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The bold and unconventional life of Michelle Tea: activism, prostitution, and art

Lee HardingTen years ago, men in drag reading books to young children was completely unheard of. That all changed thanks to Michelle Tea, the self-described “lesbian feminist radical activist prostitute” who set up the first event in San Francisco in 2015. Unfortunately, this talented and creative woman is a tortured soul.

Tea was born in 1971 and raised in Chelsea, Massachusetts. In a 2019 interview with The Guardian, she said she never felt like she fit in. When she was 19, her stepfather confessed to having drilled a hole through her bedroom wall to peep on her for many years, something she had long suspected.

“You’re haunted by it and accruing all this trauma,” Tea said. “There are all these tricks you have to do with your mind to stay in that denial … because I come from a family that had and continues to have a lot of denial.”

Tea reeled from the revelation in a “lesbian feminist nervous breakdown.” She moved in with a sex-working girlfriend in Boston and decided to join her in the profession.

drag time story hour michelle Tea

Photo courtesy Freida Whales/Facebook

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“I had been with my first boyfriend for years and had had a ton of sex that I didn’t enjoy … At least here, it was very cut and dried. I’m not having to pretend to this person ‘I love it and everything’s great.’ That’s not to say that there aren’t traumas associated with prostitution,” she said.

“I wanted to try things, everything – especially things that are illegal and have a whiff of glamour … I had to stop doing it (prostitution) because it was taking an emotional and psychic toll on me … I had this butch girlfriend and we tried to do girl-on-girl sex shows,” she later told SF Gate.

Tea moved to San Francisco in 1994 and founded an art collective. In 1998, she published her first book, The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America. In 2003, she finally sought help for the alcoholism she had struggled with since her teens.

In 2004, Tea published a poetry book called The Beautiful. Reviewer David Hellman wrote that the poems depicted a life of “many failed relationships with women … often a tedious day-to-day existence of dating, drinking, smoking and just getting by (including a wonderful poem about a pot-brownie experience gone terribly wrong) …Tea is often angry.”

Later that year, Tea toured with the Sex Workers Art Show and wrote another poetry book entitled Oppress Me Before I Kill Again. The author later had a steady relationship with a female-to-male transgender named Rocco Kayiatos, also known as the rapper Katastrophe.

“Rocco was always a guy. When he was a little kid, he called himself George and his parents let him wear boy clothes,” Tea said. By 2012, she complained of him in an interview, “I spent 10 miserable days on a yacht in the south of France with a wealthy and miserable ex-boyfriend.”

In 2011, a 40-old Tea supplemented her income doing tarot card readings and wrote in xoJane about trying to find a sperm donor. She settled on Quentin, “a baby drag queen who performs under the name Miss Super Extra Deluxe Pandemonium” who was a friend of her former girlfriend Lindsey.

“Hi Quentin! I Skyped with Lindsey a couple weeks ago and was complaining about how HARD it was to find some gay sperm to make a gay baby, and she told me you are very free with your sperm! Is this true?” read her first message to the potential father.

In 2013 Tea married Dashiel Lippman, a sales director at Yelp, whom she called “my totally masculine female partner.” The Universal Life minister conducting the ceremony did not know what to call the couple when they joined. “I now pronounce you … the phrase hung in the air,” Tea later wrote.

After a miscarriage, a doula who was also a shaman helped Tea deliver baby Atticus in 2015.

“But aside from visiting Portland and crashing from crystal meth, I don’t nap, so my second trimester was a new landscape of totally justifiable day sleeping. And porn. My hormones were so out-of-control crazy,” Tea wrote.

“I found a whole subset of porn that fetishizes ballerinas, and then one where women pretend to be giant floppy dolls. After exploring these new landscapes, I would be more exhausted than ever, plus vaguely disturbed at how compulsive I was behaving.”

In 2013, Tea created Radar Productions, a foundation- and government-sponsored San Francisco “incubator and platform for QTPOC literary artists” (that’s Queer and Trans People Of Colour). It was through this organization that Tea launched Drag Queen Story Hour, aimed at children aged three to eight to teach that “people of all ages should be free to express themselves.”

Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? For Tea, it is both. Now here’s a question: what if the young attendees of Drag Queen Story Hour get set on a life like Tea’s? And if an entire society lived like Tea, would it even be one?

Lee Harding is Research Fellow for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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