homophobia

(Photo courtesy of Amy Ashenden)

Queer Muslim Sex Worker: These are labels that aren’t supposed to go together, but in the life of Maryam, a genderfluid Pakistani Muslim person living in London, they do. A newly released, independently-funded podcast with this title by journalist Amy Ashenden aims to shed light on how Maryam’s different identities are sexualized, vilified, and ostracized in their own ways.

As she navigates her various forms of closetedness “like a maze,” Maryam’s candor lets the listener in on how stressful this life is. In fact, it is so stressful that she’s often had suicidal thoughts because of it. At the end of the podcast, Maryam relates how since finally being disowned by her family after hiding her sexuality and her experience in the sex industry from them, she’s been unable to focus on her responsibilities, dealing with the trauma of abandonment by numbing out with alcohol and partying at strip clubs. I feel for her because I can relate to that sense of hopelessness.

In a culture with highly communal values, your life is not your own. Your life actually belongs to your family, and anything you do or say can either bring honor or shame to them. For this reason, it’s extremely rare for Muslims to talk openly about gender and sexuality.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t Muslims who are LGBTQ, it just means they’re not welcome in the Muslim community. As Maryam observes, “I’ve never seen a queer Muslim person who came out to the community and was welcomed with open arms.”

If being gay is bad news to the community, being a sex worker is even worse. However, the Muslim community itself creates the necessity for survival sex work by rejecting members of the community who are queer. As Maryam explains that she is saving the money she earns from webcam work to support herself in case she is rejected or disowned by her family for being gay, she illustrates how Muslim youth are not exempt from one of the most typical ways young people first become involved in sex work: by being disowned by their parents for being gay. The ability to take ownership of our bodies and sexuality is even something that draws people like us to do sex work.

My recommendation to Muslim youth who ask me about coming out is always to wait until they’re financially self-sufficient. We already know what happens to people like us. “I think I’d be sort of exiled from the community until I changed my ways,” Maryam says sarcastically when asked what would happen if she came out.

When traditional Muslim family values clash with the individualism that is the hallmark of Western culture, we take up a new fight beyond oppressive regimes and occupation back home and racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment here. Now we’re fighting for the freedom to be ourselves, beyond those labels and intersecting identities.

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image by Tim Evanson (Flickr user Tim Evanson)

(Image by Flickr user Tim Evanson)

One heartening development that came in the wake of Orlando’s tragedy was the massive show of support responding to the call for blood donations for the wounded. During the day on Sunday, people waited for hours in long lines for the chance to help by giving blood. The website of Florida’s blood donation network, OneBlood, crashed because of all the traffic. OneBlood spokeswoman Stephanie Zaurin said that donations were coming in at “record numbers.” By Sunday night, many of the city’s blood banks were at capacity. Some even had to turn would-be donors away. OneBlood did ask donors to return on Monday and Tuesday, as the shooting victims’ need for transfusions would continue.

And yet, so many LGBTQ people are barred from donating blood to help the trans and queer Latinx people wounded in this attack—our own community members.

Recent social and mainstream media outrage on the subject has mostly focused on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ban against men who have sex with men as donors. Since 1986, the FDA had maintained a de facto lifetime blood donation ban against any man who’d had sex with a man in the past ten years. The restriction was formalized as a lifetime ban against all MSM (men who have sex with men) donors in 1992. The American Medical Association called for an end to this restriction in 2013, citing discrimination and its lack of a sound medical basis.

In December 2015, the FDA amended its policy slightly. The new rule allows self-identified gay and bisexual men to give blood as long as they haven’t had sexual contact with another man in the past year. The FDA’s stricture now mimics that of many homophobic religious organizations such as the Mormon and Catholic churches: queer men are only acceptable so long as they are celibate.

NPR’s Hansi Lo Wong reported that some Orlando blood banks disallowed even self-identified queer men who’d been sexually inactive for a year or more from donating blood, refusing to adhere to the new policy.

In contrast, the city commissioner of Orlando’s fourth district, Patty Sheehan, stated on MSNBC that she thought blood banks were taking donations from gay men. This began a spate of hopeful rumors that the policy against sexually active queer men had been temporarily lifted in light of the demand for transfusions. OneBlood claimed later on Twitter that they were complying with all FDA guidelines, and corrected misinformation on social media that these policies were not in effect.

But the FDA also forbids many other groups of trans and queer people besides MSM from donating blood, including us sex workers. The current guidelines “defer indefinitely an individual who has ever had sex for money or drugs.”

Many LGBTQ people are in the sex trade for lack of other options, because of rejection from their families and discrimination in employment and education. LGBTQ homeless youth are seven times more likely than their heterosexual peers to engage in survival sex work. The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, the largest reported survey of trans people to date, found that 11 percent of respondents had done sex work at some point in their lives. Black and Black-multiracial respondents reported the highest rate of sex work participation at 39.9 percent, followed by Latinx respondents at 32.2 percent. And trans women were twice as likely as their trans male peers to have been involved in the sex trade.

So when the FDA bars anyone who’s done full-service sex work from giving blood, they’re discriminating against a large segment of the trans and queer community—especially those of us who are most marginalized within that community.

