In each issue of Pinko, we will offer excerpts from the New York City Trans Oral History Project (NYC TOHP) on a chosen theme. NYC TOHP is an online, open-access, Creative Commons archive of recorded and transcribed oral histories with trans New Yorkers. The interviews are conducted by volunteers and collective members who talk to trans people who have inspired them. We include these three edited excerpts with the permission of the narrators.
This issue, our trans oral histories topic is sex work, and there will be others in the future. We honor the current campaign to decriminalize sex work in New York State, Decrim NY, and the many strategies of survival, resistance and rebellion of sex workers. We also recognize the power of sex worker movements beyond and against the law.
In particular, we highlight examples of self-organization and self-activity by trans women of color selling sex, and the considerable obstacles to collaborative organization. Sex work is often a dangerous job, with the risks of violence from johns and police, the threat of incarceration, and the ways the work is often enmeshed with other high-risk survival economies, like fraud, theft and the drug trade. As in many jobs, there is no shortage of drama and tension between workers. We are interested in how sex workers get by in the face of their many challenges: How do sex workers support each other day-to-day on the street? How do they hustle to make a dime? How do sex workers form community, social networks of mutual aid and supportive care? How do sex workers reduce risk? What dynamics separate sex workers, making collaborative action more difficult?
Sex workers have always self-organized in opposition to criminalization, violence, poverty and isolation. This is helpful where savior NGOs and police are not. The worst consequences of anti-sex work policies are to undermine this self-organization. Recent US federal legislation—FOSTA and SESTA—have eliminated websites sex workers use to document violent johns and network with each other; anti-pimping laws have criminalized sex workers sharing housing or other forms of mutual aid. Sex worker self-organization has long provided the basis for trans rebellion. Documenting these strategies of survival, we hope, offers clues to future movements and struggles.
TOHP: How did people get by?
Milane: Well, the majority of the people I knew didn’t work jobs. It was sex work, forgery or identity theft—whichever way you want to look at it—smash and grabs, bank pulls, selling drugs—I knew quite a number of drug dealers in my day—and that was basically it.[…] I engaged in sex work, like everyone else. [Laughter] I was seeing how much money everyone else was making, and it was—big fish, little fish.
And what would you like to tell us about working in sex work?
Sometimes it can be taxing. I did that for a while and stuff. Naturally, everything wasn’t for me. Even though I had regulars, and I treated everyone else humanely, and they kind of liked my personality because I’m quirky and strange—yes, I’ve just admitted I’m quirky and strange—but everything wasn’t for me, because I don’t really like getting random phone calls at crazy hours of the night, or people getting dressed and dolled up for someone to stay with you. It makes you really bitter, and pissed, and kind of resentful. So that really didn’t work for me.
How did you get clients?
I advertised on Craigslist and Backpage. Then Craigslist had got busted, and then after a while, I didn’t even have to advertise, because I had regulars. [Snapping fingers.]
Were most of the other trans people doing sex work getting clients from online services?
Yes. The ones that I were hanging out with, that were doing sex work, strictly
online. At that time, it was a stark difference between the online girl and the—you know, the young lady in the street. It was like a caste system, like a difference in class. It was, “Oh, you know—oh, she walks the street,” kind of thing. And everyone I hung out with was an online kind of girl. Which is strange, because the same guys who go and see the girls online, they purchase their pleasure also in the street, you know? Just at a discounted rate, I imagine. Maybe that was why it was—you know, the reason they have a divide between the two.
Ah, yeah. And why—what would be the obstacles for girls who work the street to be able to transition to doing online work? I imagine online work is a little safer than being on the street.
Oh, it is a lot safer. Like, all my girlfriends that had went to the street, or knew someone on the street, everyone on the street had got busted. They went to jail, for, you know, loitering, or prostitution and stuff. But all the girls who worked on the internet, they didn’t get busted. You know? And like, they had a more discreet clientele, so it’s like, you know, the guy who can’t ride around at three o’clock in the morning to pick up his pleasure, you know? He doesn’t mind calling and saying, “Oh, do you have any time for lunch?” So it was a higher clientele. It was a huge difference between the lives, I imagine, of the online girls, the internet girls, and the others.
So why couldn’t anyone become an internet girl?
