Activist Spotlight: Morgan M Page on Trans History And Truth

by Caty Simon on February 15, 2016 · 2 comments

in Activism, Sex Worker History


Morgan M Page

Morgan M. Page, veteran Canadian trans and sex workers’ rights activist, artist, and writer, recently launched a new podcast focusing on Western trans history called One From The Vaults. Tits and Sass interviewed with her to coincide with the posting of the fourth episode of the podcast.

Two of the three episodes you have up so far have a lot of sex worker history as well as trans history content. Do you expect to encounter any backlash from trans activists who would rather whitewash the past? Can you talk a bit about the inextricable connection between trans history and sex worker history?

This was something I did purposefully. You might also notice that all three of the episode focus on trans women who are of color and/or Indigenous. I felt like I needed to begin my telling of trans history in a way that contradicts nearly every available trans history book on the market—by fronting sex workers and women of color. So often trans history starts with Christine Jorgensen, or in a post-Danish Girl world with Lili Elbe. Both of their stories are important, and I’ll cover them eventually, but to me the most moving parts of trans history speak to resistance and collective strength on the streets. Honestly, I thought I would get pushback on this, as I often have, especially when discussing the trans/sex work connection, but so far people have been enthusiastic.

Trans people’s history is tied up with sex work due to the variety of economic and cultural factors that have often made sex work the most viable option for trans survival. And it’s personal, too—my own history as a trans woman and as a sex worker are connected so closely that I cannot speak about one without the other. So often trans people seeking the supposed safety of respectability try to jettison our connections to prostitution, and while I understand this strategy and the emotions behind it, I can see that this comes at the cost of rejecting sex workers. And that rejection has profound implications for our life chances, which multiply exponentially for many trans sex workers of color.

The One From The Vaults logo.

The One From The Vaults logo

You make a point of locating where you broadcast in terms of Indigenous territories. You also make sure to relate the genocidal colonialism of Vancouver’s stolen Indigenous lands to the lives of the Indigenous street sex workers you discuss in your second episode of One From The Vaults, on trans women hustling in the 70s in the West End. Can you tell us a little bit about these decisions and what they say about trans and sex workers’ rights movements’ alliance with Indigenous rights movements?

Not to be that tiresome white activist type, but as a white settler, I feel a responsibility to acknowledge our ongoing occupation of Indigenous territories. In particular, this is a podcast about history, and much of that history is taking place on occupied Indigenous lands.

In Canada, the intersection between trans people, sex work, and Indigeneity is paramount to my understandings of systemic oppression. Indigenous trans sex workers often face some of the most difficult and brutal outcomes of criminalization—both of sex work and of HIV non-disclosure—in addition to high rates of violence. When I worked in Toronto, most street-based trans sex workers I knew were Indigenous and many of them spoke of being barred from entering indoor venues, as well as often being barred from social services. To me, I think all of our activism needs to start here. We need to understand colonization as the foundation upon which all other systems of oppression were constructed in North America.

You talk about how the golden age for hustlers on Davie St. ended in 1982, when the Vancouver city council explicitly criminalized sex trade in cars in their Street Activities bylaw, responding to pressure from gay West End neighborhood groups. Can you tell us more about this trend of white gay male gentrification working against sex working trans women throughout recent history?

Well, I’ll be covering two more incidents in depth in future episodes, but what I can say is that this is a pattern that has repeated itself several times since 1982. Viviane Namaste talks about similar events occurring in Montreal in the late 90s/early 2000s in her books.

And personally, I came into activism, more or less, through the 2008 Homewood-Maitland conflict in Toronto. In 2008, a group of gay and mostly white residents who had recently moved to a long-term sex work stroll began “protesting” the sex workers who worked there. So, Wendy Babcock, Drew DeVeaux, and many others organized a counter protest. Drew called me up and was like, “Girl, are you coming to the protest?” This was before FB was really a big thing. And I was tired from working and antisocial generally, so I almost didn’t go. But it was important.

There’d be reports of residents assaulting sex workers. So, I went and somehow ended up becoming the primary organizer, with Wendy Babcock, of six weeks of nightly counter-protests, in which I and sometimes also Wendy physically put our bodies between sex workers and residents, in addition to engaging them verbally and engaging local politicians and media.

