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Linking Successful Gay Activism with the Sex Worker's Fight for JusticeDiane Walsh Salem-News.com
Supporting reform for improved working conditions for sex-trade workers carries a major social stigma.
(VICTORA, B.C.) - Wondering who’s at the helm of the sex worker’s rights movement in British Columbia? Well, at least one of its effective movers and shakers is, without a doubt, Jody Paterson. Long-time BC award winning journalist, defender of street people, university lecturer par excellence and now—a visible ally of the gay community.
In assisting professional sex workers in their fight for legal reform, for protection from murder and physical violence, from unfair prosecution and stigma, Paterson points to the successful strategies and reforms obtained by our QLGBT community, which she sees, as a model and illustration of a progressive society.
What follows is a never-before seen exclusive interview. And, while a few seasons have come and gone since it was originally conducted, its content remains pertinent to the current issues facing sex-workers today.
As a woman who strikes at the heart to inspire forward change Paterson is someone who’s keen to tap into the broader QLGBT community for ally-ship and for help working on the cause for social justice for sex workers. Since what it takes to promote solid activism against sex-worker stigma is not unlike the same energy it has taken to successfully battle homophobic stigma.
Paterson wants us to understand the problems standing in the way of better protection of sex workers. In 2008, Jody Paterson launched a groundbreaking course in advocacy journalism at the University of Victoria, basing some of her teaching perspectives and models on a two-year stint she performed as an Executive Director of the Prostitutes Empowerment Education Resource Society. Known as PEERS Victoria, it is a society that represents sex-workers (and where today) she serves as a volunteer.
Simple enough to understand…or is it? Paterson defends the cause vehemently but her advocacy hasn’t been easy. Supporting reform for improved working conditions for sex-trade workers carries a major social stigma. Nevertheless, as Paterson will say herself, she’s committed to being a no-holes-barred labour activist. In her own words “Because there’s no other sex-worker-specific agency in town we go right from outreach on the street serving the outdoor workers to providing help to indoor workers. We have to do it all.”
Diane Walsh: Would you agree that on a fundamental level it tends to be “the-queer-types” who’ve had a hand in the lead development of successful protection societies and social-equality groups—PEERS being one example of that?
Jody Paterson: Whoa, Lesbians and gays! If you ever did a tally in this region of the groups who have lesbians and gays either meeting them, or very actively in their ranks--I would think it would be just stunning!
DW: If we look at any of the human rights movements, just by way of example. there is much historical evidence to suggest QLGBTer’s are often the ones to actually go out there and do something politically, that says ‘Heck, we should be, better protecting, sex workers as a whole society’. Is this a fair point?
JP: In terms of the social movement and my own meetings and the tables I sit at I’m really struck by the high number of gays and lesbians who are doing the work. I think in terms of the sex trade, that’s probably our hope. As well with the gay and lesbian movement because they (as we do) understand what it is to be completely shunned. Not too long ago [gays] had to rally against perceptions that they had to be ‘fixed’; like, ‘rehabilitated’, which is a popular word; like ‘rehabilitating sex workers’. In the gay and lesbian movement there are people who wanted to be who they are and faced decades of struggle just to get to that point. But they did it in just the relatively short period of time that I’ve seen the movement. When you think of the rights that have been achieved through the efforts of gays and lesbians it’s been really powerful!
DW: So would you say we could help a bit more in the sex-worker-rights-activism aspect and not just focus on gay rights?
JP: Gays, in many ways have led the way for change. To me that is the movement
That’s the track that I’d like to see the sex trade follow. And you know there’s a lot of similarities around the issues of oppression and the issues of community rejection and stigma.
That there’s something wrong with you and you’re a good person if we can make it right, but if you continue your path then you remain a bad person. That’s the piece I think gays and lesbians can understand. They can get behind that in terms of moving the sex worker issue forward.