I think it had to do more with the look, personality, and just the manner of actually speaking to someone? Because, you know, if a guy’s going to call you, and you’re, “Whatcha want?” you know, “Oh. This is what I do. Wham, wham, wham,” and you’re illicit and rude and vulgar, I don’t think he’s going to come as much as if you’re poised and a little refined and kind of reserved, yet at the same time showing that you’re not too eager to see him, because if you seem too eager it’s kind of strange. They’re like, “Wait, why is she eager to see me?” you know? You have to be like, “Hmm, well if you come, you come, and if not…” you know?
So, performing a sort of class status.
So, people that knew how to do that, or train, or clued into that, could do online work more easily.
Yeah, of course. I remember when I first started doing it, one of my girlfriends said, “Oh, you’re too nice to them. You’re too nice to them on the phone. You’re to treat them accordingly,” you know? I was like, “Oh. Thank you for the knowledge.”
And what was the level of awareness around STD risk and—were people paying attention to that?
You mean the clientele, or you mean just the girls in general?
Well, yeah. I would say that the girls usually were on top of STD risk. I wouldn’t say they were always, you know, as knowledgeable. I had one girlfriend tell me, “Oh, you can’t catch anything from sucking it. I suck all these cocks without condoms,” and I’m like, “Oh, good for you. However, I think that the same juice is the same juice, you know?” Very strange. But the girls usually on the internet were a little more cautious and more careful when it came to safe sex practice than the girls in the street. Because the girl in the street can easily disappear, whereas the girl on the internet, you’ve got her phone number, you may have come to her house, she can’t just vanish overnight, you know? Go from crystal blue to, all of a sudden, midnight sky, in Texas. You know, she can’t do that. So I guess the internet girls were more mindful.
Milane: At first, the job was CMT, which was a Case Manager Tech.
With Housing Works? [AIDS service agency]
How did you get into that? What was the transition? […]
So, the pay definitely was a lot less. Definitely a lot less. What I make in two weeks I could’ve easily made beating someone all night, you know? Actually, I probably could’ve made what I make in a month, beating one person all night. And then I was like, “Oh.” And then there were many I thought, “Oh, maybe I should just yank up my girls into the heavens,” and, you know, get back to it. “Oh, I actually like, enjoy doing it.” A lot of times I would say, “Oh, you know, maybe today was my last day,” kind of thing. But I keep finding myself coming back to work, strangely enough. And then there was a transition period, honestly, in my life, where I was like, “Oh, maybe I should take a week or two off and just, get back to the old me,” and then I went back to it..I went back to it for two weeks, and was like “Oh, you know, the money’s good, but there’s something missing.” And I think what was missing was actually the real connection to the person, whereas someone comes and you beat and degrade them. You walk them with a leash down the street, you know what I mean, so other people gawk at them and so forth—that’s all fun and enjoyable, but at the end of the day, it’s better to have a connection with someone. And that’s kind of like, what this job gets me. It would be nice, though, if I could work my schedule to be able to do both.
Paris Milane continues to work in HIV supportive housing.
We open this excerpt with KP discussing how she began to work the stroll of the Meatpacking District of Manhattan.
KP: I made that decision, and I’ll never forget, it was The Realness Girls at the time and Cashmere was included among them. Cashmere, Cheecklet, Cindy, and somebody else. And they had a car rental or something they were driving around. It was me and Elizabeth and we were riding with them and they were like, “Okay, so we’re going to let you out here on the Stroll girl. You’re going to come back and you’re going to make all this money, Miss Thing.” We get out of the car and when you get to work or whatever. And it was a fun night. I pulled a few dates, and we came back. It was always come back home. The mission is to come back home and, “what did you make?”
The very next day we would wait for the stores to open. And then we’d go shopping. It was very “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” So that was our “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” moment. We were just living and we were making coins and we were all happy. And we would take trips to Central Park and rent a boat and smoke blunts on the little lake. We would run into celebrities. One time, me and Cashmere and Elizabeth ran into Brad Pitt. It was crazy.
Well, tell me about how girls related to each other, working the Stroll in the Meatpacking. You both talked about friendships but also cattiness tearing people apart. Tell me some about what the community was like, what the struggles were, what the connections were.
