Activism

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Poster from a Migrant Sex Workers Project forum entitled “Migrant Sex Worker Justice And The Troubles With Anti-Trafficking.” (Photo courtesy of MSWP)

Toronto’s Migrant Sex Workers Project, “a grassroots group of migrants, sex workers, and allies who demand safety and dignity for all sex workers regardless of legal status”, was co-founded last May by Elene Lam, Chanelle Gallant, and Tings Chak. Lam, who moved to the area from Hong Kong two years ago, saw a gap in local activism where migrant sex workers were concerned,”because there is a strong sex worker movement and  strong migrant movement but no migrant sex worker movement.” She began organizing with the Chinese Canadian community, specifically with MSWP’s sister organization, Asian and migrant sex worker support network Butterfly. Soon, longtime sex worker activist Gallant began collaborating with her—”I really wanted to support the work that she was doing…she moved to Toronto and with pretty much no resources and no connections just started making all these things happen, in terms of creating support for migrants in the sex trade here.” With the aid of Tings Chak of Toronto’s No One Is Illegal, they solidified their burgeoning work into the MSWP. This summer, Kate Zen, a sex worker activist with years of experience organizing in the informal labor sector, joined them as a member.

In the context of coverage of the “migrant crisis” all over the global media, I felt it was more important than ever to learn about migrant sex worker activism. I spoke to Lam, Gallant, and Zen over a video call. The transcription below is an edited and condensed version of that conversation. The second part of the interview is here.

How does the displacement of millions of refugees due to war and economic inequality, which the media is calling “the migrant crisis,” affect your organization’s work? What would you want to see the North American sex workers’ rights movement do in response to the crisis?

Elene Lam: So I think instead of starting with the crisis recently, we need to know actually, that people start to move to different places since we have the history of the human being. I think the “migrant crisis”, this term is used to create a panic and fear of people, to justify how they screen the migrants and stop the migrants. I think that when you see the history—that people migrate because of economic reasons or war—this always happens. But you see more recently—especially [in] the Global North—they use whatever reason to stop people migrating, compared with 10 years, 50 years ago, 100 years ago. So they have more and more boundary control.

They categorize the people. Some are refugees. Even the refugees, they have the who-is-more-deserving-to-have-the-right-to-enter refugees. So when you see this whole picture, you see how the countries from the Global North create a boundary to not let the people from the Global South to go to their places. So they create categories—so that by categorizing refugees that means they can deny a lot of people to enter their countries.

I think it’s also related to the whole anti-trafficking discourse. We think anti-trafficking is so accepted by so many people because on the surface, they say, “Oh, yeah, we are protecting the victim, we are rescuing them, they are in a vulnerable situation.” But what you see, the real thing is how the Global North—countries like [the] US, Canada, or [in] Europe—they have more and more laws to stop the people from migrating more easily to their country. And they work with the sending country to stop the people from moving. Even when people move here, they can use anti-trafficking as the reason for “rescuing”—but actually they are arresting and deporting racialized people, especially if they are from the Global South.

So I will not discuss about the migrant crisis here, because I think the migrant crisis story just makes people feel justified and comfortable about rejecting the migrants to come to their places.

Testimony of a migrant sex worker recorded by Toronto Asian migrant sex worker organization Butterfly. (Photo courtesy of MSWP)

Story of a migrant sex worker recorded by Toronto Asian migrant sex worker support network Butterfly for their project, “Butterfly Voices. ” (Photo courtesy of MSWP)

Chanelle Gallant: I think that the sex workers’ rights movement in North America needs to also be taking into account and taking more seriously Indigenous sovereignty on the lands on which we live. And so, to consider the migrant “crisis” as having been produced by the Global North to a great extent, whether that’s through economic exploitation or through irresponsible climate change that’s making climate refugees out of millions of people. And then at the same time acting as though our governments have jurisdiction, completely unquestioned jurisdiction, over these lands to decide who gets to move when and where and on what basis.

And I don’t believe in that jurisdiction. I don’t agree to that jurisdiction. We’re ruled by it but it doesn’t mean that it’s right or moral. And so that’s just another element that I want to add to this conversation around sex workers questioning borders as being imposed by colonial governments that don’t have moral legitimacy. The movement would look very different and exclusion would look very different if we were respecting the legal jurisdictions of the Nations on whose lands we are living.

