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Black Trans Sex Worker Leaders Reflect On December 17th

For this International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers, Tits and Sass asked two Black trans sex worker leaders what the sex workers’ rights movement should be doing in the face of the epidemic of violence against sex working trans women of color. 

Ceyenne Doroshow is an activist role model in the trans sex worker community. She has been mentored by Miss Major and the late artist and advocate Mother Flawless Sabrina considered her a daughter. She’s worked with Red Umbrella Project and appeared in the documentary Red Umbrella Diaries, and has written a cookbook/memoir. She now works for the organization she founded, GLITS (Gays and Lesbians In Transgender Society), helping trans women seeking asylum, fleeing domestic violence, or being released from incarceration.

With so many deaths that have come over the years, the numbers that we’re counting doesn’t match the work, the jobs [available]. If you don’t want sex workers doing the work, sweetie, employ them! Employ them, have a solution!

In New York City, just a couple of weeks ago—I think last week—the police raided, ICE probably, raided a brothel. A young woman threw herself out of a window to evade probably going back to her country. Is this systematic? Is this what the government wants?

On trans sex workers of color getting the brunt of violence against sex workers

Because we basically are street-based, basically because we have no backing.

Even if you look at the stories of these deaths [of trans sex working women of color] in any newspaper article, especially Black trans women, they get misgendered. So even in their death, they’re robbed of dignity. Why, because they’re a sex worker?

And if you read half the reports from the reporters that report these stories, it kinda says that the reason why [they died] is because of their “lifestyle.” You don’t know what their lifestyle is other than sex work! They could have very ordinary lives. They could actually be working minimum wage jobs that don’t give them sustainable living.

On what individual sex working readers of Tits and Sass and sex workers’ rights organizations can do to help protect sex working trans women of color from violence:

Form a buddy system, form a buddy system and a plan for girls not go out there by theirselves—that way, there is a system of reporting. So we can take care of ourselves as a community. We are a community that deserves dignity and protection.

We need to be a part of the decrim laws! We need to be a part of making sure that these people that murder people are caught and prosecuted—the same way they would do us for sex work!

We need to be a part of making sure that these people that murder people are caught and prosecuted.

On the sex workers’ rights community talking about sex working trans women of color when they die but not valuing trans sex working women of color while they’re alive:

That’s often, that’s often, that’s often [what happens]. Value the lives of the people who are living, then you’ll have less lives to value when they’re dead. Don’t wait until they die to do a December 17th—be a part of the process.

So, forming alliance to protect each other! It’s easy for a cisgender sex work [activist] agency to say, “Oh, well, we give money to trans women”, but you’re not a part of the process where you’re helping create a sustainable safe life for them. [Saying that is] sort of like, “I did my quota,” “well, I gave [to[ them”—instead, find out who we are! That’s often the case, where people are willing to say, “oh, we be putting out five percent,” and they’re not a part of “oh, we saved a life,” or “we actually helped this young woman, who was homeless, who’s on the street, who’s being attacked or beat up because she’s homeless and on the street”—be a part of the advocacy, be a part of trying to solve the problem!

Today we don’t have adequate places for trans sex workers to live, to reside. And this is on a global level. It’s not just here, it’s everywhere. And in some countries, they’d just rather kill them and say it’s ok. The girls that I’ve gotten over from Africa and from other countries [in other regions] have basically escaped by the hair of their teeth from being murdered. 

Ava Talley is a writing enthusiast, sex worker, operations director for the New York Transgender Advocacy Group, and PrEP outreach worker for the National Black Leadership Coalition on AIDS. She currently resides in New York City.

The sex workers’ rights movement needs to be more visible to TWOC in the trade.

Direct outreach is needed because, all too often, I find that TWOC are not aware of the work the sex workers’ rights movement is doing, even if on their behalf. Most TWOC are first introduced [to activism] through transgender advocacy efforts,  which stress “real” work over “sex” work. TWOC often have the perception that they cannot work due to blatant employment discrimination. So, many are survivalists and don’t recognize sex work as an empowering choice. That is often the divide.

I feel that trans community leaders are often implicit in furthering the shame and stigma attached to sex work because they have internalized shame.

