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How Democrats' silence on sex worker rights puts trans women of color in danger

After her family found out that she identifies as a woman, Zahara Green was kicked out of the house. At the age of 17, she was left to survive on her own on the streets of Atlanta. Like many Black and Latinx trans women who are rejected by their families and marginalized by American society, Green turned to one of the only economic opportunities she could access — sex work — in order to survive.

“I was first incarcerated at the age of 17, and I went through a full cycle of incarceration,” says Green, who is the co-founder and executive director of TRANScending Barriers, an Atlanta-based organization that supports and advocates for transgender and gender non-conforming people (also known as the TGNC community) throughout Georgia. “I’d get out of jail and not have anything. I was back to being homeless again. I kept having to deal with that situation every single time, and that would push me back into having to do survival crimes.”

Black trans advocates like Green are calling on the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to ensure that if they win the White House, their policies will make a substantive difference in the lives of those most marginalized in American society. For trans women of color, this means not just decriminalization, but full-scale legalization of sex work — a stance that none of the candidates have committed to so far.

“I view the decriminalization of sex work as targeting Black trans women specifically, because when it comes to economic justice for Black and brown trans women, the options are limited for us,” says Kayla Gore, a former sex worker and the southern regional organizer for TLC@SONG, a collaboration between advocacy organizations Southerners on New Ground and the Transgender Law Center. “One of the things we’ve been able navigate through is sex work, and criminalizing it enhances the danger that we experience and it dehumanizes the people who are doing sex work.”

The staff at TRANScending Barriers. From left: outreach associate La'Tavia Weaver, Green, co-founder and deputy director Dionne Kettl, and community outreach coordinator Lupa Brandt. [Courtesy of Zahara Green]

As the Trump White House engages in a full-scale assault on the rights of LGBTQ communities and people of color — including the recent proposal to allow foster care agencies to reject LGBTQ prospective parents, and the ban against openly transgender people serving in the military — the Democratic candidates face increased urgency to prove that they can be a champion for these populations. Yet so far, they’ve fallen alarmingly flat.

Vice President Joe Biden, who is still polling as the leading candidate, has not yet taken any position on the issue. The next two leading candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have both indicated that they are open to the idea of sex work decriminalization but have yet to offer any specifics. Sen. Cory Booker claims to support decriminalization, as did Sen. Kamala Harris before she dropped out of the 2020 race last week. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is making history as the first openly LGBTQ presidential candidate, has also recently expressed openness to decriminalization — but he too stopped short of detailing any specific policy stances. And last month, 10 Democratic candidates gathered for another debate, and over more than two hours not one word was uttered about sex work.

Many advocates hope that Sanders and Warren, as the leading progressives in the race, will champion sex worker rights as part of their campaigns. However, when both candidates released their criminal justice policy platforms in August, they both focused on reigning in the prison industrial complex without including a stance on sex work. Last month, Warren released another policy outline aimed at protecting the rights of LGBTQ individuals specifically, but still she did not include specifics on decriminalizing sex work. She also did not mention repealing FOSTA-SESTA, the 2018 anti-trafficking legislation that has been extremely harmful to trans women sex workers (and that she, along with Sanders, Booker, and Harris, voted for in Congress). Meanwhile, Sanders has not yet released a full platform specifically geared toward championing LGBTQ communities at all.

"This violence is state-sanctioned."

A confluence of factors make sex work a particularly salient topic for trans women of color. Employment and education discrimination make the TGNC community disproportionately likely to engage in sex work in order to earn a living. High rates of family rejection and housing discrimination further result in Black and brown trans women having to navigate sex work while homeless or precariously housed. Across the country, nearly half of Black trans people have experienced family rejection, and 42% have experienced homelessness.

Once they’re on the streets, sex workers are exposed to increased risks of violence and criminalization. The lack of legal protections breeds a vicious cycle: Police officers disproportionately target trans women of color for simply “walking while trans,” and once they’re in custody, the prison system’s policy of placing trans women in men’s facilities opens them up to high rates of abuse and violence while incarcerated.

Both Democrats and Republicans have contributed to the problem. Advocates identified FOSTA-SESTA as an example of a policy that passed with widespread bipartisan support that actually exacerbates the precarious conditions under which the poorest sex workers earn their livelihoods. In a purported attempt to combat human trafficking, FOSTA-SESTA clamped down on the online platforms used to advertise sex work, such as Craigslist and Backpage. Supporters of the bill said it would save lives by shutting down platforms used for sex trafficking, but in reality it instead removed one of the only tools low-income sex workers could use to screen clients — key to protecting worker safety. Additionally, the law’s vague language prohibiting online platforms from the “facilitation” of “prostitution” has led to websites removing helpful educational material.