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Ceyenne Doroshow. (Photo courtesy of Lily Fury)

Ceyenne Doroshow. (Photo by John Mastbrook, courtesy of Lily Fury)

Ceyenne Doroshow originally made a name for herself on stage as one of the seasoned performance artists and audience favorites of the Red Umbrella Diaries’ storytelling nights. She is featured as one of seven sex workers who tell their story on the newly released documentary The Red Umbrella Diaries, which will have its world premiere in Portland, Oregon today. In her compelling memoir cookbook, Cooking in Heels, written with Red Umbrella Project’s Audacia Ray, she tells her story: a black transgender woman’s triumph over adversity with the help of her passion for cooking. Doroshow stays busy as a published author, a public speaker, a documentary star, and a stage darling while never forgetting her roots. She remains committed to doing activist work, whether that means incorporating her lived experiences into her performances, lending her voice to trans rights conferences across the country, fostering LGBT youth, or working at The River Fund helping impoverished families. Lily Fury transcribed this from a series of conversations with Doroshow.

What have been some of the more memorable reactions to your book?

Being nominated for the MOTHA (Museum of Transgender History and Arts) awards and voted for by women like Janet Mock…I remember the same day Audacia Ray e-mailed me a review of my book that literally brought me to tears. It wasn’t a long drawn out review, but it got straight to the point, emphasizing [that] “This book changed my life.” And that was the take home that you want to take back into society whenever you do projects, whenever you bare your soul.

It’s not just a cookbook, it’s a memoir cookbook that shares something people rarely share. There’s no school to go to when dealing with the transgender child, and there were actually parents that got in contact with me to thank me or because they had made mistakes, and it was incredibly gratifying for me that these parents recognized their mistakes through my memoir…I set out to hopefully help one person and I found out I’m helping a whole lot more, and it’s really empowering.

Can you speak about your experience being outed publicly as a sex worker and serving time?

I was railroaded. This was something that usually someone would just get a desk appearance, probably a fine, and get out, but Governor Christie wanted to make me an example…I had to serve 30 days in jail, I didn’t get a warning, I didn’t get what like most people would get—if you’re of a certain level of stature in life, you’re allowed to fix your stuff.

They put me in protective custody with [another] trans identifying person, which was safer to an extent. But being in protective custody, which is really cruel in itself, is 23 hours being locked in a cell and having to defecate in front of someone, having to bear your most private pain, your tears, with a stranger you don’t know. But at the same time, it was gratifying that there was somebody there with me in that cell. Had there not been anybody, I would have come out far more damaged.

But they had these vents in the jail and I could talk to other inmates and some of them recognized me from Jersey City and some of them recognized me from the newspaper. To…add insult [to injury]…my newspaper article was floating around the cells because the CO’s had actually shown them to the inmates and the other guards. Which had made me horrified, but at the same time I had nothing to be ashamed of. It was more the process of…them wanting to publicly shame you to the point where you may not want to live or you may become suicidal. There’s no therapy for that. In my opinion, there’s no therapy for coming home because when you come home your security is broken because the whole process of trusting the system…is revealed to be a lie.

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atrust

(Photo by Lane V. Erickson, via Shutterstock)

One of the more difficult aspects of living as a sex worker is never knowing exactly whom you can trust. Sometimes even allies can say offensive things or break confidentiality. In the wake of such indiscretions, it’s sex workers themselves who are left to navigate that broken trust and the increased vulnerability that comes along with it. I know this pattern leaves me wary, and it is perhaps this wariness that led many sex workers to mistrust the Give Forward fundraising campaign initiated on behalf of Heather, a sex worker in West Virginia who survived an attack at her apartment by a serial killer posing as a client.

The Give Forward campaign was launched shortly after the attack on July 18th by a man and a woman local to the area who knew each other, but who did not know Heather before Falls’ death. In an article on The Daily Dot by Mary Emily O’Hara from July 31st, the woman involved with the campaign, Laura Gandee, is quoted: “I got a text message from a friend telling me that Heather was hungry, upset, and feeling all alone in her apartment, and asking me if I could I take her some food and go comfort her…Of course I said I would, if she was willing to let me.” The article doesn’t reveal who this friend was, and while it implies that Heather was willing to let a stranger into her home after the trauma of Falls’ attack there, it does not indicate her comfort with Gandee’s visit in her own words. Gandee went on to say that, “I have spoken to a number of people who are part of a movement to ensure sex workers’ rights. At first they were very skeptical of our campaign because they couldn’t believe anyone from outside their circle would step up to help someone in their industry after a tragedy like this. I told them West Virginians are different.”

Gandee’s words conjure images of any number of rescuers sex workers have known, armed with ostensibly good intentions, and confident in their own efficacy in situations with which they have little familiarity. While many cultures in the United States and elsewhere, including those of West Virginia and other parts of the South, value loyalty and neighborliness in a crisis, it’s equally true is that sex workers often live in dual spaces of invisibility and hypervisibility. Many of us operate in the underground economy. Often, our friends and family don’t know about our work until we are arrested, outed, or otherwise thrust into the spotlight. Our work, and entire parts of our lives, are unknown to people one day and revealed the next to be judged by anyone with a half-formed opinion on sex work.

