LectureHop: Sex Workers’ Rights are Trans Rights

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We need teamwork, people
We need teamwork, people

We need teamwork, people

On Thursday, the GS Alliance hosted a panel of queer activists (Emma Caterine, a community organizer at Red Umbrella Project; Dominick, author of Dean Johnson’s Reading for Filth; and Ryan Thoreson, a JD candidate at Yale Law School with extensive experience with LGBT NGOs) to discuss the issue of trans sex workers’ rights. Curious Bwogger Heather Akumiah attended the panel and reminisces on the night. 

The panel, titled Sex Workers Rights are Queer Rights!, began and ended with a discussion of Belle Knox, the Duke pornstar. Though Belle is not trans, the panelists discussed the fact that the same language used to “save” cis women from sex work is the language used to convict trans women of the same activity. Where white, cis, straight women are considered incapable of willingly “selling” their bodies (panelist Dominick joked that in reality, he was only renting his), trans sex workers, who are seen as being in possession of a dangerous sexuality, are considered perpetrators and ringleaders of sex work. This idea of dangerous sexuality is often the same reason that violence against trans workers is tolerated, excused, and perpetuated. The false dichotomy of the unwilling participant and the perverted perpetrator causes significant harm to a range of people involved in sex work, but the plight of trans sex workers often goes unnoticed.

The panelists agreed that removing the stigma of sex work and decriminalizing the practice would be a significant step in the right direction. However, they noted that trans men and women are often left out of conversations about destigmatizing sex work, and about civil rights as a whole. They cited the increasing prominence of respectability politics in the LGBTQ movement as one of the many reasons that trans voices are silenced. White, male, gay men have become the face of the movement, and what most Americans associate with LGBTQ rights. Their narrative has become the mainstream, where the narrative of trans people has become the margin. The panelists described the preeminence of the discussion of gay marriage as a distinct reflection of respectability politics.

 Some of the panelists attributed this discussion of marriage to trauma caused by the AIDs epidemic of earlier decades. A way of saying, “If we could just be monogamous, this wouldn’t have happened.” But this, the panelists argued, is an extremely dangerous and harmful way of going about the movement. It doesn’t simply help some progress, but it stigmatizes an entire segment of the LGBTQ movement, and divides the movement into two parts: “good” LGBTQ people (the white, gay males that liberal America loves and rallies for and just want to get married damn it!) and “bad” LGBTQ people (trans POC who are vectors of disease and possess dangerous sexualities).

Anxiety over the sexuality of trans people has manifested itself in several cruel practices executed by the state. While no one would would think it okay to survey or regulate the sexualities of queer people, society as a whole is unfazed by the violation of the rights of trans people, particularly sex workers. Forced medical examination and the forced testing of sex workers in jail, which were once practices associated with the AIDs epidemic, have moved on from gay males and are now applied largely to members of the trans community.

The panel ended with, besides another discussion of Belle Knox, a discussion about how to move forward. When an audience member voiced her skepticism about working within the current system to improve the rights of trans sex workers, the panel advised her that working within the system is one of the most important ways to progress. Ryan Thoreson, in particular, said he believed that every movement needs people in suits who are ready to play by the rules, and the kind of radicals that make Stonewall happen. The movement can only succeed, though, when one group does not forget the other.

Aw, teamwork is nice via Shutterstock

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  1. BSGS  

    It's not the gay club. It's "GS Alliance." Jokes happen.

  2. GS 15  

    The name of the group is GS Alliance, not "Gay Club." You should probably edit that.

  3. BV  

    The group is in fact, called "GS Alliance". As the organizer of this event on the GS Alliance side of things, I didn't want to make the event about publicity because it was about MUCH more important things (the panel's organizer put "the Gay Club" on flyers, and we all thought it was kind of funny), but if you're going to mention us, please edit this so that our name is correct. GS Alliance is Columbia's LGBTQA student organization for nontraditional students. "The Gay Club," on the other hand, doesn't exist (as far as I know).
    Blair (VP, GS Alliance)

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