I’m Coming Out
On January 21st, I kicked open the door and bungee jumped off the cliff at 2:28am. I still feel like I'm free falling. Wheeeeee!
AND YOU MAY SAY TO YOURSELF, MY GOD, WHAT HAVE I DONE? AAAAAH!!!
With just three letter changes of my psynodym to my real "above ground" name, I connected my underground names on my websites- my boudoir photography, my sex coaching practice and I made an official announcement on my sex worker/activist Twitter account, which has been the home of my secret world for the last eight years. Twitter is my online community of pseudonym superheroes, anonymous fans and clients who've known me under several identities as my work and persona evolved. I've also connected my name on Substack, which makes me feel more vulnerable and exposed than getting naked online. For me, writing is the antithesis of a beauty-filtered thirst trap on Instagram- I'm here to pull back the curtain and expose what's real, which isn't always sexy or pretty. I'm new at the express-your-soul-through-writing thing. Up until recently I've told my stories through only pictures and not words. What excites me the most these days is being fully self-expressed, and I hope that through my words and pictures I inspire viewers to step into their authentic self, find community and the support be fully self-expressed in their world. This is one of the reasons I've chosen to come out of the closet publicly.
I brought my underground and above ground lives together to meet the "real" Melissa, known by her family and internet as a successful and published wedding photographer who stopped posting anything new years ago. Not that I haven't tried getting more photo gigs over the years, but after years of trying and trying and trying to push that rock up Exposure and Credit Mountain and racing every photographer and their mother who has a digital camera to the bottom, I felt even more defeated. Until this month, my photography site hadn't been touched in over a decade. (Oh and by the way, I'm very proud of myself of redesigning the entire site from the ground up which took six weeks to complete it.)
My success and career defined who I was starting in my twenties, but then the career announced in my late thirties that it's over and wanted a divorce- my identity was blindsided and I had no back up plan. It felt like if I wasn't a successful photographer I was just a has-been whose career peaked at age 38, then I declined into a mental hospital at 40.
As I came out those dark years, I started dipping my toes into the demimonde of sex work. It scared and thrilled me, it woke me out of my depression. I decided to reinvent myself and start over fresh at age 43 as a professional companion. I could remain anonymous and live two separate lives. I hid my face in photos; created a name, persona and website; claimed whatever age I could pass for (35 was the magic number for all high-end escorts in their 40's) and charged whatever rates I was comfortable with. Coming from the competitive world of freelance photographers and videographers, I no longer felt the hungry mass of competition, all of us fighting each other for a small supply of clients and even less of them paying a decent rate.
I found sex work to be refreshingly quite the opposite. Clients reached out to try to book a date with me, I didn't have to do the chasing or hard sell anymore. In the demimonde supply-and-demand chain, there are more clients than providers (or as one escort told me, "Dick is abundant and low in value".) I had the privilege to turn down the majority of requests (fake, rude or refused to be screened) and be picky about who I would see. Financially, I did pretty well. In my second year as an escort in San Francisco, I grossed what I made at the height of my career as a wedding photographer (to give an example, my packages averaged $9k in 2008.) I felt even more gratitude to have money in the bank again after being fired from a $12 an hour sales job in 2013 and booking very few paid photo shoots.
The underground also became a cocoon where I didn't have to face my failure in the above-ground world of Mermin. I had this exciting risqué job and financial success but couldn't talk about it with anyone outside of the underworld, so I made a few close friends in this tight-knit community of siren man-slayers and sexual healers: escorts, sugar babies, dominatrices, somatic sex coaches, erotic massage providers and tantra professionals. What we shared in common is what kept us underground and hidden: stigma coupled with criminalization. We respected individual privacy and clapped for our comrades who un-blurred their faces for the first time on their social media profiles or being vulnerable revealing details about their personal life online. This is what I love most about sex work, it's not about the sex or the work. I'm inspired by my badass resilliant community of superhero superhoes.
The Price of Being Underground
Having two worlds, keeping them separate with secrets and lies on the correct side was exhausting and took a toll on my mental health over time. I felt really inauthentic when I started doing coaching work with clients who struggled with shame about their sexuality. I felt frustrated to not have the opportunity to openly share with my six thousand Twitter followers about Mermin's accomplishments as a published photographer or when I won an award for a film I made in 2019. While a few close people in my family knew about my superhero life, I couldn't share openly on the internet about my work as somatic sex coach and certainly not as a sex worker.
The split left me feeling more isolated from my family and friends. I took baby steps out of my comfort zone and started exposing my secrets and fears that began to feel like demons. First to a few close friends, then to a therapist and finally openly in my writing. The more I've expressed my demons, the less power they've possessed over me.
For me, coming out has felt like surrendering after battling a long war, except surrendering is actually strength and I'm slowly defeating the enemy (shame, fear and letting go of judgement of myself and from others.) Still, it's not easy to come out. The weapons I imagine being hurled are just words but might provoke me to feel like I want to crawl back inside. "Those who disapprove will either come around or stop coming coming around. Either way, lovely." (quoted from Glennon Doyle's book Love Warrior.)
If I lose people in my life who disagree with who I am, what I do for work, what I believe, who I fuck, I will let them go with compassion. If I attract people who align with my values. that's lovely too. By coming out, I give one more person permission to stop hiding who they are or what they do to make a living: sex workers; being queer, gay, trans, gender non-conforming; being in a non-monogamous, polyamorous or open relationship; being kinky, highly-sexual or asexual. Not fitting neatly into the patriarch box of Who You Must Be To Be Loved And Accepted.
Brene Brown said it best: "To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly." Being real, vulnerable and daring is a big risk, but there's no growth or connection to other people if I stay hidden and silent. I also acknowledge that it's not safe for every person to come out, there are real dangers and risks for people who don't have the privileges that I have.
"Why can't you just stay under your fake name and write your story there? Why can't you just write it in a diary for yourself? There are people out there who will be cruel and I'm worried for you...why do you have to be a martyr?" My dad questioned me over the phone last month when I told him I plan to come out and write my story under my real name.
I want to dare greatly and do things that are thrilling, sometimes scary and a little dangerous. Dare to be a sexual revolutionist, an artist, documentary filmmaker, comic, and a storyteller. I want to inspire others, make them laugh and see the world through a new perspective. I want to be change I want to see in the world. Coming out has to start with me.