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A thought on the first annual National Transgender HIV Testing Day

Date: April 18, 2016

Today, April 18th, is the First Annual National Transgender HIV Testing Day. Like everyone else, I was not aware of this new annual observance until just a few days ago, when I was asked by my friends at the Gay City, Seattle’s LGBT wellness center, to be on a panel for it.

According to the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health at University of California, San Francisco that coordinates the Testing Day, “NTHTD is a day to recognize the importance of routine HIV testing, status awareness and continued focus on HIV prevention and treatment efforts among transgender people.”

I get tested, and so do many of my friends. I have no quarrel with recognizing the importance of HIV testing, prevention, and treatment: transgender people, especially trans women of color, trans women who trade sex, and trans people who inject drugs, are at an grossly heightened risk of contracting HIV and other infections, and yet are often left out of awareness campaigns, outreach, and medical provisions that focus on the code word “MSM” (men who have sex with men)–which technically includes (many) trans women (and excludes trans men and gender-variant people) but in practice ignores or marginalizes them.

But I also find it disturbing to see public institutions promote a greater recognition of the importance of HIV testing, prevention, and treatment among trans people, while much of the targeted population continue to live in poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and survival sex.

Economist Emily Oster has pointed out that the HIV epidemic arising from risky sexual behaviors in Sub-Saharan Africa can be explained in part by the low non-HIV mortality. Individuals who can expect longer life ahead and are wealthier tend to change their sexual behaviors in response to the increased threat of HIV while those who do not expect to live long and are poor tend to be unmotivated to alter their behaviors. When controlled for other factors, similar observation can be made among gay men in the U.S., according to Oster.

This is something I have personally observed among women (including trans women) who are street-based, who trade sex and/or use drugs: because HIV has a relatively long latency period, those who are struggling to meet immediate basic needs and cannot imagine their distant future discount the present-day value of the risk of HIV infection to close to zero. In other words, one would not worry too much about getting sick many years later if she does not expect to live that long, or imagine having a future anyway.

It is also a survival strategy: we push thoughts about risks we are routinely taking out of our consciousness in order to be able to take risks required for our immediate survival. If so, campaigns aimed at subverting this survival strategy and raising awareness of these risks, even if they are well-intentioned, border on violence.

There are lots of discussions about how public health agencies must improve their outreach and service delivery to trans people, particularly trans women of color, to get them to participate in testing, prevention, and treatment. Of course we should improve them. But the bottom line is, we must build a social environment in which trans women of color, street-based sex workers, injection drug users, and others can expand their imagination into their futures, a psychic space philosopher Drucilla Cornell named “imaginary domain.”

When one otherwise expects to live a long, generally enjoyable life, she will certainly do more in the present to make sure that she will be healthier: it would bring in more trans people to participate in testing, prevention, and treatment than any “cultural competency training” or other trickery. While outreach programs do provide desperately needed employment to some trans people, they are destined to fail in the absence of larger programs promoting broader economic and social justice providing material and psychic necessities for trans people to imagine their futures.

What I am describing may seem merely anecdotal or theoretical, but there is an evidence suggesting that our current strategy of promoting testing, prevention, and treatment among trans women (of color or on the street, especially) has not been as effective as expected based on earlier successes among non-transgender men who are MSM. In a clinical trial conducted by researchers at UCSF and elsewhere which randomly assigned trans women to receive either pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) that can prevent HIV infection or placebo, researchers were baffled to find that the group receiving the free preventative medication did not have lower infection rate compared to the group that received placebo after a trial period. The ineffectiveness of the PrEP provision had to do with “drug adherence”: they did not detect any sign of taking the medication in the bloodstream of the trans women who became infected despite receiving PrEP. Further, while non-transgender male MSM who take highest risks tended to take PrEP more regularly, no such correlation existed among trans women: trans women were no more or less likely to take PrEP consistently regardless of how much risky behaviors they are engaging in.

It is perhaps worthwhile to point out that trans women are taking different types of risks for different reasons than non-transgender men who are MSM. According to the study, “transgender women more frequently reported transactional sex, receptive anal intercourse without a condom, or more than five partners in the past 3 months” compared to non-trans male MSM. In other words, trans women are often engaging in risky behavior in order to provide for themselves and to survive, rather than for pleasure, which presents them with unique sets of vulnerabilities as well as an internal need to desensitize themselves to the risks they are taking.

As of today, PrEP costs over $1,000 per month which is out of reach for most trans women, but public health officials in cities like San Francisco (through the Healthy San Francisco program) are rushing to throw the medication at trans women. But I wonder: what could trans women do if they simply had extra $1,000 per month in cash instead? Wouldn’t it allow them to stop taking so much risks just to survive, and perhaps afford them an opportunity to take care of their health better, a space to imagine a future that is worth living in?

In the meantime, I question why UCSF, CDC, and other institutions are promoting the recognition of “the importance of HIV testing,” prevention, and treatment among transgender people. It cannot be because the society values the lives of trans women of color so much, when so many of them continue to be abandoned in poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and survival sex. I wonder if the real, if unconscious, motivation behind such projects is to protect (mostly) white, middle-class, non-transgender men who buy sex from trans women and their families.

