Cris Bleaux in a t-shirt that says sex workers are magic

It’s three in the morning, and 37-year-old Cris Bleaux is at home in the Roger’s Park apartment he shares with his partner and foster dog when he hears his phone. 

Maybe he’s still up, winding down from a bartending shift at Touché, one of Chicago’s iconic leather bars. Or maybe he’s already passed out next to his partner. Both have probably been true at one point because this isn’t an isolated event. It’s not uncommon for Cris to get notifications at 3 in the morning that he feels a responsibility to respond to.

On this night, maybe it’s a friend that’s messaging him. It could also be someone who found him through one of the sex work or queer forums he regularly posts to on Facebook.

“I’ve got some coke, and I want to do it, but I’m nervous,” the maybe friend/maybe stranger messages. Either way, Bleaux’s answer is the same:

“Okay, just bring some over.  We can test it together, and I’ll give you naloxone just in case.”

Drug testing is one of the services Bleaux offers under the brand “Redux Daddy” — a one-man harm reduction operation that he started last year.

As Redux Daddy, Bleaux offers supplies and support for drug users and sex workers, from needle exchange to conversations about PREP use or how to screen clients.

Bleaux himself is a drug user and sex worker, and it’s through this equal footing that he’s able to offer perhaps the most valuable service of all: support on breaking down stigma and self-shame. And breaking down stigma is at the heart of harm reduction.

According to the National Harm Reduction Coalition (NHRC), harm reduction is “a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use.” It is also a “movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.”

The movement is guided by a set of realistic and anti-oppressive principles that accepts that “licit and illicit drug use” is going to happen and “chooses to work to minimize its harmful effects rather than simply ignore or condemn them.”

The principles can be applied to any risky behavior, but the movement is needed most where risky behavior leads to stigma. This most commonly includes drug use, as well as sex work.

When I reached out to Bleaux about this piece, my original plan was to write an article focusing on his work as Redux Daddy. Instead, as I listened to how he got to where he was, I realized that his own narrative is a prime example of why Redux Daddy is so important. So instead, here’s how Redux Daddy came to be.

Who’s Serving Who?

Although he didn’t yet know the term, Bleaux had his first encounter with harm reduction when he was 15 at a rave in Wisconsin. He’d already begun experimenting with drugs and was rolling on MDMA that night. An organization called DanceSafe was testing pills at the rave, and he remembers thinking it was cool that they were there. Then, the rave got busted.

The police told everyone to sit on the floor, but this was an issue for the DanceSafe volunteer whose leg was in a cast. Bleaux remembers the officers shoving him to the floor. “Even though I was fucked up out of my mind, that really stuck with me,” he recalled. The person that was there to help others was exposed to violence from the police. 

Just two years later, Bleaux was kicked out of his house for being queer. He’d already survived physical and emotional abuse by his adopted father for his sexuality, as well. On his own, he started living in alleys and doing street-based sex work to survive. “At 17, 18, I ended up in jail for stealing shit a couple of times,” he told me. By 21, Bleaux had a GED and two felonies.

His history made finding consistent housing and employment difficult. Employers were still regularly checking credit reports at the time. “When you looked at the address part of my credit score, it literally said homeless on it at one point,” Bleaux explained. “So employers and landlords could discriminate against me on that on top of everything else.”

And then he applied for an AmeriCorps program where many of the things that had prevented him from getting a job before, they considered assets — the sex work, homelessness, his queer identity, etc.

AmeriCorps placed him with the Center on Halsted, an LGBTQ community center on the North Side, where he worked with queer and trans youth experiencing homelessness. AmeriCorps also trained him on nonprofit and community organizing skills.

At the time Bleaux began learning what harm reduction was all about. And although the Center wasn’t based on harm reduction principles, he naturally approached his work with that lens.

