11. 04. 2021
Protest & Pleasure:
A Revolution Led by Sex Workers
On September 29, 2021, Xtra Magazine presented an online conversation about why trans women of colour sex workers are the leaders we need to light the way to sexual liberation and other revolutionary horizons. Xtra contributor Chanelle Gallant was joined by Monica Forrester, the director of Trans Pride Toronto and an award-winning activist who fights for low-income and racialized trans people; and Toni-Michelle Williams, the executive director of Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative (SNaP Co.), an Atlanta-based organization working to build safety and end the criminalization of the Black and trans community. With the gracious support of Xtra – celebrating the 50th anniversary of its publisher, Pink Triangle Press – Midnight Sun is thrilled to publish the text of this conversation, edited for clarity and length. A video of the full event, with captions, is available here.
I think that sex workers have developed the most transformational sexual liberation politics of any social justice movement, because sex workers bring it all together: you got the sex, you got the money, the power, the politics around race, class, gender, migration. All of it comes together. Sex workers live in those intersections. They know a lot about sexuality and freedom. But do they get the respect for it? Do they get the recognition for it as visionaries, as strategists? No, I don’t think so. Not at all.
What does a world where Black trans women sex workers are thriving look like? How would our lives, how would the world look different if it was set up so that Black trans women sex workers could be joyful, powerful, safe, respected, and thriving?
For me, number one: we would be alive. We will make it to past 35. We will have an experience of love. We’ll have the resources to take care of ourselves. Also resources to invest in our visions, in our leadership. Also to really invest in our families, just like other folks strive to do, whether our families are chosen or given. I think that those are possibilities for us. I also think that, you know, Fuck 12, right? – we wouldn’t be thrown in cages for trying to survive, and we would just have pleasure and love and be able to experience it however we need to.
I think we would have the same liberty as everyone else in our society when it comes to access to employment, to housing… And also, we would hold positions in our community where [people would] actually listen to us. I’m not saying that people ain’t listening to us, but when we think of a narrative of how we’re listened to, it’s always around frustrations in our lives, which [are] very important to bring to the forefront, but…I’ve been out for 30 years, and, you know, our communities are very resilient. We do a lot of our own work within our communities, you know what I mean? I think empowerment comes from within our communities. And I think that’s where I got a lot of my drive to do the work that I do, because that was something that was embedded in me in the communities that existed at the time that I came out, and that still exist. We do a lot of mobilizing within our communities, around policing, around supporting people, around advocacy work.
We get left out most of the time. And I think we need people to really kind of sit back and listen to what we need, and let us be the leaders in this revolution of trans people, trans people of colour. We are the trailblazers… We’ve been doing this work, we’ve been resisting [the idea] that we can’t do sex work or we can’t have sexy bodies or we can’t dress the way we want, you know what I mean? This is nothing new for us. I think we need to have credit for this and to be supported, not be left behind, not, “Oh, your voice doesn’t matter in that conversation.” Our voices and our visibility are what made this [progress] happen.
I love that. We can take care of ourselves, right? We truly are the experts of our own lives. Can’t nobody tell us how to be. Can’t no one tell you how to be Monica, can’t no one tell me how to be Toni-Michelle. Folks can’t tell us how to be trans. They can’t make assumptions, and we shouldn’t police each other. And so I definitely believe that the more that we are in practice about how we become the experts of our own lives through shared struggle, through our own embodiment of transformation, through communication and storytelling and trust, and relationship-building within community – these kinds of practices allow us to be able to self-govern and create, you know, curate our own culture, and move that culture with the resources that we have. What sex workers have been doing, like Monica said, for years. Black trans and queer folks, Brown queer and trans folks – women, right? Folks have been governing ourselves for a long time without police and politicians who don’t want us to win!
Something that’s really on my mind right now…I woke up this morning and I had a number of invitations to different convenings and political gatherings or summits and trainings, and none of them included any trans women. And it’s typical. It’s typical. It just…it depressed me today. I was feeling just the loss of trans women and sex workers, political leadership, like you talk about, Toni-Michelle, building resistance through struggle and story and culture. That is so beautiful and powerful, that’s how we win, and our movements just don’t seem to really be understanding that. Like you talked about, Monica, people tokenize trans women, and will talk about the misfortunes of trans women and sex workers, but not about – for me, one of the reasons this conversation is so important – not about the political leadership. I don’t just want to hear about trans women on Trans Day of Remembrance.
Oh my God, this is so relevant. So, Monday, I had the opportunity to attend a staff retreat of the Policing Alternatives and Diversion program, formerly known as the Pre-Arrest Diversion program in Atlanta. I am a proud co-founder of that project, as an offering to the city to utilize this program instead of making arrests [of] folks who are engaging in quality-of-life offenses: disorderly conduct, folks who are getting stopped for solicitation, sex work (and I’m sure we’ll get into that a little bit), folks who are struggling with mental health.
