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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?

Tits and Sass Supports The Anti-White Supremacist Protesters of Charlottesville

For our readers who’d like to help, we put together a list of local organizations which stand against white supremacy and fundraisers for victims of the white nationalist violence at Charlottesville:

Please leave any additional fundraisers and ways to support in the comments.

Activist Spotlight: Alex Andrews on SWOP Behind Bars And Service Work

Alex Andrews.

Alex Andrews is the 53-year old lead organizer of both SWOP-Orlando and SWOP Behind Bars and the new North American representative to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP). For almost a decade and a half in her younger years, she did various forms of sex work—beginning with stripping to supplement her hair dressing income, she went on to do escort and phone sex work, as well as to run her own escort service. She bowed out of active sex work in 1998 because, she explains,”multiple arrests and incarceration put [me] at risk for spending way more time in prison than [I] was willing to serve.” But she continued to represent sex worker interests in local anti-trafficking organizations and to do community work supporting incarcerated sex workers. In 2016, she started SWOP Behind Bars specifically to serve the needs of imprisoned sex workers, and in its year or so of operation, the organization has been extremely effective, providing vital resources for this population. The interview below is a condensed and edited version of an e-mail correspondence I had with Andrews on her work at SWOP Behind Bars.

How did SWOP Behind Bars get started?

We got started when I engaged an anti-trafficking corrections officer from a local women’s prison in a Twitter fight. I was on my civvie Twitter account and some other sex worker activists joined me and we [were] just hammering this guy on his philosophies and the way that women were treated in prison, particularly sex workers. After about an hour of just being humiliated by some of the most respected activists in the U.S. responding to his patronizing tweets, he suddenly direct messaged me that he hated his organization as much as we did.

He turned out to have been one of the key factors to [as to] why the Lowell Women’s Prison was investigated by the Miami Herald and these articles […resulted in] getting about six people fired, including the assistant warden. I met with him the following week and then Dr. Jill McCracken joined me for another meeting a couple weeks later. Katherine Koster jumped in and suggested we ask SWOP-USA for some money. And next thing you know, we had a website, Facebook, Twitter, and a newsletter. It went out to about 200 people the first month (May 2016) and we have almost doubled our requests every month.

Why do you think there wasn’t a peer organization specifically formed around supporting incarcerated sex workers before, since so much of the U.S. movement is focused around the injustice of sex worker arrest and incarceration? Is it because usually sex workers are only incarcerated for prostitution for relatively small periods of time, even though they may often be incarcerated for longer for other survival “crimes” such as trafficking charges, assault or murder charges incurred in self-defense against violent clients, and drug possession?

Well, there are actually a lot of people who are working inside of county jails all over the country. Jacqueline Robarge has been working with incarcerated sex workers in Baltimore for more than 10 or 15 years. SWOP-Baltimore has an active book donation program. Sherrie in San Antonio recently got her chaplain’s license so she could actually go into the prisons and jails and meet with incarcerated sex workers. We are far from the only prison program. LGBT Books to Prisoners sends resource packets inside every three months. Black and Pink is almost legendary in the work they do with pen pals.  Everything they do is a study in perfection!

But the great thing that kept sex workers from really digging in?  Fear.  There is within all of us a terror of engaging with the criminal justice system.  We try so hard to avoid cops and probation officers and courts…I still get incredibly nervous when I get pulled over or find myself behind a uniformed cop at the grocery store.  We didn’t know what we would find.  There are many of us that have worked within our county jail systems and done street outreach but I think the idea of engaging with women in PRISON was just terrifying. [It’s]  “whorearchy” and though many of us reject that idea…we all recognize it exists.

SWOP Behind Bars was unifying is some weird kind of way.  We all felt it pretty strongly.  The entire community wanted to reach out to these folks and we found the least frightening—and yet the easiest—way to do it!  Completely by accident.

As a fellow white woman, how do you deal with the racial disparities that must come up in your work? It’s much more likely for imprisoned sex workers to be people of color and for the sex workers with the time and privilege to do activism to help them to be white. How do you accommodate for that fact and the power imbalance involved in SWOP Behind Bars’ work?

I have found that being a white women of privilege working with incarcerated people of color is much like being a man talking about abortion.  Shut the fuck up.  People of color can and DO speak for themselves if we white people would just get out of the fucking way.  We shoot ourselves in the foot time and time again because we keep thinking we have to “Do Something For Them”, when really the best thing to do is make sure we haven’t gobbled up all the access to resources.  I would never try to tell someone what they need or how to get it…I’m absolutely rigid in requiring consent before working on behalf of someone else.

White people have oppressed and exploited people of color for centuries.  I may not be able to stop that, but I intend to exploit every ounce of my white privilege to make lots of room for voices that want to be heard.  If we concentrate really hard on including people who might be different than us to lead the way instead of insisting that they follow us…well, that’s a good start.  The next step is making sure we are doing that for the right reason and not tokenizing them.  And after that, step down!  Take a back seat and be supportive and don’t suck all the air out of the room.  For the love of all things holy—it’s not about us, so we should let the people who know what they need make the decisions.