It starts with [educating]  transgender community leaders on the sex work is work narrative. I feel that trans community leaders are often implicit in furthering the shame and stigma attached to sex work because they have internalized shame. I remember a trans community leader offering me a job with an organization she was about to launch and [she] said [to me], “You don’t have to do sex work anymore.” I was like, “Thanks, but I am fine. I’d be happy to work with you but I don’t need saving.” Then later, she turns around and asks me about online sex work and ways she could brand to reach a higher level of clientele…and she isn’t the only [one]. So many trans community leaders won’t admit to being sex workers. Even though we all know advocacy often equals ramen. Why?

Activist Spotlight: Bonnie On Violence And Endurance

Bonnie at the Different Avenues office in D.C. (Photo by PJ Starr)
Bonnie at the Different Avenues office in D.C. (Photo by PJ Starr)

Content warning: This interview contains graphic descriptions of police violence and rape, imprisonment, and domestic abuse.

Bonnie is a veteran sex workers’ rights activist who has done outreach work in the D.C. area since 2001. She was a HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive) client who lived on the streets in Maryland. Later, she was inspired by the work of Robyn Few and others to participate in activism and community organizing through SWOP-Maryland. Last year, she recorded sound for No Humans Involved, a documentary film produced by PJ Starr about Marcia Powell, the street sex worker killed by the negligence and cruelty of the Arizona prison system in 2009. Currently, she’s on a community advisory board with John Hopkins researchers for the SAPPHIRE (Sex Workers And Police Promoting Health In Risky Environments) study, which examines the role of police in HIV risks faced by Baltimore cis and trans sex working women.

You’ve been doing outreach since 2001, originally to D.C. and Prince George’s County Maryland, and later to Northern Virginia and Baltimore as well, using HIPS supplies and sometimes your own money. Where does your dedication come from?

I enjoy it and have to do it and will never stop doing it. That’s because I have memories where the ends of bread, dry socks, housing, a place to get high [where they would] not send me to jail, or a place to avoid drugs (depending on my mood), were my biggest dreams.

I have 8 years where I can proudly say the drug I am allergic to has no power over me. 

Up until very recently I provided housing. I had to stop, and now I provide referrals and transportation to shelters or transitional living or an affordable place to live, whatever is asked of me.  My current venues are methadone clinics, BDSM clubs, immigrant sex work apartments, drug testing clinics, and sex or BDSM party houses. I never leave someone who wants to be inside outside. What if it was the last time I saw that person? What if they were arrested for being homeless i.e. trespassing or loitering; really any charge. A Prince George’s County cop told me and I will never forget: it does not matter what I/we do, it only matters what he/they write on their papers.

Privileged, housed people may not understand that, and it is something I cannot explain. There are two separate worlds, where the language barrier is experience.

I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear LYCRA®

 

Lycra-free spandex from spandexworld.com

Koch Industries is one of America’s largest privately owned companies and a major funder of conservative political causes. You can read about the Koch brothers (there’s family drama in addition to coverage of their Tea Party-supporting ways) in a couple of thorough articles from last summer in New York and the New Yorker. Currently their involvement in the election of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and support of his union-busting ways is making news. Nothing says “America!” today more than billionaires working to kill collective bargaining rights.

They make a lot of products, but one of them is of particular interest to those of us in the various clothing relocation services sectors: LYCRA® spandex. I encourage you all to check the tags when you’re buying tiny stretchy clothes at the hootchie boutique, and boycott that particular brand of spandex. Avoid COOLMAX® sports bras while you’re at it, too.

International Whores’ Day (And Lobby Day!) Link Roundup

International Whores’ Day at the Eastern Market Metro Station in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Francis Chung via Twitter)

What a week it’s been for sex worker organizing! The first sex worker Lobby Day on June 1st was followed by nationwide sex worker action on International Whores’ Day on June 2nd. Post-SESTA, this annual day of organizing picked up more momentum than ever. Here’s our attempt at curating the coverage of this week’s news for you:

The crown has honored New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective founder Catherine Healy with the title of Dame. Whether you’re excited about this or think it’s more of the colonialist same, it’s certainly news to note.

