I had the tremendous honor and privilege of speaking at the San Francisco event for International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers last night. Big thanks & big love to all my colleagues at St. James Infirmary and Center for Sex & Culture. Extra special big thanks & love to Melissa Gira Grant and Debbie Notkin for their support as I wrote this piece.
1) I’ve been asked to read a piece tonight about what December 17th means to me. I want to start first with some grounding, some context:
Trans Day of Remembrance on November 20th, World AIDS Day on December 1st, and International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers today, December 17th, all happen within a month of each other. As a queer and genderqueer person, someone who grew up in San Francisco during the height of The Plague Years, and a sex worker of over a decade, I have had many opportunities over this last month to consider death and mortality, sex and bodies, illness and labor. I have spent a lot of time this month thinking about grief and longing, about the deep and lasting impacts of isolation, stigma, and violence on all of our communities.
There are many things that make me angry, sad, and disgusted when I look at the lists of names for Day Of Remembrance, for World AIDS Day, and for Day To End Violence. But the biggest sticking point for me is always, always this: The overwhelming majority of the people who are directly impacted, who are on the business end of the violence and brutality and illness and stigma that we talk about on all three of these days, are trans women and people of color, and especially trans women of color. Violence against sex workers is often also racist violence and transmisogynist violence, and all of these systems of oppression intersect in deep and crazy-making ways. If there is one single solitary thing that you take away from my words this evening, let it be this: If you are not a trans woman of color, you need to listen to trans women of color. Follow their leads and their leadership. Prioritize and center these women in your work and especially, especially in your sex worker movement activism.
2) On each of these very different days of mourning and celebrating our dead – November 20th, December 1st, December 17th – I have taken time to sit in silence, to pray. I have taken time to consider the many privileges and disadvantages I possess in this world. This feels important to acknowledge with all of you in this room, today, because it is germane to these events, to these conversations. My privilege is germane to me being a writer and a political organizer, a teacher and a public figure, to me being asked to speak here tonight at all. I am white; I have 2 master’s degrees; I have steady employment outside of sex work and I no longer have to rely upon sex work as my main source of income; I am a female-assigned genderqueer person who is read a cis woman most days; and I have never done street or survival sex work. I am also someone with some considerable odds stacked against me: I’m a survivor of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence; I grew up working-class and I still struggle to make all the ends meet; I’ve been a sex worker in most areas of the industry over the past decade and I have felt the isolation and shame of sex worker stigma first-hand many times; I’m fat; I’m queer; I’m both femme and gender-variant; I’m a pervert; and I’ve struggled with a chronic pain and auto-immune disability that doctors know very little about for close to a decade.
All of these factors – the things that make my life exponentially easy, and the things that make my life exponentially hard – impact my ability to get up on this stage today and talk to you. All of this impacts how much energy I have to fight against the powers that be on any given day. I wrote this piece over a series of grueling, fretful hours while struggling with chronic pain and fatigue, shuffling from “I can’t possibly write something new, my body is wrecked” to “I have to at least try, today is too important to just phone it in with an old piece.” Shuffling from lying in bed on ice packs to sitting up at my computer. Nap, then write a line. Lamaze breathe through the sharp edges of the pain, then write a line.
I’m not telling you this because I want your pity. I’m telling you this because it gives you a window into my reality, my context. I offer it up because I think that it is crucial that we listen, really listen, to each other’s contexts, especially when we come together to support each other during times of grief and loneliness.
3) Right now, I am working on a book called How To Have A Body, which is mostly about the intersections between sexuality, disability, and chronic illness. People often chuckle when they hear the title. And yes, of course I mean it to be funny in some ways, sort of tenderly tongue-in-cheek. But I’m also serious about the manuscript as an instruction manual, a user’s guide. For myself, and for others.
Because if there is anything I believe in, it is this: I believe in having a body and I believe in enjoying it. I especially believe in sex workers having bodies and in sex workers enjoying their bodies. I don’t say that to quip or be cutesy, I don’t say it to offer up an easy slogan, and I don’t say it lightly. I am dead fucking serious about this, y’all. Labor and sexuality, money and survival, the body and the work are so intricately wound up and connected for all of us. I believe that the only way we win in a world that feels impossibly hard is with joy, and pleasure. I believe in sex workers not just surviving, but thriving. Whether you love your job, or hate it and want to get out of the industry, or fall somewhere in the middle; whether your particular area of the industry is criminalized or 100% legal; whether you are working to pay for food or drugs or tuition, your rent or your bills or some extravagant luxury: I believe in you having a body and I believe in you enjoying it.
When we are trained by this culture to fold in on ourselves, to acquiesce, to disappear, to leave without a trace, to leave without putting up a fight – sex workers having bodies and enjoying them is a fucking victory. We can’t afford to take this victory for granted. Cruelty and tragedy break so many of us, push so many of us into frightening and dangerous corners. Remember that you have a body that is capable of amazing things. Remember your tremendous capacity for pleasure and fun. Believe in it. Be joyous about it.
Believe me when I say that it is a miracle that I am standing in front of all of you tonight. It is a miracle that we are here together in this room, that we have all made it far enough to find each other, to gather together. It is a miracle that we have created this space to honor our beloved dead. Staying alive and celebrating each other when the outside world wants so many of us gone is a triumph. While we remember our beloved dead tonight, we also need to celebrate that we are still here.
Alive, and kicking. Honoring our dead, and fighting like hell for our living. That even in the midst of unspeakable horror and cruelty, we find joy. That even in the face of death, we remain a miraculous and triumphant people.