Late last month, a small group of concerned folks gathered in front of the KAGRO building at the corner of Maryland and North Avenues in Mt. Vernon. After a few minutes, another small group joined the assembled people, having just marched from Maryland Institute College of Art. The reason for the gathering? A series of violent attacks against gay and transgender people in Baltimore City.
The impressive organizer of the “Silence No More” event – Sandy Rawls of Trans-United – reached out to some of the usual players in the LGBT acronym world of queer politics. Anthony McCarthy, an occasional also-ran in local elections and a successful media personality, spoke, as did Morgan Meneses-Sheets, the petite but fiery leader of Equality Maryland (“EQMD”), the lobbying arm of our community.
I am all for rallies and speeches – and as a kick-off for a campaign to fight violence in our community, it seemed a good start. But no amount of fiery speeches and marching will address the particular violence of seemingly greatest concern to Ms. Rawls – violence against transgender and transsexual women who turn tricks for money.
Since moving to Baltimore in 1995, I have heard tell of the select corridors on Calvert Street and other locations that transwomen prostitutes favor. You cannot deny that if you engage in the sex trade, you will more likely encounter violence. It only stands to reason that, as a transwoman, your risk of violent attack while plying your trade is exponentially greater, particularly because men with a grudge against gays and transfolk may target you.
The Baltimore-Annapolis queer political status quo spoke eloquently at the rally that amending the state’s anti-discrimination law, which bans discrimination in employment, public accommodation and housing, will end this violence. This, of course, is absurd. Although a worthy goal, banning discrimination will not stop the violence faced by trans sex workers, any more than banning discrimination will make people like us.
So, then, what will stop the violence? Our community first must take a good, hard look at itself. To the extent our own behavior jeopardizes us, we must examine the actions that increase our risk. The reasons why people turn to sex work are complicated and manifold. One study found that homeless LGBT youth are three times more likely to turn tricks, and seven times more likely to be victimized. People become involuntarily homeless for many reasons, including family disownment based on being trans. On top of that, the same survey found that as many as 20% of LGBT homeless youth self-identify as chemically dependent. Homelessness and drug addiction create a powerful incentive for the quick buck offered by sex work. These are deep and heavy issues – they deserve more than “go scream in Annapolis.”
How do we fix this? Our city has resources, but it seems abundantly clear that both the community and the city have grown complacent. Despite that fact that Ms. Rawls publically sought speakers, no one from the Rawlings-Blake administration, the Police Department or the State’s Attorney’s Office spoke at the rally. In all fairness, the Mayor’s Office did send a representative, another well-intentioned person with a long history of support for our community. When I asked him why no one from City government spoke at the event, he bristled. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that City government does reach out to the community to “see what they need,” and that if Ms. Rawls wanted a city representative to speak at the event, she should have asked. This, of course, is bullshit. City government knows where we live, and especially knows where we live come election year. The city has an obligation to defend our community from threats. And we are now threatened.
So what is the way forward? Here’s a modest proposal:
Identify What the City Can Do – The city representative told me the city didn’t need to publicize its resources because “people know where to find us.” Not only does this approach lack transparency – and thus accountability – it also is false. The average community member doesn’t know a lifelong bureaucrat at City Hall who might possibly could help. We should call on the city to join us in speaking out against this violence, and speaking up for us when we need protection. At a minimum, a representative from the Mayor’s Office, the Baltimore City Police Department, and the State’s Attorney’s Office should attend community-wide meetings, which we should widely publicize and attend.
Mobilize Ourselves – We owe it to ourselves to do what we can to protect ourselves. For those involved in sex work, this is a necessity. Groups such as You Are Not Alone already advocate for sex workers. We need to identify the folks outside government who can help us and bring them to the table.
End City Politics Complacency – Many years ago, Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano went on a drunken tear that ended in a drunken verbal anti-gay incident that shocked our community. In the wake of this, activists demanded action from then-Mayor Martin O’Malley, including the formation of a Mayoral task force on LGBT issues to serve as a point of contact for our community. Over the years, this group withered on the vine. The institutional support for the task force still exists, however, and the Mayor’s Office could easily reconvene it to identify the city resources that can address the specific problem of violence against our community.
Demand Real Solutions from Our Political Leaders – Although it exists solely to advance the more traditional civil rights for our community, EQMD can help us in Annapolis and elsewhere by supporting efforts to increase funding for drug treatment and homeless services in Baltimore City, for example.
Sandy Rawls isn’t asking for anything more than what most of us take for granted – the right to live a life free from unprovoked violence. It’s not screaming in Annapolis that will help us. We need action at home to end it.
Originally appeared in Baltimore OUTloud, Friday, 07 May 2010