jostling semicircle, bursting with laughter and conversation, leaning towards the centre of the room, where an old brown leather couch is propped up against the wall. In front of the couch, more bodies, seated, fill the space, crouching and squatting on the gritty cement floor, gazing up at the dancer standing before them.
Spotlit in nine inch pleasers, the dancer sways their hips, flips their hair, bends over and rises slowly, acrylic nails grazing from their ankle to their thigh, over their hip, landing on their waist. They smile salaciously at the hungry crowd. The room erupts in screams.
We’re at Lap Dance for Trans Rights (LD4TR), a community fundraising initiative conceptualised by artist, director and producer, Ripley Kavara, held in the former backroom of Nico’s East Brunswick Sandwich shop.
“Everyone shut the fuck up!” the MC yells. They’re standing behind DJ decks, people pressing around them, obscured to the audience by blinding lights. “We’re starting at three hundred, can I get three hundred and fifty?”
“FOUR HUNDRED,” someone yells from the back. “FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTY,” “SIX HUNDRED”. The calls bound from everywhere, ricocheting off the claustrophobic walls. It’s dark, but all around are the sounds of conversation and laughter as the MCs, Matisse Laida and Ripley, scream for everyone to shut the fuck up and focus. Groups huddle together and pitch in to make bigger bids – “SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS”.
Before long the bid is at $1200. It’s called. The lap dance is about to start.
The sentiment bouncing around Instagram in the lead up to the event, “Come with dicks wet and wallets open”, says it all. But LD4TR wasn’t just butts, boobs, body oil and making it rain.
Such a horny, sultry, joyous concept could only arise out of the desperation to do something amid hideous, seemingly incessant attacks on transgender people’s existence in Australia over the past year – in the media, in politics, and levied by neo-nazis on the steps of parliament.
It was a serious call to action. As Kavara told VICE, “LD4TR was a fundraiser held for the black, brown, queer and trans community in response to the TERFs and neo fascist propaganda that was openly being supported by the colonial state in March.”
“As a transgender person myself – who transitioned through a global pandemic – I literally fought for my right to exist by accessing gender affirmation surgery, in what felt like a state of total apocalypse. To come out on the other side and see this vile hatred being normalised – they literally wished death upon us, not for us just to not have rights, but that trans people should die – was beyond anything I’d ever imagined,” he said.
Kavara said the TERF and neo-nazi rallies had shaken the community, and him.
“I can only describe what it ignited in me – a fierce protective rage. I learned to turn my rage into action in my 20s and it put a burning fire in my belly to do something special for us and support our communities that need it the most, and to create a space for people to just be themselves, unapologetically, as trans people.”
That evening, tickets and drinks were sold by donation, and an iPad collecting winning bids and a clipboard reading “GIVE ME YOUR MONEY” was waltzed around by Monikha, co host and custodian of the venue where LD4TR took place. The sandwich shop’s backroom has since become Other Goods, a boutique shop and co-working space for Melbourne’s local producers and creative community, conceptualised and run by Monikha.
“I heard about Beyond Bricks & Bars through Witt Gorrie and their work in the prisons,” Ripley told VICE.
“Beyond Bricks & Bars: Trans and Gender Diverse Decarceration Project is a trans-led, community project that provides direct support to trans and gender diverse people in prison, at risk of incarceration and those returning to their communities from prison. We wanted to support them because they are working on the front line doing advocacy work with trans (often Blak) people who are facing discrimination within the justice system – specifically often heavily impacted by being trans in a system that polices gender, blackness and other identity markers.”
As a charity, Many Coloured Sky supports LGBTQI+ organisations in community development initiatives, including capacity building, planning and project development, focusing on discriminatory, resource-poor and complex settings, with global communities disadvantaged by discrimination, poverty and displacement.
“I heard about Many Coloured Sky through a friend who told me about having to meet this Papua New Guinean guy, Manu. He's amazing. I met with Manu a couple of weeks before our event and I was moved to tears by his story, but also in awe of what he does for the community on a daily basis,” Kavara told VICE.
As the night wore on, chaos transcended at LD4TR. Teams of three, four, and five bidders took to the brown couch to receive their $1400 lap dances, as the performers crawled over three sets of legs and stripped on the tiny gap between stage and worshipping crowd, who gratefully made it rain, pouring notes down on the gyrating bodies. Cheers, shouts and cries of ecstasy rang out in the smoky space. Not a single lap dance sold for under $1000.
LD4TR raised $12,500 in 5 hours.
Kavara said he chose Beyond Bricks & Bars and Many Coloured Sky because of their “critical grass roots work that is typically not resourced by the government, or other funding bodies”.
“They also work with black and brown transgender communities who experience complex structural oppression and barriers. Nearly all of the trans peer support projects I have seen are really focused on the white transgender experience, and I, for one, simply cannot relate,” he said.
“The issues that we face are critically different – in terms of safety, cultural inclusion, religion, kinship, healthcare, identity and creative expression… We come from completely different worlds, literally. For example, Many Coloured Sky works with trans refugees and asylum seekers who are seeking asylum because it is illegal to be trans where they are from.”