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(Photo via Amnesty International USA Flickr account)

(Photo via Amnesty International USA Flickr account)

As the vote this weekend at the Amnesty International General Council Meeting in Dublin approaches on whether the human rights organization will adopt a draft proposal supporting the decriminalization of prostitution as policy, I spoke, via e-mail, to Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) President Pye Jakobsson on NSWP’s petition to Amnesty urging them to vote in favor of it. Jakobsson is also the co-founder of Rose Alliance, Sweden’s sex workers’ rights organization, so she has key insight into the Swedish model of criminalizing sex workers’ clients championed by the the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, the prohibitionist organization behind the petition asking Amnesty to vote against the proposal for decriminalization.

Can you comment on the notorious petition by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women urging Amnesty International members to vote against the decriminalization proposal when it’s submitted at the organization’s International Council Meeting in Dublin this weekend? It’s been signed by a gaggle of celebrities—Kate Winslet, Lena Dunham, Anne Hathaway, and Emma Thompson among them—and it received a lot of attention in the news last week. Why do you think so many in Hollywood are drawn to anti-sex worker anti-trafficking activism?

I find the whole thing revolting. actually. Right, so I get holding babies is getting kind of old, and animal rights is too mainstream to gain any real attention, so now they are hugging trafficking victims.

There are just so many problems with that, though:

1) Grown up women are neither children nor puppies.
2) People who are being exploited in the sex industry need rights, not hugs.
3) Just because you once played a hooker doesn’t give you any extra special insights [in]to what sex workers and/or people who experience exploitation in the sex industry need.

How can we fight back against that sort of star power to make our case in the court of public opinion?

I really want to answer [with] some fancy, clever version of “we have truth on our side,” but so far that hasn’t been enough.

Last weekend, me and a long-time activist looked at each other and said “Shit, we need to scramble up some celebrities.” Truth is, there are not many of those around. The actor Rupert Everett that supports ECP (English Collective of Prostitutes) is one. Rose Alliance has our own little celebrity if one is into kitsch European disco from the 80s, in our member (and yes, former sex worker) Alexander Bard. If you’ve never heard of his iconic group Army of Lovers, I dare you to look them up. But that’s it.

I am not really sure we want to go after celebrities unless they have actually worked as sex workers. I prefer sticking to sex workers themselves as the experts. I do think that it is time to hold all our so-called allies accountable. You say you are on our side? Now would be a really good time to prove it. This last week several people within the UNAIDS family, Amnesty, and other big organizations have been risking their own jobs trying to do what’s right. Now, that is commitment.

It is easy saying you are an ally because you feel all fluffy inside [on the] IAC (International AIDS Conference) when you walk around with a badge saying “Save us from saviours,” but what about the rest of the year? I know I am not very flexible on this—ask our allies in Sweden. We really don’t let them fuck around. There is no time for pretty words while people are dying.

I really think we need to demand more of our allies. It is time for some old school hardcore activism—either you are with us or you are against us. And no, owning a red umbrella does not count. We need our research spread, our petitions signed and more doors opened. We need to be included in decision making processes at all levels, and those who claim to be our allies should facilitate that. I got allergic to…buzz words of sympathy without any action or commitment the […] second [Swedish sex worker] Jasmine got murdered, and I haven’t changed since.

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Why listen to us when you could listen to Meryl Streep? (Photo by Flickr user mostribus84)

Why listen to us when you could listen to Meryl Streep? (Photo by Flickr user mostribus84)

On July 22, a long list of prohibitionists, working through the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, released an open letter to Amnesty International as part of their long-running fight to stop them from officially adopting a pro-decriminalization of sex work stance. The letter urged the organization to vote against a draft proposal supporting decriminalization at their International Council meeting in Dublin this coming week. Besides roping in many of the usual suspects in anti-sex work circles—Janice Raymond, Julie Bindel, Rachel Moran, Robin Morgan, Meagan Tyler, etc.—the petition sought celebrity endorsements in an attempt to use fame to advance its cause. And sign on the celebrities did: Lena Dunham, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Emma Thompson, Lisa Kudrow, Kevin Kline, Christine Baranski, and Chris Cooper were among the more prominent names included.

When I first read that list, besides feeling like half of my favorite films had just been ruined for me, I was also really worried. People look up to these names. Who would listen to us in the sex workers’ rights movement when they could listen to Meryl Streep? The battle to support Amnesty International’s proposed stance has been a long and draining one for sex workers internationally, and it saw some particularly nasty fights here in Australia when prohibitionists tried to shout down sex workers at Amnesty Australia’s annual general meeting last July. As absurd as it was that a bunch of Hollywood’s most privileged could consider their voices about our oppression more important than our own, there was a lot of power and money in that list of names, and I was concerned that it might actually shift the course of Amnesty’s vote.

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