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Workplace Discrimination and Sex Work Bias Threaten Our Community

Workplace Discrimination and Sex Work Bias Threaten Our Community

So many hurdles hold us back from workplace equality, writes Parker Phillips of Housing Works.

Back in 2013, while working full-time as an adjunct instructor in Florida, I started trading BDSM sessions for money. I was transmasculine-identified at the time. While facing negative health outcomes from mismanaged hormone therapy administered by doctors who misunderstood how a person can be transgender and genderqueer, I decided to go down the path of a "nonbinary" transition.

Right after that, my boyfriend "showed me the ropes" on how to make what he called a "lawyer's hourly wage" by doing fantasy role play. I moved in with him, and by the end of that academic year was doing pro domme sessions full-time. The deeper I got into the sex industry and my toxic relationship, the more gender norms tightened around me -- I found myself back in the closet, passing as a cisgender woman in order to continue bringing in an income I couldn't even fathom as an adjunct instructor.

Fast-forward to 2018 when I left the boyfriend-turned-husband, moved back to New York City, and started teaching again as an adjunct English instructor by day and trading erotic services for money by night in order to afford my life as a recently divorced single queer. Having survived the ongoing war on the sex industry and the crossing of my own boundaries, I decided last summer to retire from the sex industry for good and come out fully as nonbinary, changing my pronouns to "they" and showing up as nonbinary and genderfluid no matter what I did.

I was lucky or unlucky enough at this time to get seven classes that fall semester at a private, for-profit university in New York State, which allowed me to walk away from sex work. I had taught for the university before, using the pronoun "she" and shaving my facial hair regularly, and so I went through another visible transition to gender-neutral pronouns and being gender-nonconforming. I was expecting some harassment from the students, which did in fact occur, but there were as many victories as defeats and some of my students transformed into my best allies.

What I didn't expect was harassment from colleagues. A complaint had been filed by another staff member with HR about a tenured professor who publicly complained to a supervisor, in front of other tenured faculty members, that because of the way I looked I was unfit to teach students, among other complaints.

This was a classic example of sexual harassment: a person making my professional environment inhospitable and threatening solely based on gender identity, a violation of my federal civil rights under the currently understood definition of sex under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The first complaint was followed by an update to the Sexual Harassment Policy, and Title IX posters were displayed in the hallways outside classrooms. But the administration downplayed the seriousness of this injurious attack. The perpetrator was lied to, my boss saying that a student, rather than a colleague, reported the incident to HR, and initially the perpetrator was never told that I knew.

After a second public attack on my character in the tenured faculty office, I started having panic attacks driving to the school. I asked security guards to walk me to my car at night, for the first time learning what it's like to fear for my physical safety because of my gender identity. The harassment intensified from students in one of my classes. Not even three months since retiring from the sex industry, I faced the most hateful violence I had ever experienced, and from the classrooms, departments and hallways of mainstream, corporate academia. As a person with a sex worker history, I decided to walk away, and start over.

It took me months of struggle to find another job, facing transphobia and sex worker stigma the whole way; but, largely as a result of my white privilege and class privilege, support from my friends and family and resiliency, I landed on my feet at Housing Works, an organization that values people being "All In" in the fight against AIDS and homelessness.

Not all trans and non-binary people are so lucky. Right before I left Florida, a friend and colleague of mine, Diana Hemingway, a white trans/genderqueer escort and domme, took her own life not long after Trump was elected. She saw it coming: SESTA and FOSTA would curtail online advertising for escorts, making it illegal for websites like Backpage to post ads for erotic services (pushing workers onto the streets and denying them the ability to vet clients). This colleague, a brilliant activist and advocate, tried getting a job at multiple local Miami nonprofits, none of whom would hire an "out" sex worker in positions that would secure her a living wage. Because of sex worker stigma, and facing ongoing neglect by the very service providers she sought support from, she shot herself at the end of 2016. She saw no way forward.

The threat to LGBT civil rights posed by the Supreme Court cases on October 8 can mean life or death for transgender and gender-nonconforming folks who in the face of harassment at work -- and according to New York Transgender Advocacy Group, 90 percent of trans people report that they have been harassed or discriminated against at work -- turn to underground economies like the sex trades as a way of surviving.

Roughly 13 percent of the transgender community reports having participated in the sex industry. Transgender women and other transfeminine individuals are twice as likely to participate in the sex trade than transmasculine people, but transgender men and transmasculine people make up about a quarter of all transgender sex workers. People of color are four times as likely to engage in sex work compared to their white counterparts, and trans people of color experience higher levels of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, job and housing instability, and incarceration than their white counterparts.

A SCOTUS vote saying that "sex" does not include gender identity and sexual orientation unleashes the kind of transphobia that I experienced intimately in my last workplace. Furthermore, the stripping of our civil rights means queer and trans people get pushed even more into criminalized economies, particularly trans femmes of color, already criminalized and cut off from resources, health care, lifesaving drugs for HIV and other chronic illnesses, and employment opportunities.

Workplace discrimination should be illegal. Going a step further, decriminalizing sex work would break a cycle of criminalization caused by workplace harassment, racism, transphobia, sex worker stigma, and gender violence. I plan to risk arrest on October 8 so SCOTUS hears my queer voice in saying that LGBTQ people deserve to be protected under the 1964 Civil Rights Act and I hope you will join me.

Parker Phillips is a staff member at Housing Works, a New York City-based nonprofit fighting the twin crises of AIDS and homelessness. On October 8, when the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on LGBTQ discrimination, share your story by tweeting with the hashtag #WeAreTheWorkforce.

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