I am not doubting the sincerity of individuals involved in these projects on the frontlines, especially since many of them are also members of trans communities. But I continue to be suspicious of the larger institutions that promote HIV testing in isolation of other, more immediate needs of many trans women of color.

[last edited in September 2016]

This is how uncomfortable I get when I ask for your help to be invited to speak at your school.

Date: September 17, 2012

A new school year has began, and I am asking for your help. If you are affiliated with a college or university, please try to get me invited to come and speak at your school.

It’s so simple to write that paragraph, but it was very difficult for me to write it, partly because of my own personal baggage (i.e. low self-esteem making me feel unworthy of help or invitation, difficulty asking for others’ help, etc.), but partly also because I don’t actually believe in this college speaker circuit. In fact, I think there is something deeply problematic about it.

Readers may not realize the extent to which the college speakers’ circuit has become an industry. I wasn’t either, until Nomy Lamm, a fellow activist, writer, artist and popular college speaker, told me about a trade show for college circuit speakers and performers. Apparently there are these industry “conventions” around the country several times a year, in which would-be speakers (self-identified motivational “gurus,” feel-good “diversity trainers,” semi-celebrities from reality shows, etc.) come to learn new buzzwords and marketing gimmicks. They also staff their booths in the exhibit hall as bored college administrators walk through, picking up brightly colored glossy brochures for their “services.” Inspirational! Energetic! Engaging! The promotional materials scream.

It’s easy to recognize that these college circuit speakers use buzzwords, exaggerated enthusiasm, and flashy colors because they have no substance. But these gimmicks work, in part because that is what college administrators are looking for: administrators often do not treat students like grownups. They often act as if students need to be constantly “inspired” and “energized” with oversimplified sloganeering, whether it is for personal growth or for revolution. (Oh, and by the way, if any administrator is reading this, I’m obviously not talking about you. I’m talking about some other administrator!)

I’m not one of these speakers. I don’t have a brochure or even press photo for myself; I just have a website and lots and lots of writings that tend to promote better understanding of complex realities in which we live, rather than offering simple solutions or positions that readers can click “like” in facebook and forget about. I know that I don’t inspire or energize majority of average American college students, because to do so I would have to betray those students who find the constant celebration of positivity and optimism (common theme among speakers who are considered “inspirational”) rather depressing.

I speak, primarily, to a narrow constituencies of students and others who find the ordinary campus life unbearable: queers and genderqueers who aren’t “getting better,” crips and gimps who are invisible, kids from immigrant or poor families who somehow went astray into weird academic departments like Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies against their communities’ good sense, survivors who have trouble distinguishing campus from a war zone, students who do sex work to pay for the salary of professors who categorically deny their experiences. I was all of the above myself (and more), after all.

I do believe that my voice has something to contribute to the campus life, not just in the sense of validation and support for the students who fit the descriptions above, but also for others who need to be challenged and pushed further: that seems like an important part of college education for any student. But it is difficult for me to promote myself as a college speaker (outside of the formal structures of academia) when I know that the market is saturated with speakers who are better at promoting themselves, and especially when I feel so inadequate at doing what college administrators (again, not you–the other administrators!) expect speakers to do.

Another reason I resent the college speakers’ circuit is that it is hard to feel that my voice is worth the price I am charging. When I began speaking on college campuses years ago, I only asked for $200 because that seemed like a fair price for a gig involving travel. But I was treated very poorly by the administrators (and by some student organizers, when I was visiting elite schools) during my visit, which they did little to promote. Over time, I realized that people not only respect me and what I have to say more, but also pay more attention to my visit when I get paid more.

But is my presentation really worth that much? I once went to a lecture by world-famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, which I had been really excited about prior to the event. But his lecture, for which he was paid in the tens of thousands of dollars I assume, was disappointing: because he was speaking to the general public, his audience included enough people who did not believe in evolution in the first place, forcing Dawkins to explain very basic justifications for the theory of evolution. Much of his lecture could have been given by any high school biology teacher, or by me for that matter: I did not feel that I learned anything new from the highly anticipated lecture of one of the world’s leading biologists and atheists.

Even though I am paid far less than Dawkins, I still worry that I am not offering enough value for the buck. After all, most of my writings are available for free on my website, where you could probably find online 90% of what I say in my presentations. It might be more worthwhile if students would read my writings prior to my visit, and are prepared to ask hard questions about them when I get there, but that hardly happens: most students have not even heard of me until I show up.

It took me time to feel somewhat comfortable with asking for more money, and I used several arguments to rationalize it to myself: First, the money for the speakers (often student fee funds) is already there, and I certainly feel that I offer something more valuable than many “motivational speakers” or “diversity trainers.” Second, speaking honoraria allow me to use my time and energy on doing more activist projects instead of using all of my energy on merely surviving, and it promotes social changes that I am advocating for. And third, we need a model of supporting independent activists and artists who work outside of existing structures of 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations, political lobby groups, and academic institutions.

