Not exclusively straight nor gay, queer talent can’t be defined by any type of sexual act or even common sexuality.
Dylan Ryan is not who most of us think of when we hear the words “porn star.” Five-foot-nine with a willowy, boyish frame and austere features that might best be described as “handsome” she brings to mind the brainy, slightly too-tall chick from college you secretly wanted to fuck. Art deco photographers from the ‘30s would have no doubt worshipped her brooding, androgynous sex appeal; but this is 2010, and it’s porn we’re talking about. The prototype here is a hot, skinny, blonde with zeppelin-like breasts and ersatz tan who answers to the name “Jenna.”
Yet during what is arguably the worst dry spell in adult film’s history, Ryan’s unlikely star is on the rise. Mainstream porn studios Vivid, Sweet Sinner and Naughty America often book the Canadian starlet weeks in advance for their high-profile feature and gonzo films. Ryan now frequently travels from her home in Toronto to Porn Valley, USA, to satisfy the growing number of requests to shoot her.
“There’s something sexy about her,” a 30-something male fan sporting an MMA Affliction t-shirt told me as we watched Ryan accept her trophy for “Stud of the Year” at the 2009 Feminist Porn Awards. “She seems … different.”
“Different” may be too simple a word to describe the 29 year-old Ryan, who holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work and studied literature and philosophy as an undergrad. Because even more unusual than her unorthodox looks and impressive education is that, along with fellow performers Jiz Lee, Wolf Hudson, and Drew Deveaux, Ryan represents a new breed of porn star that some industry watchers have dubbed “The Queer Mafia.”
“I identify as a queer, cis-gendered* female,” Ryan says in a surprisingly sweet, girlish voice. “But my queer identity is pansexual, which means I have sex with people of all genders and sexualities.”
Cis-gendered. Transgender. Gender-queer. Not quite sure what these terms mean? Well, you’re about to learn. Ryan and performers like her aim to challenge our beliefs on gender, sex, and eroticism. Because they can. They have our attention. In fact, we can’t take our eyes off them.
“Queer porn has been around for a long time, but there’s definitely a new level of interest from mainstream companies for queer performers,” says gender-queer trans performer Drew Deveaux. Deveaux is a tall blonde with an athletic build contrasted by delicate, rosebud-like breasts. Her breathless, melodic voice evokes Marilyn Monroe at her most fragile, but Deveaux’s intellect is unexpectedly powerful, (like many of her fellow queer performers, she holds an advanced degree.)
“Maybe [the interest in queer porn] hooks back into our eternal quest for novelty; the new face, the new fetish, the new sub-genre that will move content and make money,” she hypothesizes. “But I think it’s also the recognition that staple plots and performers are increasingly formulaic, and this isn’t what everyone necessarily wants.”
Mickey Mod, a bisexual male performer based in San Francisco, agrees that mainstream porn has become stagnant and uninspired.
“People are getting tired of the ‘mainstream’ formula,” he says, echoing Deveaux statements. “They want to be challenged in their notions of sexuality.”
Deveaux contends that mainstream porn audiences have become “increasingly savvy and demanding,” wanting porn that’s not just technically or aesthetically higher quality, but “also to be given images that are more intimate and authentic.” That realism, says Deveaux, is what queer performances deliver.
But it also raises the obvious question: why does queer porn have the corner on authenticity? Are straight performers and the scenes they deliver inherently false in some way? And if so: why?
Danny Wylde is a mainstream performer who, after four years in straight porn, took steps to reclaim his queer roots when he recently performed in a bisexual scene with Wolf Hudson. Wylde believes the differences between queer and straight porn can be traced to a deep sense of community shared by queer porn and its fans. Its part of a movement that began, he says, with the female-friendly sex shop Good Vibrations in San Francisco, Calif.
“It’s no secret that mainstream porn is having a hard time right now because of [internet] piracy,” says Wylde. “So unless you serve a niche audience like Kink.com or Good Vibrations, unless you have an established community to support you, it’s going to be really hard to get people to pay [for porn].”
It’s that sense of community, Wylde says, which set the stage for the “authentic performances” mainstream studios are now striving to deliver.
“A lot of the queer performers, from what I can tell, don’t rely on porn as a job,” Wylde continues. “I know many who routinely turn down work if it’s not something they’re interested in.”
That’s not always the case, claims Wylde, for straight performers working in Los Angeles.
“In Los Angeles, performers are completely financially reliant on porn, and that mentality has a lot to do with what happens on screen,” he explains. "Performers are not necessarily doing what turns them on or what they want to do — they’re doing it for the money.”
Christian X is a mostly-mainstream performer who claims that many female performers refuse to work with him as a direct result of his decision to do scenes with trans-females. “I’ve lost at least one scene a week for five years straight,” he says.
