Welcome to the In-between
Photo by Sander Hunter
Last August I set foot on campus as a student at the University of Southern California for the last time. It was the first day of the new academic school year and everything around me was buzzing with energy. Much like the incoming freshmen who were anxiously crisscrossing the campus in search of their next class, I, too, was full of nerves in anticipation of what lay ahead. After eight long years of writing and research (and more than one emotional breakdown), I had finally reached the end of my graduate career. In just a few short hours, I would stand in front of faculty, colleagues, friends and family to present the summation of my work. And if all went well, at the end of the day I would finally hear those three little words I had been dreaming of: “Congratulations, Doctor Hunter.”
For most of my friends and colleagues in the room with me that day, seeing me receive my Ph.D. was, although significant, not particularly unexpected. To them, I had always been Lorien R. Hunter, the confident and driven young academic who spent most of her free time thinking about hip hop, sipping whiskey and reading textbooks about representation and race. Although many had seen me stumble repeatedly during this process, in their eyes, my impending accomplishment had always been well within my reach.
For those in the room who had known me in August of 2000 and before, however, such an outcome may have seemed far less certain. In part, this was because in the spring of that year, just before my nineteenth birthday, I had fallen in love with a raver named Jeff and decided to move to Arizona. Like most young romances, ours didn’t last, and within months I was sleeping on the couch, in serious need of money and a new place to live. I wasn’t in school, I didn’t have a job, and I didn’t know many people in Arizona. But I wasn’t going back to Wisconsin. I knew couldn’t pass a drug test because of all the partying I had been doing, so I decided that my best option was to check out the exotic dance club down the street and inquire about becoming a stripper.
For the next two years, I had the time of my life—sweating, dancing, laughing, flirting, making new friends, traveling the world and building my self-confidence. Although I initially found everything about the strip club scene to be incredibly intimidating (it took me a week of pulling into the parking lot before I could even get up the courage to go inside!), I quickly realized that, contrary to its portrayal in mainstream media, everyone inside the club, both workers and patrons, were regular people just like me. Some were sweet, some were sarcastic, some were silly and some were shy. Some were there just to kill time and others were in search of connection. Sure, some people were rude and there were elements of the job that I found unpleasant, but I had been working since I was fourteen and it was true of all jobs I’ve had before and since.
One of the biggest challenges I encountered as a stripper was the way people in the outside world perceived me. Upon learning my occupation, most would have one of three responses: rejection, objectification or acceptance. Those who rejected me would usually shut down and/or distance themselves as soon I said the word stripper. In contrast, those who objectified me would grow noticeably more engaged at the mention of that word, but would show little interest in anything about me beyond my body and sexuality. Only the third group—those who truly accepted me—continued to treat me like a real person, but this turned out to be a far smaller segment of the population than I had hoped for, particularly when I was in my early twenties.
Because of this reaction, over time I learned to keep this part of myself separate. When I quit dancing due to an economic slump in early 2002, I started taking classes at a local community college. Although I had always been smart, this was the first time since elementary school that I received positive attention for my brain, and I was not about to jeopardize it. Consequently, I kept my former life as a dancer heavily guarded, and continued to work hard as I moved through the university as an undergraduate student, and later, as a master’s and doctoral candidate.
However, despite this very deliberate separation, I never forgot those life experiences nor let go of the person I became there. Layla Lorette, as I was known back then, was (and is) still very much a part of me. She is not only the reason I am comfortable networking in a room full of strangers or speaking to a crowd, but also the foundation for my understanding of marginalized experiences and the importance of advocating for equality. As the embodiment of both Layla and Dr. Hunter, I continue to explore and accept seemingly irreconcilable differences, recognizing bits of myself in highly divergent places, such as those of both the sex and academic industries. By possessing the ability to straddle these two worlds (by the way, you are welcome for that pun), I find myself in a constant state of friction, being comfortable in both, yet not fully belonging to either. This experience of being in limbo, of remaining suspended in a middle space, is the inspiration behind this column. It is the state that I have repeatedly found myself in, in many ways and at many times throughout my life, but only recently have I come to know it by name. Welcome to the in-between.