Having the college speakers’ circuit subsidize independent activists and artists may not be an ideal solution: in a way, the more recent development of crowd-fundraising schemes may offer a more transparent and democratic structure. In fact, I’ve been half-joking with friends about starting a Foundation to Sustain Emi to solicit ongoing pledge donations to support my work. But it can also fall into popularity contest and celebrity worship rather than creating a sustainable structures to enable movements for social justice. On the other hand, administrators of “college speakers’ circuit” could be viewed, at best, as curators of activists and artists who do not receive mainstream recognition and support in a popularity contest, but offer something unique and valuable to the intellectual and activist dialogues.

That I have to write this lengthy apologia for my role as a college speaker shows how uncomfortable I feel about asking for your support, but I need it. For one thing, my two main sources of income have been speaking honoraria and sex work, and the latter is becoming more difficult due to my age and disabilities. But of course it should not be about just helping me out: it is also about what I can bring to the campus and to the movements for social and economic justice. If you are reading this blog, I assume that you value my work. And if you value my work, and if you are able, please help me continue to do that, while raising awareness at your campus at the same time.

(Of course, your zine purchases and donations also help, too! Also, while I’m at shameless self-promotion, do follow me on Twitter or Facebook.)

Janus Youth’s conscious move to betray youth, and why we need to create systems to hold social service industrial complex accountable

Date: November 23, 2011

Last week, I wrote about how Janus Youth, Portland area’s largest youth service provider, assisted the City’s raid on Occupy Portland encampment under the dubious premise that the camp “endangered” youth (rather than that it simply attracted youth who are already endangered due to lack of housing, opportunities, and services). I also discussed how it reflected Janus’ increasingly pro-police stance as it became further and further dependent on “anti-trafficking” funds.

But the reality of Janus’ betrayal of youth was much worse, as I found out when I attended a presentation about Portland’s CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children–which should actually say “youth” instead of “children” for CSEY) programs at the national runaway and homeless youth conference.

The presentation, titled “CSEC: A Collaborative Approach to Addressing Sexual Exploitation of Children in Your Community,” was presented by three individuals representing Janus Youth, FBI, and Sexual Assault Resource Center (which has a trafficked minor program inside a big church).

The person from Janus started off his presentation with a statement that he was going to say some critical things about his agency. His complaint: Janus workers were not very friendly to the police officers in the past.

For example, he continued, when police officers detain and deliver youth to the Janus service center for curfew violation and other reasons, youth are frequently angry at the police officer. They often complain that they have been brutalized, harassed, or otherwise treated unjustly by the officer. Social workers at Janus validated their feelings and helped them file grievances, which made police officers hostile to Janus.

Janus guy felt it had to change, so he told all of his staff to treat police officers “like their best friends.” As a result, police began to like Janus a whole lot more, and now they are such great partners. In other words, Janus has made a conscious decision to side with the police when youth feel violated and abused by the police, rather than affirming and validating youth’s experiences.

Janus also helped police officers get hold of a youth who was camping at Occupy Portland. Because many Occupy protestors were hostile to police officers, it wasn’t the best idea to send police officers into the camp in order to search a youth. Instead, they asked Janus worker to go into the camp to find the youth for them.

It was in the context of this intimate relationship between Janus and the law enforcement that the former provided the justification for the City to use its police force to forcibly evict youth who had chosen Occupy camp over Janus’ services, presumably to save youth from themselves.

The director of trafficked minor program at SARC spoke next, also describing friendly relationship with the law enforcement. She, too, criticized other feminist anti-violence projects that are skeptical of law enforcement, and discussed how SARC was different from those in that they value partnering with the law enforcement.

The person from FBI who works closely with the anti-trafficking division of Portland Police Bureau also repeated her satisfaction with the law enforcement’s relationship to service providers like Janus and SARC. She explained that the law enforcement specifically chose these two organizations to work with over other anti-violence projects because of their pro-police stances.

“Collaborations with Janus and SARC are great; it makes victims better witnesses for the prosecution,” she said. SARC person echoed this sentiment when she explained the benefit of SARC’s services: Because SARC isn’t a mandated reporter, youth feel safer disclosing their experiences to them. And once they disclose their experiences to someone, they are more likely to disclose to other service providers who are mandated to report, or even to the law enforcement.

In my opinion both Janus and SARC have perverted their mission to support youth when they bought into the structure that prioritize prosecution rather than empowerment and long-term well-being of their clients. It is probably true that someone who discloses once to a non-mandated reporter are more likely to disclose to someone else who will act on that information, but is it beneficial to the youth? It feels like the premeditated manipulation of youth they are supposed to empower.

Someone in the audience asked whether they thought a locked facility (i.e. some place youth cannot get out of on their own will) might be a good option for victims of sex trafficking. Both Janus and SARC persons were cautious, but the Janus person said it was more preferable to build a non-locked facility in areas far removed from the City (which of course is no different from a locked facility unless one has access to a vehicle). The SARC person claimed that over half of the women they are serving want to be locked up, which I find highly questionable. She made it seem like someone engaging in non-suicidal self-cutting should be locked up for her safety, which I completely disagree with, as I believe cutting can be a very useful coping strategy for many survivors (including myself).

Another person, a youth worker from Texas, asked the presenters to comment on the most recent Village Voice article which cites a study from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Among many things, the study reports that only about 10% of the youth who trade sex in New York City have pimps, undermining the theory that youth survival sex equals “modern day slavery.”