X has a more cynical take on the new “queer-friendly” climate. “The change toward tolerance has to do with economics,” he insists. “As work has become less available, particularly for male performers, they’re turning to ‘alternative’ scenes in order to stay afloat financially.”
Not so, Wylde says, who claims that since he completed his degree and no longer “needs” to perform, he is now free to explore projects that truly interest him. That may, he says, include more bisexual and gay scenes.
“At this point, I only want to work with producers who are interesting and artistic in some way,” he explains.
Mod, who has a degree in Cinema and is currently working toward his Master’s, has a similar agenda.
“Porn is a good environment for me to live out some fantasies, as well as create a wider range of images for people of color in pornography,” he says. “But performers who won’t work with certain ethnic groups and queer performers are still around and not afraid to express their views.”
Mod believes the queer porn movement is helping combat the homophobia and racism that have plagued the adult industry for decades.
“Ignorance about the sex lives of others,” he says, “is what we should be fighting against as an industry.”
So then, is the queer porn craze merely an attempt at grasping straws by a declining industry, or a true sign of the times? And if it’s the latter, then what ‘times’ are we talking about, exactly? Do we really expect middle America to open its hearts and minds to the growing community of gender-queers? Are we headed toward a future as a Queer Nation?
Not quite, Wylde says.
“With porn being so plentiful on the Internet, people are exposed to it in a greater way than ever before,” Wylde says. “It has an impact on how people think about sex and learn about sex. So, as people get used to seeing queer performers I think they will start to feel more accepting and tolerant [toward them].”
But acceptance, he adds, is not the same as being attracted to queer performers, or developing a taste for queer porn.
“Straight porn will never go away,” Wylde opines. “With the queer crossover we’re just integrating new ideas and new ways of looking at sex.”
But if queer porn simply isn’t your thing, Wylde claims you have nothing to fear. At least not anytime soon.
“There’s more than enough straight porn out there,” he says with a smile, “to last you for the rest of your life.”
While the queer porn craze is sweeping the adult industry, some performers have been left feeling overwhelmed and confused by their transition to “mainstream.”
Jiz Lee was excited to be cast as one of the “wicked step-sisters” in Sweet Sinner’s production “Cinderella and Me,” alongside straight performers Manuel Ferrara and Allie Haze. Lee was looking forward to performing a three-way scene in the film with friends (and queer porn comrades) Wolf Hudson and Dylan Ryan. But the highly anticipated mainstream shoot left her, Lee says, feeling “confused and objectified” by the production crew’s casual use of what many non-queers consider benign, everyday words and phrases.
The words at issue were “girl” “her” and “she” as used when referring to Lee, as well as the gender-specific terms “pretty girl stills” and “Prom Shots.” Lee chose not to voice her discomfort on set for fear of seeming “difficult.” But inside, she was rattled.
“I felt pretty anxious about posing for the ‘pretty girls’ after seeing all the femme performers pose in lingerie,” Lee explains. “The photographer asked for ‘feminine’ poses, such as showing my ass with my back arched. It felt awkward to pose that way knowing that the photos were intended for a straight audience.”
Lee, a petite, exotically beautiful genderqueer who does not identify as female or male, found it tough to navigate an environment where performers are referred to and classified by gender.
“I feel more comfortable playing with my femininity in a queer environment,” Lee admits.
Rather than steer herself away from mainstream porn sets in the future, Lee suggests a better solution would be for mainstream producers working with queer performers to “ask them how they want to be addressed, and make sure the crew respects that.”
Pronoun faux pas aside, the sting of discrimination suffered by queer performers remains far from a thing of the past.
Wolf Hudson, who has gained popularity as one of the few males to openly perform gay and straight scenes under the same name, continues to struggle for acceptance.
“There are female performers who think I might give them HIV so they won’t work with me,” says Hudson. “And then some girls don’t get turned on by guys who have sex with men, so they put me on their ‘No’ list, too.”
Hudson, who stresses that gay studios “are 100% condom and therefore “probably safer than straight companies,” claims a female contract star for a major studio recently requested him as a costar, but the studio refused citing Hudson’s high-profile career in gay porn.
“A lot female performers tell me they think it’s hot that I have sex with men, and that they have no problem doing a scene with me,” Hudson insists. "Unfortunately, there are industry insiders who scare the new girls by telling them if they work with a guy who’s done gay porn their careers will be ruined, which is simply not true.”
Dylan Ryan, a cis-gender female and one of queer porn’s biggest “crossover” performers, has weathered a few storms of her own.
“I experienced some discrimination as a result of my looks, at least when I first came to the industry,” Ryan says. “I’ve had producers tell me I was too ‘dykey looking’ and therefore not right for mainstream porn.”
Ryan admits the criticism has made her doubt her looks and image.
“I struggled with whether or not to cultivate a more mainstream look in order to get more work,” she says.
But despite the ongoing struggle to gain acceptance in Porn Valley, Hudson is optimistic about the future.