The loss of Kiesha Jenkins came as a shock to Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community. Twenty-one trans women have been murdered in 2015, two in Philadelphia. Each time, we are hit with the same jarring impact and inconsolable grief.
We first want to acknowledge the amazing strides members of the media have made in reporting on transgender individuals, especially in their death. Kiesha’s name and identity have been respected and honored by a number of Philadelphia media outlets. This is largely due to tremendous efforts on behalf of activists and educators, who have worked very hard to raise awareness of the added violence of misgendering. This also shows that individuals and institutions are able to evolve.
As soon as Kiesha’s death was reported on, so was her work in the sex trade.
“It’s a high-risk behavior and people who engage in that activity are more at risk to have something bad happen to them,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said to 6 ABC. This has been used to frame Keisha’s murder as not motivated by her gender. We believe the targeting of Keisha as a sex worker is inextricable from her gender identity.
Solicitation of sexual services is criminalized in the state of Pennsylvania, and our state has some of the harshest charges for those convicted of prostitution. More than 70 women are currently incarcerated at this moment for this nonviolent offense, with countless more on probation, parole or system-involved because of their work.
Kiesha and Diamond Williams, who was brutally murdered in 2013, are both believed to have been working as sex workers at the time of their murders. This has been used to diminish their victimhood, and sadly many have echoed Ramsey’s statement and argued that, to avoid murder (as if it is a victim’s responsibility?), one should not do this work.
According to the Anti-Violence Project, transgender individuals face disproportionate amounts of workplace discrimination. This is also true in educational settings. On average, transgenders have a rate of poverty four times that of the cisgender population. A recent report from the Urban Institute highlights that many young LGBTQ individuals are kicked out of family homes, shelters and child-welfare services because of their gender identity or presentation. In many ways, transgender individuals are pushed out of the mainstream economy into sex work.
A recent study out of the United Kingdom shows that trans women are among the highest earners in the sex industry, charging higher rates than cis women or male-identified workers. Work in the sex trade is not only a survival option, but sometimes it can be a savvy choice, when transgenders are marginalized in every other industry.
Let us keep this in mind as we remember Kiesha. Transgender women are not putting themselves in danger — they are trying to survive.
And let us consider why she was targeted. According to a 2010 study, sex workers reported the highest rates of violence from police and health-care providers, clients and other third parties. Perpetrators know that because of their criminalized status — and stigma — sex workers rarely get justice for crimes committed against them. Famously, Judge Teresa Carr Deni (whom Philadelphia voters re-elected in 2014) ruled the gang rape of a sex worker at gunpoint was not “rape” but “theft of services” — a lesser charge. This is a common opinion of law enforcement, who rarely investigate reported rapes by sex workers, let alone robberies, stalking or intimate-partner violence.
Laws that criminalize sex work enable people to justify gender-based violence. Would Ramsey have said the same if Keisha was leaving her job as a waitress or a banker? We hope that Kiesha’s work in the sex trade will not be used to excuse violence against her — or anyone else.
What happened to Kiesha Jenkins and many others involved in sex work is a societal issue that needs to be addressed. What could Philadelphians be doing to prevent women like Kiesha from having to resort to engaging in high-risk behaviors to survive? How can we as a community develop programs to help reduce harm and risks?
Let us hold Kiesha’s memory in our hearts and continue to evolve as journalists, employers, educators, neighbors. Let us work to reform laws on nonviolent crimes, like prostitution. These do not protect anyone, but rather enable violence towards marginalized individuals, especially trans women of color. Let us consider how we could better allocate the taxpayer money used to police and incarcerate transgender women pushed into underground economies like sex work, and support their education, employment and prosperity.
With 21 trans women taken from us this year and so many of them young women of color, surviving seems itself enough of a victory — but trans women deserve to thrive.
Sharron L. Cooks is an activist, community organizer and owner and CEO of Making Our Lives Easier, LLC. Lindsay Roth is a community organizer and director of Project SAFE.