Chantal,* Eva* and I are sitting in a taqueria in Kensington. We’re celebrating Eva getting a job in a nail salon, a job she was literally desperate for and is excited to have. Eva has been struggling to get out of sex work for “three long years. Feels like so much longer, you know?”
She says she feels free, tossing her hair back in emphasis.
Eva looks happy. I know what it took for her to get to this place.
Eva’s close friend Chantal got out a few months ago and has been urging Eva to do the same. “I’m done with that s---,” Chantal says, and makes a disgusted face. “Now I’m out, I see how bad I been treated and for how long?” She waves a beautifully manicured hand in an exaggerated, dismissive manner, as if she could brush away the pain of her years on the street that easily.
As they talk about their new lives and plans for the future, it’s obvious Chantal and Eva know just how fortunate they are.
Chantal has told me she “got out just in time.” Three bad things happened to her back to back: an arrest, a near-overdose and a bad john, all in the span of a few weeks — and “I took it as a sign, you know? Sometimes you got to watch for a sign, and when it come, you have to pay attention. Truth.”
The arrest wasn’t her first, but it scared Chantal badly. Another friend, Leticia*, was arrested for a third time a few months before Chantal and went to jail this time — no fine and warning, but an actual plea deal and time. Time Leticia must serve in a man’s prison, time where she will not get the treatments she needs or the protection she deserves. As Aamina Morrison, coordinator at Trans-health Information Project notes soberly, transpeople end up in jail for many reasons and the trauma to them can be devastating. So for Chantal, Leticia’s conviction was shattering.
“It scared me, no question about that,” said Chantal.
It scared her so much, it led to her near-overdose on a mix of “Percs and Remy” — Percocet pain pills and cognac, a high an older transwoman turned her onto when she was a teenager. The mix of painkillers and alcohol is a favorite among many of the women I met and, unlike other kinds of recreational drugs, is easy to obtain. Chantal hasn’t stopped taking Percs. She is just “more careful” when she “takes my little trips.”
But that night — the night she took too much — it was Eva who found Chantal sprawled on the floor “all passed-out and her eyes just rolled back” when she came to get her for an evening of work.
Eva, who is shorter and slighter than Chantal, managed to prop her up and put ice water on her face and chest until she got Chantal conscious again. Eva kept her conscious for three hours until the effects of the double-dosing began to wear off. But it was a close call for them both.
I asked why Eva hadn’t called 911. She just looked at me.
“Whatchuthink?” she said, her voice clipped with anger. “No cops. They not going to help us,” she added vehemently. Then she explained how police had harassed her before, had harassed all her sex-worker friends. “Because we black, because we do what we do. I got some [police] I like,” she says, and half smiles, but then adds, “but most? They hate me, I hate them right back.”
Problems for transgender people with police and paramedics have been reported in many cities. The 2002 case of Nizah Morris, who died of a head wound after being let out of a police car in Center City, has long been considered by the LGBT community to be a glaring case of police mistreatment of a transwoman. Although both Eva and Chantal were kids when Morris died, I didn’t doubt they had heard her story and that of other transpersons whose medical needs had come second to curiosity over their gender.
Morrison points out that transpeople often come to TIP instead of police because of the fraught relationship between the trans community and the police or equal tensions between people of color and the PPD.
“I have heard and know of so many heartbreaking stories,” Morrison explains, “some of them ending in people spending their lives in prison for defending themselves.”
Chantal knows that might have happened to her the night she got her final “sign” that she needed to get out of sex work.
It was a story I have heard from about two-dozen transwomen sex workers I have met and interviewed since March: Men using transwomen for their sexual fetishes, many of them violent. For Chantal, it was a sex date gone wrong with a man who wanted to choke her. Chantal, who is of average build and height, said the man was “just so strong. He didn’t look like he be that strong at all.”
But he was. He was so strong that Chantal lost consciousness. She came to on the edge of a place called Harrowgate Park in Kensington. Chantal tells me it’s the last trick she will ever turn, “on my Mom’s life,” she insists.
What made Chantal’s experience of being choked so frightening wasn’t the actual choking — she says she’s been choked by “dates” before — or even that she was unconscious. She says it was that “that guy thought I was dead, you know what I’m saying? He thought he killed me. And he just put me there [in the park] like I was some trash from his car.”
Harrowgate Park has a disturbing history in Kensington. Pretty from a distance, the park — a full four-square at Kensington and Tioga — is well-known in the working-class area for drugs, prostitution and, not that long ago, murder.