Many of the youth were sex workers or drug users often Black or Brown hailing from the South and West sides of Chicago where there are limited resources now (and none at that time). Like Bleaux, many of them regularly stole things to survive. “Obviously you can’t necessarily condone someone doing some of these things people are doing, but maybe you shouldn’t steal a computer from the community center you’re at,” Bleaux explained. “Harm reduction is me telling you that the potential risk is you may get arrested. I’m not going to arrest you, but this could happen and it’s important to be real about that.”

As part of his work at CoH, Bleaux trained with the Young Woman’s Empowerment Project — a now-defunct organization that focused on young women and nonbinary people involved in sex work and street economies. “That’s something we don’t talk about: that young people, especially young women engage with sex work,” Bleaux said. This is a theme that came up a lot. The things that society doesn’t want to acknowledge, such as youth doing sex work or drugs, is also where it’s most difficult to find resources.

The project also ran the only youth-run syringe exchange in the country. “Young people can talk to young people. Like, adult allies can be like, ‘You’re too young, you can’t get a syringe.’ And then what? The chances of HIV are so much higher.”

When his AmeriCorps program ended, COH kept on Bleaux as a youth organizer using grant money, but they ran into issues. The Center on Halsted is located in a predominantly white, affluent neighborhood (with many staff at that time of similar backgrounds) while serving predominantly poor Black and Brown youth. And 

Many of the issues that youth wanted to organize around included discrimination from local white-owned businesses. The Center was torn between supporting the youth and preserving relationships with stakeholders within the community, and the program was discontinued.

At the same time, Bleaux was being heavily influenced by the Broadway Youth Center (BYC). In contrast to the COH, the BYC is run by mostly people of color. “A lot more transness going on, which is beautiful. A lot more radical thinking going on and focusing on restorative justice, harm reduction, transformative justice — all these ideals.”

After a while, Bleaux started noticing patterns. The organizations ran by the populations they were helping tended to be more successful, but they were also less well-funded and less likely to survive. The Broadway Youth Center is a rare exception, Bleaux noted, because they are funded by the much larger organization, Howard Brown Health

Bleaux also noted that the Center on Halsted has developed partnerships with organizations like the Brave Space Alliance, the only trans- and Black-run community center in the Midwest, to center the perspectives of the communities it is serving. “Despite their many missteps, it would seem they’ve really gotten their act together.”

Who’s Afforded the Dignity of Risk?

After COH, Bleaux moved on to Access Living, an organization for people with disabilities ran by people with disabilities which focuses on an Independent Living philosophy where he saw a completely different side of the need for harm reduction.

“One of the pillars of the independent living philosophy is providing people with the opportunity to have the dignity of risk,” Bleaux explained.

People with disabilities, especially those who are living in institutional settings, are often not provided many options for physical or mental autonomy. As Bleaux put it, people with disabilities aren’t always given the “opportunity to fuck up.”

“I really saw the dignity of risk is being a fierce cousin of what harm reduction is on a really radical level,” he said. “Along with that risk comes the ability to have sex, the ability to have unprotected sex or kinky sex that maybe scares you or go get high. That’s not necessarily what people were talking about in the independent living philosophy, but it’s right fucking there.”

Bleaux advocated for assistive technology needs such as sex toys and providing people with more opportunities for sexual pleasure and self-agency.

Through his work with the organization, he also started to accept himself as a disabled person. Bleaux lives with borderline personality disorder and ADHD — diagnoses he didn’t initially classify as disabilities, despite readily accepting them for those he supported and his peers. 

“I kind of saw myself as ‘better than’ sometimes,” Bleaux admitted. “But then I was like, ‘Oh, wait, no.  I am absolutely this. I stem. I can’t pay attention when people talk to me, and I have complete meltdowns over nothing. I experience barriers in everyday life, which puts me in the same category.”

This acknowledgment gave him more space to facilitate conversations about disability work with peers.

At the same time, Bleaux was working with the disability community, he began to accept his place in another community, as well — that of sex workers.

The Paradox of Sex Worker Allyship

Around 25, Bleaux reengaged with sex work, but this time, it was on his own terms. “No longer survival sex work, but more like, I enjoy doing this, and I’m in control of this situation. I don’t need to do this, but I’m choosing to do it.”

