Policing the Coronavirus Pandemic: Trans Sex Workers and the Movement Towards Decriminalization

Presentation from Policing the Pandemic on April 18th 2020

Hi everyone, My name is Estelle I’m really happy to be here with everyone having this critical discussion today. I want to acknowledge first of all that I am speaking from the traditional territory of the Kanien’kehá:ka here in Montreal.

Im going to be talking about some of the challenges and dynamics that the concurrent crisis’s of coronavirus and capitalism have brought up for sex worker communities, but more specifically trans sex worker communities here where I live. I’m truly a messenger today, a lot the information that I will be sharing comes directly from discussions amongst sex workers that I have had the pleasure to be a part of, from outreach workers and colleagues at ASTTeQ (the trans sex worker support project where I work), Cactus Montreal, Stella, AGIR, The Center for Gender Advocacy and from sex worker, migrant justice, and HIV advocacy organizations across the country. Not to mention archives both written and oral.

Red Light District

Trans labour history in Montreal is in many ways a history of the red light district and the sex worker stroll, which in the 1990s and 2000s was located just at the North End of the Gay Village along Rue Ontario. While it is true that trans sex workers and the kind of work that we do is very diverse, the reality is that today trans sex workers tend to be escorts, whether this is in-call or street-based. You are not going to walk home from downtown Montreal today to your apartment in the mile end and pass by six trans strip clubs or trans massage parlours with names like Transensual or The Gentlemen Chaser Club. Nor will you casually see transwomen smoking outside bars laughing or flirting with men. There are no escort agencies who work with non-binary or trans people. Trans sex workers tend to be self-employed escorts because this is the market that is available. Trans sex worker history is a history of the red light district because for decades the stroll is where trans sex workers made a living but also found a community. It’s where trans people found friends and family. It’s where trans people put on shows and community events. It’s where they made money, got high, and got to be themselves. It’s where they slept and ran from the police. It’s where they organized, had protests and sit-ins. It’s where they danced, got arrested, got ripped off, got beat up, and fought the fuck back.

Over the last ten years, however, the trans sex worker stroll in the village has been slowly torn apart by gentrification, increased policing, and the new sex work laws (Bill C-36) that were adopted in 2013. What this has meant in the long term is that many trans sex workers have been pushed out of this once vital labour and community center and are now dispersed across the city, working most frequently in atomized conditions, separated from other workers, and have become for better or worse much less visible as a public labour force. This comes with its own unique set of consequences. How do trans sex workers share information, improve working conditions, and formally or informally organize with other workers when they are all separated from each other? Of course the stroll is not dead, it’s just a shadow of its former self. At ASTTeQ where I work, a big part of our outreach work there still focuses on the stroll, but the truth is on some nights we walk around and we see one, two, maybe three people working. The reality is that a lot of trans escorts we work with today do in-calls, they advertise online and see clients in an apartment, a hotel room, or frequently at home.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the history of the stroll in Montreal because the Coronavirus crisis for all intents and purposes has done the thing we have feared for years. It has killed the stroll. It is not functioning as a work site. It is closed. Not only is the village covered in police, but there are no johns. I am not trying to make a value judgement by saying this and I’m also not trying to discuss whether this is a good or bad thing as far as the pandemic or social distancing goes. I am just passing on what we know to be true which is that for the first time in decades the stroll is shutdown. Street-based sex workers are rapidly scrambling to figure out how to adapt. When will the stroll re-open, we honestly have no idea. This does not mean that street based sex work isn’t happening, it just means that the stroll, the one public space in the city where street based trans sex workers can find other girls to watch out for them, receive services from outreach organizations, and find johns that they know and trust, is gone. Where this work has been pushed to, we do not know.

Sex Workers and Poverty

Despite rumours of high class lifestyles, most sex workers live in poverty or very close to it. Trans sex workers are no different. Since the crisis began, trans sex workers who live client to client have been turning to sex worker support organizations, food banks, and emergency funds to try and mitigate the economic fallout they are experiencing. A large part of the response on the ground here has been fundraising. Groups like ASTTeQ, Stella, Solidarity Across Borders, Taking What We Need, and Mtl Rapid Response (not to mention Maggie’s and Butterly in Toronto) have put in place emergency funds and food banks to help trans sex workers get through another day. To help them buy their hormones, eat a meal, or pay their bills. At ASTTeQ we run a service counter twice a week and what we are seeing is that sex workers come back time and time again, struggling, not working or working infrequently, no savings to speak of. As the crisis continues, the economic situations that people are living are clearly getting worse, not better. Bills pile up, the pantries slowly empty, and the rent is still due (in a week and a half for a second time since the crisis began).