“Trans people need to be validated and humanised in their experience and valued at every stage of our existence.”
“The most confronting thing is that these laws are the residue of the European Penal Code system and British Common Law, which included the criminalisation of homosexuality. We need to talk about the legacy of white supremacy and the deep impact it has on post-colonial nations. We are seeing an upsurge in anti-trans, anti-queer propaganda and violence, because of the rise of neo fascism and the far right, and it’s affecting places where these laws are still active the most. I want to see the white trans community engage in a conversation about that, because it's really not as simple as ‘those countries are backwards’ – history has an echo.
“It’s actually so scary for people like me, I might be murdered if I go back home, that is a legitimate concern. The so-called Australian government does not provide funding for LGBTIQA+ refugees, who may need to leave their home in order to survive.”
For Ripley, community events developed for direct action are the true measure of progress. And without grassroots support, those organisations wouldn’t be able to do what they do.
“Queer, black and brown trans joy is everything. We need places to be free, mediocre and joyful,” he said. “There’s so much media that is focused on the sob story or the loss and grief. I'm not saying that's not real, but that narrative is often not controlled by us. Trans people are some of the most hilarious, talented and joyful people you’ll ever meet. Can we talk about THAT too?”
Lap Dance for Trans Rights wasn’t Kavara’s first earth-shatteringly successful fundraising event – its first iteration was Lap Dance 4 Land Rights, in 2019. At the time, there was large resistance and organising on Djab Wurrung country, against the Victorian Government’s intention to destroy the Djab Wurrung birthing and direction trees to make way for the highway upgrade.
“I came up with the tagline Lap Dance 4 Land Rights,” Kavara said. “I posted on the event page being like, ok, we gotta pay the rent and let’s do something to support Djab Wurrung. I really didn't think anyone would ACTUALLY spend serious money on it, to be honest. I was standing there next to my bestie and we were joking saying ‘Don't worry toks, I'll bid 50 cents on you just in case no one else bids’. Let’s just say we made 2.5k in an hour and the rest is history.”
On the night, representatives from Beyond Bricks & Bars and Many Coloured Sky appeared to talk about their work. DJs Geryon, Ksmba, Sovblkpssy, Stev Zar, and Lakatoi – trans royalty – performed in between lap dance sessions, where the tiny room became a heaving, horny nightclub. Kavara told VICE having an all-trans DJ lineup was important to him.
“I’ll be frank, I don't think trans artists have the same upward mobility or traction as cisgender artists in the music industry. Across the board we don’t have the same following or support as our cisgender counterparts, and I think we need to question, why is that? I think it’s structural, I think it’s to do with image and marketing and standards that have been normalised and maintained.”
Kavara said the underlying mission for LD4TR, aside from raising incredible sums for grassroots organisations, was to create a totally queer space, away from the cis, hetero-normative lens.
“I wanted to see bodies and experiences that never really get portrayed as sexy or attractive in the media being worshipped. I wanted to create a space where we can rewrite our story, with our people. I wanted to do something outside of a traditional venue, and kind of encourage people to dream again – you don’t just have to run events in this one specific way, there’re many different ways to make spaces. Depending on what you’re doing, you may also have more support than you’d ever dreamed of – that’s really heartening.”
But LD4TR wasn’t for everyone, Kavara said, and that was deliberate.
“We were very intentional about who would be prioritised and centred in the space. Yes, we needed people who had money to come through, but the priority was always for our community to come and experience the space. I’ve seen a lot of events get diluted as soon as they’re discovered as ‘cool’ by a mainstream crowd. And it’s actually so cursed, they go from being a vibe to unbearable overnight because random straight white people are there – not because they care, but because they wanna get fucked up and listen to good music. I won't let that happen to this event. I will own it, I’m gatekeeping.”
A night like LD4TR was made possible by the devoted support network of the queer community, the trans superstars of this city, the sex workers, performers and artists – vulnerable communities over-policed and stigmatised by heteronormative, cisnormative, white supremacist hegemony of post-colonial Australia. Asked about how he felt in the wake of such a successful evening, Ripley said he felt “grateful, proud and exhausted”.
“I guess I also want to say that I feel grief. Grief for the trans people we have lost far too early and the hate speech that fuels that. I feel grief, for losing what felt like three years of my life to debilitating gender dysphoria. Losing my momentum as an artist, DJ and event organiser. Feeling like I have literally had to rebuild my world piece by piece as I recalibrate and redesign my body - all while processing life in realtime. The world doesn't stop for trans people and sometimes we just need time.
“We need to normalise the pathways of transition and hold space for our communities to go through the complexity of what it means to take hormones, have major surgery, heal and transform. Huge social, cultural, emotional and mental shifts occur and are actually huge and can be eclipsing at times. Trans people need to be validated and humanised in their experience and valued at every stage of our existence. Even though I've gone through all that and at times felt really disconnected to the community, I came back into it slowly and realised my voice was important. I’m back making music and DJing again, so watch this space, big things coming. I'm finally ME and can't wait to share that with the world.”
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