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The Erasure of Maya Angelou’s Sex Work History

A young, beautiful Maya Angelou with Langston Hughes, not long after her career as a sex worker—guess she didn't think his joke was that funny? (Photo via mayaangelou.com)
A young, beautiful Maya Angelou with Langston Hughes, not long after her career as a sex worker—guess she didn’t think his joke was that funny? (Photo via mayaangelou.com)

As Black History Month draws to a close, we thought revisiting Peech’s seminal essay on Maya Angelou would be appropriate. 

Dr. Maya Angelou, American Poet Laureate, most famous for authoring I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, passed away at age 86 on May 28th, 2014. Her literary agent Helen Brann confirmed the news to press, and thus began a worldwide outpouring of grief. The top trending tag on Twitter was “RIP Maya Angelou” and, at the time of this writing, it is one of four Maya Angelou-related trending hashtags. She is hailed as a national best selling author, a genius, a spiritual God-, Grand-, and mother. She is lauded as everything Black women should aspire to emulate in life. So why is it very few of us know she was a sex worker in her youth? Why is it, even in her death, as in her life, it’s such a guarded secret? Why was this secret kept by seemingly everyone except Dr. Angelou herself?

We can, once again, boil it down to respectability politics and stigma. I am angry about it. I find myself ruminating, considering, wondering: If her work had been talked about as much as her dancing with James Baldwin or even her considerable, commanding, and lovely height of six feet, what would the sex work community look like today? If we had talked about her wonderful compassion for sex workers, how she never looked down on them, and her refusal to be intimidated by invasive and obnoxious questioning about her sex working past, what would sex workers around the world be saying today in memory of her life?

Instead, we read post after post, obituary after tribute, calling her a “pimp” and saying she had “an unsuccessful stint as a prostitute.” The most detailed accounts currently online are making sure to emphasize that she spent a “brief stint,” a “short time” in the sex industry, so as to, without explicit words, solidify the shame they believe she should have felt, the shame we should feel as well. The media uses inflammatory terms to get clicks and to emphasize the terrible and shameful secret that was, in actuality, never a secret at all.

Dr. Angelou herself says she was never ashamed.

Both Transphobic and Whorephobic: The Murder of Dora Oezer

R.I.P. Dora Oezer (photo courtesy of Cristianos Gays)
R.I.P. Dora Oezer. (photo courtesy of Cristianos Gays)

On July 2nd, 24-year-old trans sex worker Dora Oezer was murdered by one of her clients. On July 12th, there was a protest against transphobic violence Istanbul, while similar protests were held in Berlin and Eskisehir. Meanwhile, the Turkish sex workers’ rights organization Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association held a protest and read a press release in Ankara. On the 19th, Dora’s murder and the murder of Swedish sex worker Petite Jasmine inspired an international wave of protests against violence against sex workers in thirty six cities across the globe outside of Turkish and Swedish embassies. Kemal Iffetsiz Asyu Ayrikotu, chair of the Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association, answered some questions about Dora’s murder and conditions for trans sex workers in Turkey for Tits and Sass.

Caty Simon: Do you mind giving us some background on how the laws operate in Turkey re: sex work and what it’s like for sex workers there?

Kemal Iffetsiz Asyu Ayrikotu: Sex work is not illegal in Turkey, at least in theory. The only group of people who are registered are female sex workers who work at brothels which are regulated by a special Charter called “The Charter to Combat Prostitution.” Based on this legislation, several brothels operate in different cities of Turkey. The overall number of brothels and registered female sex workers who work at these brothels has changed in the last 10 years, as many brothels have been closed down. Currently, around 1500 registered sex workers work at these brothels, while the number of brothels has decreased to around 35 – 40. Both cisgender female sex workers and transsexual women can work at brothels as they both hold female ID cards.

The important issue is unregistered sex workers. These workers face a challenge coming from The Charter to Combat Prostitution, Turkish Penal Code and some laws that has nothing to do with sex work; such as the law on misdemeanors and the law on traffic. The charter gives authority to governorships, the higher local administration which governs cities in Turkey, to carry out investigations on people who do sex work in their apartments, bars, clubs, etc. and to close down these spaces for certain periods of time. The governorships, commissions assigned to combat prostitution under the governorships, and the police are the implementing bodies of the Charter.

The Turkish Penal Code is a big barrier for unregistered sex workers, as several phrases in this law target sex workers, such as the clauses on “obscenity”, “exhibitionism”, “providing a space for prostitution”, “soliciting”, “acting as mediators”, and “human trafficking.” All of these clauses are actively used against male, female, and trans sex workers, who end up with their apartments closed down, imprisoned, paying exorbitant fines, etc.

The police are some of the main perpetrators of human rights violations against sex workers, especially street sex workers. They make use of misdemeanor laws to harass sex workers on the streets by charging them with arbitrary fines every night. This is perceived as a strategy to deter people from sex work. Yet, when a sex worker is fined, they are more likely to go back to the street to re-earn the money which was taken away from her/him. Also, the law on traffic is used against those sex workers who drive down the streets to find clients, and they also end up charged with arbitrary fines.

Sex Working While Jewish In America

(Photo via Flickr user Howard Lifshitz)

We are witnessing the blossoming of a white nationalist nation. Being the person that I am is not easy in the United States right now. It’s not easy for my friends, my family, or millions of Black people, Jews, and LGBTQI people.

I’m an Iranian, Tunisian, French and Jewish sex worker. I immigrated from France to the U.S. as a child. I still hold a fair amount of privilege; my skin is light, unlike that of many of my family members, and I am a high-income sex worker. With that, I’m still confronted with Islamophobia—many people assume I’m Muslim because I’m Middle Eastern—and anti-Semitism both in my personal and professional lives.