Well, in the Meatpacking District in those days, we had some cohesion and we had a code. A lot of the time like when we would stand on the corner and we would have conversations, I would see that more than fighting and all this other stuff. We were very aware of what was going on. We looked out for each other then. When the time started to change, and it was, there was the Giuliani era, for me. The Giuliani era and then there was the Bloomberg era and they were two different things. Giuliani had started the quality of life laws and stuff. When we were on, when we started, we had to deal with protestors and such, some that would follow us and taxis with signs. And letting each other know when Mag was out. Mag is Sixth Precinct cops. That’s what we used to call them back then. Mag.
It was a different time. The NYPD patrol cars were out there, they would just whoop-whoop around and scare us and we run around and next thing we’re back at it again. And sometimes you’ll get pinched but not as severely as when the Bloomberg era hit. And I was just responding to a post about the High Line park and I was like, a lot of trans woman suffered for them to build that High Line park, and we’ve seen the effects of it. And as I told you when we first started, a girl could come out—you could go out, I could leave the house at say 11:00. I was back safe and sound by 1:00 AM, you know. But as time progressed and the quality of life laws started to sink in and Bloomberg and his initiatives, you started to see those things take their toll and it wasn’t for the better. […] I’m trying to remember all the timeline, but so it recovered about, I’d say about 2003, 2004, but it wasn’t the same. The Stroll never truly recovered the same way after that. It was the girls, like I said, we used to come out and we can be out for three hours and we made, enough money to go back home early. And those times were 2003, four, five and beyond until it just, there was no more Stroll. Girls would be out there until eight o’clock in the morning, ten o’clock in the morning and still not catch a date.
What was the end of that time? You said in 2005 there really wasn’t a Stroll anymore?
It was the intensity. There was Operation Spotlight, where if you get three arrests for prostitution, they can charge you with a felony. And then with a felony charge, that’s anything over a year. So they can send you away for over a year. We call them bullets. So, if you get a bullet for a year for prostitution then—no, a bullet is the eight months, that’s what I did. Anything over a bullet, over the twelve months. So if you got a year and a day, you’re going to go up north and thankfully I only got a bullet.
So, this was an escalation of policing under Bloomberg? That was trying to clear out the Stroll?
There was the quality of life laws under Giuliani but under Bloomberg and what, how he dealt with sex workers in general was Operation Spotlight.
And you mentioned, the High Line, which was a part of the whole real estate redevelopment.
Gentrification of the Meatpacking District.
Did you have a sense of those things being connected? When?
Yes. Yes, I did. Because they had just started to develop some—the High Line, they were looking into it. The High Line opened officially in the bottom part. They were slowly building it throughout the years until what it is now. But that was the plan from the get-go. When they do development and stuff, that’s what they do. The whole gentrification of the Meatpacking District was on schedule, you know what I mean? Get the hookers out and let’s build our shit. So that, that is why, that man’s a businessman and I’m sure he made his little deals or whatever the case may be. So, it’s get rid of all the prostitutes now. They were trying for years to get rid of us, with the protesters with the signs and stuff. But this was active, this was an ongoing onslaught. I could go to jail for 90 days, come home, have no means besides the Stroll. Next thing it’s whoop, and then you’re in for another 45 days.
KP currently works as an actor, and is active in NYC trans movements.
What was the trans community like [in Argentina]? Was there a broader network that you were part of, or a scene?
Well, we were part of the trans community, you know? I was involved in many communities at the same time. That was the most artistic part of the community, but at the same time I was part of the sex workers’ community because I started doing sex work. And at the same time I was going to school until I started to transition more and more and more, and the school wasn’t a welcoming environment for me anymore, but you know, I had my school friends and I had my artist friends, and I had my sex worker friends, and I interacted in all, just difficult—
So very socially connected?
Yes, yes. I was always very social. And again, for some reason people liked me. So I had a lot of friends. I knew a lot of people and I was welcome in places. I was welcome in bars and clubs where trans people weren’t welcome, and they would not just welcome me, but they would give me work, you know? To work at the door, until of course I started asking myself, why do they have me working here at the door and they don’t let my friends in? And I thought, this is not okay. So I lost many jobs because of that, because I said you know, I can’t work here if you don’t let my friends in, what kind of shit is this? So they said okay, if you don’t want to work here, don’t. And I pretended I needed the money, but I was doing sex work and I also was working in hair salons.