The SARC person completely dismissed the study, claiming that most youth who trade sex have pimps, and suggested that researchers probably didn’t have enough rapport with the youth to discover the truth. But people I know from Safe Horizon/Streetwork, which reaches more street youth in New York than any other organizations there affirm that the John Jay study reflects their own understanding of reality. The youth worker from Texas also seemed to believe that the John Jay study to be valid, and seemed surprised to see SARC’s dismissive attitude.

In response, the SARC person characterized the “debate” over sex trafficking to be between those who believe sex work is an empowering choice versus those who disagree with that, clearly positioning herself in the latter camp. But this is a grotesquely unfair and dishonest characterization of the real debate here. The real debate is between youth-centered versus police-centered approaches, harm reduction versus paternalism, and reality-based versus ideological.

I also attended several other workshops on the topic, all of which turned out to be throughly dishonest and anti-youth.

For example, the workshop titled “Assisting Victims of Human Trafficking: A Collaborative Approach” was presented by two women from Rainbow House of Columbia, Missouri, which I was particularly interested in because I have engaged in sex trade as a teenager while living in Missouri and therefore I know something about the topic.

Their level of knowledge and awareness was dismal, as evidenced by their tacit acceptance of mythical “statistics” about youth in the sex trade. They also included “mail order bride” as an example of human trafficking, which doesn’t agree with the actual legal definition of trafficking, despite the fact they take advantage of the legal definition when it is convenient to do so as they characterize all sex trade by a minor as “modern day slavery.”

The presenters placed a huge emphasis on the role of Stockholm Syndrome as a way to explain why many youth defend people who are abusing and exploiting them. “Youth frequently go back to their pimps and traffickers because of brainwashing and Stockholm Syndrome,” they insist, but fail to mention the possibility that their services do not meet the youth’s needs.

Someone in the audience gave an unsolicited advice: “When a youth runs away from your services, try to locate them in the adult services section of Backpage.com!” Well, what about thinking about ways to make the services more attractive so that they don’t have to run away from you?

The Rainbow House people also gave a “story” of one of its clients, most likely without the explicit permission of the youth whose story was used, and I find such practice exploitative and offensive. They even told the audience that the youth did not admit to trading sex, but other clients told them about it; she eventually run away from Rainbow House. These details made their telling of her story even worse. I don’t understand why they can’t simply find a youth who consent to having their stories shared in this form.

The presenters demonstrated their cluelessness when they recommended that service providers learn and use street slangs in order to “make youth feel comfortable.” I can’t believe that they said this. Service providers certainly should learn and understand street slangs, but it is an extremely bad idea to use them unless they actually come from the street culture. Youth do not feel comfortable with people who are fake; in fact, they will completely distrust you when you present yourself as something that you are not. It is much better to simply own up to their status as (often white middle-class) college-educated professionals.

Further, someone in the audience asked the presenters about dealing with girls who recruit other girls in the youth services into sex trade, possibly for a pimp. The presenters replied that they have never seen that happening in their years of working at the youth shelter, which once again shows that they do not know what they are talking about.

Yet another workshop I attended was presented by Polaris Project, a prominent national anti-trafficking organization. Their presentation felt more like a cult seminar than a social service workshop, because the whole audience seemed to have “drunk the cool-aid” that dissociated them from the reality. Aside from repeating all the false “statistics” and the supposed spike in human trafficking during the Super Bowl (which there is none), their perception of sex trade was so unreal.

For example, Polaris vastly exaggerated the number of sexual acts that a typical “trafficked youth” (which is any minor who trade sex) performs, or the money pimp makes each year, giving the figure that is completely unrealistic. When the presenters began “brainstorming” for what the society associates with pimps, the audience responded that the society views pimps as benevolent protectors–which I highly doubt is what most people think about pimps. Interestingly, nobody mentioned how the word “pimp” has a racial connotation.

Overall, the conference was a painful reminder that most of the youth services are horrible and anti-youth. I sometimes feel jealous of youth today because there seem to be more resources for them than I had 20 years ago, but Youth Services Still Suck. There were several more presentations about trafficking of youth, but I had to go home early because I could not handle it any more.

On the last day of the conference, the closing keynote presenter was (predictably) Rachel Lloyd from Girls Education and Mentoring Services. I actually agreed with many things she said, such as how we must work toward fighting poverty if we truly cared about stopping sexual exploitation of youth.

But it was painful to hear her speak knowing that GEMS takes most of its clients from criminal justice system as an involuntary, court-mandated “services,” or that they do not accept any transgender girls and young women who need services, or that they do not honor gender identities and pronouns of female-assigned transgender or genderqueer youth who get mandated to receive their “services” like a prison sentence.

It was painful knowing, as she promoted her film, Very Young Girls, and her book, Girls Like Us, that girls shown in the film (who were court-mandated to be there) were not told how their images were being used, and that girls whose stories illustrate Rachel’s narratives throughout the book did not give permission for their stories to be told. I can’t write everything I know about GEMS here, but there are many other reasons I felt sad and in pain as I heard Rachel receive a standing ovation.