Community organizer and cam and porn worker Anna Moone wrote for Vice’s Motherboard on sex worker Lobby Day in D.C. this Saturday. Organized by SWOP and Survivors Against SESTA, 40 sex workers found a surprisingly welcome reception in Capitol Hill from both staffers for reps who voted for SESTA and for those who voted against it:

I expected these meetings to be an uphill battle of fighting for our humanity, but we all left the meeting feeling surprisingly hopefully about our prospects for the day.

Even more surprisingly, the other two representatives whose staffers we met—Mark Takano (D-CA) and Don Beyer (D-VA)—both voted against SESTA. Instead of having to explain why SESTA is a harmful bill, we were able to spend our meetings strategizing on how to work together better moving forward. In addition to feeling that the law would hurt sex workers, both Takano and Beyer felt that this bill would make it harder to stop sex traffickers, and they both also had concerns that SESTA might expand mandatory minimum sentencing laws. They also gave us advice on what other staffers and representatives would make good allies for us to reach out to and build relationships with. Finally, they told us how important it was that we came to speak with them, because sex workers contacting our representatives about how bills will harm us gives them the information they need to use to justify opposing bills. ”

In Washington, Buzzfeed followed a sex worker named Jackie while she lobbied Congress.

“I need to earn a living, but I also have to be safe. So I have to make a really hard choice about what to do, whether I’m going to invite this person into my home. … I’m crippled by fear and anxiety. I was homeless when I was younger, and I just never want to go back there,” Jackie said.

Gizmodo’s staff talked to organizers in Manhattan, including Red from Support Ho(s)e and MF Akynos from the Black Sex Workers Collective.

Red says that sex workers’ anger highlighted and validated in the media “allows us to be fully formed human beings in the news.”

“And we deserve that,” Red continues, “because we are fully formed human beings that are just working and surviving and supporting ourselves and our families and our friends as best we can.”

The Daily Beast also covered the New York event, noting the diverse set of speakers that addressed the crowd, including trans sex worker leader Ceyenne Doroshow:

Ceyenne Doroshow, the Founder and Director of the advocacy organization GLITS (Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society) shared, “I’ve buried so many children. I’ve seen so many girls get murdered…losing my sisters, losing my brothers. This is sick.”

Melissa Gira Grant wrote about the NYC rally at The Appeal, noting that a vital sex worker organizer was incarcerated that day:

As the rally occupied the space surrounding Washington Square Park’s arch, protestors learned that across the river in Brooklyn, one New York woman working to change anti-sex work laws sat in jail. Tiffaney Grissom said that the previous night she was in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, and at about 4 a.m. she was arrested and charged with “loitering for the purposes of prostitution.” Grissom, who is Black and trans, is also a plaintiff on a class action suit challenging this law, charging it is unconstitutional and that the New York Police Department enforce it disproportionately against Black and Latinx women.

Sixteen hours later, Grissom was still waiting for her court appearance. When I met her in 2016, she told me she had engaged in sex work sometimes, but most of the time that she was charged with loitering she was just hanging out. “It’s a way to arrest a lot of people for nothing,” said Cynthia H. Conti-Cook, a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society, who is involved in bringing the class action suit against the loitering law and who Grissom called after her Saturday arrest.  “It seemed like an easy arrest,” Grissom told The Appeal just outside the Brooklyn court where she was released just before 9 p.m. on Saturday. “I don’t need to have to prove myself as to why I’m outside, or defend myself for being outside.”

UPDATE: Emily Witt at the New Yorker published an in-depth longread on NYC IWD events and their leadup, starting from The Black Sex Workers Collective’s fundraiser a few days before, moving to Lobby Day, and then to the day itself. Akynos, Mariah Lopez from STARR (Strategic Trans Alliance for Radical Reform), Red Schulte, Ceyenne Doroshow, Yin Q, Lorelei Lee, and other speakers and organizers are quoted at length. There’s a bit too much scandalized attention on what people were wearing, but Witt does goes into more detail on Tiffaney Grissom’s arrest and release, including the fact that another woman was also released from incarceration for a solicitation arrest that evening:

The arraignment took less than five minutes; Kings County refers low-level misdemeanor cases to a special court. The judge offered the defendants two possible dates, June 20th and June 27th—“Before Pride or after Pride,”[Mariah] Lopez said under her breath. (The New York City Gay Pride March and its attendant celebrations are June 24th.) Both defendants chose June 27th.