DW: Can you say a little about the inherent contradiction in the reality of lesbians working as sex workers (idea of being heterosexual only ‘on the job’), and juxtapose—this piece—against what-appears-to-be the visibly lesbian leaders in the sex-worker’s-right-movement speaking out for hetero sex workers, in general, but never speaking to their own veil of secrecy. Complex!—To be sure especially with everything in between...queer…bi-sexuality then the transgendered identities, strictly gay and so forth…clearly the identity list goes on.
JP: We know there are lots of lesbians who are sex workers who serve men, right? Like, that’s very common. Gay men—we don’t…I don’t [have]…couldn’t possibly give a guess at the ratio. There could even be more male gay sex workers than there are female gay sex workers. We see frequent transgender, mostly men-to-women working on the female stroll. And that’s a whole other [matter]… although I think transgender is the ‘new gay’, to tell you the truth. I see some incredible gains being made and people in very important positions who are transgender—it’s not that quirky, little weird thing that it used to be. It’s terrific to see it gaining this momentum and this power and people even being able to discuss that issue. That’s been so deep in the closet for so long that it’s really intriguing to see it starting to happen. But the coming out counselling, if that would work, we’d be happy to try it - we’d be keen to connect more, especially to men; and if that were a piece of it then we’d be happy to do that. The women (lesbians), you know, they don’t really need to come out, they come out - they’re out. They’re just not out to their customers but that doesn’t matter you know, the rest of their lives, they carry on but I do think there’s a lot more we could be doing with them”.
DW: So, survivorship has to come, and in fact does come, before activism. Seems to be your message. Even if a sex worker were capable of becoming an activist, she or he needs ally-ship. Do I have this right?
JP: Preserve the body. Like—I say primarily. It could be gay rights issues and all sorts of things are probably an issue among the people right now at PEERS; but they are down here in the survival mode. All they [sex workers] are worrying about right now is food, housing, and safety. And when they get that under control then they can start thinking about those other things that are further up the pyramid.
Not that there’s any comparison; but we had sexual assault centers saying to us: ‘Why don’t your clients come in; why don’t they come in for counselling?’ We know that sex workers would probably virtually all have a rape in their background; but the fact is, they’re just not ready to talk about it and that is just not a priority yet. One of our staff said she’s been 10 years out, and she’s been doing all sorts of other things and maybe now she’s ready to talk about it some of the stuff—the gay rights movement. Development along that line will come when people first get their absolute life needs met and really are able to take the luxury to think about those kinds of things—because right now they are just thinking about staying alive”.
DW: How would QLGBT sex-workers become part of a focus group at PEERS? [Jody echoes the question back to me as if calling on ‘community’ to become in engaged like, NOW in the fight]
JP: Yah how can we make that happen! It’s a little harder to make things happen when you don’t have the group, like you say; if one or two or more queer sex workers would come in and tell us what we could do around that…We’d be very interested in talking to them.
DW: What about stigma? Let’s hone in on this ugly stigma—what’s really standing in the way of real change.
JP: I’ve been surprised at the depth of the stigma in terms of getting other groups to work with us. I don’t mean groups like AIDS Van Island, and Street Link, and KOOLAID, and groups that are working on the streets. No problem. We have no problem where we can share some of our clients. It’s the bigger movements. It’s the places where we might fit better where we can’t seem to find the interest. I mean I don’t get it. I really don’t. So it’s very hard for me.
DW: How bad is it?
JP: I knew there was a stigma over the sex trade and people would be resistant to hearing about it; but I had no idea it was this deep, this entrenched, this all encompassing - because like I say I can’t even find one group of people where they really get it.
DW: So it’s all coming down to agencies like PEERS. When it should and could be involving representation from other social-equality societies as well, it sounds like?
JP: We have to do it all.
DW: I’ve been told that PEERS doesn’t have a formal queer mandate but there was a PEERS men’s program, at one time. Is this true?