There seems to be so much desire in our society to reach out to the youth experiencing rough times, but the institutions that supposedly exist to provide services are often fundamentally flawed. Especially in this time of economic downturn (and hence greater reliance on government funding), more and more organizations are assuming their role as the extension of the law enforcement and the welfare system that dehumanize and abuse youth.

I think we need to replicate “Bad Encounter Line” system that Young Women’s Empowerment Project has developed in Chicago. BEL is “a way to report bad experiences you had with institutions such as police, the health care system, public aid, DCFS, CPS, etc.” that are “set in place to help” youth. The repots are published as zines, and used to introduce systems of accountability in social service fields.

I want to start this. Is anyone in Portland or Seattle area interested also?

Erasure of Transgender Youth in the Sex Trade — My keynote at Transgender Day of Remembrance

Date: November 20, 2011

For those of you who came to my keynote presentation at Transgender Day of Remembrance at PSU (no, not that one, the one in Portland) this afternoon, thank you for coming! As I’ve promised, I am posting the slides from my presentation publicly so that people who came to the presentation can go back to read the slides again, and those who couldn’t make it can also see what I presented about. Please note that the slides are not intended to be stand-alone; they may not be self-explanatory without my talk. But regardless–enjoy!

(10/28/2012 – Link updated after Apple shut down iWork.com)

Occupy Janus Youth? Social service industrial complex and its betrayal of street-based youth

Date: November 15, 2011

The City of Portland shut down the Occupy Portland encampment in Chapman and Lownsdale Squares across the street from the City Hall this past weekend. It was part of the nationwide takedown of Occupy demonstrations. In an interview with PBS, Mayor Sam Adams explained his decision:

Police said the sites have been plagued by a series of problems, including multiple assaults and two fatal drug overdoses. And on Wednesday, a man was arrested on suspicion of throwing a Molotov cocktail the night before, doing minor damage at the city’s World Trade Center. […]

Well, you know, when the details of the drug overdoses, the details surrounding the individual that ignited the Molotov cocktail, when I have homeless and homeless youth advocates telling me that this is a very unsafe situation, you know, I listen to that.

I felt that it was disingenuous that the Mayor is citing overdoses and safety concern for youth as reasons for shutting down Occupy Portland. Occupy does not cause drug overdoses: they happen all the time across the city. If anything, the presence of the camp can save lives because people experiencing overdose are far more likely to survive when they are surrounded by many other people.

Similarly, Occupy does not endanger street youth: Occupy merely attracted youth who have already been endangered by poverty, homelessness, and lack of services. Taking away the resources the youth found for themselves is inherently disempowering and does not make them any safer. It is as if the City wanted overdose deaths and youth endangerment to be scattered across the city so that it would not have to recognize the magnitude of its failure, even if that means homeless youth and adults are put in greater danger.

I was particularly offended that the Mayor claims to have listened to “homeless and homeless youth advocates” when he decided to destroy a community many homeless youth and adults have chosen to stay. I thought he was making it up, because I believed that street youth advocates would support a harm reduction approach to advocating for the youth taking charge of their own survival, rather than forcibly removing them from resources they find for themselves.

I was wrong. Janus Youth, Portland-area’s largest provider of services to youth including Yellow Brick Road street outreach program, actually did advise the City about how Occupy Portland endangered youth–several days before Mayor announced his decision to crack down on the movement. A letter from Janus executive director Dennis Morrow, which was very unwisely posted on the Mayor’s website, says:

When Yellow Brick Road teams went through Occupy Portland during the early afternoon on Monday October 17th, they were greeted by large numbers of homeless youth who had voluntarily exited Homeless Youth Continuum (HYC) services to take part in the event. […] While we are very supportive of young people having both meaningful voice and purpose, our years of experience with vulnerable street-affected youth tell us that this requires a great deal of structure and expertise or it is a recipe for disaster. […] We have also met numerous youth who were voluntarily opting out of homeless youth services or refusing to access services as new clients because they felt they were getting their needs met adequately at Occupy Portland sites.

In talking with Yellow Brick Road staff, it is their sense that the political leanings of the original march and occupation have been overwhelmed by the large numbers of homeless youth and possibly runaway minors who have descended upon the area and, in some instances, brought the violent nature of street-based subcultures and internal hierarchies to the protest site. There are young people with significant developmental delays, mental illness and drug/alcohol abuse issues mingling with potentially predatory adults (and young children) in a largely unchecked environment. More recently we have seen several cases of staph infection from young campers in the area. Recent days have seen the implementation of “safe injection” and “sexual assault response” tents which, despite our unwavering support for risk reduction, speaks to the level of unexpected behavior in the area.

It appears to me that the main concern for Janus was the fact that many youth have abandoned its programs, making their failure as a social service provider apparent. Youth who decided to abandon Janus services did so because Janus was failing to provide competent and respectful services that were meaningfully better in the eyes of youth than what a group of disorganized volunteers provided at Occupy. The encampment was not taking away the youth from Janus; Janus was losing them. And the agency wanted them back, even if that meant a destruction of the youth’s chosen community.

I used to love Janus. I still love and trust many people who work at Janus. But over the past several years, I have noticed its distinct departure from harm reduction principles as the agency received funding from and embraced anti- (domestic minor sex) trafficking efforts. They are frequently seen appearing and working alongside law enforcement officers at various places (including at the national runaway and homeless youth conference in Portland this week), compromising youth’s trust in the agency as well as its ability to meet the youth where they are at.

Janus’ support for forcibly removing Occupy Portland and for evicting homeless youth from a place they made home is yet another sign that Janus takes supporting autonomy and dignity of youth less seriously than it once did. Of course, I know that many front-line workers at Janus do not agree with their bosses’ paternalistic, pro-police stances, and I am glad that there are many true advocates for youth within the agency. That said, while I have no doubt that the City would have shut down Occupy Portland regardless of Janus’ opinions, I feel that Janus betrayed street youth by participating in the City’s brutal attack on them.

Time to occupy Janus Youth?

Janus Youth
707 NE Couch Street
Portland, OR 97232
Phone: 503.233.6090
Fax: 503.233.6093
feedback@janusyouth.org

A response to the “economic coercion” argument that equates all prostitution with trafficking and then with slavery

Date: April 21, 2011

An “economic coercion” argument often invoked by anti-trafficking/prostitution activists holds that, even though many prostitutes and other sex workers appear to be making a free choice to engage in their work without “force, fraud or coercion,” they are nonetheless victimized by the sex industry and should not be viewed as freely choosing to do what they do because they have little or no other means for self-sufficiency and are therefore “economically coerced.”

I do not disagree that freedom to choose one’s occupation is severely restricted for many sex workers as well as for others who occupy low-end of the American workforce. Under capitalism, we all have to make choices under economic constraints (unless one is super-rich), although some of us have more and better options to choose from than others do. The “choice” to engage in sex work is often (but not always) made by people who do not have very good pool of options to begin with.

But it is not useful to talk about “choice” and “free will” in abstract or absolute terms, or to equate one’s difficult decision to choose the “least bad” option available to her in a pool of bad options with “coercion” in a more traditional sense.

Instead, I suggest that we start from this simple question: “If a better opportunity or option comes up, is she free to take it?” Below is a chart demonstrating why this is a more useful approach.

If a better opportunity or option comes up, is she free to take it?

  “Yes” “No”
Why is this person in prostitution? because it is the best option among what is available to her because she is not allowed to choose something else
What will benefit the individual? more and better options within and outside of the sex industry freedom so that she can make decisions for herself
How will “rescue” action impact her? possible criminal record; forced to choose among inferior options freedom, provided that appropriate support and services are provided
What should society do for this person? no persecution; make more resources and options available intervention to restore her freedom; resources to rebuild her life

I made a PDF version of the above chart available for download so that you can share it with others.

What this chart demonstrates is that we must reject the equation of so-called “economic coercion” with “force, fraud or coercion” that involve another actor (i.e. the trafficker) because there are very significant differences between the two, and conflating them leads to wrong policies and interventions that harm sex workers.

That of course does not mean that we should not address the fact that many people “choose” sex work under dire economic constraints. It just means that we need to understand the problem correctly and intervene in ways that are actually helpful rather than harmful. We must work toward reducing economic desperation among women, homeless youth, immigrants, queer people, and others by enhancing programs that ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met, and creating better and wider range of educational and employment opportunities for all.

Yes, “economic coercion” exists. But the problem is not selling and buying sex; it is the lack of options. Let’s actually address the problem, rather than depriving the “least bad options” from the already disadvantaged population.

Academic parasitism on activists must change.

Date: April 20, 2011

A Boston-area university instructor contacted me to seek permission to distribute copies of my (very old) article, The Transfeminist Manifesto. As you can see on my “readings” page, I have instituted a licensing fee policy: anyone who wishes to redistribute my article must pay $0.10 per page per copy (because there’s no middleman, my fee is lower than $0.12 that copy shops charge for copyright clearance), or give me a good reason for me to waive the fee.

The instructor wrote that she was hoping that I would waive the fee because she would be “using it in the classroom.” I understand that many people consider this a good reason, as education is given a special moral position in our society, but I did not feel it was. Below is my response to her.

* * * * *

Hi *****,

I am sending you a printer-ready PDF file, because my purpose for instituting the licensing fee is not to prevent someone from using my article. I am granting you the permission to print and distribute copies of the article in the class, though not the PDF file itself. This file also includes a “bonus” that explains some of the backgrounds of the Manifesto.

That said, “using it in the classroom” at an institution like ***** is exactly the situation for which the licensing fee is intended. I would challenge your assumption that liberal arts education at an elite private university might somehow deserve to be subsidized by this activist and author whose income is a fraction of the tuition necessary to attend *****.

I would question further: Do students get textbooks for free because it’s for use in the classroom? Are the chairs and other equipment donated to ***** for free because they are for use in the classroom? And of course, do instructors teach the class for free? The answers are obviously “no”–why, then, are materials published and made available online by activists any different?

As you might have gathered by now, I don’t request licensing fees just because I need the money. I do so because I want members of academic institutions to consider these questions and try to build a more respectful toward and mutually beneficial relationship with activists whose work is studied. Scholars and students often rely on countless hours of uncompensated access to activists and their work for information, source material, interviews, etc. to further their careers or degrees, and yet act as if they are actually doing them a favor by paying attention to the issues. It needs to change.

