Graduate student Gina de Vries sparks queer activism through writing

SF State

Gina de Vries, spoken word artist and activist, is a graduate student at SF State working on getting her master's degree in creative writing. She has done work with "Girl Talk," a spoken word show for transgender and cisgender women, and has facilitated writing workshops for sex workers at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco. Photo by Jamie Balaoro / Xpress

In a tiny bedroom full of books and trimmed with pink Christmas lights, writer and activist Gina de Vries’ experience melds with her talent for fiction.

While much of de Vries’ work is confessional and autobiographical, she incorporates fictional devices as well, from combining characters, putting real people in places they’ve never been, or just plain making things up.

“At the end of the day, I kind of don’t care if a story is true or not. I care about whether or not it moves me,” de Vries, an SF State graduate student, said.

At 29, de Vries has come a long way from the crayon-drawn newspapers she created and distributed in her neighborhood as a child. Her work has largely been about creating spaces and generating discussions that are needed in the queer community, but not happening. Dedicating her knowledge and creativity to performances, workshops and even the classroom, de Vries’ work is always progressing.

In 2009, she started a performance series called, “Girl Talk: A Trans and Cis Woman Dialogue.” And ticket sales warrant the need for such a show – this year, the performance sold out nine days in advance.

“I’ve always done a lot of my political and activist work in alliance with trans women, and I was just wanting to start a conversation about real, actual inclusion of trans women in dyke spaces and in queer women’s communities,” de Vries said.

The performance, co-curated by Elena Rose and Julia Serano, celebrates a sisterhood that is working to overcome the issue of trans-misogyny.

“I’ve always been impressed by Gina’s activism, and writing and performances at local queer spoken word events,” Serano, author of “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity,” said. “So I was excited when Gina first approached me about the possibility of working together on ‘Girl Talk.’”

Colleagues and friends of de Vries are indeed moved by her work — the fictionalizing of things does not take away from the reality of emotions and experience.

“Her writing in general is really powerful,” Marlene Hoeber, a board member of the Center for Sex and Culture and performer at “Girl Talk,” said. “It’s emotionally engaging in a way that queer community writing isn’t always.”

Along with “Girl Talk,” de Vries started the Sex Workers’ Writing Workshop at the Center for Sex and Culture. As an undergrad, she faced backlash from academic departments when she wrote about her own experiences in the sex industry.

“I was just wanting for there to be a space where I could write about my own experiences in the sex industry and hear from other sex workers about their experiences,” de Vries said. “Sex workers have amazing stories, we really do.”

Her own work in pornography and erotic modeling, which she began at age 19, has always been strategic and connected to her activism in terms of empowerment.

“It’s been my approach to just be out about everything, and as much as possible, to not have to hide,” de Vries said. “I strongly believe that if you’re already out about being dirty, they’re not able to dig up any dirt on you.”

As a graduate student at SF State, her knowledge of sex work and her work with queer communities has not been subject to scrutiny, but rather an asset in the classroom. Dodie Bellamy, a lecturer in creative writing and de Vries’ thesis adviser, asked her to be a teacher’s assistant for her writing on the body class because of the perspective de Vries can provide.

“I wanted a queer presence in the class and how she brings her experience, like teaching writing workshops for sex workers and working with making writing about desire and the body kind of a normal experience rather than some kind of weird freaky experience,” Bellamy said.

In other classes Bellamy has taught, de Vries has been helpful in educating students about issues, but never in a humiliating or condescending way.

“She’s been a really good energy in terms of opening the class up as far as subject matter, and also just about creating a wide range of people and giving them the humanity they deserve,” Bellamy said.

Currently in pursuit of her master’s degree in fiction writing at SF State, de Vries has been hard at work on her thesis, a work of experimental fiction called “The Record.”

“In a lot of ways, it’s this love letter to San Francisco circa 1998-1999,” said de Vries, who had been 16 and engaged in the Riot Grrrl movement and the zine scene during that time. “The city has changed a lot since then, just in terms of the various waves of gentrification, and the dot com boom and bust, but there are neighborhoods that feel largely the same to me.”

De Vries has had an expansive career so far, from writing a column for Curve magazine at age 14 to her many contributions to queer anthologies. She is currently focused on completing “The Record” and will resume her Sex Workers Writing Workshop Jan. 12.

For a list of her published writing, visit Ginadevries.com/writing.

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