I was raised with Judaism but I’m a secular Jew. I’m a Hebrew school dropout. My feelings about religion are very complicated and honestly, it often makes me quite uncomfortable. Every time I walk around New York and see white Hasidic Jews, I feel both otherness—we are culturally different and I’m not a nice Jewish girl—and a connection to them.

The thing that makes me feel most Jewish is knowing how much people hate us. People hate them as people hate me. I’ve been to Nazi death camps and I remember looking at a flyer in one camp’s museum. There were excerpts from a pamphlet the Nazis passed out during the war. It was titled How to Spot a Jew, containing several highly racist caricatures presented as what to look out for. Those racist caricatures all looked like me. I don’t need to have religious garb on to be recognized as Jewish, and I still see those caricatures being used in reactionary media today.

I’ve been conflicted about saying anything about anti-Semitism under my work persona. I struggle with being politically vocal while still trying to make money and remain appealing to wealthy clients.

But when I’m faced with these prejudices at work, it hurts to be silent. I feel like I’ve lost. My racial identities come up too often at work to ignore. I once posted a photo online of myself post-menstrual sex, and someone’s response was: “Now I know why Hitler gassed the Jews.” People frequently point out my big nose. I’ve been called a “terrorist,” “camel pussy”, and “kike” on client-facing social media quite a bit.

When I was younger and new to sex work, I was afraid to set boundaries and money was scarce, so I took jobs that I wouldn’t take now that I’m in a better financial situation. I think all performers of color are faced with this experience. I’ve been in a movie called Women Of the Middle East, and have been cast as a belly dancer many times. I was always being given the information that I would be participating in a racial fetish scene only after I had traveled, paid for testing, been booked, etc. I’ve had a director make jokes about needing machine guns as props for Middle Eastern vibes, and I’ve had to fuck a white man in a turban with black eyeliner. Clients still ask me to wear hijabs.

Gender Critical Feminism is Fascism

 

Meghan Murphy was booted from Twitter recently for spewing transmisogynistic and anti-sex work garbage. Cue: Ding Dong the Witch is Dead! Meghan Murphy as an individual human person is a complete joke, having edited Feminist Current for nearly a decade, a site consisting of random pepperings of George Soros conspiracy theories muddled together with the language of feminism. Nonetheless, her “gender critical” ideas are gaining traction among so-called feminists and fascists alike, and that’s the part that worries me.

Many “gender critical feminists”—aka TERFs and SWERFs—have aligned themselves with violent allies, proclaiming, much like the alt-right does, that “men aren’t women” and “sex work isn’t a thing.” In a pitiful blog post with endless martyred complaint about her locked Twitter account, Murphy whines:

While the left continues to vilify me, and liberal and mainstream media continue to mostly ignore feminist analysis [sic] of gender identity, people like Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro (and hundreds of right wingers and free speech advocates online), and right wing media outlets […] have attempted to speak with me and understand my perspective […] the left seems to have taken to ignoring or refusing to engage with detractors or those who have opinions they disagree with or don’t like [while] the right continues to be interested in and open to engaging.

Raise your hand if you see a lucrative YouTube rant about “Red Pilling” on the horizon!

The alliance between “gender critical feminists” and the alt-right has been forged on mutual bigotry: hatred for trans people and sex workers. “Gender critical feminists” are willing to sacrifice access to medical care, abortion, and self-determination in their alliance with the alt-right for the sole purpose of harassing, doxing, and generally inciting violence against trans people and sex workers.

Historically, factions of white feminism have flirted with fascism, from the overt racism of the Suffragists in the US to the Christian Temperance Movement here and abroad.

It’s time to give serious consideration to the fact that these factions are still alive and well.

Jason Stanley recently described fascism as having three distinct and alarming qualities: a mythic past, cultural division, and a targeted attack on truth. The alt-right exemplifies these qualities, from “Make America Great Again,” to the carefully cultivated division between “patriots” and The Other and ruthless attacks on the press wherein oppressors suddenly lay claim to victimization. Let us not forget that Hitler wrote an entire book about his “struggle,” detailing the myriad ways he believed himself oppressed.

Gender critical feminism is helping to perpetuate a mythic past, cultural division, and a targeted attack on truth, and it’s time for all the Meghan Murphys of the world to be exposed as the fascist bootlickers they are.

The Week In Links: July 15

New York Gov. Cuomo is considering a bill that would increase penalties for those convicted of street prostitution. You can sign a petition discouraging him from doing so.

Whorelover is an anthology being compiled of essays from the partners of sex workers. Today is the last day for submissions.

Over the past three years, 44 women have been murdered in Mexicali, Mexico. The vast majority were prostitutes.

In 1998, the boyfriend and pimp of a Welsh prostitute were convicted of her murder—only to have a client later confess to being the sole guilty party. Now, police are being charged with conspiracy to “pervert the course of justice” for their involvement in the unjust convictions.

A Canadian city counsel decided to spend $500,000 of taxpayer money to buy and shut down a strip club, preventing the Hell’s Angels from buying it for the more reasonable $346,000. Well done, elected officials!

Six Florida strip club employees accepted a settlement after suing the city for a policeman’s illegal strip search. The police department still denies wrong-doing.

A Houston club is being sued over its racist policies.

Portland has a club called Pitiful Princesses. Kat would probably be pleased to play Pitbull preceded by Prince at Pitiful Princesses’ potentially packed premiere party.

A New Mexico escort talks about how the recent prostitution board bust has affected her work.