street work

(Photo by Flickr user Patrick Harris)

This is a hard piece for me to write, because everything I’m about to describe is still very fresh.

Two years ago, the all-over body pain and extreme exhaustion I’d been dealing with began to become more common. But I was still only using my cane sporadically, allowing me to work the stroll and occasionally go on outcalls from Backpage.

The doctors had confirmed fibromyalgia, as well as chronic fatigue syndrome. At the time, these diagnoses felt validating. The body pain, the spasming tendons and odd stabbing pains that I could name—this one felt like a rusty railroad spike going up through my foot, another like a piece of rebar traversing my torso diagonally, another like needles being shoved under my fingernails—were not my imagination, nor was the exhaustion that kept me sleeping for 19-plus hours a day, often for weeks at a time.

I was still occasionally able to make it out without my cane at this point. It had become a comfort and it provided a sense of security, a way to signal a request for patience when I was unable to move as quickly as others, and it allowed relief from the pains that shot like lightning up the bones of both my legs. But I knew that as a fat, tattooed, (although cis passing) trans woman, the cane would work against me on the stroll. Though I was 47 at the time, I easily passed as closer to 30 (the “Trans Fountain of Youth”?). But sex work is mean. Anything that detracted from cis-hetero-able-bodied standards of beauty meant lost income, so I leaned a lot. I’d stop by the church gates and rest, half-hoping I’d go unnoticed so I could regain a bit of my strength, half-hoping I’d be noticeable enough to catch a car date without having to move to more lucrative stretches of the stroll.

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Marsha P Johnson, Stonewall riot participant, STAR House founder, ACT UP activist, and Black trans woman street sex worker. (Screenshot from "Pay It No Mind: The Life And Times of Marsha P Johnson")

Marsha P. Johnson, Stonewall participant, STAR House founder, ACT UP activist, Black trans woman, and street sex worker. (Screenshot from Pay It No Mind: The Life And Times of Marsha P. Johnson)

Like many of my LGBT peers and allies, I am grateful for the contributions made before and for the possibilities ahead. This summer, the Supreme Court acknowledged the humanity of LGBT individuals. And one of our pinnacle liberation symbols, New York City’s Stonewall Inn, the site of the 1969 Stonewall riots, was made a national landmark—all substantial markers of the rapidly increasing acceptance of LGBT individuals in mainstream America.

Over the past decades, important work to raise awareness and funds for the #gaymarriage movement has dominated the LGBT landscape. Each $1000-plate dinner and garden party brought together the well-dressed and privileged of the LGBT community to establish a strong presence against prejudiced, formidable foes. Many of these participants called on the ghost of Stonewall as an emblem of retaliation, reaction and unity. Simply by uttering the “S-word,” the President inspired LGBT people and their allies nationwide to have confidence to continue pushing for broad rights and protections. This summer our victory cry has been #lovewins.

But something is missing in all our gratitude. While it’s great that gay men and lesbians are building wedding registries, shopping at malls, and openly holding hands in places where it was previously forbidden, many of our most high profile spokespeople risk encouraging a spineless edit of history. We are so swift to lionize Stonewall and all of the early LGBT civil rights movement that the process has forced us to acquiesce to an acceptability politic which punishes many identities which represented the very heart and soul of our liberation mantras.

We must challenge our collective desire to strip a story that subverts a normative way of seeing the world. We as LGBT individuals and allies must tap our recent tragedies and triumphs to prevent our own story from disappearing into the exact same narrative most embraced by the bigots who used that norm against us.

The riots at Stonewall are, in fact, the perfect example. Conversations about its history selectively ignore significant components of the rioters’ identities, often including the vital presence of trans women (Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major, Marsha P. Johnson) and gay men but excluding the fact that many of these individuals were hustlers and street workers. Look for the biography of Sylvia Rivera, one of the most well-respected trans activists and Stonewall participants, and you will find her experience of street work excised. This, despite how sex work may have formed her only available opportunity at that time to afford to engage in her activist work. She was hardly the only trans woman of color involved in the sex industry supporting the riots. And then there were the hustlers, the young men working to support themselves after escaping to the city from lives that would have ended up in false marriages, depression, or, as it did for many, suicide or deaths by gay bashing. These were the people, harassed by the police to the point of exhaustion, willing to publicly engage as LGBT people at a time of great risk, the people who actually make up our liberation narrative.

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A December 17th collage of Black sex working trans women victims of violence (Image by A Passion, courtesy of A Passion)

A December 17th collage of Black sex working trans women victims of violence (Image by A. Passion, courtesy of A. Passion)

On December 17th, we reflect on the overwhelming reports of violence against sex workers and put together plans of action to rise above it. We experience violence at the hands of law enforcement, clients, pimps and abusive partners, and each other. Though I have never found value in comparing suffering woe for woe, it is my goal to speak only from personal experience. Call it luck or divine intervention, but my life as a sex worker has been relatively charmed. I have flirted with danger, but for the most part I managed to get by unscathed. Physically, that is. It is important to remember that not all scars are visible and that those that are not can sometimes be the deepest and most difficult to heal.