As I said in the beginning, I am already granting you the permission to use the article in your classroom. But if you feel like paying (or having students pay) for licensing, please make (and encourage your students to make) donations, in lieu of the fees to: The Network/La Red in Boston.

(By the way–the article is also available, sans the “bonus”, in the anthology Catching a wave: reclaiming feminism for the 21st century. You would still have to comply with the copyright law, but you can have students find my article in libraries that way. If anyone had to pay fees for copyright clearance, I prefer that the money go toward The Network/La Red instead of some copy shop).

Best,

Emi Koyama

* * * * * (End of email)

In this case, I decided to give her the permission to use the material for free, but only after she is forced to read the above (and hopefully it made her think); I have waived fees in other instances, for example when an isolated trans student contacts me from a small college in the Midwest because she wants to educate her classmates about trans issues in a class presentation.

That’s an example of what I’d consider a good reason for me to waive the fee, because what she is trying to do is a form of activism and it matches what I wrote the article for in the first place. Teachers sometimes think of “exposing students to new ideas” as a form of activism too, but it’s also their job and I expect to be treated professionally in that context–unless of course there are other factors.

“End Demand” approach harms women. Here’s why.

Date: March 18, 2011

Some people concerned about prostitution on our streets are pushing for the strategy to “end demand” of prostitution. It means that, instead of going after people engaging in prostitution to make ends meet, criminal justice system would be instructed to pursue johns (clients) who purchase sexual services from them.

The appeal of this approach is obvious: many people understand that women who trade sex for money do so under dire economic and personal circumstances, and feel that it would be unfair to punish them for their predicament. On the other hand, few people feel any sympathy toward johns: in fact, some may find it deeply satisfying emotionally to have them punished severely.

However, we must seriously consider the full implication of such policy if we are truly concerned about the women who would have to compete for declining demand for their services. While the approach to “end demand” is far more preferable to punishing the women for their poverty and lack of options, it is nonetheless harmful to the safety and health of the women who work on our streets.

The first obvious consequence of suppressing “the demand” is that women will have to compete for a smaller pool of johns, forcing them to do more for less money. The decline of the demand would give remaining johns greater bargaining power, because it would become easier for them to “take the business elsewhere” (i.e. go find another worker willing to do more for less) if their demands are not completely satisfied. For example, a woman who had always insisted on using a condom might be forced to engage in less safe practices simply to stay competitive.

Second, an increased pressure on johns displaces prostitution onto less populated or traveled areas, where they are less likely to be reported to the authorities or caught in a sting. The same environment makes it more dangerous for the women, both because it would be less familiar to them, and also because nobody would be around when they call for help.

And finally, the profile of a typical john would change as we make it riskier to buy sex, since not all potential johns respond to the increased risks equally. “End demand” approach would drive out those men who are relatively rational and sensitive to risks, while the reckless and/or impulsive types remain undeterred. These johns are precisely the ones likely to demand sex without condoms, haggle mercilessly over price or specific acts, or use threats or violence to get what they want.

In short, “end demand” campaign is harmful to women because it diminishes their bargaining power, forcing them to do more for less money, with more dangerous johns, under less safe environment. We cannot criminalize our way out of the current situation; we must address this social and economic concerns with solutions that achieve social and economic justice. We can begin by funding affordable housing, childcare, treatment programs on-demand (instead of many months’ wait list), and education and job training programs, instead of more jail beds or police cars.

(A version of this article was distributed as a flier at the community meeting on street prostitution on the 82nd Avenue in October 2008.)

Dismissive use of “postmodern” label harms social change movements

Date: March 19, 2010

Alice Dreger, Ellen Feder and Hilde Lindemann have published an update to their article, “Fetal Cosmetology,” in Bioethics Forum that comment on the “responses” to that article, including to my own contribution to the conversation. I am generally in agreement with Dreger et al., but I want to comment on how they respond to my concerns. In the article, “Prenatal Dex: Update and Omnibus Reply,” they state:

In the first published response to our Bioethics Forum essay, Emi Koyama castigated bioethicists in general for not acting to defend the rights of vulnerable persons, leaving us to wonder why our sustained and substantial action was seized as an opportunity to complain about non-action. While we share Ms. Koyama’s concerns about the medical-industrial complex’s take-over of women’s bodies, we rather doubt her postmodern feminist language would have moved the feds the way we have moved the feds. Pardon our pragmatism.

First of all, my essay was not a response to their piece in Bioethics Forum; it was a response to the “letter of concern from bioethicists” posted on Dreger’s site. In fact, I was not even aware of their Bioethics Forum piece until after I submitted the first draft of the essay, and reference to their article was added by the editor of Bioethics Forum to give readers further context.

I am castigating not just bioethicists’ inaction on behalf of vulnerable populations, but also the limitations bioethics as a field has imposed on itself on the scope of their philosophical and ethical inquiry, obsessing over policies and procedures rather than sociopolitical implication of the increasing role and authority of medicine. I did express my appreciation for the “action” of the bioethicists and other scholars responsible for the “letter of concern,” and at the same time I explained why it had the danger of backfiring, like it did on the controversy surrounding growth attenuation, because they continue to operate within the confines of the field of bioethics as it is today.