And it started off as a campaign back in 2013, when the city of Atlanta wanted to banish a group of Black trans women who were engaged in sex work around midtown Atlanta, which we all know is the LGBTQ hub of Atlanta. There were many organizations of folks who came together and fought against that ordinance and won. And that created the Solutions Not Punishment coalition, and it really became a pipeline for Black trans leaders like myself to come inside of and learn how to build power and organize. That is so important because, you know, there’s been so much work around criminal justice reform in Atlanta.
And on Monday, I attended the staff retreat [of the Policing Alternatives and Diversion program]. Keep in mind, we started with about five of us, and about 20 mighty organizations, in 2013. And in 2015, [support for the program was] passed as legislation; the city invested about $1.5 million into the program last year; and [at the retreat] I was able to witness 38 staff members inside of this program that was literally [built] on the backs of Black trans women, that was led by Black trans folks, Latina/Latinx queer people, it was a community experience….and so I was just taken aback, to also look at the 38 folks, and to see Black people and Brown people – and no trans folks! My heart broke once again!
And so, Chanelle, what you say is absolutely right. We have always been able to govern ourselves and fight for ourselves; people have always, in their own ways, fought for us. But how do we share those stories? How do we be in resistance, in love and struggle with each other, in order for our stories to reach the people that are looking for us? How do we move past moments of not communicating and miscommunicating with each other, and [request] for each other to show up so that our stories can be told?
And I think that is one of the beautiful things about collaborative organizing that’s been happening within sex worker communities and [among] service providers in Atlanta. But then again, where are the policies and the practices to make sure that we’re there, that we are ready for the job when it comes? I’m excited for it to move there.
That really resonates with something we talked about in our interview too, Monica. You were basically like, “We open the doors and then everyone else walks through.” You do the hard-scrabble work of starting something with no resources, no support, and no respect. And then by the time the money gets there, it’s a bunch of white cis people who are happy to take the jobs, but aren’t really – like you said, Toni-Michelle – ensuring that people are ready for those jobs, ensuring that that respect and the resources are still there for the people who did that groundwork.
When I look at my first-ever jobs, 25 years ago, in the queer community…I was able to do every aspect of different jobs, to cover different people as, like, coordinator and this and that, but when I applied for those particular jobs, I “wasn’t qualified enough.” I felt like I was silenced in a lot of places, my voice on what our community needed. And that really was bothersome to me. And that’s how I started Trans Pride Toronto, because I just felt like…who’s going to muzzle me, you know what I mean? And tell me why I shouldn’t be advocating for people in my community?
Sometimes we have to recognize that we’re not invited into spaces; we have to take space. That’s something I’ve learned: that I have to take space to be seen, to be heard. You know? And people [approach] that in different ways. But if we do not do that, then we have people that are cis or who are non-BIPOC or not sex workers telling us what we need.
And Trans Pride Toronto…I’m so grateful for the community that exists and believes in the work that we do, and we’ve been through the whole pandemic and going strong, but funders and all the other [resources] that for a lot of agencies are so easy to tap into? For non-profits that are run by trans folks, it’s just so much harder to get that funding. While we’re doing a lot of the work. So, you know, one thing I’ve learned over my 25 years [working in the queer community] is I take space, and I’ve learned to kind of step outside of the box of the queer community, and work in places that trans people need to be. And change policies, and change relationships. [And show that] trans people are capable, able to do the same kind of work as anyone else in our communities and our society. And I’m not saying that that doesn’t come with challenges, and stigma, and discrimination… But it’s made me stronger to prove that we’re just as able as anyone else.
I wanted to talk to something that [Monica] shared about showing up and taking up space. Many folks in our communities, particularly trans communities, and folks who are directly impacted by the systems that commit violence on us, those folks who we’re talking about who need to have resources to be ready for the job, right? – a part of that is also being able to practice how to show up, and how to take up space.
A lot of times we’re taking up space and not being embodied: out of our bodies, not having a strategy. I really encourage and invite people to [have] an intention, knowing that when you’re showing up, you’re there to do a few things, if necessary. Number one: to witness and experience. Wherever you’re going, you want to not go in [believing] that you know everything. You’re there to witness something, whether it be beautiful or heartbreaking. But you’re there to witness it and experience it. And that is how you relate to other people, and build and connect.
Then you’re also there to interrupt if you need to. Not necessarily if you want to. But interrupting when we need to and then transform space while we’re there. I think that when you’re practicing taking up space, those are the practices that we got to be inside of. And our commitments: we’re there to witness a thing and experience it, we’re there to interrupt transphobia, homophobia, racism, ableism, fatphobia, all the things when the shit shows up. And we’re also there as conscious and embodied folks, as trans people who are magic, who know that there is something greater on the other side. You have to be patient and you commit to yourself – all of that is a part of being able to transform space.