Their court dates set, and released from their handcuffs, Lopez led the two women out into the lobby. Lopez hugged Tatiana Hall, who was tearing up. “I was so scared,” she said. It was her first time getting arrested. We went outside and they told their stories. They had both been in Bushwick—“very up-and-coming and trendy,” Grissom said. The police arrested Grissom first, around 4 a.m., Hall later. Both said they were simply outside on the street. Hall had been talking to a man—a gay man, she added. Grissom said she was alone. “I’m not waving, I’m not being extra, I’m not throwing myself into cars, I’m not doing anything abstract, I’m just walking by looking pretty,” she said. “So it’s easy to recognize me, but when you see somebody and they’re not giving you a reason to arrest them, you have to try and figure out ways to get them.” Police officers are allowed to use their own discretion to determine a person’s intention to prostitute, criteria that might include the clothes a person is wearing. As Shekera had lamented, “You never had any rights. The Internet just made you have that false hope and you got comfortable and now the rug has been pulled out from underneath you.”

Who Gets Left Out: Respectability Politics Round Table, Part One

(via Meme Generator)
(via Meme Generator)

“Respectability politics” has been a recurring phrase coming up lately in conversations within the sex workers’ rights movement. In discussions on and off the site we’ve had about drug using sex workers, sex workers with disabilities, survival sex workers, etc., we’ve been bumping up against this idea constantly. The Tits and Sass editorial staff decided to bring together a group of veteran sex workers’ rights activists and service providers and ask them how respectability politics ideology affected their work and how we in the movement can best counter these tropes.

How do you define respectability politics? How have respectability politics affected your service work in the sex workers’ rights movement?

Emma Caterine1: That’s a pretty broad question and Red Umbrella Project (at this time, we have been considering expanding to this role) is not a service provider, but let’s see if I can answer:

Respectability politics is something incredibly tangible in our legislative advocacy efforts. We are effectively told time and time again, although we are on the executive committee of the No Condoms as Evidence Coalition, that we shouldn’t “make it” an issue about folks in the sex trades. Which is a bit perplexing since there are two major populations whom the practice of using condoms as evidence affects in direct regular ways: those profiled as being in the sex trades and those who are in the sex trades. The former is comprised of identities associated with the sex trades both culturally and institutionally: trans women of color, gender variant people of color, low income women, undocumented women, etc. While it is certainly a travesty that these folks are being arrested, harassed, and even physically attacked by the police over carrying condoms, it has been extremely important for us at Red Umbrella to not imply that they are the ones who “do not deserve it,” since that insinuates that those in the sex trades deserve to be subjected to this oppression. Not to mention that the two groups are hardly mutually exclusive.

And it is certainly the attitude and language the decision makers (politicians and other public figures) have adopted when they do come out to support the No Condoms as Evidence bill: it will be prefaced with a “I in no way condone prostitution”, it will be followed by pulling one of the largest stings on clients of sex workers, or any number of methods or statements to absolve themselves of being in any way in support of something that is associated with the sex trades. You do have to buy into it to a certain extent though: I mean I was a well-dressed smiling trans woman who was ever so interested in what a staffer from DA of Nassau County Rice’s office had to say to us. His advice was important to our strategy for getting the legislation passed. But as a member of a peer-based group dedicated to empowering those in the sex trades, there needs to be a balance. Kathleen Rice and I won’t be getting coffee in the near future or posing for a photo op. I didn’t even give this staffer my card when he gave me his because outside of that meeting there is no utility in us interacting and I am not going to pretend there will be for the sake of respect. Because I don’t respect those who throw people in jail that are not only the people I am fighting for but also friends and loved ones. And in my experience confident adherence to your principles garners respect just as often if not more than playing to some idea of respectability.