I live the life of a career sex worker who is black, a woman, and transgender. Blacks, women, and transgender people are three marginalized groups, and often the thought of encompassing all three is overbearing. I’ve looked for purpose in the eyes of strangers—whether they sat behind a desk, confused as they dissected my qualifications and wondered about my gender identity, or loomed over me, swollen with the often lethal combination of lust and disgust.

Job discrimination is a form of violence. Denying anyone the right to support themselves legally and then criminalizing the means to which they turn to sustain themselves is inhumane and deplorable. For many of us, sex work is a job of last resort. The fact is that we are rarely given an alternative. Many employers simply will not hire trans workers for fear of losing customers. Another act of violence often overlooked is theft of service, typically defined as “knowingly securing the performance of a service by deception or threat.” When theft of services happens to us, it is rape, and the damage goes beyond the monetary value of what we’ve lost. I have been the victim of both. Like many of us, I considered rape one of many occupational hazards and did nothing about it when it happened to me. How do you report something like this, and to whom?

During my time as a street-based sex worker, I personally witnessed multiple acts of violence. Some girls survived and some didn’t. It was our own Mufasa-esque circle of life, and many of us dealt with it the only we knew how: Not dealing with it at all. To live in fear is to lose money, to lose money is to starve and ultimately become homeless. The key to survival is adaptation. Learn from the violence you experience, but do not succumb to it.

I developed a strict code of conduct for myself, necessary for my survival in the business. No drugs, no excess drinking, never steal, and always use protection. I thought this was enough to shield me from the bulk of the misfortunes that befell so many before me. For a while it did, but as the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end.” I still have issues with thinking of myself as a victim, because I know what happened to me could have been worse. Despite all of what I taught myself, as safe and as smart I thought I was, no matter how much I wanted to believe it would never happen to me, it did.

Four years ago I climbed into a stranger’s car, like I had so many times before. I began to direct him toward a crowded movie theater parking lot which provided the privacy and safety necessary to conduct my business. When I noticed that he was deliberately missing turns, I attempted to open the car door while at a red light. It wouldn’t open from the inside. I turned to look at him and was met with a swift blow to the mouth. I looked up to see the barrel of a pistol. I should’ve been afraid, but I wasn’t. This was not the first time a gun had been in my face. In fact, it was the fourth. I’d never been hit and they usually wanted money, sex, or both. However, I was always able to talk myself out of the situation or escape somehow. What I lacked in strength I certainly made up for in cunning. This time was different.

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Sin City 1, via fanpop via huffington post Imagine a city so bleak, so hopeless, so full of darkness, that only criminals and social rejects have a fighting chance to survive living there. Imagine villains so desperate, so foul, so vile, that the ugliest death for them still wouldn’t feel like justice. Now imagine heros who are so full of vice, rage, and demons that they are not much better than our villains. Picture a city that doesn’t have a violent underbelly, because its entirety is a violent underbelly. This is the setting Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have built for us with Sin City and its sequel, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. Based on Miller’s comic book series of the same name, the two have constructed a nightmare town that is terrifically gory and hellbent on destroying every person who enters it.

The characters that seem most equipped to survive Sin City are its sex workers. (Spoilers ahead.)  [READ MORE]

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Image via NolaWoman

Image via NolaWoman

In May of this year, I talked to Deon Haywood, Executive Director of Women With A Vision in New Orleans about her approach to organizing. WWAV scored a significant grassroots legal and political victory in the last year with the NO Justice campaign, which removed hundreds of cis and trans women from Louisiana’s registered felony sexual offender rolls. Deon is a longtime activist in the city of New Orleans, with a history of organizing low-income women of color around reproductive justice, harm reduction, and human rights. 

Margo St. James of COYOTE once said, “It takes two minutes to politicize a hooker.” She said that in 1975, when it seemed that political consciousness was greater and ordinary people talked about politics. But today, when you talk to someone who is not “political,” when you want to recruit someone not involved in political activism, what’s your rap?

This is going to sound really basic but I really try to just lay it all out. I really pretty much try to tell people the truth. Or help them see the truth.

I always tell the story about the group of women I talked to on the North Shore, on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain. I had been invited by the YWCA to speak to these women. Many of them are retired with lots of income. There were maybe twelve of them in the room and they were trying to figure out how they might want to volunteer. When I came out, I was literally the only black woman in the room. This was pre-Katrina [August 2005]. And they really couldn’t relate to anything I was talking about: rates of HIV, poverty.

You were losing them. [READ MORE]

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