SWOP Behind Bars has a significant service component to its work. Though there are some powerful service organizations in the movement, such as St James Infirmary, many peer organizations don’t have the resources to maintain direct service action. What tips can you give other peer organizations and sex worker activists in general about how to sustain service work in their communities?

PARTNER!  Stop doing things alone!  Put aside personal dislikes or differences and engage with other organizations and do meaningful work.  Sex workers self-isolate for lots of different reasons.  But we share the social media spaces and we get to know each other a little better.

Some of us have infiltrated service networks.  Others have partnered with like-minded human rights community-based organizations. There are a LOT of sex worker rights folks already doing stuff in county jails—they just don’t come in waving their red umbrella.  Go to meetings that are outside your comfort zone because you know they may share some—if not all—of the your viewpoints.  Start explaining decrim to people who don’t understand the difference [between decriminalization and legalization].  Carry copies of the Amnesty International policy recommending full decrim world wide and hand them to people who just saw headlines and didn’t get it.  Engage with your public defenders’ offices.  Especially if they have a social worker component.  Public defenders LOVE the idea of decriminalizing sex work because it would take a load of work off their desks.

And don’t be afraid to LISTEN. We TALK a lot because we have a LOT to say…but sometimes it’s important to let other people talk, and they will reveal how they feel and then we can tailor our response to meet their need.  I go to anti-trafficking meetings and take lots of fact-based literature with me and hand it out. They don’t have to hear me say everything out loud.  Understanding sex worker rights has to be absorbed slowly.  They need to have time to fully understand how the things they are doing—like end demand and raid and rescue—harm us.  They digest it a little more slowly by reading it at home when they have time.

Believe me—when a sex worker rights activist goes in an anti-trafficking space, we are unicorns.  Most [of them] have never seen one.  They don’t know we exist.

Activist Spotlight: Nine, on Bad Policies and Holding Abolitionists To Account

nineNine is an itinerant writer from Northern Ireland, who spent several years working at an outreach project for sex workers in Scotland before being made redundant in 2009.  Recently, she has written and spoken against attempts by politicians and feminist organisations to criminalise the purchase of sex in Scotland, most notably in the barnstorming essay “Taking Ideology to The Streets: Sex Work And How To Make Bad Things Worse” and in her zine Sex industry Apologist, now on its second volume.  Nine’s writing has also appeared in Autostraddle and The Rumpus.

I’d like to ask about the work you did supporting street-based sex workers, and what you’ve done since that came to an end?

I spent six and a half years at a sex work project, from 2002 to 2009, providing outreach services to sex workers on the streets, in flats, saunas and massage parlors, and online. I gave out condoms and needles, linked people up with specialist services, took reports of violence and circulated them to other sex workers, provided emotional support, gave advice on legalities and personal safety—basically I just responded to whatever issues sex workers brought to me. However, we were sometimes limited in terms of what we could actually do, given that we were operating on pretty much a shoestring, and adequate support was not always available to sex workers from other agencies. I guess that’s what happens when the funding is almost entirely focused on sexual health, as if sex workers couldn’t possibly have any other needs. Hi, I may be ranting already.

Report From 2011’s Sex Worker Open University

I’ve been a sex worker rights activist for going on a decade now, and I’ve lived in New York all that time. My focus in the early years was very local, meaning that I was concerned with what was happening in my own life and the lives of the people I worked with and cared about. I wanted us to stay safe, get rich, and not deal with douchebag clients – you know, all the dreams a girl could have. When I got involved with $pread magazine and became an editor in 2005, I started to pay more attention to what was happening outside of my little bubble. Being responsible for the news section of the magazine meant that I started to learn more about what was happening in sex worker communities not just across the country, but also across the world.

Over the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work more closely with sex worker rights activists globally, and I gotta say that it’s kind of blown my mind. In the fall of 2009 I spent a week in rural India, a few hours south of Mumbai, with SANGRAM and the sex workers at VAMP. We collaborated on a video about sex worker organizing in India, and it gave me immense respect for the work these activists have been doing. In India, there are sex worker unions, and hundreds of sex workers show up at events and rallies. They are loud, and they are a unified community struggling hard for their rights and getting some traction. During one conversation I had with an older woman about the differences in our activism, she said, “In America, you have everything. You have cameras. You use the internet. But you aren’t fighting the government together the way we are. You need to come together and collectivize. It’s the only way.” It really resonated with me. In a place where sex workers have to walk to one well that serves the neighborhood to get water for their huts, their community is infinitely stronger than ours, probably because there’s less obsession with individuality.

Since that fall, I’ve been seeking out other opportunities to learn more about the global situation of sex workers. This past month, I got the opportunity to go to London for Sex Worker Open University, a nearly weeklong event organized by a collective and held in the Arcola Theatre complex in Hackney. There were many sessions every day, an interesting blend of skill shares by and for sex workers, and presentations about policy and activism work. The event ran from Wednesday, October 12 through Sunday, October 16– you can see the full program here and feel envious – and on the Friday, we had an evening of conversation among activists from all over the world.