“What’s happening behind the scenes with SESTA-FOSTA in my community is really horrific,” says Ceyenne Doroshow, founder and director of GLITS Inc., a New York-based organization that provides direct support to TGNC people in the city and across the world. “We’re being erased slowly, through a process that doesn’t give a damn about us.”

Doroshow. [Courtesy of Ceyenne Doroshow]

The Black trans advocates Mic spoke with stress that the criminalization of sex work forms part of a web of interconnected policies that brings violence to the trans community. In order to really change the circumstances of trans women’s lives, a candidate would have to take a comprehensive approach that would include, for example, not only legalizing sex work, but also repealing outdated laws criminalizing HIV and developing housing and employment options for trans women that respect their dignity as human beings. Most importantly, advocates say it’s critical that trans women of color who have engaged in sex work be leaders in creating the policies that will directly affect their lives.

“You can talk all the policies in the world, but how many of those policy-makers and [gate-keepers] sitting at the table are sex workers? And how many of those sex workers are women of color?” asks Doroshow. “How does this work actually work if we’re not being heard?”

Consider the state-level laws that criminalize individuals for being HIV-positive, and how they disproportionately harm trans sex workers. Gore points out that such statutes are “antiquated” and offer a dangerously easy way for law enforcement to target trans people. In some states, if sex workers are arrested on prostitution charges and test positive for HIV, they can be charged with a sex crime for failing to disclose their HIV status — regardless of whether they knew about their status or have any risk of transmission. Being convicted of a sex crime thus means they will be placed on the sex offender registry for the rest of their lives.

Once that happens, they now have a criminal record that will make it that much harder for them to break out of the incarceration loop. “If there’s a point in your life where you decide you no longer want to do sex work, you’re forced into continuing because you don’t have any other outlet,” Gore explains. “You continuously get the same response from potential employers because they do background checks and that stands out — being registered as a sex offender.” Ending the criminalization of HIV nationwide would be a singular and concrete step toward making the federal justice system more inclusive.

Another priority is having politicians actively address the rampant extralegal violence trans women face in this country. So far this year, at least 20 Black trans women have been murdered across the U.S. Warren made a statement when she read the names of the then-18 women who’d been killed while onstage at a September forum centered on LGBTQ issues, but that’s a mere step in the right direction, activists say.

Gore at a protest in El Paso, Texas, after Johana Medina León, a transgender woman, died in ICE custody in June. [Courtesy of Kayla Gore]

“This violence is state-sanctioned,” says Green. “Right now, Macon, Georgia, has two unsolved murders of Black trans women, and these murders have been unsolved for over three years now. They are not putting in the resources that are needed because they see us as insignificant.” Across the country, the Human Rights Campaign reports that suspects are arrested in just 42% of cases involving the murder of a trans woman, compared to 66% of murder cases across the general public. In Dallas, a suspect was recently charged in one murder of a Black trans woman this year, but three other murders from 2019, 2018, and 2015 remain unsolved.

Additionally, advocates stressed that more robust, inclusive housing policy must be included in a truly comprehensive LGBTQ platform. “Candidates need to address the needs of homeless people, and then we will see a huge change in so many other social issues,” Green says. “There should be additional funding for HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development], but there should also be a complete change in how HUD works. I know many cases of trans people seeking housing assistance where we've been told that there is no space or that they do not house any trans people at all.”

In the research for TRANScending Barriers’ 2018 report, “Living in a State of Despair,” many shelters in Atlanta reported that they either do not house trans people at all, or that they will only house people according to the sex assigned by their government identification. Without inclusive housing provisions, trans women will continue to be criminalized for their daily existence, and the need for sex work as a lifeline will persist.

At the end of the day, trans advocates want politicians to view trans women of color as their constituents — and to actively engage with them as such. After all, they know best how to meet their own needs. “I hope that the candidates see us and invite us into spaces where we’re collaborating on decisions that will impact our communities, versus being on the receiving end of decisions,” says Gore.

For her part, Green says candidates have to remember their core job as elected officials. “We are a republic and the candidates are looking to represent us as Americans, so they should be actively listening to our needs, not just a select few of their supporters,” she says. “They should be listening to the needs of all people.”

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Click HERE to donate to Ceyenne Doroshow’s transnational work to support trans sex workers.

Click HERE to donate to TRANScending Barrier’s services for TGNC residents of Georgia.

Click HERE to donate to Kayla Gore's organization, My Sistah's House.