So I’m excited for our movement, particularly the sex worker movement, to take up space in a different way, in a more intentional way, an impactful way. I’m excited to see what that looks like for us across the world, and definitely here in the States.
What you just laid out for me is what I would consider leadership development.
You just laid out how we prepare people to participate in change-making in spaces that have not been built for them and might actually often be hostile to them. We start by witnessing, interrupting, transforming. What’s the strategic way to do all of that? Just trust the leadership, invest in the leadership, because investing in Toni-Michelle means investing in someone who’s then going to build leaders and support them as they try to make a space for themselves, the transformative space that we need them to have, in these hostile systems that don’t want them there.
Absolutely. That’s been my commitment over the past 10 years of organizing, whether it be student organizing on campus – I’m a graduate of Norfolk State University – to organizing around HIV prevention in Norfolk, Virginia, to here in Atlanta and organizing now around criminal justice reform. It’s been my mission to create a pipeline and space for folks to be able to come into. Even in my role at [Solutions Not Punishment], I started off as a part-time organizer – a sex worker on the north side of town. I had a date, baby, the day of my interview! The moment of my interview, he pulled up! I said, “Baby, no, I got to do this interview, she’s calling! You should have came when you said you was coming!”
I had to turn the coin away so I could have that opportunity. And that’s exactly what I did. And [went] from a part time organizer to a program director to now executive director. There were queer women, cis women and people, Black women, Black men, over my life – we don’t talk about those stories – those teachers, the professors, the janitors, who loved me and supported me and cheered me on, who stopped bullies: those are the stories that we don’t hear enough of, that would save trans women’s lives, that would save sex workers’ lives. And I think that, again, when we practice taking up space in a different way, we will yield our power towards that. And it will be an invitation for people to share their stories about how safe they are with sex workers, how transformed they are with sex workers. They could be more visible in their love and their desire for how they be with us. That’s the culture shift that I’m hoping that we are able to experience in our lifetime.
I think you both mentioned love. And I feel like this is an interesting conversation, and it’s one that I don’t see happen in a lot of political [spaces], because people are like, “Love is private.” And I think it’s actually sexist that people are like, “We can’t talk about the politics of love.” But in conversation with trans women leaders, I hear love come up a lot as a political issue: who gets loved, and who doesn’t get loved. One of the questions I have is like, well…how do you shift love? Like, there’s not a policy shift. What’s the campaign? How do you do a cultural shift that increases the love that is sent to trans women of colour sex workers? Nobody else talks about the politics of love with the sophistication that I feel that trans women leaders do.
I remember when I came into the trans community, something a few people said [was that] you’ll never find love. A lot of older trans women say you’ll probably live out your life alone. It’s hard when you’re a sex worker and you have a community that’s saying [those things] to you. I think we have to actually have deeper conversations within the community [about how] we can still have love after sex work… Why can I not have a life outside sex work? Or have sex that’s not attached to money?
Sex work allowed me to recognize that there were people that love my body. Allowed me to recognize that my body was beautiful, and the different parts of my body were beautiful, when society’s telling us that we’re not beautiful. Trans folks experience a lot of body shaming, because of the way our bodies look or, you know, the different things that make our bodies beautiful, that maybe cisgender people or people that live [in] these kind of binary systems would say [are] not. [But] you know, I’ve had relationships with clients that were long, that were loving relationships, and that’s something that a lot of sex workers that I know would never admit. “Monica, how could you date a client!”
But I’ve come to understand in my 30 years of doing sex work that a lot of men who love us are pushed into [patronizing] this kind of work to meet us, because of society’s views around relationships with trans women, or Black trans women or trans women of color. [I came] to realize that these men want us and will go to those lengths to have us. [Will access] the sex industry to find us. A lot of conversations I’ve had with admirers and clients that date us…they fear being out and open about what they really desire.
That’s a campaign, that’s a struggle for me – because until we have people that love us and that are more open about who they love, we will always deal with the same violence and the murders and the injustices. And we’ll always feel that we’re looked at as just this…little desire, you know? But I know deep down inside that’s not what it is… [We need to] get men to step up and say yes, I love a trans woman. And we’re seeing that: there are a few athletes that have come out and said, yes, I love trans people. And that takes a lot of courage. But I think it’s something we need to do.
Wherever you turn, there is someone that’s trans. We are humans, we deserve love. I think we need more cisgender people to push that. We need more people outside of the trans community to push this equality of relationships and love and all these other things. To really normalize that trans people are just another community within the larger community.
I agree that cis people play a role in how we move, how others and the world at large view us. And so just like, you know, it’s a medium, we practice it, visibility: let’s show stories of, you know, trans women being in love, so that it normalizes, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. So that definitely does play a role. And like, writers and creators, all of those people – yes.
