The Joy Of Finding Sisterhood In The Trans Sex Worker Community

"You know, we've all had different experiences, but there's one thing we can all identify with: that we are happy and comfortable with who we are."

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When thinking about how to talk about trans lives and history, I often come back to where the tropes about us come from. They barely deserve repeating, so baked into the pop-consciousness that you probably know many of them without realising, but one that keeps coming up is the trans sex worker.

You’ve seen her before, no doubt — nearly 1 in 5 trans characters on TV from 2002-2012 were sex workers, more than any other profession, many of these being either killers or killed themselves. But rarely do these portrayals explore the reality or the solidarity of the sex workers in the trans community — that have not only always existed, but built and been part of many of the queer social and rights movements that we take for granted today.

Whoever threw the first brick at Stonewall, there is no doubt that trans sex workers of colour were present and pivotal figures in the ensuing liberation movement, and in the many struggles around the world that trans people have and continue to fight.

While much of the canon of queer history is US centric, it was no different in Australia. Sex workers were instrumental in many political changes, from trans people being given legal protection from discrimination, to the implementation of the words ‘transgender’ and ‘trans’ — after a poll was conducted by and for the community, in particular amongst Sydney’s street based workers.

And yet, as trans people and iconography are seen as ever more mainstream and accepted, the voices and lives of the people who lead these movements are sidelined once again, out of sight of the growing, glittering queer dollar. Platforming and elevating these perspectives is a way of understanding who we are, and who we can be.

I was excited to learn then that the panel ‘Sex work and feminism’ was being held for the All About Women festival in March, which trans woman of colour and dear community colleague of mine Chantell Martin would be speaking. I knew at once I wanted to talk to her, and share her words as part of this column.

Liz Duck-Chong: I can’t wait to see you speak at the All About Women festival, and I’m pleased that the festival is including the voices of sex workers — but I was wondering what role women’s spaces and feminism more broadly has had in your lifetime?

Chantell Martin: I’ve always shied away from feminism, because I’ve just never ever seen how it plays a part in my life as a trans woman. And when I say that, I say that because of the experiences that I had being in women’s spaces and not being included, and I’ve just thought, well, you know what you can get stuffed [laughs], I’m gonna stay right away from that whole topic and I don’t want anything to do with it.

And then through my work and what I do, and the people that I’ve met, as I’ve gotten older. I’ve found out that not all feminists are like that, you know and I’m thinking oh wow, wow, this is a real change from, you know my past experiences. It’s been interesting to say the least, and it’s really the up and coming new blood in the feminist movement that’s making this change.

LDC: I’ve been lucky to see you speak in the past, and have loved every time, as have the audiences I’ve been a part of — has there ever been the fear of your audiences including TERFs* or SWERFs*?

*Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist

*Sex Work Exclusionary Radical Feminist

CM: I spoke at NOWSA, they invited me five years ago to speak at the University of Sydney. It was myself, someone else from the trans community and two others, who spoke about sex worker rights, and a lot of people prior to that panel freaked me out, because I mean I was okay and I was happy to go along and speak about my experiences as a trans woman, until people around me, my friends and other people were saying “Oh my God, you gotta look out Chantell, you gotta watch out, the feminists they’re gonna get you”, and so I was really anxious and nervous. But when I got there and saw the other panelists who were also sex workers, I already felt better. And then each of us individually started speaking about our sex work experience, and it was an absolute joy and pleasure to be there, and I saw nothing and I felt nothing bad from the audience.

From that event I was invited to the ANU in Canberra, I was invited to go down there and speak to women about my experience as a trans woman and the sex industry, and then I was invited up to Newcastle University to do the same, and I never saw what a lot of my friends were trying to freak me out about.

LDC: That experience of sharing space with other sex workers, especially other trans women, it sounds revelatory. Was there a particular moment when you realised that there was this sisterhood, not just in your work but more broadly?

CM: I had a lot of women coming up to me asking me these different questions, and a lot of trans women. It was amazing to have sisters coming up and saying “hey, good on you for getting up there”, because that wasn’t their experience, so it was great for them to see a sister out and proud about what they do and to be able to come up and ask me questions that they probably would never have been able to ask any other time.

I went to my first AIDS conference in 2014 and I did a poster presentation on Triple Stigmas, for Transgender and Aboriginal “sistergirl” sex workers in NSW, and that was a game changer for me and my sisters, because prior to that I’d never spoken about my experience anywhere, nor had any of my sistergirls been recognized and still today remain invisible when it comes to their health and wellbeing. The thing that really touched my heart and was quite emotional for me was that I was around sisters from other countries and we didn’t know each other, but we had that acknowledgement, that nod of the head or the wave from across the room. It doesn’t matter where you come from, we acknowledge each other where we go.

LDC: One of the things I’ve always loved about listening to the trans people I’ve interviewed over the years is hearing about how trans people lived and thrived in different times to ours now. It can be kind of amazing looking at how far we’ve come even in your or my lifetime, but I’m always conscious that these wins were built on struggle. Are there any particular fights you saw or were a part of that stand out to you?

