Policing Gender and Sexuality: Transgender Sex Workers: HIV & Justice

Policing Gender and Sexuality Transgender Sex Workers: HIV & Justice

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.”

Trans people organizing to end criminalization and imprisonment
In October 2007, more than 200 trans people and allies gathered in San Francisco at the Transforming Justice conference. The focus was to a build a national movement to end the criminalization and imprisonment of trans communities. Different Avenues was present at the event as well as representatives from trans groups from across the country including the Transgender, Gender Variant & Intersex Justice Project in San Francisco, Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City, La Gender in Atlanta, Q-Team in Los Angeles, and many more.
The attendees spent two days learning and sharing about the issues facing trans communities impacted by the prison industrial complex. On the final day of the conference, participants developed the following points of unity:

  1. We recognize cycles of poverty, criminalization, and imprisonment as urgent human rights issues for transgender and gender non-conforming people.
  2. We agree to promote, centralize, and support the leadership of transgender and gender non-conforming people most impacted by the prisons, policing, and poverty in this work.
  3. We plan to organize to build on and expand a national movement to liberate our communities and specifically transgender and gender non-conforming people from poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, racism, ageism, transphobia, classism, sexism, ableism, immigration discrimination, violence, and the brutality of the prison industrial complex.
  4. We commit to ending the abuse and discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming people in all aspects of society, with the long-term goal of ending the prison industrial complex.
  5. We agree to continue discussing with each other what it means to work towards ending the prison industrial complex while addressing immediate human rights crises.

In the months since, groups in various parts of the country have continued to push this vision forward by having regional meetings. For more information visit www.transformingjustice.org or contact the TGI Justice Project, 1095 Market Street, Suite 308, San Francisco, CA, 94103; Tel: (415) 252-1444

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *