Trans Women of Color Organizers Are Building a Movement to Decriminalize Sex Work in D.C.

Feature Image credit to Darrow Montgomery

Imagine you’ve grinded for years as a member of a community coalition to get a hearing for a historic bill that will drastically improve your life if passed. A hearing is finally granted, and when the big day arrives, you scramble to get your John Hancock at the top of the list to give testimony.

Once the hearing begins, hours go by without your name being called. Although you signed up before them, representatives of organizations from other parts of the country and from other countries get their time at the mic before you. Worse, their speeches are denouncing the bill that you and other local grassroots organizers have put your blood, sweat, and tears into, labeling it harmful instead of helpful.

This was Tamika Spellman’s fate at an Oct. 17 city council hearing for the Reducing Criminalization to Promote Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019, which calls for D.C. to fully decriminalize consensual sex work between adults. She said that organizations based outside of D.C. were given precedence to testify over local members of the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition (SWAC), a collection of mostly grassroots Black and Brown transgender and queer-led groups that’ve been moving in coordination to decriminalize sex work in D.C. since October 2016.

“A lot of the groups that worked with this movement were put at the trailing end of the hearing, and it was a 14-hour-plus hearing. Those voices should have been heard well ahead of them, and if anything, those that were from out-of-state should have been put at the end. Accommodating them because they’re from out-of-state made absolutely no sense to a movement that is local,” Spellman told me.

Spellman is the advocacy associate at HIPS, a D.C. nonprofit that provides harm reduction services, advocacy, and community engagement to sex workers and drug users. HIPS is the birthplace of SWAC, the DECRIMNOW campaign, and the Community Safety and Health Amendment Acts of 2017 and 2019.

When the 2017 version of the bill, co-introduced by two city council members, failed to receive a hearing, SWAC wasn’t deterred from their mission. More fired up than ever, the coalition intensified their advocacy, including appealing to city council, canvassing door-to-door and on the streets, writing op-eds, talking to the media, doing speaking engagements, and meeting with neighborhood boards and commissions. They also reworked the language in the bill to make it clear that it doesn’t endorse coercion, exploitation, or human trafficking.

SWAC’s endless hours of footwork on behalf of the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act weren’t in vain: Four council members reintroduced the bill in 2019, another council member co-sponsored it, and a hearing was scheduled. Emmelia Talarico, the organizing director of SWAC member No Justice No Pride DC, works closely with Spellman and told me that earning supporters and getting a hearing for the bill was truly a collective, long-term endeavor.

“I think all the different groups showed up in different ways. A lot of us have been organizing together for a number of years, and we have these relationships developed and this level of trust developed. We also respect a diversity of tactics,” Talarico said.

During the hard-won council hearing, Talarico, a mixed-race white and Puerto Rican non-binary trans woman sex worker, and Spellman, a Black trans woman sex worker, sat through testimony after testimony of individuals conflating sex work with sex trafficking, stating misinformation (i.e., the bill would allow for brothels and empower pimps), and even equating the full decriminalization of sex work to human chattel slavery in the US, which Spellman found particularly upsetting as a descendant of enslaved Africans.

Many of the bill’s opponents advocated for partial decriminalization, known as the “Nordic model,” the “Equality model,” or the “End Demand model,” which purports to only criminalize buyers, but both Talarico and Spellman call this a false solution.

Studies have shown that is has not helped with trafficking, that it’s been more or equal harm to full criminalization, and sex workers are losing money. They’re losing their ability to negotiate. STDs are rising because you don’t have the ability to negotiate for safer sex, and crime is expanding because you’re not in control of where you’re meeting,” Spellman said.

While the concerns of outsiders ultimately convinced the council to not bring the bill to a vote for now, several national and international organizations are following SWAC’s lead, such as Amnesty International, the World Health Organization, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR).

Tyrone Hanley, a senior policy counsel at NCLR, says that supporting SWAC and the DECRIMNOW campaign in reaching out to D.C.’s LGBTQ+ residents and testifying at the hearing are some of the highlights of his career thus far.

“I think what was really powerful about that day was that it was very clear that the side supporting the decriminalization of sex work was very local, very grassroots, and very community-centered,” Hanley said.

As a gay Black man, Hanley believes decriminalizing sex work is necessary to ending violence against LGBTQ+ people, but he says it’s just one of many issues that needs to be addressed to ensure trans women of color in D.C. are able to survive and thrive.

Statistics underscore Hanley’s sentiment despite the district’s progressive, trans-inclusive anti-discrimination laws. According to the Washington, DC Trans Needs Assessment Report, 57% of trans people of color in the city earn less than $10,000 a year, 49% have been denied a job due to being perceived as trans, and 21% have been sexually or physically assaulted in the workplace. Furthermore, 47% of Black trans respondents and 47% of Latinx trans respondents reported currently working in the grey and underground economy, which includes sex work.

Trans women of color are overrepresented in all of these categories but are also some of the fiercest fighters against the myriad injustices trans people experience in D.C. At HIPS, Spellman is working to end unjust evictions and excessive application fees. Talarico helped found the NJNP Collective, which provides resources such as housing, job seeker services, and jail and legal support to the city’s trans communities. The collective also offers paid organizer training to trans people of color as an alternative form of employment to sex work, which prepares them to represent themselves at decision-making tables.

Unsurprisingly, Spellman doesn’t plan on leaving decision-makers alone anytime soon when it comes to passing the bill to fully decriminalize sex work in D.C.

“We’re going to be all up their butts until we get a vote. We’re going to continue the work that we’ve been doing. We’re going to continue growing this movement. This is nothing but another hurdle that we’re going to leap over because a year ago, they did not think we would get as far as we did. They were shocked that it moved as much as it did,” Spellman said. “So now that we know we have the attention, we’re going to continue to play on that. We’re going to continue to push hard. The efforts that we put in… that’s nothing compared to what we’re getting ready to do now.”⚡

Edited by Carmen

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Neesha is an activist writer living in Atlanta. Their interests include Black feminist literature, reality TV, planning vacations around food, and catering to their cat, Seven. Tweet with Neesha @womanistbae.

Neesha has written 8 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. This is some incredible work they’re doing, and a great article about the process. Please keep us posted on how the progress on the bill is going, we need to hear from the people affected by these laws.

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