They Still Have Rights: The Search for Humanity and Justice for Sex Workers
Earlier this month — December 17th, 2012 — was the 10th annual International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers, a day for mourning and solidarity for Ridgway's victims and all sex workers who have been murdered or harmed. It's also a day for acknowledging and addressing the structural violence that we live with, as sex workers and in all of our communities.
Sharon Lettman-Hicks, Executive Director and CEO, National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC)
Robin Hustle: While sex workers on the whole are a diverse population, transgender women and women of color engaged in prostitution are disproportionately arrested and subjected to violence. How can the black LGBT community respond to this disparity? Should sex workers' rights be directly addressed by this community?
Sharon Lettman-Hicks: LGBT sex workers are vulnerable to violence and discrimination due to laws and negative attitudes toward sex work. When you compound stigma and homophobia/transphobia with racism, the level of injustice is tenfold.
The Black LGBT community must work to eliminate service barriers like federal, state and local discriminatory policies that prevent sex workers from accessing violence response services. It's also critical that direct service agencies are equipped to support sex workers.
In addition to sensitivity trainings for law enforcement and direct services agencies, we must advocate for legislation like the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and the End Racial Profiling Act, which would protect trans sex workers and all Black LGBT Americans.
Finally, violence against trans women is largely underreported. Because of the extensive barriers to reporting violence to law enforcement, it is critical that survivors report violence to a local anti-violence program like the Anti-Violence Project (AVP) 24-hour hotline: 212-714-1141. We need to document these cases, inside or outside the criminal legal system.
Sex workers' rights should be addressed from variety of groups and directions. It's a women's rights issue. It's an economic justice issue. It's a violence issue. It's a trans issue. It's a race issue. It's everyone's issue.
NBJC is committed to partnering with organizations like the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) and government agencies like the Department of Justice to raise awareness and implement programs that protect and honor our Black trans sisters.
RH: The murders of Brianna Gardner, Tiffany Gooden, and Paige Clay got very little attention. How do indifferent or disparaging media portrayals contribute to violence against transgender women of color and violence against sex workers?
SLH: The media often dictates to the public what we should or should not care about. So when the media does not cover the murders of transgender women of color, it sends the message that their lives do not matter. Media is a powerful tool that can shape the national conversation and our consciousness. We must continue to pressure media outlets to do a fair, accurate and inclusive job when it comes to reporting about transgender people, especially transgender people of color.
The disparity was clear when Miss Universe Canada contestant Jenna Talackova was disqualified from the pageant. Mainstream media was largely silent about what was happening to CeCe McDonald simultaneously. It's unacceptable and it sends a dangerous message.
Also damaging is the lack of diversity in depictions of trans women of color. Yes, some trans women are sex workers but rarely do we see television or movie storylines delving into why. Trans women of color are also doctors, journalists, artists, mothers, wives, sisters and more.
RH: The mainstream LGBT agenda, the agenda that we hear from in the media and in national politics, focuses almost exclusively on marriage equality these days. When poverty and violence are the most pressing issues for so many LGBT people, what can be done to bring these issues into the national agenda?
SLH: What can be done is that we create our own agenda. That's why it is critical to have organizations like the NCAVP and NBJC. Our agendas speak to the communities we serve. Marriage equality is certainly important to protecting our families, but there are equally important issues like anti-LGBT violence, economic justice and empowerment, and employment discrimination. We must unapologetically fight tooth and nail for the CeCe McDonalds and Paige Clays as we do for the freedom to marry.