resistance

An Anarchist in the Capitol: Thoughts on Identity Politics, Reform, Trans Liberation, and the Nonprofit Industrial Complex

I spent the past month or so working with the National Center for Transgender Equality. I helped coordinate logistics for their annual Policy Conference and Lobby Day. It was a wonderful (if at times stressful!) opportunity to gain useful skills while doing meaningful work with an organization I respect. I also met lots of great people!

I’m back to being marginally-employed again, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nonprofit industrial complex (NPIC — keep reading for explanation) and my involvement in it.

I didn’t enter “the workforce” until I was 21. Before that, I was mostly involved in black/grey market economies of various sorts. When I have been formally employed, it has mostly been either in service industries like making coffee or within nonprofit industries — first, as a case manager on the abortion hotline, briefly as a client advocate for sex workers, and then at NCTE.

While I am definitely part of and implicated in the NPIC, I have tried to remain critical about the strengths and weaknesses of the nonprofit model, and what nonprofit work can and cannot do. In short, nonprofit work can be valuable, but ultimately it can’t bring the truly revolutionary change this planet, and all of us, nees to survive.

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“Tax Cuts for the Rich, Service Cuts for the Poor”

Instead of barely raising taxes for those who can most afford it, the D.C. City Council decided to cut funding to social service programs for those who can least afford it.

Save Our Safety Net was campaigning to generate revenue by raising taxes on the top 5% of earners and investing the money into projects that benefit the whole city. Instead, the Council continued to slash funding for critical programs that help the poor.

At least they didn’t get away with it quietly. From NBC (“Protests Disrupt DC Council Budget Cutting“):

The squad of officers was kept busy as one protester after another stood up to denounce the proceedings. In all, there were seven disruptions and 10 people were ejected from the room.

As someone who depends on safety net services, I commend these organizers. Oppressed people — especially communities of color, immigrant communities, low-income families, trans folks, and people with disabilities — have a lot at stake in this struggle.

Like, our lives.

Poor people aren’t poor because we make bad decisions or because we’re lazy. We’re poor because 1% of the population owns half the country’s wealth.

And if we’re queer or trans, there’s homophobic and transphobic hiring biases that keep us from working. Add to that: a criminal record from survival sex work, mental health problems and addiction resulting from trauma and abuse, not having a degree because you got harassed every day at school, having no home address because your family kicked you out, and being turned away from homeless shelters and food banks because they’re all run by catholics.

That’s why we’re poor. Redistributing some wealth our way through tax-subsidized social programs is the least we deserve. For a lot of people, social programs are the only thing that allows us to get back on our feet and become healthy, contributing members of our communities again.

But those in power have a vested interested in defending the status quo. So I have little faith that anything will change until we unite and force it to happen.

On Surviving When It Doesn’t Get Better: Poverty, Food Stamps, and Transness

Trigger warning: poverty, bureaucracy, depression, and transphobia.

I wrote a few pages about the day I applied for food stamps from the vantage point of a trans woman, sex worker, burnt-out activist, and crazy person. It is an autobiographical reflection on what it means to struggle not only against unjust social conditions and poverty, but also against complex internal forces we call “mental illness” for simplicity. (And how the two reinforce one another.)

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Toward an Anti-capitalist, Trans-feminist Analysis of Madness

Trans women, especially women of color and sex workers, disproportionately suffer from a lack of housing, health care, physical safety, jobs, family/support networks, education, positive role models/media representations, and more. These disparities mean we’re more likely to experience violence, poverty, and incarceration, and – by extension – mental illness. Just about every trans woman I know has experienced some kind of mental illness, especially post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and panic disorders. A great many have also been diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar, schizophrenia and other disorders.

