“So, I Started Working the Streets…”

“So I Started Working The Streets…”: Transgender Women of Color Discuss Experiences with Sex Work

Transgender women of color are severely discriminated against on multiple fronts. This discrimination manifests in different ways, from violent attacks on their bodies to homelessness and unemployment. These women are often turned away and made invisible in mainstream society unless they align with normative societal standards of beauty. Because many of these women are discriminated against in the work force, they turn to sex work for survival.

Research done by Lydia Sausa and colleagues at San Francisco State University, published in 2007 in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, highlighted some of the costs and benefits of sex work. Sausa and colleagues initially conducted the research to highlight sexual risk behavior associated with HIV, but their findings spoke to much broader issues facing transgender women of color. Analyzing data from focus group discussions, researchers identified themes suggesting both benefits (for example, developing a sense of community) and risks (for example, experiencing violence and harassment).

Transgender women in general, but especially transgender women of color, may endure many hardships, from social discrimination to familial abandonment. As a result, a sense of community represents a vital psychological need for these women. Many women in the study reported that sex work fulfilled this need. They discussed being able to find mentors, partners, and life-long friends among their fellow peers engaging in sex work. The value of these connections cannot be overstated, since we know that community support buffers LGBTQ people from the negative psychological consequences of stigma and minority stress.

Sausa and colleagues do a great service to transgender women of color in their study by humanizing them and providing voice for their stories as sex workers, not through the lens of stigma but through a recognition of the psychological value these women experience in sex work.

Modern society attempts to make transgender women invisible. Their experiences with economic hardship and harassment are a focal point of this study. One transgender woman participating in the study described her thoughts on prostitution, saying: “I’m going to state why most transgender girls prostitute. It’s not because they want to, it’s a means of support. I would lose my job in the day time… I still have to pay rent.” This woman has been victimized and discriminated against. She is ultimately left with no other choice but to engage in a type of work that could potentially put her life at risk. Many of the women in this study echo a very similar narrative. They face being fired for disclosing their transgender status, poverty, sexual assault, violence, and abuse. To keep the research on transgender women representative of their experiences, we must continue to include their personal narratives. This humanization of trans women is just one way researchers can combat the intense discrimination and risks they face.

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