JP: Yes that’s right—the whole issue is with men in the sex trade…I’d say probably the sex trade would be 90% female & 10% male. But that still means quite a lot of men working in the sex trade and that’s only a best guess, because I don’t think anybody really knows. PEERS has, off-and-on, tried to do a better job at serving those men and boys. But the trouble is, in this city [Victoria], as elsewhere, the men’s stroll is all tangled up in the gay recreational stroll for lack of a better word…in the park. We can’t serve sex workers there [in the park]; we tried by handing out condoms and gay men were saying “Thanks!”, but they weren’t sex workers. We couldn’t really ask, “Excuse me, are you a sex worker or, are you just here for fun?” It was a situation where we couldn’t really do our outreach in the same way we can in the female stroll where it’s nice and clear: “Everybody who’s standing here must be a sex worker, right?” Men are more likely to work out of gay bars; again more indoor venues. There are fewer outdoor men.
They’re working indoor venues where they’re not as obvious again. It’s very hard. We know we need to do a better job of serving men who are in the trade, and right now I don’t think we’re doing it. PEERS did attempt to do it, but it never really worked out”.
DW: What’s the issue?
JP: It’s hard to get men in the door. I think that’s an issue with men - how they take their services; how they come and say, I need help; and how they fit. Once they come into PEERS they have all the female staff staring back at them. How do they find their fit?
Most men don’t want to sit around talking about their emotions. We’re the facilitators and even our model is too female. They face in the sex trade perhaps more violence than women because of being beaten up by men - men beating up another man as opposed to a woman whom they might back off from, a little. They also have a lot more stigma coming forward.
They [men] need a different kind of program. I hope that one day we can figure that out. What we need is some men - that’s how it works for a grassroots organization. We need at least a couple of them for us to develop the program that would fit right. I mean gay men! It would be especially great if gay men were ever to talk about the services in general; or if they had a background in the sex trade they could come forward and talk about it –say what would have helped them. We’ve mostly been left to look for people who are actively working in the sex trade, right now. For whatever reason, they don’t want to talk about that - period. I know there used to be this whole other group of people who used to be sex workers, who had the experience and the knowledge; and had the distance from it to be to be able to help us develop a program.
DW: If it were more out-there that PEERS accepts men is it more likely that male escorts would come through the door?
JP: What we need is gay men who would be willing to talk - and straight men - because there is this thing called, ‘gay for pay’ in the sex trade. You’re a gay male escort and your customers are men but you, yourself, are a heterosexual man. That’s a whole other category. But if they would come forward and be interested in working with us, on that program – yes! What would it look like? What would we be doing? How would we even be finding people right now? What would we need at our end to meet them in a proper way when they come in? That would be right off the hop!”
I think I’m a dreamer on this one. But gay and straight men who have bought sex workers would be very fascinating to hear from to help the agency because they thought they would like to play a role - because - they get it! They certainly get it! They’re the customers – gay and/or straight men. They get the industry but there again – there’s a tremendous void.
I don’t think I’ve ever in my whole life heard a guy say that he uses sex workers. It’s like this giant secret around men. I know some of the men who use sex workers because I work at PEERS now, but everyone pretends and keeps it really quiet and it’s an extremely discreet business; and so we could use their support. This world is run by men. And, if men of all sexual orientations would show more support for PEERS more things would start to happen.
For more information:
You can listen to the webcast on Bachelet’s groundbreaking appointment by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to head UN Women and watch the first interview after the appoinment.
This article was originally published by: The Vancouver Observer
Diane Walsh, MA, is an investigative journalist based in the Pacific Northwest. She contributes to new media outlets, newspapers which by some miracle haven't gone under, and magazines in the US, Canada and Europe. Diane became acquainted with the Salem-News.com team during a recent speaking tour that included Canada. She is a welcome addition to our lineup of truth-bound thoughtful and extremely talented writers.
For more information on specific publications and to reach Diane directly, please visit: indydianewalsh.wordpress.com
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