While working for Access Living, he became a board member for Sex Workers Outreach Project USA  (SWOP) — a national organization that serves the sex worker community. He found chosen family with other people in the organization like Ceyenne Doroshow and Alex Corona.

SWOP is founded on harm reduction principles. For instance, they provide syringe grants for sex worker organizations around the country. And instead of the aim of ending sex work, they’re founded on the goal of improving sex workers’ rights and well-being through community organizing, chapters in cities around the country as well as federal advocacy.

But sex work advocacy is tricky. People can get forced into sex work because of the brokenness in our overall society. Like Bleaux, young adults experiencing homelessness often end up relying on sex work to survive. So do undocumented individuals or people with criminal records, and trans people of color facing discrimination in the job market. “A lot of people with disabilities do sex work because social security doesn’t cover shit,” Bleaux added. 

“It has to do with the intersectionality of the isms, on top of capitalism with a little bit of understanding of one’s assets and how to use them. So it’s a really complicated, thin line of owning one’s body and knowing how to use it to provide for oneself. But also lack of opportunity to do or anything else that’s going to actually make you money,” he explained.

Being an ally for sex workers means embracing the whole messy package: that it’s different from sex trafficking but it still might be someone’s only option to survive. And, because of both stigma and economics, it can be a tough job to leave. At other times, it’s a choice people are actively making. (And I personally fit into the latter camp.)

“There was a point where sex work was a sad part of my story. Now I see it as a really empowering part of my narrative and something I really love about myself, that I can take ownership of.”

Once More Into the Fray

Following Access Living, Bleaux’s nonprofit career continued on at the Chicago Recovery Alliance (CRA), which is considered the oldest harm reduction organization in the city. “It’s not my favorite place and saying that would probably get me in trouble,” Bleaux warned.

When Bleaux first applied, he had a Zoom interview with three staff members — two of whom were cisgender white women with their cameras on and who took up the majority of the time and energy on the call, and one Black woman who left her camera off and didn’t speak up much throughout the interview. 

He didn’t get the job. 

But three months later, CRA’s Executive Director Brandie Wilson personally asked if he’d interview again. The two white women who’d previously interviewed him had left the organization, but the Black woman who’d remained mostly silent was still there. That woman was Cheryl Hull, the Deputy Director at CRA. Bleaux called her a “trailblazer in the harm reduction scene in Chicago and, nationally, HIV activism.”

CRA works on the West and South sides of Chicago: a lot of whom are Black trans individuals and/or sex workers.  And Wilson, who’d been named executive director at the end of 2019, was on a mission to change the staff make-up from majority white, cisgender, and straight to predominantly Black, Brown, and queer to better mirror the communities they serve. (By now, this disconnect between the staff and the communities they serve should sound familiar.)

Wilson’s efforts to change the organization weren’t well received and three days after Bleaux joined CRA, Wilson was fired. 

“It became very emotionally and verbally violent really quickly,” he recalled. He recounted the chaos that followed: screaming matches during meetings and individuals usurping authority with no one to reprimand them.

In September 2020, on Bleaux’s third day at CRA, staff members (including Bleaux) and volunteers staged a strike protesting the way the board of directors was leading the CRA, including the firing of Wilson. “I heard stories alleging racism, dysfunction, and a general lack of leadership from management,” Adam M. Rhodes wrote for the Chicago Reader. “The disorganization and in-fighting at CRA threatens not only the organization but, most importantly, the vulnerable people it serves.” 

During his short tenure there, Bleaux saw it all.  For instance, the staff would regularly misgender trans and nonbinary clients. “Pronouns are the easiest fucking thing in the world to figure out,” he says. “And if you can’t figure that out as an institution, then you’re not trying.”

He also found himself frustrated by the lack of conversations and support around non-opioid drug use or risky situations clients could find themselves in. For instance, most of the leaders seemed to have no interest in learning about harm reduction evolutions in the sense of new ideas, the changing demographics of those in need and specifically updating themselves on the benefits of PREP.

