Recently, the transgender movement has come to the forefront of more and more social and political discussions. Transgender public figures like Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, and Fallon Fox are helping to create a dialogue around gender fluidity and gender norms. However, long before these public conversations, there have been transgender sex workers, working quietly and privately. Working as a sex-work researcher, I have heard these stories first-hand.
Because transgender people face systemic and institutional discrimination, many in the transgender community view sex work as a career option — sometimes their only option. Yet my interviews within the larger sex work community reveal that trans sex workers are often the most vulnerable to violence, sexual violence, poverty, HIV, and drug use. I recently spoke with a male-to-female trans sex worker, a female-to-male genderqueer sex worker, and a genderqueer sex worker who works both as a male escort and as a transgender female sex worker about their day-to-day lives.
Most cities have a particular stroll for transgender sex workers, and San Francisco is no different. Down on Post Street, across from the bright lights of Divas Nightclub and Bar, which "caters to transgenders and their admirers," two trans women stand under a streetlight making eye contact with each passing car. A black Lexus IS 250 pulls up. One of the women gets in the car. The other takes out her phone and seems to be typing. Leah*, a 46-year-old African-American trans female sex worker, tells me that the girl with the phone was likely taking note of the car's make and license plate. Being a sex worker is dangerous enough, she explains, but a trans female sex worker is the most vulnerable. Every person I spoke with reiterated this sentiment.
Violence From Tricks
Leah is about 5'8" and is wearing bright pink eye shadow. She has blunt cut bangs and her black hair is in a ponytail. Her long purple nails rest on the table as we talk. Leah tells me that she was previously addicted to crack but is now 10 months sober.
She explains to me that violence is an ever-present danger for sex workers but more so for those within the trans sex work community. She tells me a chilling story about a trick (slang for client) who picked her up and took her to a remote area in Golden Gate Park. They smoked crack and she became too high to do much more than tweak. Her trick got annoyed and kicked her out of the car and she managed to walk the four miles back to where she was staying. "Two days later," she says, "they found Sherae's body in the exact same spot that that man parked me with. People had witnessed this car pulling into the area — same area where he put me, this little dark area over there by Golden Gate — same make and model of the car. To this day, my heart tells me it was the same man." Leah entered a recovery program the next day.
Billie* identifies as genderqueer and advertises as both a male escort and a trans woman. He explains that he prefers doing male escort work with gay-identifying male clients because it is less physical and emotional labor. Billie explains that when he is performing sex work as a trans woman, his clients are mostly straight-identifying male clients. Because of this, he has to prepare physically — "I'll go get a tan and shave and get my wig together" — but also emotionally. "Because I'm dealing with straight-identified men, there's just so much riding on your femininity and your 'realness' that if ever that illusion is broken at any point, they freak out. There are some clients who don't want to acknowledge that they like trans ladies and somehow will connect that with being homosexual and they really internalize that. So, it's really taxing sometimes to give them what they want without letting them know that's what they want and preventing them from taking their own homophobia out on you."
Violence and the Law
It's not just violence from tricks that poses a threat to trans sex workers. The police can be an ever-present threat as well. Taylor* identifies as genderqueer and a "male-presenting sex worker" born biologically female. Taylor explains that most sex workers know that the police "target women, and they specifically target trans women, especially trans women of color." Therefore, Taylor notes, "One perk to being a male-presenting sex worker is that I don't have to worry as much about getting beaten or raped or targeted in a sting operation [by police]. Statistically, my chances of that are pretty slim, or at least compared to a female or trans woman."
Being arrested as a trans sex worker is particularly dangerous because the sex worker will be placed in a holding cell of the gender on their birth certificate, not the gender with which they identify. Think about that for a second. A trans woman who presents as female and is a sex worker will be placed in a holding cell with men.
Leah perhaps sums it up best: "Life is just much harder for trans people."
*All names and identifying information have been changed to protect the identities of these individuals.