Downtown Eastside transgender sex workers have been pushed by gentrification into isolated areas, forcing them to make a hole in a fence for a quick escape route from violent customers, reveals a new study from the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
“I’ve been right beside that fence. I’ve been in that fence before. It is a very scary, very isolated place where bad things have happened to people,” said Leslie Pierre, a trans woman and former sex worker. “That is one of the reasons that fence hole is there — if we went a block over to the residential community (to work), people would yell at us and shoot BB guns.
“I’ve personally experienced it and witnessed it. It’s a hard thing to go through because you feel devalued.”
Pierre was a research assistant on the Centre for Excellence’s new study, The Impact of Construction and Gentrification on an Outdoor Trans Sex Work Environment, written by academics at three B.C. universities and published this week.
Researchers followed 33 trans sex workers from 2012 to 2015 in the Downtown Eastside, which has a long history of prostitution. They found as new buildings and new residents entered the neighbourhood, the workers were shoved into unsafe places, and faced more violence and harassment.
“The construction activity taking place in the Downtown Eastside, coupled with current federal legislation criminalizing sex work, made working conditions more unsafe and contributed to the displacement of trans sex workers,” said Dr. Tara Lyons of Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
It is one of the first studies of its kind, mainly because most academic papers on sex work focus on women, not the trans population, the authors say.
Traffic patterns, they found, changed during construction, making clients hesitant to stop in the busier neighbourhood and, therefore, pushing the workers “farther down the (railway) tracks” to service their johns and dodge the watchful eyes of neighbours and police. It was there, isolated from the roads, that “sex workers cut holes in the fences as an escape strategy,” the report says.
It is more difficult for established trans workers to move to other areas of the city, the report notes, because they face “increased vulnerability to violence from potential clients who may not know they are trans.”
Pierre, 34, added that because of stigma, trans workers are more isolated than other sex workers. “If we are pushed from these commutes, we are pushed into areas with no services there to support us,” she said.
The paper also found new construction brought an increase of private security guards shooing sex workers away, police issuing more loitering tickets, and complaints about trans workers from local residents and businesses.
The report recommends that trans sex workers specifically be included in municipal sex work policies and in Downtown Eastside community planning in the future. “It is (also) imperative that sex work laws are changed in order to increase the safety of the work environment for trans sex workers,” the study concludes.
The in-depth interviews done with the 33 participants were part of the Centre for Excellence’s long-term research project, An Evaluation of Sex Workers Health Access
Author: Lori Culbert