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"Vampire Days," a self-portrait by Leslie Feinberg on hir 60th birthday. (Photo via Feinberg's Flickr account)

“Vampire Days,” a self-portrait by Leslie Feinberg on hir 60th birthday. (Photo via Feinberg’s Flickr account)

Trans/queer writer and socialist hero Leslie Feinberg died last week. The event rekindled my memories of squatting on the floor of Barnes and Nobles at the age of 17, reading the work zie’s1 most known for, Stone Butch Blues, a bildungsroman set in the lesbian working class bar scene during the Stonewall era. I was blown away by the novel and the way it brought together class politics, trans rights, and queer rights so explicitly. I’m not the only sex worker for whom the book was important. When I wrote to him about Blues, St. James Infirmary program director and sex working trans man Cyd Nova responded:

When I read Stone Butch Blues nine years ago I was just beginning to understand my gender as something other than female, while working as a stripper and seeing the club as the only place that I felt a sense of home…The way it illustrated feeling at odds with the world and the precise quality of needing to find a community who could guide you to your ultimate true self, navigating the path against the tide, was such an important read for me at that point…I would say that this book gave me some of building blocks to understand my desire to transition, before the internet was such a bastion of resources for trans folks.

In fact, my Facebook feed was awash with queer and trans sex workers linking to obituary pieces on Feinberg last week. So many of us could identify with hir writing about finding one’s people and working along with them in factories, bars, clubs, and the street to keep ourselves afloat. That’s why I was aghast at learning from The Toast that Stone Butch Blues is actually permanently out of print. (“How is that possible, when every dyke in America has at least two copies on her bookshelf?” inimitable Toast editor Mallory Ortberg opined.) But what I remembered most clearly was my rereading of the book in my mid-twenties, when I realized just how much of it was about valorizing femme sex workers as an integral part of the queer community.

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Behold that jubilant smile, and that everpresent, oh-so-stylin' riding crop. Terri Jean Bedford is a woman who knew she was going to win. Along with the two other sex worker plaintiffs of Bedford v. Canada, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott, Bedford won the day today when the Canadian Supreme Court struck down Canada's anti-prostitution laws. Looks like Canadian sex workers have a lot of decriminalized whipping to do. (Photo by Jack Boland/QMI Agency Files, via northumberlandtoday.com)

Behold that jubilant smile, and that ever present leather jacket and the oh-so-stylin’ riding crop. Terri Jean Bedford is a woman who knew she was going to win. Along with the two other sex worker plaintiffs of Bedford v. Canada, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott, Bedford won the day today when the Canadian Supreme Court struck down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws. Looks like Canadian sex workers have a lot of decriminalized whipping to do. (Photo by Jack Boland/QMI Agency Files, via northumberlandtoday.com)

What a triumphant end to this week of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Work: today, the Canadian Supreme Court struck down the country’s prostitution related laws in a unanimous decision on Bedford vs. Canada, calling all three statutes—prohibiting brothels, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating in public with clients—over-broad and “grossly disproportionate.” A resounding, grateful shout out is due to the eponymous Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott, the three sex workers who began this court challenge in the Ontario court system. However, this victory is not unmitigated—the court gave Parliament a one-year grace period to redraft a legislative scheme on full service sex work that could be judged constitutional. In the meantime, Canada’s anti-prostitution laws are still in effect. But, if twelve months from today, the federal government has not redrawn the laws to address the Supreme Court’s concern that they are too arbitrary, vague, and excessive, full service sex workers will be free to legally practice their trade; hire drivers, bodyguards, and accountants; and screen their clients as they see fit.

Here’s more on the story from the Business Insider; the Toronto Star; BBC News; a Globe and Mail op-ed expressing worry about the fact that the court’s decision, is in a way, “an open invitation to Parliament to write new criminal laws”; another Globe and Mail editorial on the ruling’s implications re: the right to self-defense; an Ottawa Sun piece on local sex workers’ reactions to the decision, quoting a representative of Canadian sex workers’ rights organization POWER; a Herald News article on the comments of staff at Stepping Stone, a Halifax support and outreach organization for sex workers, after they heard the news while celebrating their Christmas party; a CBC News blog round up of twitter reactions to the ruling; a Vancouver Sun profile of how Pivot Legal Society, an organization which was instrumental in this landmark victory, is taking the good tidings; and an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen on how the decision represents Canada’s movement towards more progressive politics.

Oh, wow, so much coverage this week 0n movement actions around the world for International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on December 17th: here’s a video and an article on the protest in Kenya, in which sex workers marched along with members of the GLBT community, demanding an end to violence against both groups; the L.A. Times on vigils in Los Angeles and New York, along with a summary of violence against sex workers throughout the year; Best of New Orleans on SWOP-NOLA’s December 17th second line parade through the French Quarter;  SWOP-LV’s press release on their event in the Las Vegas Sun; a radio interview with SWOP-Denver members (about three quarters through the audio file); the Times Colonist on Victoria, BC sex workers’ rights organization PEERS’ march (though they call it “Red Umbrella Day”);  HuffPo on SWOP events throughout the U.S., with a slide show of photos of some of this year’s sex worker murder victims; a piece in the Bristol Post on  Avon and Somerset’s Police and Crime Commissioner marking the occasion by publicly supporting the Ugly Mugs scheme, Naharnet on a protest in Skopke, Macedonia; Turkey’s Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Organization’s statement for the day; Rabble with statements from sex workers’ rights organizations Zi Teng, EMPOWER, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, and Maggie’s on the issue, plus a lament for non gender normative Indonesian migrant sex worker murder victim Rosa Ribut; a speech by sex worker activist Gina de Vries at the San Francisco event, urging the movement to center the voices of trans sex workers of color; and finally, an Australia Broadcasting Company radio interview with sex worker activists Jane Green and Ryan Cole at the Melbourne protest: “Don’t call me darling. That’s patronizing.”

Whew. We’re overwhelmed. And oh-so-delighted.

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