The Queer Thing About Sex Work

By Myles E. Johnson

Often as a queer black person, my relationship to what is deemed subversive to the hegemonic culture isn’t intentional. Often marginalized people are characterized as rebellious teenagers opposing the political and social “parent”. This is a system of dehumanization. It is only in the closer examination of life do you see these transgressions for what they truly are. This is to say, what one privileged person claims as subversion, the other less privileged person locates it as navigation, survival, or my personal favorite because it echoes Tupac, just the way it is.

There is something especially rebellious about having coffee in the evening. I am pouring a cup of Joe while every other Joe that works inside of a box is cracking open their beer or pouring their wine. However, today’s meeting in a coffeehouse that is unimaginatively named, Coffeehouse, isn’t about my rebellious choices in beverage. It is about reconnecting and friendship. I am here waiting to catch-up with a long lost friend. She walks in with a white oversized button-up, black skinny jeans, and a type of sneaker that I never know the actual brand of, but am sure is supplied to all sensible, artistic, on-the-go type of girls. She sits with her sensible beehive hair and just enough makeup for people unfamiliar with glamour to assume she rolled out of bed this glorious. My good friend, Marissa, has arrived. She hugs me and assures she will be back once she picks up her coffee. I observe her grace and confidence which are two things that do not come naturally to me. I observe men lusting after her with their eyes and a particular type of charm that she has that makes people not attracted to women embrace her warmth, regardless. She picks up her drink and returns.

Marissa says, “Love, it is so good to see you. I am sorry that I am running on trans time.” We laugh. This is hardly the first time that we recognized that there is a unique set of challenges of a person, who is visibly queer and is scheduled to interact with the world. The emotional and physical preparation that is needed to happen just to leave the house surely transcends polite timeliness. How does one prepare their mind and flesh to experience the psychological, and sometimes physical, damage of being the other in public? That is too subjective to quantify, but it does take significant time.

I talk about an ex-boyfriend. She talks about a current one. She drinks coffee, I spill tea. Together, we turn into type of drinking well full of community and information. The time passes and the sun begins to set. Marissa says, “Oh, shit. I better be going, love. It is about that time.” Marissa is a sex worker and the evening, the time before the moon owns the sky, is her time to prepare herself for the men that desire to purchase her services. It is sexy to some. It is immoral to others. It is still political for many that don’t necessarily belong to either group. For us, however, that’s just the way it is.

Marissa and I part ways. I play Ella Fitzgerald in my ears because I find it romantic to do while walking home as the sun sets. Designing your own fantasy in reality is a defense mechanism I learned at an early age as some men asked while I walked down the street, “Can I fuck you?” and others screamed, “Fuck you, faggot!” Ella Fitzgerald sings louder than either of these types of men. I think of Marissa. I recall the countless black transgender women that have been killed because of men that lived in limbo between “can I fuck you?” and “fuck you!” Yes, my privilege is now easily illustrated because I am walking home to solitude and safety. Marissa is walking home to prepare herself for a world where the very act of believing you are safe is the most unsafe thing to do.

Samuel R. Delany explores sex work in the book of essays, Times Square Red, Times Square Blues as the one of the products of the basic human desire for contact. This is to say sex work, in some capacity, will never cease to exist. There is also nothing immoral about providing or gaining the service. This idea is what puts sex workers at such great risk. When you attach shame and guilt to anything in high-demand in this all-American version of patriarchal capitalism, you are inviting violence and perpetuating the institution of mass incarceration. Because these jobs are mostly filled by marginalized people, you are most certainly inviting violence to these marginalized people.

During my walk, I imagine a world where sex work wasn’t a moral or religious topic. Fitzgerald croons and I imagine the stigmatization of sex work as not something to constantly decolonize, but just the way it is.

bell hooks in her essay, Eating The Other, interrogates how whiteness consumes the black “other”. As I enter my apartment complex almost to safety and solitude, I imagine how Marissa’s blackness intersected with her transgender woman experience has informed the danger her body is in. How often has Marissa been consumed, instead of interacted with. Most certainly, these identities underneath a patriarchal capitalist white supremacist gaze has turned her body into an object to be ate and disposed of, if it does not obey direction by whiteness and black cishet men alike. Her blackness perceived as not an experience, but an exotic layer to a sexual pet. Her trans womanhood, seen as simply a kink instead of a specific experience.

I insert my key into the doorknob and I am home, safe and alone. I text Marissa and she asks me to text her on the hour starting at 9 p.m. to ensure that she is safe. If she does not respond, inform the authorities and her sister, not her parents. For some these precautions are frightening. For Marissa and our friendship, it is just the way it is. Still through human connection and critical deconstruction, we hope these things will change.