Two people holding placards at a Kill The Bill protest in Reading. One placard reads;
Two people holding placards at a Kill The Bill protest in Reading. Credit: Callum Darragh, Wikimedia Commons

Sex workers are often over looked in more mainstream conversations surrounding trans liberation. We shouldn’t forget that trans activism was and is still built by sex workers, Felix F Fern writes;

Suppose you are actively engaged with the trans community on social media, which if you’re reading this article there’s a pretty high chance. In that case, it’s almost inevitable that you will have come across at least one adult content creator, whether that’s through stumbling across an ad for someone’s latest video, or seeing that little ‘OF’ (OnlyFans) link when you’ve clicked on someone’s bio.

Every November when Transgender Day of Remembrance comes around, many of us make a point to stress that one of the most affected groups when it comes to violence against our community is sex workers, typically trans women and femmes of colour.

Trans healthcare is notoriously inaccessible worldwide, forcing many to have to pay out of pocket in order to fund gender-affirming care, which when combined with a cost of living crisis and rates of poverty rising globally it’s not difficult to see why work that is primarily centred on flexibility, remote working and self-management is so popular.

Many of the people that are widely considered to be the founding parents of the trans rights movement were sex workers, and many revolutionary members of the sex workers’ rights movement were/are trans. Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and the sex workers of Stonewall, Margot St. James and COYOTE, and Robyn Few who co-founded the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, to name only a few.

So why is it that when it comes to the modern campaign for trans rights and equality, sex workers are so underrepresented, especially in predominantly white communities and mainstream charities? It feels as though in November you’ll see the odd group pedal out their yearly token message of solidarity when mourning those who we have lost, but there is little energy spent in celebrating the backbone of our activism that is not only alive but thriving in spite of adversity.

Whilst I have a personal investment as an ex-cam model and someone who has faced direct discrimination as a result of being a sex worker, as well as having many amazing friends in the field from full service to digital content, I believe that we as a community need to practice what we preach when it comes to not only advocating for issues that impact us personally but fighting for intersectional causes across the board simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Over the last couple of years, I have heard countless feedback that people are fed up with feeling as though trans rights charities and even grass rights campaign groups are not taking trans sex workers into consideration when it comes to their activism, so I spoke with a couple of sex workers for their thoughts on the matter.

Chris-Jae Angel

Chris-Jae has spoken openly at protests about her personal experiences as a brown non-binary activist, and a sex worker since 2019, who has had to face traumatic personal obstacles. They’ve also recently been published in Kestral Gaian’s anthology of those who lived through Section 28, Twenty-Eight. Read our review by Laura Kate Dale here

When it comes to the particular challenges of being both trans and a sex worker, Chris-Jae said, “When I came out as trans non-binary, the majority of my audience for digital sex work were supportive, but many cisgender men suddenly had a problem that I wouldn’t allow them to misgender me, with many becoming aggressive, condescending, judgmental and withdrawing support. Positively though, my audience has also grown with more gender diverse and queer folx that welcome and celebrate sex work. So many of us adopt it to be able to make changes in ourselves and society. It’s a means to an end for many.”

Does Chris-Jae feel represented when she sees other people advocating for trans equality?

“As a brown trans sex worker, I feel emboldened in my identity, but I don’t often see others like me amongst advocates. It’s an incredibly isolating existence sometimes. That doesn’t mean we aren’t there, but the prevalent platformed majority will almost always be white trans folx or allies, especially at pride.”

So what can we do to ensure that trans sex workers are represented and considered?

“I would hope we can just continue to de-stigmatise sex work, something that has always been there and is so common in the trans community.  We need to find ways to celebrate us as well as fight for us, and just keep reminding people that sex work is work. Our bodies aren’t owed to anybody, whether it be our autonomy or our anatomy.

“If I could ask organisations for anything in particular, it would be to keep supporting us. When I started speaking at protests, so many organisations reached out wanting to work with me, until they saw the reality of sex work and then all but one went silent. So I would just ask that they listen to the people behind the work, and realise they need to support our voice or lose our voice.”

Lilith Is Fat

L, based in the US, has been in sex work since he was 18, starting with cam work and then expanding from there. He’s a Black intersex transmasculine sex worker and highlighted to me that obtaining healthcare is difficult enough, let alone sexual healthcare on top of that.

“It also creates a dichotomy where I must repress my sexuality and gender identity in order to appeal to clients, as the market for openly transmasculine sex workers is very niche and small, and limited almost exclusively to white, passing transmascs,” He explained. “It’s impossible to survive without hiding a part of myself, obscuring my identity and suppressing my honest truth — it creates a lot of dysphoria and mental disconnect that increases the difficulty of my work even when I enjoy it.”

L also feels impacted by the hopelessness that many others experience in the current climate, “Things feel very intense to a point of overwhelm that really paralyzes me, but on the flip side, I feel a lot of hope that this overwhelm can mobilise us and move us toward a collective solidarity that will ensure our safety as trans people no matter what the state attempts to do to us.

“We are such a small minority, trans people as a whole, and particularly trans sex workers. I feel hope that we will continue to carry one another as we have, but I feel overwhelming despair at the Goliath-level obstacles we are all facing for simply attempting to live in our truth.”

So, as a Black intersex transmasculine sex worker, does L feel represented when he sees people advocate for trans rights?

“No. Because of what many of us do to survive, i.e. repressing, misgendering ourselves, performing in drag to live – we are often entirely ignored. I feel the pain of all the Black transmasculine people who face violence daily in sex work but are not seen as viable enough members of the trans community to deserve visibility and support.”

When asked what he’d like to see from trans rights groups that would make him feel like they’re advocating for him, he said, “A focus on uplifting the voices of trans activists who are also sex workers, as we are often lumped into one category or the other, being seen as an advocate for [only] trans rights or sex workers rights when it is both, and both are intertwined. Sex work and trans rights are both issues of bodily autonomy.”

Many sex workers’ advocacy groups in the UK are wholeheartedly trans-inclusive and want to be more actively involved in our campaigns, so make sure that your activism is inclusive of sex workers and their needs too.

Support organisations and campaigns that are fighting to decriminalise sex work, and work against groups that are trying to introduce the Nordic Model into the UK, a legislative model that will directly harm sex workers.

Sign this petition from the English Collective of Prostitutes to decriminalise sex work:

Follow and promote the Hookers Against Hardship campaign:

Keep yourself informed on the facts about sex work, make sure that you understand the law, and remember that the trans rights movement was built on the backs of sex workers, so we owe it to them to do better.

This article was funded by LGBT+ Futures: Equity Fund is a two-year £786,000 partnership between Consortium and The National Lottery Community Fund, designed to help community-led and grassroot organisations supporting some of the most under-represented and marginalised LGBT+ communities. Read more here.