Interviews

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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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(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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(Screenshot from Roxanne, courtesy of Paul Frankl)

Roxanne and Lily negotiate breakfast. (Still from Roxanne, courtesy of Paul Frankl)

Roxanne, a short film about a trans sex worker who reluctantly takes in an abandoned child, was recently selected as a Vimeo Staff Pick and has been accepted at 14 international film festivals, including two Oscar qualifying fests.  It will soon be made into a feature film. The following interview was conducted by Sarah and Caty with director Paul Frankl over e-mail. 

Roxanne is played by a genderfluid drag queen performer, Miss Cairo. That adds an interesting layer to her portrayal of Roxanne, because a lot of trans workers exist in gender variant spaces. Sarah noted that Roxanne is a character she could actually imagine working alongside her in a trans parlor, and she’s never seen that done on film before. Can you tell us more about this casting choice?

Casting someone of fluid gender was not something I initially set out to do. I auditioned eight trans and genderfluid women (because I knew I wanted someone from the trans community, as an ethical choice), and of them, Cairo was the one I wanted for the role. We then had many discussions around gender (her own and Roxanne’s) and it was her who brought the genderqueer aspect, which I wanted to embrace and thought made a great extra dynamic to the film. Exploring someone as genderfluid is something that’s rarely seen in the media (even less than representations of trans people given the rise in awareness over the last couple of years), and something I think is definitely worth exploring more in film.

Another thing we loved about the short was the way you holistically represented all the aspects of Roxanne’s life—her morning run was given just as much if not more film time as her nightly sex work.  In your Hunger TV interview, you stated that, “by pushing the fact that she is a trans sex worker to the background, I hoped to humanise her and make her a character that everyone can relate to.” Why do you think it’s so hard for mainstream audiences to see beyond the label of “trans sex worker” and understand trans workers as whole persons beyond their jobs and gender identities?

I think films can allow people to connect with others on an emotional level, in a way they can’t through many other mediums. This is why it’s a great way to help change attitudes towards trans people and sex workers, because the audience can see their hopes, fears, and daily life—things that we all have—and relate to them. Too often, trans sex workers (and sex workers in general) are presented as victims, crazy, or drug addicts. I wanted to show a trans sex worker who was in control of her life—with her own issues, but ones that don’t revolve around her gender or career. In this way I hoped to be able to change some attitudes towards sex workers of those watching. Hopefully, this can be done more (to a wider audience) with the feature.

We were surprised by Roxanne’s agreement with Lily’s statement that she puts on her makeup to be someone else, rather than telling Lily that the makeup is just part of being the woman she is. In the Hunger TV interview, you also said that “[p]art of the key to the film was differentiating between the light and dark aspects to Roxanne’s life. We wanted to visually separate the day from the night scenes, and show the duality of her life—her real self vs. her masked self…” What is Roxanne’s “masked self”? A common stereotype about trans women holds that they are pretenders to womanhood. How is Roxanne not being her real self when she puts on makeup and displays her femininity?

Her ‘mask’ relates to the glamorous role she feels she has to play on the scene. The line about her “being someone else” when she puts on all the makeup, refers to her playing this glamorous person that doesn’t connect to her daily self—the one you see in the day time, who has interests outside the clubbing scene. It can be lonely to present a beautiful and glamorous person all the time. This is her mask—it has nothing to do with her womanhood or transness. But I think in general, makeup does disguise who you are somewhat—it physically changes the way you look. She feels she has to portray this person in order to get clients, rather than presenting herself as the sensitive, (hurt) person she really is.

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Monica Jones and Derek Demeri in the United Nations Gardens in Geneva. (Photo by Derek Demeri, courtesy of Penelope Saunders and Derek Demeri)

Monica Jones and Derek Demeri in the United Nations Gardens in Geneva. (Photo by Derek Demeri, courtesy of Penelope Saunders and Derek Demeri)

On May 11th, American sex workers’ rights activists Monica Jones and Derek Demeri met with the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in Geneva to advocate for protections for sex workers, in preparation for the Council’s quadrennial Universal Period Review of the US’ human rights record that same day. The following interview was conducted with Demeri, of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, via e-mail and edited for clarity and length. 

What were your goals in making recommendations to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council? If the Council absorbed just one point from your presentation, what do you hope it was?

Ultimately, we want people in positions of power to hear and recognize the struggle that sex workers have been facing for centuries. Sex workers and their allies know all too well the violence that comes at the hands of the police and [those in] other positions of authority. We know how deep stigma runs in society when sex workers can face eviction from housing or termination from employment for past experience in the sex trade. We know how the government has completely failed to aid sex workers against the HIV epidemic that continues to sweep the country. Our community knows these things, but we need to let the world know.

Unfortunately, there were no specific recommendations that sought to protect sex workers during this UPR [Universal Periodic Review] round of the United States. There were several recommendations that encouraged the United States to do more to end human trafficking, which we of course know means more policing of our communities and public shaming for our work. However, Thailand made a recommendation to have “more holistic monitoring” and “evidence based” research when combating human trafficking, which we can use to support sex workers. Many countries also made recommendations regarding ending racial profiling, torture in the prison system, and ending police brutality, which are all important for our community.

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