Rebelle Cunt, a writer, activist and self-proclaimed “heaux-storian” from Chicago, is the founder and director of Heaux History, a multimedia archive that explores the history of black, brown and indigenous sex workers and erotic work.
When Cunt began researching research on the history of sex workers in Chicago, she struggled to find literature written through the lens of sex workers at BIPOC. She knew that wasn’t the truth of the past – like sex work everywhere, sex work in Chicago was built on the backs of black and brown sex workers who fought for fair wages, recognition and security. Cunt decided that to honor those who came before her and to guide those who came after her, she would create Heaux History. While Heaux History is rooted in Chicago, it is also a project with a larger goal: to document and archive the history of sex workers across the country to secure their place in history.
The Heaux History Project
On Twitter and Instagram @heauxhistory
“I started to do more research on the history of sex work and realized I was looking for my [Black and Brown] elders and ancestors, black and brown sex workers, because I feel like at this point a lot of the work that you can find on sex work is so white-centric,” said Cunt. “But I know we were there.”
In the late 19th century, Chicago’s Levee District became the birthplace of sex work in the city. The neighborhood encompassed four blocks of the South Loop from 18th to 22nd Streets and was home to a strip of saloons, dance halls, and brothels. Drugs, sex and alcohol were readily available to visitors.
The Everleigh Club, the best-known brothel in the Levee district, was run by Ada and Minna Everleigh. The club was located on Dearborn Avenue and operated from 1900 to 1911. Ada and Minna were both white, and although their history is key to understanding the maintenance of the order of sex work and brothels in the early 20th century , centering their stories obscures the stories of sex. colored workers.
Cunt knew she had to do something to change the narrative.
After creating Heaux History, she continues to work with the Red Cards Project, which consists of interactive maps detailing the history of erotic work in Chicago and San Francisco. The red cards Project is a collaboration between Heaux History and sex worker organization Under the Red Umbrella, hosted as part of a series of projects supported by the media organization and network Old Pros, which itself seeks to de-stigmatize the sex work and to change “the status of sex workers”. in society.”
Red Cards Project
The Chicago Red Map features nearly 100 locations relevant to past and current sex worker communities. Among them are historic destinations such as Black Belt, Bedbug Row and State Street Stroll; current spaces such as the Viagra Triangle (a hub since the 80s for middle-aged and older men, mostly white men who want to pay for sex work); popular walking areas; and organizations and businesses that support sex workers, including Leather Archives and Brave Space Alliance.
While Cunt works from Chicago, Heaux History is a national network. In order to conduct the research for the Red Maps Project, Cunt tapped Heaux History Editor and Director of Accessibility and Inclusion Peech to lead.
Peech traveled from Kansas to Chicago to work on the project and visit historic sex worker sites as well as current sites and build more community between sex workers and their supporters. They then worked to create the Google Maps that take visitors to the Red Maps website on a historical tour.
Peech, a graduate student in comics studies, said in their research, black and brown sex workers were nowhere to be found, a similar situation that Cunt faced. Creating red cards and being part of Heaux History helps them change the future by restoring the past.
“It’s important for me to do this because we’ve been erased, decimated,” Peech said. “We have this idea that black and brown sex workers never existed, and if they did, they never did anything positive or useful or notable. But they’re the ones who built the foundation that our cities sit on now, and to be able to uncover that and make it very clear, very simple, and strong enough for everyone to see that we’ve always been here no matter what, that guarantees that those who came before me do not disappear either. We find their names, their faces, what they did, and we share it because they matter too.
The history of sex workers in Chicago is replete with many issues that we still see through discrimination in housing discrimination and redlining. The Black Belt Historic Area neighborhood, approximately 22-31 along State Street, was associated with black sex workers in the late 19th century and continues to have a large black population today.
It’s no coincidence, as Cunt pointed out. Chicago was designed around the “red light district” of brothels and saloons and who could afford to live near them – and far from them.
“Everything is racialized,” Cunt said. “For example, the further south and west you go, the deeper you go into black communities, you see more vagrant laws that they bring back that target prostitutes and prostitution. It reverberates. Justice lives in certain neighborhoods and particular areas, but I want people to see that there is a literal ground, there is a line in the sand.
While much has changed in Chicago since the late 19th century, acceptance and respect for sex workers in the city may not have increased. There are several memorial sites listed in red cards to honor the more than 75 women, many of whom were sex workers, who have been found murdered over the past 20 years. Most of the files are still open.
And Red Maps is for them too, to remember the missing and murdered sex workers that Chicago didn’t take the time to get to know and continues to erase.
Peech says this erasing of past and present is intentional. Although Peech is a feminist herself, some feminist circles do not view sex work as a feminist issue due to stigma.
“It all starts and ends with the stigma that surrounds us, its Puritan nonsense about sex. But when I hear from people and talk about it with people with this kind of passion that shows the fullness of the situation, it’s really a beautiful thing. We can only hope to continue to normalize erotic work and talk about it.