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Sex Work, Leadership and Trans Self-Determination

By Jaime Grant, Contributing Editor, Genders and Sexuality

Editor’s note: Desiree Alliance’s decision to boycott the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia prompted the writing of this piece. Desiree Alliance is a coalition of sex workers, health professionals, social scientists, professional sex educators, and their supporting networks working together for an improved understanding of the sex industry and its human, social, and political impacts. Read their boycott letter here.

To support trans leaders around the world in their research and advocacy efforts, the Global Trans Research and Advocacy Project (GTRAP) has been drawing on the landmark study of transgender discrimination in the US, Injustice at Every Turn:  A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) for the last two years. GTRAP has shared the grassroots research methods and findings of NTDS with activists from all over the world, including trans people in Cuba, Honduras, Georgia, Armenia, China, Hong Kong, India, Kenya, Egypt, South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, and Uganda. Many new projects are growing out of these vibrant exchanges.

In every setting, the issue of employment and the wholesale exclusion of transgender people from legal workplaces and formal, legitimate economies is a front and center human rights issue. In the US Survey, respondents lived the harsh realities of workforce rejection, facing near-universal harassment in ‘legitimate’ workplaces, widespread job termination solely based on their gender identity, and consequentially high levels of participation in underground or ‘informal’ economies such as busking, drug sales and sex work.

South Africa GTRAP Leadership Development Training (Leigh Ann van der Merwe, South Africa, Neo Musangi, Kenya, M’Bwende Anderson, US, Jaime M. Grant, GTRAP staff, Amelie Zurn, US, Jack Harrison-Quintana, GTRAP staff, Ignacio Rivera, GTRAP staff, Jabu Pereira, South Africa)

Nowhere are trans bodies and trans self-determination at greater risk for stigma, discrimination and erasure than in the navigation of sex work as a crucial vehicle for survival.

Global LGBT and HIV funding often has unintended, adverse impacts on trans and genderqueer sex workers around the globe, including the imposition of Western-generated research categories and gender identity terms that obliterate rich histories of trans, third gender, and multigender people in various nations.  Whether surveilling “MSM” in HIV research or championing “Trans” rights in advocacy settings, the language and strategies of the Global North often serve to collapse or erase culturally specific gender identities, embodiments, and relationships, reducing trans people – and especially trans sex workers – to a list of pathological medical terms.

The NTDS found that participation in sex work often relegated study respondents to a lifetime in underground economies. One collaborator noted that their treatment in the porn industry – which is a relatively privileged platform for sex work because it is not criminalized and workers have some choice concerning who they work with – has been far superior to how they have been treated in more ‘legitimate’ workplaces, where employers have often vilified them for both their gender and a history of choosing sex work over a host of ‘available’ degrading ‘straight’ jobs.

In white Western rescuer narratives of global trans rights, trans sex worker self-determination and integrity is an impossibility. Subsequently, sex workers are often dismissed as researchers and leaders even though the experience of navigating trans survival economies is clearly a critical asset in devising solutions to anti-trans aggression that are politically, economically, and culturally strategic.

As North American researchers/activists with enormous privilege, my fellow GTRAP staffers and I ask ourselves every day – is the way we work fueling our collaborators’ struggles for just embodiment and self-determination? Are we making it possible for their visionary ideas and critical resistance to grow?  Or are we simply re-creating the same aggressive set of conditional, imperial terms under which much ‘international’ ‘collaboration’ is carried out?

At the end of the day, it is our collaborators’ answers to these questions that matter most, and drive the work of trans liberation forward.


Dr. Jaime Grant is the founding executive director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership and founder of the Global Transgender Research and Advocacy Project, which aims to develop leadership and original research projects by and for transgender advocates around the world.


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