Welfare is a Void

Most trans sex workers are not eligible for the CERB benefit. This is either because they did not make enough money on their taxes last year to qualify, they do not have a Canadian SIN number, they are undocumented, they receive welfare, or they have a small income from Emploi Quebec for taking French language classes. What the CERB benefit has really shown is how dismal, barren, and inhumane the welfare system is. If the Canadian government has evaluated and ultimately decided that 2000 dollars a month is the minimum that each person needs to eat, pay bills, and pay rent in this country, then how can the 604 dollars that welfare recipients receive a month be doing anything other than forcing people who receive it to continue engaging in informal labour markets? The CERB benefit is doing exactly that. By choosing to not make the CERB benefit accessible to everyone in this country and by continuing to offer the cruel joke that is welfare “benefits”, the Canadian and provincial governments are creating the conditions for many people to keep working out of necessity. The state in this instance is responsible for pushing marginalized workers into labour markets where they will come into contact with other people and putting not only themselves but others at risk of the coronavirus. This is exactly what is happening to trans escorts.

As we enter the 5th (or is it 6th?) week of social distancing here in Canada the situation is dire. Sex workers do not want to be working. They are concerned and scared like everyone else, but without a livable income many are forced to continue working in dangerous conditions.

Compounding Punishment

Sex workers are criminalized in this country. If you start from the experience of migrant sex workers, which I believe is the critical place to begin, then what we already know is that these workers are navigating complex systems of double or triple punishment in their day to day lives on the job. They are dealing with the effects of the Canadian criminal laws on prostitution, they are navigating the repressive Federal laws on Immigration which control their movement and access to labour markets (amongst other things), and they are also responding to international laws like the 2018 US House Bill FOSTA/SESTA which regulates large sections of the Internet and has had the consequence of destroying many online labour technologies that sex workers in Canada and globally were using to do their job safely. So on top of these already existing laws that criminalize sex work, sex workers are now facing a whole other layer. This extra layer is Public Health Law and States of Emergency.

Public Health and the SPVM have been collaborating in Montreal to encourage the public to take on the tasks of policing and surveillance. We know now that is easier than ever before to report activity to the police that contravenes Public Health Law by doing online reports through the SPVM website and we also know that Public Health has been tweeting about this system to the public. What this mean is that they are working together.

When Home is Work

Since trans sex workers are being forced to continue working because they are broke, the question arises: where are they working? We can assume it is not happening very much on the streets. There are police everywhere and since transwomen are read as sex workers in public anyways, this is an extra scary time to be outside, doubly so if you are racialized. For some sex workers who can make camming or other purely online work viable we know they are doing that. But, we also know that in-calls are happening. Out of desperate necessity, sex workers are meeting up with clients to survive this crisis. In-calls break the 2 metre decree and the ban on gatherings. Apartment buildings started to post signs in the front entrance and bye the elevators saying that no guests are allowed to visit. This heightens the fear of surveillance and the risks of getting caught.

We have gotten calls at ASTTeQ from trans sex workers saying that their apartment buildings have hired security guards during the crisis to make sure that no one who doesn’t actually live in a specific apartment can get inside. Because of this sex workers can no longer see their one regular client who is keeping them afloat and they do not know what to do or where to turn. Hotels are open, but to trek across the city when you are racialized and/or trans with this amount of police presence and to trust random hotel clerks not to call the cops is a whole other story.