But while he worked at CRA, Bleaux had an epiphany. 

Bleaux was doing the work he was really passionate about in his free time, and it was happening organically.

A self-identified “public health nerd,” Bleaux talks about the topic as naturally as some people talk about the weather. He’ll even bring up things on Grinder, he confessed. “Someone will be like, ‘Do you want to see my cock?’ and I’m like, ‘Do you want to talk about Narcan?’”

Through these conversations, he began to understand some things. One is how little most people understood about harm reduction.  And two, the power of outing oneself in a conversation.

Often, people would be grateful or even relieved to be able to discuss a topic they had so much shame built up about — either about drug use or sex work or both — with someone who wouldn’t judge them. And Cris would see someone’s “narrative of drug use or harm reduction shift a little bit.”

So many people have had bad experiences with nonprofits that claim to be helping them, they’re naturally on guard. And, over and over again, Bleaux had seen nonprofits failing the communities they purported to help.

It’s not that all nonprofits are evil or useless — in fact, he partners with several community organizations in his solo work. But they can only do so much. 

Bleaux began to plan a YouTube series under the brand of Redux Daddy where he’d wear leather gear to draw people in and make harm reduction accessible and maybe a little sexy. He’d talk about different harm reduction principles. He made an Amazon Wishlist of the filming equipment he’d need and planned on applying for grants for the filming gear, but he never got around to it due to the turmoil and burnout experienced working with CRA.

Finally, he decided to launch the brand without the videos.

He grabbed the social media handles for Redux Daddy on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and started off simply. He posted in a bunch of queer and sex work forums about his services.

“Hey, if you want Naloxone or Narcan, if you want fentanyl testing strips, hit me up. I’m queer, I’m on the north side of Chicago, I’m a sex worker, completely safe. You don’t have to work with an institution and you don’t need any numbers counted. We can have a conversation and just go from there,” Bleaux explained as the gist of his messages. 

People started to respond. Some that he knew, some that he didn’t. 

After leaving CRA, Bleaux did a short stint at an unrelated nonprofit, then wound up at Touché. The job seems to allow him the freedom to put energy into starting Redux Daddy.

There’s Power In Being Out as a Drug-Using Sex Worker

LGBTQIA+ folks are almost twice as likely to use illicit drugs. If you look at any website where this kind of statistic will be found, it’s going to be cast in a wholly negative light.

Bleaux has a more nuanced take: “Harm reduction recognizes that drug use often originates as a way of coping with trauma, whether we want to acknowledge it or not or build into our community.” Partying became a way for queer folks to form relationships and community while often coping with layers of trauma.

Part of the power of Redux Daddy is because Bleaux outs himself as both a sex worker and a drug user.

“When we decide that being a sex worker who uses is bad, or because you’re a drug user, you must be a sex worker, we’re just continuing the cycle of harmful assumptions that either of those things makes you a bad person,” Bleaux explained. And the reality is that neither means you are necessarily making poor decisions for your life in that moment.”

Even within the user, sex worker, or queer communities, there are layers of acceptability. Bleaux referred to the “whorearchy,” a cultural hierarchy that assumes things like stripping or being a sugar baby make you more acceptable in traditional society, whereas full-service sex work is considered more demeaning or “trashy.” 

You’ll find a similar hierarchy in our ideas of acceptable and unacceptable drug use. “Doing some blow on the weekend is cute, but if you’re doing heroin and you’re shooting up, you should really reconsider your life choices,” Bleaux explained. “The reality is, none of these things are better or worse than the other thing. They all carry an amount of potential harm.”

It ultimately comes back to what Bleaux referred to as the dignity of risk. What life choices are we allowing people to make for themselves without judging them? And if you feel judged for your life choices, like wanting some coke at three in the morning, thank goodness there are people like Bleaux, checking their phone.

Jera writes about sexuality, spirituality, and social justice. They are the author of Just the Tip, a queer-friendly, sex-positive, relationship advice column and the editor of Sacred and Subversive,...