The Groundbreaking Author Who Celebrated the Sex Lives of Poor, Queer People
Red Jordan Arobateau's erotic writing from the 70s still feels audaciously honest today.
Red Jordan Arobateau. Photo courtesy of the subject.
Flip is standing on the other side of a restaurant window, looking out at Rhonda and trying to decide how to approach the San Francisco sex worker. She's lonely. And more than anything, she wants to be intimate with another woman. “My sex is hungry & raw. No sex in weeks. My underpants wet with juice every night,” she narrates.
So goes the opening scene of Red Jordan Arobateau’s 1975 book, Ho Stroll: A Black Lesbian Novel, a fiercely erotic yet tenderly queer addition to the street lit canon that’s nearly forgotten today.
Street lit—also known as “urban fiction or “hip-hop fiction”—can be loosely defined as writing that captures street life, and often includes themes of sex, violence, and crime. It can be traced as far back as the 1930s, when it was referred to as “Black crime fiction.” But it wasn’t until the late 1960s and 70s that the raunchy writing really rose to popularity, spawning an entire genre of Black film—blaxploitation. By the early 2000s, street lit achieved a steady presence on bestselling lists for African-American literature. And rappers like Ice-T and Snoop Dogg have credited it as influential to their work.
The commonly told origin story of the genre positions writers like Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, two straight, cis authors who wrote Pimp and Dopefiend in the late 1960s and 70s respectively, as its macho forefathers. But street lit also had its queer, feminist niche. Since the late 1960s, Red Jordan Arobateau, a Black trans man, has been prolifically producing transgressive, sex-positive street lit that centers the lives of working class and poor queer folks of color—writing that helped pave the way for inclusive depictions of Black sexuality that we’re only just beginning to see in the mainstream today.
Born in 1943 in Chicago, Illinois to an African-American mother and Honduran father, Arobateau began writing at the age of 13 as a way to deal with a turbulent home life. By 15, he was virtually living on his own. As a teenager, he frequented gay bars at a time when it was illegal to cross dress or engage in same-sex romantic relationships. Finding it too challenging to exist as a Black, butch lesbian (which was how he identified at the time) within the deeply segregated and largely homophobic city of Chicago in the 1950s, he moved to New York City for a brief period before settling in San Francisco in 1967. It was in the Bay Area—where he still lives today—that he began to come into his own as a writer, circulating his prose and poetic writing through word of mouth in underground lesbian networks.
Between the late 1960s and 1980s, Arobateau distributed his writing exclusively in lesbian bars, women’s bookstores, and on the streets. In both content and style, he never had a socially elite or respectable audience in mind. He preferred to keep his work “street oriented,” as he described it in a recent interview. “Most of my characters are not set in academia. They’re not doctors, they’re not professionals.” Rather, they spend time cruising in bars, doing menial jobs, and seeking out sex.
In 1975, Arobateau self-published his first major literary work, The Bars Across Heaven. The novel chronicles the story of Flip, a biracial butch lesbian who cruises the streets of San Francisco in search of love and sexual intimacy. All the while, Flip struggles against a voice in her head she calls “the pig”—an allusion to the role of police in regulating Black and queer bodies—which relentlessly tells her that, as a queer woman of color, she isn’t worthy of love.
Ho Stroll, a sequel expanding on Flip’s story, came later the same year. Both books include loads of titillating lesbian sex. And in true street lit fashion, Arobateau doesn’t spare any details. One steamy scene, for instance, describes Flip in an encounter with a sex worker named Ruby: “Ruby spread Flip’s yellow thighs apart and began licking the clitoris in tiny studied motions,” Arobateau writes. “‘Do it harder!’ The bulldagger said. With her fingers, Ruby moved her short pubic hairs aside. She gazed at it a second, then closed her eyes.”
At a time when Black, explicitly queer artistic expression was virtually invisible in the mainstream, Arobateau’s work was more than just homoerotic. It challenged the heterosexual, male-centric vision of Black sexual pleasure and desire at the core of street lit’s popularity, expanding the genre into otherwise off-limits realms. In a 1996 article in the Lesbian Review of Books, Arobateau described the need for this intervention: “History books tell us a lot about the lives of upper-class women such as Gertie Stein and Alice B. but very little of the underprivileged lesbian factory workers, queer servants, and tranny seamstresses. There’s a whole group of dikes to whom these characters, these books may appeal.”
The feminist dimensions of Arobateau’s work became increasingly clear in the 1990s. During this time, he transitioned into presenting as a man and also began to receive more attention in lesbian and feminist literary circles. As Black women street lit writers like Sistah Souljah and Terri Woods rose to prominence and feminist erotica found its moment, his work made its way into collections like Black Like Us, Daughters of Africa, and On Our Backs: The Best Lesbian Fiction. It was also picked up by the publisher Masquerade Press, which printed two of his novels for mainstream distribution. Still, Arobateau has remained a virtually invisible figure in histories of sex-positive feminism, street lit, and African-American literature.
In 2018, sex-positive Black artistic expression may not seem like so much of a novelty. We are in the midst of a cultural moment that has been described as a “new kind of sexual revolution for Black women." Shows like Insecure, Queen Sugar, and Chewing Gum are realistically depicting Black women’s sex lives along with all the anxieties and frustrations that can come with being intimate. Before all that, though, Red Jordan Arobateau was putting down queer raunch that laid crucial ground for today’s open artistic expression of Black sex, and arguably still surpasses what’s accepted and available in terms of media portraying the sex lives of poor, Black queers.
Although book critics called his work “unpolished” and “explicit,” Arobateau remained insistent about the importance of portraying sex honestly. As he writes in his 1997 essay, “They Say I Write Sex for Money,” “I believe a book that contains the sexual ideas and performances of the protagonist as well as the rest of their mental and physical environment is a more complete book.”