Further, I resent their dismissive characterisation of my essay as written in “postmodern feminist language” and the patronising statement, “Pardon our pragmatism.” I would concede that voices of concern from among disability rights and women’s health movements are often ineffective at changing the problematic medical practices by themselves, and we often need certain spokespersons and “experts” that transform these voices into pragmatic strategies, these spokespersons and “experts” must be held accountable to the movements which they represent. Thus, the need for pragmatic strategies is in no way an excuse for dismissing activists’ and impacted communities’ concerns as mere “postmodern” intellectual exercise.

Dreger herself has been labeled “postmodernist” by the critics of her work, and she resists this. On her website, she wrote: “Although I sometimes get labeled a ‘postmodernist’ because I write and speak about the social complexities of science and medicine, in fact I would have to label myself a raving modernist. I really believe in the power of science to improve our knowledge and our lives.” I also write and speak about the social complexities of science and medicine, including the field of bioethics, and somehow she finds it convenient to label me “postmodernist” in a dismissive way.

Finally, I find the suggestion that my “postmodern feminist language” is what prevents me from being able to “move the feds the way [Dreger et al.] have moved, as if we live in a society in which everyone’s opinions are equally respected and judged solely by their content, offensive. There is no question that their success (so far) has been made possible by the number of Ph.Ds and MDs on the “letter of concern” as well as by Dreger’s and others’ officially sanctioned academic and medical authority and connections that arose from these positions, which have been heavily influenced by their class backgrounds, educational and professional opportunities, and other social conditions. These factors inform our political sensibilities and sometimes open or close certain venues of social change.

I am a pragmatic person, and a pragmatic activist. As a pragmatist, I really don’t see any benefit from Dreger et al. and I continuing to communicate this way publicly. But I reject the idea that pragmatism is a justification for dismissing the sometimes inflexible and unpragmatic but principled work of the disability rights and women’s health movements; in fact, pragmatism and idealism are both essential elements of a successful social change movements, and even that of a successful activist.

Presenting at elite universities: a guilty pleasure? And introduction to my next piece on borderlands of gender

Date: March 18, 2010

I just came home from my trip to Providence to speak at Brown University for the second time. My last visit there was in April 2007, which you can read about here.

The title of my presentation (workshop) was “Transgender Inclusion, or Demilitarizing the Borderlands of Binary Gender System.” It is a critique of “inclusion” model of transgender activism, which promotes individuals’ rights to self-define who they are while leaving the larger structure of binary gender system mostly intact, only creating rooms for minor “exceptions.” While self-determination is an important goal, the promotion of individual choice and responsibility in the absence of justice and equity is the hallmark of the neoliberal ideology and needs to be challenged.

As the title suggests, the workshop also introduced the concept of borderlands, which Gloria Anzaldúa describes as “vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.” In the book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Anzaldúa presents a parallel view of borderlands in the U.S.-Mexico border as well as the borderlands created by the boundaries of race, gender and sexuality. I’ve been using the metaphor of borderlands to talk about transgender issues for a long time, but I have not been able to present it in a way that was easy for people to understand, but preparing for this workshop helped me to think through how to go about writing a piece that centers on this idea. In other words: stay tuned.

I actually did this workshop at the National MEChA conference at University of Oregon a while back, but that was an audience that was already familiar with issues around borders, borderlands, and immigration. But the highly privileged Brown University crowd would have a very different backgrounds, and I worried that I might not be able to convey my ideas very well.

To my surprise, though, everything went fine. In fact, it turned out great. I have given workshops and lectures at many universities around the country, but speaking at an elite school like Brown (other schools in this category that I’ve visited include University of Chicago, Cornell, Columbia, and Yale) is actually very enjoyable and stimulating for me. Students are bright, of course, but they also possess the cultural capital that affords them the luxury of abstract critical thinking and complexity. And at the same time, I feel certain level of resentment at their highly privileged existence and prospect–these are the people who would join companies like Goldman Sachs and get huge bonuses while the rest of us suffer from unemployment and increasingly hostile labour market.

When talking about the binary gender system, people sometimes jump to the conclusion that we should simply “deconstruct” genders so that everyone is free to be who they are. I’ve been told over and over (by bunch of graduate students, scholars, and some highly educated trans activists) that the intersex movement should work on challenging the binary gender system because that is where the oppression of intersex people stem from. I have nothing against that proposal, except for the fact that intersex children are being harmed by the society’s intolerance of their variance every day and need more immediate, practical help now.

I did not want Brown students to go home only with the critique of identity-based argument for transgender “inclusion,” or with a simple understanding that “deconstructing” binary gender system (however long it would take, and however many trans and intersex people would continue to suffer until that magical day) was the way to go. My call for “demilitarizing the borderlands of binary gender system” is distinct from simply “deconstructing” the binary: it starts with an acknowledgement that trans and intersex people live in the borderlands, and take concrete steps to demilitarise their environment that is the consequences of the society’s attempt to draw a clear and unambiguous boundaries where none naturally exists.

More on that coming soon…

By the way, out of 16-18 students who came to my presentation, not one of them has ever read anything by Gloria Anzaldúa! WTF!?