In 2010 and 2011, a spate of murders of prostitutes by a man dubbed the Kensington Strangler had the entire neighborhood scared. Chantal knew about the killings, but she wasn’t working in Kensington at that time. But when she tells her story, she says she thinks that’s what it must have been like for the women who were murdered. Except those women never woke up.
The three of us have finished eating and Eva wants to show me where she’ll be working. It is, she says, the “best day of my life.”
It’s the first day of the rest of her life, I tell her, and she hugs me. “Yes,” she says, her voice barely a whisper.
Christian Lovehall, Philadelphia trans activist and co-founder of the Philly Trans*March, has strong words of support for the city’s trans sex workers, who he asserts are in a constant struggle for survival. Like Morrison, Lovehall points to the grim reality that a majority of the city’s trans sex workers, male as well as female, are people of color, which makes them doubly discriminated against. Transmen sex workers (who were not interviewed for this series because the focus was on women) also face violence and discrimination, Lovehall said.
“Sex work for trans women of color has been a means for survival for many while living in a world designed for you to fail,” he explains, referencing the very issues Eva and Chantal have been facing.
“Sex work is also increasingly becoming a way of survival for many trans men as well,” Lovehall asserts, pointing to the underlying issues for this dangerous trend that put trans people at significant risk. “It’s a result of society’s fetishizing the trans body of color and not seeing us as human beings.”
Malik Moorer knows all about the dangers of this kind of fetishizing, because Stacy Blahnik, his wife of seven years and a transwoman, was murdered. The pain over her brutal death is still fresh for him, his love for her still apparent.
And his concerns for the community — which he acknowledges he was always an outsider in, if an ally of, because he is not transgender — run deep. So, too, does his unsettled feeling that the PPD never investigated Blahnik’s murder the way they would have had she not been transgender.
“I care about transgender rights,” he says, his voice full of passion. “You have a constitutional right to be, to just be who you are.”
Moorer also knows why women like those in this series have been forced to choose sex work and also why some can’t leave.
“I know what chases people into prostitution, I know how hard it is to find a way to make money.” Having that autonomy, often for the first time, may feel right at some level, h e says. “I know you get addicted to the lifestyle. You need money, you need a job and it’s there.”
Getting out of sex work is made more difficult by the seeming lack of alternatives, as well as knowing one’s own body is fall-back employment.
Eva and Chantal, who spent six months learning to braid hair while she continued to do sex work and is now assisting a woman in North Philly who does hair out of her apartment, are success stories. Both women are under 25, which is good, but both are estranged from their families due to their transgender status, which their families reject. Both also have issues with drugs, although Eva says she hasn’t been using since the night Chantal almost died.
The women met by happenstance at a walk-in center in Kensington run by Inner City Missions. The broad-based, grassroots, faith-based agency is run by Pastor Frank Vega, whose mission statement is basic: Help those in need like the Gospel of Matthew says.
A significant portion of Vega’s ministry is devoted to helping addicts and sex workers. Eva believes because she and Chantal met through Vega, they were meant to follow a path out of sex work and into something that makes them feel, as Chantal said simply, “everyday real.”
Eva explains,”My family tell me all the time, God gone punish me, God gone send me to the fiery pit.” She says Vega had a different message about God, one that included her, Chantal and all the other sex workers who found their way from Kensington and Frankford avenues into Vega’s Cora Women’s Center.
Morrison, whose faith in God and in people’s ability to reinvent themselves seems equally strong, says, “There are women who have made it out. Sex work was their only option at the time.” For many transwomen sex workers, the “job” was part of “anything that helped their transition,” she adds.
Morrison has hope for the women who “live in the night, live in the dark. We want them to wake up, not just physically but mentally and spiritually.”
The doors of TIP, Inner City Missions and Women in Transition are open to any and all women who need help. But Lovehall adds that the issue is bigger than just getting transwomen (and transmen) sex workers off the streets; it’s ending the reasons they are there in the first place. “It’s a result of our city not protecting us against employment discrimination, racism and transphobia, despite the equality clauses provided by our government. Hearing our stories can be educational for many. They create awareness. But I’m hoping they will lead to discussions towards solutions to this problem as well. Hopefully they will encourage our law enforcement to take the killings of transwomen sex workers more seriously.”
Hopefully this series, and these women’s stories, will make people see these women for who they are: “everyday real,” as Chantal said. And as such, no different from the rest of us.
*Names changed for privacy.