It’s hard enough to find a job when background searches out you as trans. It’s worse when you have a disability (psychiatric or otherwise) that means you can’t even work for the few people who are willing to hire you. (And why do we need to toil for other people’s profit just to survive anyway?) This is what it’s like to exist at the confluence of a world that concentrates wealth in the hands of a few and denies the basic means of survival to so many, a world that constructs gender as an absolute binary, and a world that punishes madness. We are trapped in precarity, and this violent social and economic instability  expresses itself in our bodies and minds as anxiety and fear.

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Against Criminalization: D.C. must rethink impact of policing sex work on marginalized communities

originally published as an Op-Ed in Metro Weekly Magazine

On the weekend of Sept. 25, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) raided a hotel in Northwest in a prostitution-related sting. MPD has confirmed that six arrests were made on charges of soliciting prostitution.

Every week, the D.C. Trans Coalition (DCTC) receives complaints involving police harassment. Many of these reports come from transgender, transsexual or gender-non-conforming (hereafter trans) individuals, especially trans women of color, who are involved in, or believed to be involved in, sex work. Due to transphobic and racist police bias, many trans women are harassed and falsely arrested for sex work (the crime of ”walking while trans”).

Whether they are sex workers or not, however, is besides the point. No one deserves this degree of persecution and violence. While most survivors of policing abuses are unwilling or unable to file formal complaints, we continue to receive a consistently high volume of contacts from individuals who have been assaulted and/or verbally ridiculed by police. Many are treated inhumanely while in custody, despite MPD’s own General Order prohibiting such abuse.

A soon-to-be-released study by the National Center for Transgender Equality notes that 71 percent of trans respondents had experienced harassment and disrespectful treatment by police officers, and 45 percent were uncomfortable reporting crimes to police. After the most recent raid, DCTC was approached for advice from trans community members who are fearing for their own safety in the face of similar sweeping police actions. No one should have to live with this fear.

Due to discrimination, trans people are more likely to experience poverty, housing instability, unemployment and underemployment than cisgender (non-trans) people. Many engage in criminalized activities, including sex work, in order to survive. We are disturbed and frustrated that the solution most often employed by the D.C. government is to over-police and to arrest our community members rather than connecting these individuals to jobs, services and public assistance.

Since sex work is illegal, sex workers are denied protection with basic labor practices and human rights standards. If attacked or assaulted by a client, there is often no legal recourse. Marginalized groups such as trans women are among the most vulnerable. This becomes terrifyingly clear when we gather annually for the Trans Day of Remembrance. The list of murder victims heavily features sex workers, most of whom are trans women of color.

Rather than protecting these individuals from violence, many police actions only perpetuate violence. After incarceration, and the establishment of a criminal record, these individuals face the nearly impossible challenge of finding a ”legal” job. Instead, they are likely to find themselves back in the sex work industry. At the bottom of the social ladder, marginalized communities such as trans women of color are the worst hit by this cycle of jail and poverty. A preliminary glance at MPD’s arrest records, which we recently obtained from MPD via a Freedom of Information Act request, suggests that a trans woman is far more likely to be arrested for indecent sexual proposal than a cisgender person.

All LGBTQ people should be concerned when the state attempts to enforce morality. Instead of allowing the government to target sex workers as criminals, we must solve the underlying issues of racism, transphobia and poverty. Raids like the one conducted by MPD last month only perpetuate unsafe working conditions and further demonize sex workers, forcing sex workers out of the safety of the private room and into the dimly lit and significantly more dangerous public streets.

It is our hope that the incoming administration of the presumptive mayor, Vince Gray, will rethink these failed policing strategies. We look forward to meeting with him to discuss possible alternatives. We need jobs not raids; we need fair wages and labor standards, not ”Prostitution Free Zones.” Whether individuals chose it freely or not, sex work is real work and will continue to be an industry for those with limited employment options.

Sadie-Ryanne Baker’ is an organizer with the D.C. Trans Coalition, a grassroots, volunteer organization dedicated to fighting for human rights, dignity and liberation for trans people in the District. Visit dctranscoalition.org.