Policing Gender and Sexuality
Transgender sex workers, HIV, and justice
by Darby Hickey
To hear some tell it, the gay and lesbian rights movement has accomplished much without the help of transgender communities who are trying to ride to justice on the coattails of gay and lesbian activism. This reconfiguration of history could be heard most often recently in the justifications of some gay and lesbian activists for the exclusion of gender identity and expression from the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (EDNA) voted on in the House of Representatives last summer. But the truth is that trans communities— including transgenders, transsexuals, travestis, drag queens, and other gender non-conforming folks —were at the forefront of the events that many in LGBT communities consider the beginning of the modern gay and lesbian rights movement. Resistance to police oppression at New York City’s gay Stonewall Inn in 1969, and three years earlier in San Francisco at the Compton’s Cafeteria riots, featured trans people front and center. Not coincidentally, many of those trans people also did sex work.
Transgender is a term used by some as an umbrella for a number of different identities of people who transgress social norms about gender—but it is also a term used by some people to identify themselves as someone whose gender-identity does not conform with their legal or socially designated “sex.” For these people transgender and transsexual are basically interchangeable—but others reject the use of the word in this way. In this article I will use it in the latter sense and use trans as the more umbrella term.
Sex work is a term usually used to describe a wide range of commercial sex activities from escorting to porn to exotic dancing—but also used sometimes as a synonym for prostitution. It was coined by activist Scarlot Harlot in an attempt to create a stigma-neutral word for what many see as a legitimate way of making a living by trading sexual services for a fee. In some countries around the world the sex worker rights movements are strong and well developed. India boasts some of the largest sex worker unions which can mobilize thousands in protest, Brazilian sex worker groups are key stakeholders in the country’s development of HIV policy, and sex workers in Thailand are opening their own model workplaces. The movement in the United States is still developing, but in many places trans people, particularly trans women, have played a key role in pushing for the rights of those engaging in sex work.
Many trans people, particularly trans women, engage in sex work to make a living, but it is a frustrating stereotype that all trans women are sex workers. “Walking while transgender” has been coined as a term in many locales to describe the almost constant profiling of transgender and transsexual women (particularly women of color) as sex workers by police. These attitudes are also related to historical criminalization of trans and lesbian, gay and bisexual people for “wearing clothing of the opposite sex” and the like.
“It’s ultimately all about policing gender and sexuality, policing folks’ ability to be in charge of their own bodies,” says Myrl Beam, Transgender Care Coordinator at Howard Brown Health Center, a large community-based organization in Chicago. Beam spends a significant part of his work with the Broadway Youth Center program at the organization, which includes a drop-in center for LGBT and homeless youth, many of who engage in sexual exchanges of various kinds.
Police profiling of trans women is a major problem everywhere, and being institutionalized in new laws in some places, like San Francisco. New proposals by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome that say you can’t stand outside of a night club for longer than two minutes are “targeting trans women working in the [Tenderloin neighborhood], mainly women of color,” says Blake Nemec, adding that “other new anti-homeless ordinances [are building on a] history of police abuse and brutality of trans women sex workers.”
Nemec is Transgender Service and Harm Reduction Training Coordinator at St. James Infirmary, a sex worker clinic and community group started by sex worker activists in the 1980s. In Washington, D.C., a recent study of policing of sex work found that trans people were much more likely than others to report negative experiences when seeking help from the police, report being treated worse than others when arrested, and report many fears of police including violence and humiliation. Although D.C.’s Police Chief recently issued landmark new orders for treatment by police (including a line that being transgender is not grounds for being considered a criminal), the information detailed in the report “Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington D.C.” revealed serious levels of police mistreatment and abuse of transgender people in the name of enforcing prostitution laws.
“Trans folks, trans youth, need to be put at the center of all of our conversations about queerness and justice,” says Myrl Beam, noting that in Chicago, “trans folks have less of a voice in the ‘gay’ community response to issues. Because of issues of race and class in Chicago, issues like police brutality, affordable housing, [and] universal health care are not seen as important to [the] mainstream lesbian and gay movement in Chicago but they are important to trans communities.” Trans people face extraordinary levels of violence in many different settings—from physical violence to extreme discrimination in employment and housing, to rejection by families. In D.C., like other areas of the country, this violence is particularly severe for transgender women of color, and those doing sex work, such as Bella Evangelista. A Salvadoran immigrant, Evangelista was murdered in 2003 by a man who had paid her for sex. In the face of such violence and tragedies, trans people are extremely resilient and resourceful. For example, the murders of Evangelista and other trans women in D.C. in 2003 led to renewed community organizing and a blossoming of new trans efforts, including the creation of the D.C. Trans Coalition, which has succeeded in changing local non-discrimination laws to include trans people. “There are multiple ways in which gender transgression is punished,” says Myrl Beam. “[Let’s] connect that to the fantastic ways that trans folks survive and the cultural things that folks do, so that we don’t have a one-dimensional pathologized pitying view of trans people.”
