December 17th marks the 7th annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. On this day, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) stands in solidarity with sex workers around the world and calls on governments to remove the conditions that engender violence against sex workers, including criminalization of sex work. IGLHRC also stands with transgender sex workers, who face the compounded violence and discrimination as sex workers and as transgender people.
In an unpublished report, the UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty has identified how poverty and gender identity-based discrimination are intricately linked for transgender people, “[T]he extreme poverty many trans people…confront is a direct cause and consequence of the constant discrimination they suffer merely because of their trans identity and expression. Such discrimination not only quickly pushes them to poverty, but also deepens it, perpetuating discriminatory attitudes and practices against them.” Moreover, studies have found that poverty, undocumented immigration status, and discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression are central reasons why transgender people enter sex work to begin with.
Transgender sex workers experience violence from both police and clients on an especially heightened scale because of the compound stigma of being both transgender and a sex worker. In addition to added discrimination by police because of their gender non-conformance, transgender sex workers are targeted for police abuse and harassment more frequently because they are often the most visible and therefore the most vulnerable. This is in part due to the common stereotype that all transgender people are sex workers. The constant profiling of transgender women as sex workers by police is so prolific that the term “walking while transgender” has been coined to describe the heightened scrutiny transgender people face. For example, one study found that, “[i]ndividuals who may be, may have been, or may appear to be prostitutes are detained and/or arrested when they simply leave their homes,” solely because they are transgender. Another study found that transgender sex workers report being singled out for arrest more frequently and treated more harshly during arrest than other sex workers.
At the hands of police and other government agents, transgender sex workers suffer public humiliation, verbal harassment, physical abuse, and sexual violence by deception and coercion; transgender sex workers are also often victims of extortion and bribery, and face arbitrary charges for crimes they did not commit. Transgender sex workers have little or no recourse to redress for these violations. The combination of all these factors makes transgender sex workers less likely to report other crimes to the police, and they are more likely to have negative experiences when they do.
Last week, at the United Nations, a high-level side event was held on the subject of ending violence and criminal sanctions on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. At this event the Secretary General of the United Nations as well as other UN and government officials spoke out consistently against violence and criminal sanctions on the basis of sexual orientation and, somewhat inconsistently, spoke out against violence on the basis of gender identity. A translated statement was read on behalf of Buse Kilickaya, one of the founders of Pembe Hayat (Pink Life) LGBTT Solidarity Association, an LGBT organization in Turkey dedicated to addressing hate crimes, hate speech, sex-worker’s rights, anti-discrimination law, police brutality, HIV-AIDS, LGBT asylum seekers, and LGBT people in prisons. Buse identified herself as a Kurd, an Alevi Muslim, a trans woman and a sex worker, to the likely discomfort of many of the State representatives in the room.
She pointed out that in 2010, at least seven trans people have been murdered in Turkey. The number is likely higher. Buse also explained the violence she has herself faced as a trans woman, a sex worker and a human rights defender:
“[O]n 17 May 2010, in Ankara, 5 trans human rights defenders from Pink Life, including myself, were pulled over while driving, arbitrarily arrested, pepper sprayed and violently beaten by up to 60 police officers. We were taken into police custody overnight and charged with resisting authorities. Conviction could have resulted in 3-year prison terms. Following the incident, which drew significant national and international attention, we filed an official complaint with the Office of Public Prosecutor, but the Public Prosecutor decided to dismiss our complaint. This once again demonstrates the discrimination we face. However, in October, a court threw out the charges, citing the lack of evidence against us and reprimanding the officers for conduct that was, in the judge’s words, “totally wrong.”
This was a victory, but I am still not safe. Again in June 2010, myself and another Pink Life member were pulled over while driving by the police. Again we have been wrongfully accused of resisting authorities and again we could be imprisoned. The next court hearing on this case will be in Ankara on December 29th, 2010. I have every reason to fear that this time I could be unjustly imprisoned.”
The human rights of sex workers, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity – and with an acknowledgment of the particular vulnerabilities of trans sex workers – must be a priority for an inclusive LGBT and sexual rights movement.
Read more discussion of the human rights of sex workers and transgender sex workers: Stigma and Violence Against Transgender Sex Workers, by Khartini Slamah and Sam Winter and Kemal Ordek at Reproductive Health Reality Check.
This piece was written by Alyssa Pomponio (University of Washington School of Law, Class of 2012) during her summer internship at IGLHRC. She subsequently interned at the Sex Worker Project. Information and text was contributed by Sara Perle, IGLHRC staff.
1. Christine Beatty, Transgender Sex Workers, excerpted from The San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution, Interim Report (1994).
2. Christine Beatty, The San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution, Final Report 7, Footnote 13 (Mar. 1996)
3. Darby Hickey, Policing Gender and Sexuality: Transgender Sex Workers, HIV, and Justice (Positively Aware), Jul. Aug. 2008, at 40.
4. Christine Beatty, The San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution, Final Report 28 (Mar. 1996)
5. See, e,g., Id. at 28; Darby Hickey, Policing Gender and Sexuality: Transgender Sex Workers, HIV, and Justice (Positively Aware), Jul. Aug. 2008, at 40.
6. See, e.g., Andrea Nichols, Dance Ponnaya, Dance! Police Abuses Against Transgender Sex Workers in Sri Lanka, 5(2) Feminist Criminology 195, 195-222 (2010); Christine Beatty, The San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution, Final Report 28 (Mar. 1996); Darby Hickey, Policing Gender and Sexuality: Transgender Sex Workers, HIV, and Justice (Positively Aware), Jul. Aug. 2008, at 40, 41; Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, ¶ 42, U.N. Doc GE.10-13118 (Apr. 27, 2010) (prepared by Anand Grover); Human Rights Watch, Off the Streets: Arbitrary Detention and Other Abuses against Sex Workers in Cambodia, 37, 39, 41, 57, 58 (2000).
7. Human Rights Watch, Off the Streets: Arbitrary Detention and Other Abuses against Sex Workers in Cambodia, 57, 58 (2000).
8. See, e.g., Andrea Nichols, Dance Ponnaya, Dance! Police Abuses Against Transgender Sex Workers in Sri Lanka, 5(2) Feminist Criminology 195, 195-222 (2010); Christine Beatty, The San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution, Final Report 28 (Mar. 1996); Darby Hickey, Policing Gender and Sexuality: Transgender Sex Workers, HIV, and Justice (Positively Aware), Jul. Aug. 2008, at 40, 41; Human Rights Watch, Off the Streets: Arbitrary Detention and Other Abuses against Sex Workers in Cambodia, 37, 39, 41 (2000).