But the reality for me – where I disagree – is that it is not solely cis heterosexual people that are responsible, because they just simply don’t have the capacity. They won’t ever have the emotional capacity, the spiritual capacity to see what we see and experience. I don’t even give them that much power and control over my destiny, and control over what at [Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative] is one of our principles: we demand more from the state and from our people. To utilize what we have to take care of our own, and to take care of each other. I’m gonna say that again: we demand more from the state and our people. So we demand more from the police and in the systems and all of that, but we also demand more from you, girl, okay? So I don’t need you to be showing up not ready; I need you to show up better than the way you’re showing up, so that we can win.
When I talk about what we demand from the state – Chanelle, you brought it up, you were like: there are no policies that can teach us love. But there are… Our nieces, our cousins, nephews, our babies: they have the capacity to see past our circumstances and experiences. They don’t see us as sex workers, they don’t see us as trans people, they don’t see us as all of these things that we learn over time and that the system, white supremacy and patriarchy, packs on us. The babies just see us. They see our hearts, they see our spirits and our intentions. And the state can invest more in education resources. They can invest and pass federal legislation [mandating] comprehensive sexual education to all states and school systems. And that includes talking about sexuality, that includes talking about anal sex, HIV, STDs, and consent, in a way that doesn’t criminalize or punish or shame you, but in a more free way. “Let’s give you more money to partner with organizations and communities of people in your school who are the experts in those things.” They can invest more in yoga for the babies, so they can first learn self-love. Meditation for the babies.
Because one of the reasons why grown folks, cis folks don’t have the capacity to love me? Is because they struggle with loving themselves. And I don’t need, I don’t need, I don’t need that from you: coming up in my space, in my life, not loving yourself enough, and treating me bad because you don’t see the fullness and the power that I see and experience in you, which is why we’re here, right? So I just think that the state can be investing so many resources in, again, sexual education, meditation, conflict resolution, self-help, self-love, things for the babies, more adventures, collective fundraising, grassroots fundraising, more field trips! – [where] people are building safe relationships and learning how to communicate better. Where they’re able to say when they’re being harmed, and afraid. The state can invest time, resources in new structures that help teach us to learn how to hold space for us differently. And I think that that is, again, part of a culture shift that we are responsible for, that we are fighting for right now, because cis heterosexual people, white folks, they don’t have the capacity. They haven’t experienced it for themselves.
Dealing with the state and dealing with the community are two unique, massive challenges. How do we hold both? Like you said, Toni-Michelle, we demand more of the state and we demand more of our own people: what’s that look like?
Pace. And what I mean by “pace” is, you know…the world is happening around us. The world is going to happen, shit’s going to happen. Someone, unfortunately, will be murdered; someone will be homeless, someone will be in danger, someone will have joy, somebody will be experiencing some pleasure somewhere, somebody will be afraid. And so life is happening, and if you are committed to your own pace, as an organization, as a community leader, as a friend; if you are setting your own pace, are inside your own body, your own boundary, that is how you can hold the pressures and the trauma from the state, and then also the pressure to respond to everybody’s trauma in community. That is what I find myself holding as a community leader. And I just try to stay inside of my own pacing, inside of my own boundary and capacity.
And then, number two, I just try to have as much grace for myself as I can. So pace and grace are my buzzwords, because I have to remember that I can’t save everybody. And actually that is not my job. My job as an organizer, and a leader, is to facilitate and harvest the brilliance of the collective of folks who I’m in community with, right? And they are responsible for saving themselves. I have to hold a safe space for them to come to practice saving themselves every time. And so that’s what you’re up to, and the state, they’re going to be the state, but as long as you’re taking care of yourself, got grace and pace with yourself, grace and pacing with your people, boundary with your people, together y’all will figure out how to be ready for that when it comes.
And don’t be scared to talk to organizations and experts and lawyers, and people who know and who have a relationship with these people. You have the right to file complaints. Hold people accountable. Show up.
Pace and grace and support.
Yeah. That’s it for me.
When I think about the state, I think about how my decision in the last couple of years [has been] to challenge the state. When Alloura Wells went missing, I challenged the police. I challenged everyone that was responsible. With Bill C-36 [criminalizing the purchase of sexual services], I made my decision to challenge those laws and be visible doing that. To bring a face to trans folks in the sex industry [and say] that we need decriminalization.
We need to bring visibility to what is really important to make change.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Xtra Magazine’s publisher, Pink Triangle Press, which was established in 1971 in Toronto. 50 years later, Xtra is exploring what sexual liberation means in the 21st century through the six-part series Protest and Pleasure by activist and writer Chanelle Gallant, who hosted the preceding conversation with Monica Forrester and Toni-Michelle Williams. A video of the full conversation, with captions, can be found here.