This Sunday 28th June is the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a pivotal event in the history of the LGBTQI community. As many will know, trans and gender diverse sex workers of colour were pivotal in this event. Sex workers have always been part of LGBTQI history. We have always had the strong support of grassroots organisations but it’s imperative that the mainstream voice solidarity with their LGBTQI sex working siblings.
Kate McGrew, current sex worker and director of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) said “Sex workers have been highlighted by UNAIDS as a group particularly vulnerable to contracting HIV. Ireland is bucking a worldwide trend as we have seen an increase in HIV diagnoses. Street workers report harassment from Gardaí despite sex street work being decriminalised. This police presence and intimidation has led to shorter negotiation times for workers, which puts us at risk.”
She continues “The state is hypocritical in its stance on condoms use. On the one hand, they give out free condoms and have multiple campaigns highlighting the need for their use. However, condoms have been used as evidence that sex work has taken place when arresting and prosecuting clients for the purchase of sex. This flies in the face of any HIV prevention strategy.
Sex workers are treated as vectors of disease, especially in the time of COVID-19. That is a sentiment that many older members of the LGBTQI community will understand. In fact, many compared the pandemic to the AIDS crisis of the 80s. The world now has a lot to learn from people who survived the AIDS crisis including how stigma and shame exacerbate the issue. And how demand for intimacy does not end when a virus raises its ugly head.
During the pandemic, an unprecedented global event, sex workers, especially undocumented migrant workers were left to fend for themselves. We at SWAI have been relieving some of the financial burdens of sex workers in Ireland by successfully crowdfunding a hardship fund which has raised over €26,000 to date. As the LGBTQI community knows all too well we often have to take care of our own. In fact, SWAI was turned down for funding from the Department of Justice available to other groups working with sex workers because we refuse to agree that all sex work is gender-based violence.
SWAI wholeheartedly supports the Black Lives Matter movement. Many laws surrounding sex work are rooted in racist and anti-immigrant sentiment. Our government and Gardaí use the Swedish model of client criminalisation that was originally designed to target African economic migrants working in Sweden. IHREC have highlighted that our sex work laws have been applied in a racist way as almost all of the people who have been prosecuted for working together for safety have been young, migrant women.
High-profile Irish LGBT figures sit in prominent positions in Irish society and are instrumental in the criminalisation of survival by vulnerable marginalised minorities including many impoverished LGBT individuals, some fleeing persecution in their home countries. Our former Taoiseach is himself a member of the LGBT community. He presides over inhumane direct provision centres run by organisations such as Aramark that are complicit in the racist US prison industrial complex. Direct provision residents are sometimes forced to rely on sex work to survive or are propositioned by Direct Provision Centre staff, as noted in the IHREC CERD report.
We are constantly side-lined in important conversations in Ireland despite being on the sharp edge of many intersectional issues. Since last year’s Pride event sex workers were left out of LGBTQI Strategy launched on Thursday 28th November. We are not included in the consent and gender-based violence conversation. Male sex workers are invisible in the conversation about sex work in Ireland because the dominant narrative only frames sex work as gender-based violence. Most of these male workers are part of the LGBTQI community and ignoring them ignores reality.
Trans folk, over-represented in sex work due to employment discrimination, are facing elevated attacks on their rights and well being in the face of transphobic attacks by millionaire author JK Rowling and Trump’s decision to scrap medical protections. These actions have damaging, worldwide repercussions. 61% of the trans people who were killed last year were sex workers, so when we discuss violence against the LGBTQI+ community we are talking sex workers. This Pride we would like to remember Sylvia Tukulu, a trans woman in direct provision, who was buried in secret after taking her own life.
Shame and stigma are a common enemy for us all. Sex workers are invisible in this country. We need our allies to stand with us and ask why we were not included and why our realities go unaddressed. We need this community because we are this community and we expect you to stand with us.”