Did the other trans people you knew do similar kind of jobs? Sex work, clubs, and hair salons?
Yes, yes. That was what we did, right? That was what we did. That was our occupations. You were either a hair stylist, you were an artist, or you were a sex worker. I did three of those things, and I was very happy. Again, I always found ways to—you know when I was telling you as a child that I was isolated but I found ways to be happy? I was very happy. Working in hair was okay. Working in clubs is hard because you find people that either adore you or hate you, so it was hard working at night also, and working as a sex worker, it is a beautiful community but the work is very taxing though. As somebody who, you know, I’m a victim of sexual abuse as a child. Sex work wasn’t really the best job with that kind of history, because there was a lot going on there. It was hard, you know. I just don’t want to vilify sex work, but it was hard because dealing with tricks and police and other sex workers sometimes. It’s not easy. It has its beauty though. It has its beauty. But it wasn’t the easiest job to have.
We were trans sex workers. We were very isolated. It was a lot, there was a couple of cisgender women that were extremely open-minded and trans friendly. But at the time sex workers were not united, between cis and trans. It was, you know, we had zones, like this is the trans zone and this is the cis zone, without the terminology, right? At the time we used wording that was real woman, so on, and transvestites. We use the word transvestite and it’s not derogatory in my country. Trans people, transgender women call themselves transvestite. I’m very aware that here in the United States that’s not what it is, but for us it’s not an issue with that word, so I feel the need to say it.
Would people medically transition?
Yes. Yes. Some people did medical transition, and we would do hormones from the black market. And also then, you know, I learned—I don’t know how people got hormones, but you’d just go and just buy hormones. But then I found out that you could buy them in the pharmacy because you didn’t need a prescription, you just needed to have a friend pharmacist. And they would send it, they would give it to you, it was a specific plastic surgeon that do plastic surgeries to us. I got my first plastic surgery around twenty-one I guess, or something like that. The first one of a series of plastic—for many years I thought I found a solution for my life through plastic surgery and I don’t—I still think that plastic surgeries can be very affirming sometimes, but for a long time it was just my only way of thinking that transition could be possible. And some trans women would have SRS [Sexual Reassignment Surgery], and most of them would do the reassignment in Chile. There was this known doctor that did surgeries there, you know, women would save their money to do that.
Would they continue working as sex workers after surgery?
Yes, yes, yes. I used to think it was funny, they wouldn’t go to work with cis women. They’d still work in the trans area. I always thought, you know, men are looking for trans sex workers because of the genitalia, right? So one time I asked [a friend who recently had SRS], why don’t you go and work with cis women, right? Again, I wasn’t using this vocabulary, you know, I was using all the vocabulary that may come across as transphobic nowadays. I don’t want to repeat it, but I said why don’t you go work with cis women, and she said no, why would I, you know, lose all these clients? They don’t know what I have. When the time comes and find out, they already gave me the money. And if they want me to fuck them, I have dildos. If they want to fuck me, they can fuck me—I have an asshole and I have a pussy, and most of the time they don’t even want that. So I do more business working in the trans area, she said. And I’m like, that sounds right. […] And they were my friends and they always welcomed me. It wasn’t like oh, these are the gender benders. It was just a community of people, and we all were together. The only problem was business, right? It’s like, don’t fuck with my money, you know? I work here, you know? […] So I did an internship [at APICHA, an AIDS service agency] and this amazing person told me you should do a resume. And I said what am I going to put in a resume? That I was a whore? And she said no, you were an entertainer. And I’m like what do you mean, I was a whore. She said, what did you do as a whore? Well, I took care of men. So you entertained them, so why don’t you name it entertainment? You don’t have to say you were a whore. So she found ways to put my experiences of sex work, a trans lady, in an actual resume, and mix it with the internship that I was doing there, and I got my first job as a patient navigator at APICHA.
Since leaving her job as the Director of Policy at Gay Men’s Crisis, Cecilia Gentili currently leads Decrim NY, a New York State campaign to decriminalize consenting sex work between adults. Decrim NY has introduced legislation to offer the most comprehensive decriminalization in the United States. ⊱