CM: Being one of the many trans women that was from a different time, you know to be a sex worker when it was criminalized, but then to still be a sex worker when it’s decriminalised and to see the differences, you know what changed and what didn’t change. We’ve had decriminalization in New South Wales for 25 years, and we definitely consider it as the world’s best practice. You only have to look around at NSW.

When sex work was criminalised, we had no rights, no rights whatsoever. That meant that the police could do whatever they wanted with us; they could continually come down and just arrest us night after night, they could ill treat us, they could throw us into lock up, they could entrap us. And we got arrested far more times than the cisgender female cohort. So we were living in a system and working in a system that was oppressive in that way for sex workers.

And then to be a part of decriminalization in 1995, and I say to be a part of it because we saw sex workers rally around, and team up with doctors and politicians and gather and meet and see how this needed to change, and we all got together and lobbied Parliament. After the Wood Royal Commission [into systemic police corruption], the governance of the sex industry was taken off the police, so the powers that be needed to come up with a plan and a strategic one of how to work with the sex working community that they oppressed for so many years, right?

A commander at the time at the Kings Cross police station, he’d come down to the street and he would introduce himself every Thursday night, and go “evening ladies” and talk to us. We’d never ever seen that before, right? Police before would just hurl accusations at you, you know, “get out of that dress, you’re not a woman, you’re a man”, that’s what we used to get from the police back then. But this commander changed that, and he said, “What do you ladies think about maybe meeting once a month at a safe place with you and so we can talk about how things have been going during the month? And what he would do at those meetings, was he would let us know about what’s happening with nightly police patrols to neighbors’ complaints and how we could work together to keep all parties safe, he’d bring us into the fold.

And I know that there’s a lot of people out there that don’t think highly of the police, and rightfully so, but this particular guy, he had a beautiful vision, and that was his mission, to just sit there with us and listen to us, and then act on it.

LDC: The benefits of decriminalisation have been well documented since it was won, but what did decrim change for trans sex workers at the time?

CM: It was valuable in the way we were able to work with the police rather than work against them, you know, we could now safely report a crime against us, but it also opened up a whole lot of other areas for us, like we could go and get a health check, and not have it be a mark against us or be reported because we were sex workers. So yeah, for health reasons, for legal reasons, all these doors started opening up for us, and it just made a huge difference. I’ve seen how it works here. I’ve seen how it benefits not only cis women, but trans women, men, and anyone else who comes into the industry.

Unfortunately, decriminalization did not change the stigma and discrimination towards sex workers and transgender sex workers, because we are still experiencing it today. That’s the sad part about decrim, it’s not a silver bullet, but for someone like myself and for my other sisters who come from that time who worked on the streets before it was decriminalized, we saw a huge change for us.

LDC: You’ve talked about this idea of sisterhood, and the joy that comes from being around trans family: what does trans community mean to you?

CM: I enjoy what I do and I enjoy being around my sisters because we have a strong sisterhood, and we may not have experienced the same things, but there’s always something that we can lock on and that’s our trans-ness. You know, we’ve all had different experiences, but there’s one thing we can all identify with: that we are happy and comfortable with who we are.

You know I just get so much joy out of being around my sisters, especially doing things with my sisters, because it is definitely a sisterhood. I still keep in touch with a lot of my sisters from back in the 80s. There aren’t too many of us around, but when we get together, oh my God! It’s good for our health to be around each other, and to feel that love.

And in my work I get calls from trans sisters who want to come into the industry, and I’m able to speak to them as a trans woman and what it is like being a transgender sex worker, which is very different from anyone else in the industry, right?

And it’s such a joy and I get so much out of talking to our sisters that call up and say, hey, I’m thinking of coming into the industry, but I don’t know how to do it, and I’m thinking, ‘oh my God, how much time have you got?’ [laughs]

LDC: There’s something beautiful about finding that unique way of being yourself, it feels very much like a trans experience as well, of finding that uniqueness that makes you feel amazing.

CM: Yes, exactly, and as individuals, we will all have our own way of doing that, and that’s the beautiful thing.

I love it when I get calls from from trans workers I spoke to years ago about coming into the sex industry, and they go “Hey Chantell, I just want to ring you up and thank you for all the information you gave me”, but I don’t need any thanks or gratitude, I just need to know that they are safe and that they’re okay, and they’re happy with what they do.

LDC: Trans activism has come a long way in the past few decades, but sometimes it forgets to make place for sex workers and their stories and needs, despite trans women often being at the forefront of so many of our previous struggles. What can people do today to fight for the rights of our sex worker sisters?

CM: I think, number one: nothing about us without us.

Number two: Becoming a great ally means listening to sex workers from all different diversities and identities, not just one identity.

Number three: Ask us. Don’t overstate it or overdo it, just ask “How can I help you be the best you that you could be”.

Chantell will be appearing alongside Jules Kim and Tilly Lawless at the All About Women panel ‘Sex work and feminism’ on Sunday March 7th. Tickets to the in person event and the livestream are available at the Sydney Opera House website.

Liz Duck-Chong is a freelance writer, health researcher, filmmaker and peer worker, whose essays and non-fiction have been published widely. You can find her online at @lizduckchong.

Gender Euphoria will be published monthly. If you come across any positive or beautiful trans news we can feature in this column, Liz would love to hear about it and her DMs are open.