Sex workers have a long history of working at home and making their living space their workspace. There is always some level of risk when you take clients at home. Neighbours or landlords could get suspicious which could lead to complications. However, in this crisis when the entire city has been mobilized to denounce Public Health violations and the cops are giving out tickets left and right, the level of risk has skyrocketed. Quebec has given out 5x as many police enforcement actions than Ontario. Neighbours and pedestrians are on high alert and police are entering buildings. We already know that at least one sex worker has received a Public Health violation from the police at her apartment. During this enforcement the police called the DRSP and asked if they could get a warrant to arrest her but the DRSP said no. At the very least Public Health is not yet allowing police to arrest sex workers in their home for breaking Public Health law. The scary reality though is that this could change. Migrant sex workers who are working in their home may be feeling extra amounts of fear of police showing up at their doors.

Know Your Rights

A lot of the work we are seeing right now around policing and the crisis has been to document what is going on. This is important and critical work. But at the same time, we are dealing with States of Emergency and Public Health Decrees that most of us are not familiar with. The next step in critical work that needs to happen on a massive scale is producing accessible and easy to understand leaflets and guides on our rights in the face of these emerging (dare I say novel) police powers of repression. A lot of this work looks exactly like Know Your Rights campaigns and workshops that we have seen in the past, but these need to focus specifically on the new powers that police and governments are wielding. Right now, this will look like pamphlets, videoconference workshops, and legal clinics. In the future it will look like community organizations setting up legal funds and coordinating with lawyers to take on pro-bono cases.

Lawyers in Montreal in collaboration with Collectif Opposé À La Brutalité Policière have just released an excellent document called “Surprise on à Encore des Droits” addressing exactly these questions. In it they state, among other things, that snitching is not a legal responsibility, and that barring a Federal State of Emergency police generally do not have the right to enter your apartment without a warrant, with a few exceptions of course (there are always exceptions). Outreach workers need to be able to have this information readily available to pass it on to people who are the most impacted and directly affected by these new laws. The challenge for our community, however, is how can we reach sex workers in this crisis when as a class, sex workers are unfortunately atomized from each other. Sex workers are separated by laws, the police, gentrification, and stigma. Not only that, but many sex workers are not connected to advocacy organizations.

Solidarity Forever ..All Together Now

What this crisis really brings up for me in the end is the near impossibility of challenging police repression and violence against sex workers without a union. Advocacy Organizations and Alliances have been doing a great job with the limited tools that we have at our disposal. We have been creating accessible information for workers around sex work laws, challenging the constitutionality of prostitution law, and working with municipalities to adopt non-enforcement policies, among other things. But without a union, a structure within which individual sex workers can become members and not only build their collective capacity to improve their working conditions, but also organize with workers in other industries across the country to build a powerful lobby to challenge criminalization, sex workers will continue to suffer.

In this moment of crisis when we are seeing workers in essential industries being forced to work in terrible conditions, we naturally understand the necessity for powerful worker organizations that challenge the despicable working conditions they are being forced to navigate. We see unions working on this front right now across the country.  However, very few if any of the largest Labour Unions in Canada (think the CUPE or the CSN) have adopted mandates in support of the decriminalization of sex work. The largest union in Quebec (the CSN) has actually adopted mandates that are prohibitionist and call for the increased policing of sex workers. This is nothing if not neoliberal and class traitor violence.

Unionized workers in every city and town need to call on their local unions to adopt mandates pushing for decriminalization and get these policies adopted at the higher levels of their unions, even nationally. We need to look to the actions of unions that actually care about all workers like the Ontario Public Service Employees Union which represents 130 000 workers in Ontario that adopted a resolution in 2014 that recognized the rights of sex workers to equality, workplace safety, and labour protections while calling for full decriminalization, and emulate them. This is what working class solidarity looks like.

If we can dream for a moment, imagine how quickly sex work could be decriminalized if there were massive walkouts from unionized workers across the country demanding that it be so in solidarity with their sex worker sisters, brothers, and non-binary comrades? The CUPE which boasts 600 000 unionized employees across the country could wield a lot of power if they would only adopt a policy supporting decriminalization. Not only that, but if we think in the immediate, local unions in côtiers and towns across the country could be demanding right now that Public Health stop collaborating with the police and that municipal governments adopt policies to fund community led responses, not police led ones. While we are organizing as workers, as activists, as community organizations, and as outreach workers in the weeks and months to come as this crisis unfolds,  let’s do everything that we can to build working class solidarity across all labour sectors: formal, informal, migrant, undocumented, and unemployed.

About cosmicwyrmrat

estelle.silverweed@gmail.com
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