Beam echoes the frustration of other trans activists over the ways that people talk about trans people, sex work, and HIV. “The fact that trans youth in general are only ever talked about within the lens of HIV is one of the major disservices done in our approach and understanding of trans youth.” Similarly, Blake Nemec likes to flip the script on the idea that trans women doing sex work are spreading HIV to others. “A trans woman may get locked up and because of rape and pimping by prison guards she may become HIV-positive,” says Nemec, “but that’s not because of her actions and her decision to engage in sex work, that’s because of the prison industrial context. Trans women sex workers we see are very knowledgeable, organized, have condoms and lube, and use them.”
Viewing sex workers of all genders as key allies in the fight against HIV is critical, say activists, such as those who organized to attend the recent International Harm Reduction Alliance conference in Barcelona, Spain. In a statement about the conference, the International Sex Worker Harm Reduction Caucus said, “Sex worker leadership and empowerment are essential in fighting HIV and discrimination. Sex workers are their own best resource—they should be at the forefront of developing and implementing the programs and policies that impact their lives. It is only by empowering sex workers to speak for themselves and developing sex worker leadership that stigma and rights violations will be stopped.” St. James Infirmary and Different Avenues representatives were part of the caucus, as well as other sex workers from across the U.S. and other countries.
That peer leadership approach is critical for groups like St. James Infirmary, Broadway Youth Center, and Different Avenues. Blake Nemec says St. James Infirmary is pioneering a unique approach for San Francisco—peer-led intake at the clinic. Instead of a social worker or a doctor conducting the initial intake and perhaps asking questions and probing for information that the trans person may feel is irrelevant, Nemec and another trans person are the first points of contact and take a more holistic approach. After the person seeking services is made to feel welcomed and acknowledged for all the issues they may be dealing with is when a clinician works to assess specific medical needs. That’s crucial at Broadway Youth Center too, says Myrl Beam. “It’s really important that folks see other trans folk in the space when they come in.”
By combining harm reduction, LGB/Trans positive approach, anti-oppression, and an analsysis of trauma, Beam says the drop-in also works on a holistic level. Both St. James Infirmary and Broadway Youth Center also take it to a level beyond simply providing services—similar to Different Avenues which is guided by a vision of helping community members to achieve both health and justice, on their own terms. For example, a young African-American trans woman came into Different Avenues the other day seeking help with changing her legal name, which led to a discussion about trans community organizing going on in D.C., and she expressed a great desire to get involved. Before she left she took a bag full of condoms and lube, and was enthused about the experience.
“Some of the most important things to me are understanding political context for lives of trans youth,” says Myrl Beam. “We need to talk about why trans youth are homeless, all the intersecting oppressions of race, class, immigration, and all this different stuff, it’s incredibly important.” To that end people need to have an understanding of the intersection of the work for trans rights and sex worker rights, and they are key to each other. “Trans rights and sex worker rights both have a base in feminist politics in that they are about stopping people from telling you what to do with your body,” says Blake Nemec. And both are key to HIV work. For Beam, it’s about a struggle to “be in charge of your own body,” which benefits everybody, whether trans, sex worker, or not.
Darby Hickey is a national transgender and sex worker rights activist based in Washington, D.C. She is co-director of Different Avenues, a peer-led program working for health, safety, and rights to counteract and prevent HIV, violence, and discrimination. Darby also has extensive experience as a reporter and writer. She has written for $pread Magazine, Colorlines, Left Turn, the Indypendent, DC North, and other publications. For three years Darby reported on Capitol Hill and the D.C. area for Free Speech Radio News, the country’s only worker-run, national progressive radio news service. Additionally, Darby sits on the board of Transgender Health Empowerment, a local service agency in Washington, D.C.