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March, vigil stress that sex workers' lives matter, too
by Jason Carson Wilson
2014-12-17

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Sex workers and their allies gathered to celebrate life and remember lives lost on Dec. 17. Sex Workers Outreach Project ( SWOP )-Chicago began commemorating the International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers with a march in downtown Chicago.

A program and candlelight vigil at Jane Addams-Hull House followed.

"It's important to remember the people we've lost this year and that they're important," SWOP Executive Board Member Blake Monroe said.

Monroe has been a full-service indoor escort for three years. He hoped the events since an important message to sex workers.

"There are people here, who care for you and you can come to, if you need a home," Monroe said.

Protesters stood outside Harold Washington Library Center's north entrance at around 5:30 p.m., before marching from the library to the Blue Line Monroe stop, startling holiday shoppers and business people along the way.

"Black lives matter! Trans lives matter!" they shouted. It was one of several chants.

Viva Leis was among the protesters and stressed the need to participate in the march.

"We are marginalized and our voice counts," Leis said. "If we care about LGBT rights, we have to care about sex workers' rights."

Katherine Koster, who led the march, also stressed the need to acknowledge that sex workers deserve dignity.

"I think that people involved in the sex trade are a group of people, who face an incredible amount of discrimination, stigma and violence," Koster said, noting that it's a not a group of people, which the "general population thinks about or cares about."

Violence against sex workers, according to Koster, in a broader sense, is connected to LGBT hate crimes as well as the criminalization of people of color.

"It was really important that we make that public," she said.

Marlene—pronounced like Miss Dietrich would—Dix shared her story. She acknowledged that her journey differed from many sex workers.

"I have a story, but mine is a definitely an exception," she said. "I'm alive because of my White privilege."

Dix has worked as an inside escort for 10 years. She shared her story, which has included violence and trauma, during a 7 p.m. event at Jane Addams-Hull House.

That violence and trauma, she said, helped forge solidarity with her fellow sex workers. But, Dix, especially, wanted to remember and honor the lives of transgender and women of color. In other words, she wanted to use her story to "rearticulate our solidarity."

Dix said one part necessity and one part curiosity led her into the sex worker industry. She became familiar with people, who stripped or were involved in domination. For Dix, community and support is just as essential as solidarity.

"Give more spaces, where sex workers actually talk," she said.

Reyna Maria, a Hyde Park native and woman of color, blew stereotypes about sex workers out of the water.

"It almost doesn't matter what strata you're in," she said. "People think your life is worth less. It's very important for us to get our stories out."

Her parents so support her decisions. Although her father still struggles with her reality. He wants Reyna to go to law school. Her mother, on the other hand, just wants to know that she's staying safe.

Reyna Ortiz, a transsexual sex worker, owned her position as a role model.

"I want to bring light to transsexual sex workers and our community," Ortiz said.

She stressed that people shouldn't assume what inspired people to enter the industry.

"Sometimes, sex workers don't have a choice and sex work becomes their life," Ortiz said. "You can judge anybody until you walk a mile in their shoes."

Sex work can often be an essential means to end—and ensuring survival.

"Some use it as a resource to progress in their transition," Ortiz said, jokingly recalling what her drag mother would say. "When there's no solution, there's always prostitution."

She asked those gathered to close their eyes and imagine being transsexual, who was standing on the strip on a cold night, and needing to make as much money as possible. Ortiz said that's the challenge transsexual sex workers face each night. Of course, there's added concern about their safety.

Viva Leis, who participated in the march, also spoke at the event. Leis noted that 174 sex workers were murdered in 2014. Recognizing that sex worker rights are human rights and pushing to decriminalize prostitution is the key.

"We need to fight back," Leis said. "We need to stand up for each other. We need unique options to our problem. Prostitution is an American problem, because it's criminalized."

Until sex work is decriminalized, having a legal ally is an important. Lam Nguyen Ho, the Community Activism Law Alliance executive director, talked about the nation's second legal clinic specifically for sex workers.

"Together, we can do something to protect sex workers," Lam said.

The attorney was once a sex worker. Nguyen Ho described being harassed by a pastor, while he stripped—in a previous life. The pastor allegedly told Lam that he was going to hell while reaching into his G-string. The sex-worker advocate remembered feeling powerless when the strip-club owners did nothing.

"[That experience] did give me a sense of just how few protections there are," Nguyen Ho said.


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