I think the why behind this has a lot to do with the respectability politics I discussed earlier. In the Vancouver example, this happens just over a decade after Canada decriminalized homosexuality—it was the first time gays had achieved an ounce of respectability. And I think this drive towards respectability only increased following the traumatic horrors of the AIDS epidemic, which is why we see the rise of gay gentrification efforts and the centering of gay marriage immediately following the introduction of HAART in the mid-90s. Sarah Schulman talks about this way more coherently than I can in her slim but thorough book, The Gentrification of the Mind.

I was excited to hear that you’re planning to do a series of episodes on the lives of radical trans sex worker activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. The episode you recently posted covering their lives up to 1973 was the first of these. I was familiar with some of the material you covered there, but after that I draw a blank—why do we hear so little about Rivera and Johnson after their founding and leadership of STAR House and Rivera’s famous 1973 speech at Christopher Street Pride in New York?

I think part of why we hear so little about their post-1973 lives is that Sylvia walked off that stage and left activism for over a decade. They have become icons of a certain time—specifically Stonewall—and thus people don’t find anything else they did to be relevant. Which is an assessment I disagree with emphatically—I think their later lives are fascinating and have perhaps even more important lessons in them. Personally, I’m so tired of Stonewall narratives—as a Canadian I’m annoyed at their American-centric nature, and as a person interested in history I feel that Stonewall often sucks all the air out of the room. Yes, it’s important, but there are so many other important stories, and I want to learn and share them all.

Morgan M. Page. (Photo by Boy Pussy)

Morgan M Page (Photo by Boy Pussy)

You make sure to credit a variety of radical scholars for the information in your shows, like Reina Gossett and Becki Ross. Any other historians whose work you’d like to recommend to our readers?

Susan Stryker is a bonafide genius. I am always elevated by reading her work. And I recently read a lot of work by Dr. Aaron Devor.

But more important than any academic can be, I have been lucky to learn history by speaking directly to elders. Hanging out with elders, whether Mirha-Soleil Ross on the south shore of Montreal or the many colorful and interesting older people I met while I ran Meal Trans in Toronto, has given me so much invaluable context and flavor for history.

I was once sitting at Meal Trans and an elder drag queen was telling me about gay life when she came out in the 60s in Toronto. I’d heard a lot of this before and was listening with a sort of generalized interest. Then she lifted her leg up onto the table, pulled up her pant leg, and said, “And this is the scar I got from the bullet wound when I walked into the St. Charles Tavern. They shot me! The straights used to stand outside and throw eggs at us, and they shot me!”

Your first episode centers on Lou Reed’s mysterious 70s-era trans girlfriend, Rachel. Rachel seemed to serve as a muse for Reed, while not being able to tell her own story directly. Do you think a lot of trans women served that role for more privileged people throughout history? Or, do you think Rachel’s relative public silence was a choice on her part, a decision to maintain her privacy? How does Rachel’s story reflect on trans women’s struggle to maintain private lives in general?

Trans women have frequently been placed in the role of muse, going back to Lili Elbe who was the muse for her painter wife—in a way that today, we might see as less than consensual. As for Rachel, I think once she and Lou split, the public had no use for her. I think a lot of trans women have, somewhat rightly, surmised that celebrity is one route to survival in a narrow range of options, particularly in the 20th century. There are a lot of fame-hungry trans ladies, both in history and today.

That drive exists as a counterpoint to the tune of the gender identity clinics that tried very hard to force trans people to assimilate or “go stealth.” I come from a trans generation in which going stealth was seen as the holy grail, and I even did it for a while, so I don’t judge that. I think the tension between the celebritrans and stealth ideals causes a sometimes productive friction within trans communities that allow us to think about just what privacy means and how much we want to allow of our lives to be consumable by the cis public.

You begin every episode by telling us, “I love history because it’s my favorite kind of gossip.” I really enjoy how you dig up little scandalous tidbits for each episode, like your account of rock critic Lester Bangs’ feud with Lou Reed over shitty things Bangs said about Rachel. How do you find these gossip-y historical gems?

Gossip is something just about everyone loves, even if they pretend that they don’t. And to me, history itself is just the gossip sheet on a bunch of people who came before me. So when I look at history, I’m asking myself who were these people having sex with and who did they have a falling out with and what happened? That’s the interesting part!

A list of dates and names is dry—and I think that’s why history has such a bad reputation for being boring. But when you dig a little, you find out all of this bizarre stuff that people did and it feels so fresh because it reminds you of all the bizarre stuff people you know do today.

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