Recognizing the Forgotten Trans Women & Sex Workers Who Shaped Pride

Pride celebrations have been postponed and sex workers have found themselves struggling to survive amidst the COVID-19 pandemic—two reasons why right now is the perfect time for us to reflect on the history that those in the most marginalized sectors of the LGBTQ community have contributed to Pride, specifically transgender women of color and sex workers. 

The people who influenced history

A few years before Stonewall, there was the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco, which was a regular hangout for trans sex workers. The riot was ignited by an incident where a trans woman refused arrest from an overly-aggressive officer, and she threw a hot cup of coffee in his face. Incidents like this added up to the famous queer uprising in 1969, and yet are largely forgotten along with the activists involved—many of whom were sex workers. 

When police raided the Stonewall Inn in the West Village, two transgender sex workers of color, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, were the first to fight them off. Yet their legacies have continuously been whitewashed and erased in favor of more palatable retellings of the event in films and TV shows. 

In my opinion, supporting sex workers is not an option, but a requirement for everybody who is a member of the LGBTQ community or an ally. After the riot, Johnson and Rivera founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), an organization that provided food and housing to homeless members of the trans community in the West Village, and they funded the organization largely through sex work. Rivera even said that sex work was “the only alternative that we have to survive, because the laws do not give us the right to go and get a job the way we feel comfortable.”

For the most part, this feeling has not changed today. Because of widespread hatred, stigma, and systemic racism, trans women of color get turned away from jobs so often that many of them have no choice but to turn to sex work. QTPOC/disabled sex workers are still the target of so much structural violence and oppression. According to a study conducted by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, trans sex workers “are highly vulnerable to the risk of violence as they work and live at what can be described as an intersection of whorephobia and transphobia.” The stigma can also be enhanced by ethnicity, homelessness, disability, and HIV status. 

Lost messaging of resistance 

Pride doesn’t often feel like a protest. For many, it has turned into a business that cashes in on music festivals and marches that people have to pay a fee to participate in. Companies funding these celebrations are the same businesses that discriminate against trans women, HIV positive people of color, and queer sex workers who opened the door for Pride to exist. 

Trans women and queer sex workers have expressed their discontent with the current state of Pride, because of how far it has strayed from its roots. “My Pride comes through protests, community, and action and these festivals based on exploiting and capitalizing off of my gayness are nonsense,” queer California dominatrix Mistress Bella Bathory states in an Instagram post.

The most marginalized groups in the LGBTQ community saying that they do not feel safe at Pride events is a problem, one that is largely disregarded by the most privileged sectors of our community. I refuse to let folks climb up the ladder of privilege without going back and pulling up their trans, disabled, and nonbinary siblings. If we are going to fight for the rights of same-sex couples to get married and enlist in the military, we must be just as fervent about fighting for trans people and sex workers to have full freedom and autonomy over their bodies, without having their work taken away from them. 

“Everything has its heyday, and then it gets gentrified and a lot of it is about relevancy,” nonbinary Seattle dominatrix Savannah Sly tells me. “I think that Pride is still very relevant because we are not in any way, shape or form over homophobia or transphobia, or any type of orientation discrimination.” 

When I ask Sly about the tendency of white gay men to assimilate into heteronormativity, they note they aren’t surprised. “They’re trying to advance the rights of many at the expense of a minority within their own community that has been leading the charge the whole time, specifically sex workers and trans people... Sex workers have rarely ever been able to depend on anyone else but themselves. And now all that practice is paying off.” 

How you can offer support

The COVID-19 pandemic may have prevented Pride events from taking place this year, but we must let it serve as a reminder that Pride is all year, and not just relegated to June. Equality will not be possible until the trans community can feel safe at these events, and sex work is decriminalized. Instead of wallowing in the sadness of Pride being canceled, focus on helping the marginalized groups that this pandemic is hitting the hardest. 

Here are organizations and fundraisers that are providing monetary aid to the trans community and sex workers who are struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic.

There are many ways that people can participate in helping the community during Pride month, but speaking out for the underrepresented individuals and donating to organizations that are funding support for them is vital.