Vancouver’s Anti-Sex Work Gentrification Projects are a Form of Imperialism

Vancouver’s Anti-Sex Work Gentrification Projects are a Form of Imperialism

On May 4th, 2019 the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users hosted a panel Imperialism, The Drug War, and the War on the Poor. The purpose of the panel was to explore how imperialism, the forced expansion of capitalist economy into the third world, is connected to the daily lives of poor people and drug users in Western countries. Bread, Roses and Hormones was asked to present on how the drug war and the war on the poor operates in trans and sex worker communities. – Volcano editors

“Capitalism must always and everywhere fight a battle of annihilation against every form of historical natural economy that it encounters.” – Rosa Luxemburg

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s trans women sex workers lived and worked in Vancouver’s West End, particularly on Davie Street. There were a few major plus-sides of the so-called Tranny Stroll. First of all, the trans women of Davie Street rejected the role of pimps in their lives, so no one was profiting off the back of their work. One of the girls told a would-be pimp who came to the Davie Stroll that if he wanted to make money off of sex work he should “put on a skirt and go suck some dick.” The women also kept tabs on each other: they wrote down the license plate numbers of cars that the other girls left in and sometimes banded together to physically fight abusive clients. Jamie Lee Hamilton, one of the trans women who worked the stroll, called it a “dignified outdoor brothel culture.”

It was the first time we know of that trans women in Vancouver formed a community to get what they needed for their transitions. Older girls would teach younger ones what they had learned about transitioning and especially how to say what you needed to say to jump through the hoops necessary to get hormones and surgery from a medical system that was actively hostile to trans women and would only give them hormones if they acted like perfect, little, sweet, attractive, and straight transsexual angels. In that era, the male doctor would only think a trans women was fit to transition if she had known she was a girl from the moment she was conscious and if he personally wanted to fuck her. So, the Davie Street women would teach each other how to navigate the medical world and tell doctors the right stories about themselves.

At a time when white gay men were finally getting a taste of owning property and running for political office, here were these transexual sex workers visibly soliciting work on Davie Street, the same street that gay white men owned businesses on. These women were everything the gay men were trying to remove from the public image of what it was to be gay: sex workers, gender non-conforming, crude, poor. These gay property and business owning men formed a group with old-style conservative straight residents called Concerned Residents of the West End (CROWE) and worked with the city to get a BC Supreme Court injunction to displace trans sex workers.

Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes (ASP) confronts a “Shame the Johns” protest in the West End, 1984

Trans and non-trans sex workers on Davie Street were politized by the attacks on them, including the constant fines and enforcement of the court injunction by police, and organized as the Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes. But despite this organizing, the first of its kind in Vancouver, they were pushed out of the West End by a court injunction that was not ruled illegal until after the displacement was done, to Mount Pleasant where they were pursued by “Shame the Johns” vigilantes, then finally into the Downtown Eastside, where the trans stroll still is today. With each new wave of gentrification and displacement, the safety and community of sex workers shrunk, and violence against them rose.

Imperialists everywhere use brutal violence to expand the reach of capitalism ever further, to destroy the non-capitalist and partially non-capitalist economies that still exist, because capitalism constantly needs more. More workers to exploit, more land to exploit, more people to buy stuff.

We see gentrification as the localized version of the imperialist violence that clears the way for the expansion of new markets. From the West End, to Yaletown, to Mount Pleasant, to the Templeton and Franklin Strips, we have seen wave after wave of property owners harassing sex workers and the city backing them up, even going so far as to build traffic circles on every block of some neighbourhoods specifically to stop clients in cars from being able to cruise the streets, to stop sex workers from earning a living.

Sex Trafficking Hysteria and Stronger Colonial Borders

So far, I have focused on the way the process of imperialism affects sex work on a local level, not in a parasitic relationship between nations, but inside a single colonial state. But to only focus on that would be to abandon internationalism.

The murder last year of Vanesa Campos, a Peruvian migrant, trans woman sex worker in France, shows us how the anti-trafficking narrative plays into the hands of the imperialist countries, allowing them to tighten their colonial borders and co-opt left wing political energy into supporting criminalization of sex workers.

Cecile Revaux writes in an article about  Vanesa Campos’s death:

“The French police argue 90% of sex workers in France are victims of sex trafficking, while in neighbouring Germany the government estimates them to be less than 1%. Painting all migrant workers as victims creates a panic around human trafficking only to justify stricter border controls and anti-immigration laws. The exploitation of migrant women’s labour is a reality that cannot be addressed by criminalization. Migrant sex workers face racial profiling from police, who perform identification searches of women they believe to be sex workers. If they have no papers, they are arrested and face deportation. In December 2017, a raid by the police in the Bois de Boulogne embodied once again this state trafficking discourse after 36 workers were arrested in one night – all targeted because they were racialized migrants.”

Unsurprisingly, the police lie about sex trafficking being far more common than it is, and anti-sex work organizations that call themselves feminist do so as well, betraying the labour struggles of migrant women, trans women, and all other oppressed people who do sex work.

Sex Worker Struggles as Anti-Imperialist Struggles

The immediate task for anyone who seeks to end this cycle of imperialist repression must be to work toward decriminalization of sex work. Sex workers have proven time and time again that criminalization doesn’t work, that the Nordic model is a disaster. Until decriminalization happens, sex workers will have massive trouble unionizing and fighting for labour rights, because their work is criminalized. Outside the licit labour market, sex workers receive no legal labour protections. The union movement has refused to organize illicit sex work, just as it has been too nationalist to organize exploited migrant workers. The beginnings of radical sex worker unionization is happening in the UK, particularly Scotland, and Bread, Roses and Hormones applaud the efforts of our comrades there.

To end the crisis that imperialism creates to entrap sex workers, we must fight for the abolition of the police, the erosion of colonial borders, and the decriminalization of heroin and all drugs. The criminalization of sex workers is a cycle that we can only end by attacking it on all fronts.

Bread, Roses and Hormones, as a group of working class trans women, some of us sex workers, some of us not, believes that an international movement of trans women, sex workers, and migrant women will form part of a strong attack on imperialism. Our groups have huge overlaps: many trans women are sex workers and many sex workers are migrant women. We have all been discarded from mainstream feminism and labour organizing. We think our liberations are deeply entwined. And alongside our Indigenous comrades, we seek the destruction of capitalism and colonial occupation, and the end of the Canadian state, because only the destruction of the colonial state and the imperial core – that is the center of the suffering of the third world – will bring about a world that is worth living in.

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