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Disability discrimination at Super 8 Hotel in South Bend, Indiana: A complaint and responses

Date: October 31, 2016

The original letter

October 29, 2016

Expedia Inc.
333 108th Ave NE
Bellevue, WA 98004

Ganesh Hotels
3252 Cassopolis St.
Elkhart, IN 46514

Wyndham Hotel Group
22 Sylvan Way
Parsippany, NJ 07054

Dear Customer Service Representatives

My name is Emi Koyama and I am writing to make a formal complaint about the experience I had at Super 8 Hotel in South Bend, Indiana operated by Ganesh Hotels on October 27, 2016. The room was booked on September 24th through I was visiting South Bend to give the 2016 Gloria Kaufman Memorial Lecture at Indiana University South Bend.

I understand that some people (I’m not sure who they are) who read about the incident on social media have contacted some of you, but I thought I’d provide my own account directly.

At around 6pm, I was dropped off at the hotel by the ADA paratransit service (Transpo Access). I went in and asked to check in, but I was told that there would be a special fee for my dog. I explained to the clerk at the front desk that the dog was a service animal, to which she demanded to see a document identifying the dog as a service animal. I explained to her that there is no such thing, and the documents that some travelers may present carry no legal weight.

Still, she insisted on seeing the document. As I was prepared for this, I pulled up a Department of Justice guideline on ADA service animals on my iPad, which read, in part:

When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.

I have encountered resistance from restaurant and hotel employees who were not trained about these legal requirements, but usually showing this document resolved the problem. This time however, the front desk clerk suggested that the federal regulation I pulled up may be “fake” because I just got it off the internet, and continued to demand a documentation. I asked her to use her own computer or phone to look up the document from the Department of Justice website to make sure that it is legit, but she refused to do so.

The clerk then called her manager, and, after explaining the situation to the manager, handed the phone over to me. I explained the federal regulation on service animal and read the paragraph I quoted above to the manager, but she also insisted that the documentation was required, because I could be lying about the service animal or the federal regulation. Again, I asked her to go to the Department of Justice website herself to find out if I was “faking” the law, but she declined. I asked the manager for her name, to which she replied “Sara” but refused to provide her last name. I gave the phone back to the clerk at her request, by which point the manager apparently made the decision to refuse service to me.

After hanging up the phone with the manager, the clerk told me that the hotel has decided to refuse service, which is clearly an abuse of discretion a business has and a violation of federal civil rights law (and probably Indiana’s as well—though I have not done any research about the relevant state law). I asked the clerk if I could stay in the lobby while I ask the people from the Indiana University who invited me to South Bend could come meet me and help me figure out what to do, but she insisted that I had to leave the building immediately or she would call the police on me.

Thus, I found myself and my dog freezing outside in a cold rainy weather of about 40 degrees temperature with strong wind blowing at around 6:30pm. Because I was dropped off by the ADA paratransit, which requires a reservation at least a day prior to the date of travel, I had no transportation. Further, I use electronic wheelchair which does not fit in most cars or cabs, so I had no place to go or means to get there.

I was desperate for help from someone in the area who could take me to a different place or at least come and let me get in their car so my dog and I could be warm at least, so I posted an urgent request for help on social media. I did not ask anyone to complain to the hotel, but apparently some people did, and the clerk came out at around 7:25pm after almost an hour of freezing outside in cold rain, and told me that she was letting me check in. At that point finally I was told that the hotel would accept my dog as a service animal. (I posted an update to the original social media call for help letting everyone know what happened after entering my room.)

What happened to me that evening is not just a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, but also a failure of basic human decency. The clerk was clearly not trained on the legal obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the manager was also ignorant about it, but they also lacked imagination about what it would mean to throw out a customer with a disability using a wheelchair who have traveled from afar in a remote area where there are no other businesses or public transit or anything nearby on a cold rainy night.

Ganesh Hotels: How do you train employees or hotel managers on legal obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act? How did this failure occur, and what are you doing to ensure that it will not happen to other people? Remember, I happened to have the knowledge of the ADA guideline and social connections that allowed me to get inside eventually, but other customers might not and they still do not deserve to be left freeing outside.
Wyndham Hotel Group: What protections are in place for franchisees bearing your brands (Super 8, etc.) are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act? How was it possible for the entire staff at a Super 8 hotel to be ignorant about their legal obligations, and what are you doing to ensure that the same thing will not happen at other Wyndham-branded hotels?

Expedia Inc.: What do you do as a market facilitator to ensure that companies that you partner with are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and that it is safe for people with disabilities to book their travels with Expedia and your other sites?

I would like to hear your responses to these questions and also receive a formal apology from the manager of Super 8 Hotel in South Bend or someone above her. My friends have suggested that I should sue the hotel or demand a full refund. I would not go that far at this point because I was otherwise satisfied with the room and the booking process, but I think it would be fair and reasonable to ask for a refund for at least one night’s stay after I was left freezing outside for almost an hour in a strange city, wondering where I would go and how.

What I want out of this incident most is the assurance that the practice of disability discrimination is discontinued at Super 8 Hotel South Bend as well as at any other hotel under the control of Ganesh Hotels or in partnership with Wyndham Hotel Group or Expedia, Inc.

Thank you very much for your immediate attention to this problem. I look forward to hearing from you in the next couple of weeks.


Emi Koyama

Response from Wyndham Hotel Group:

Case # 3749437
Site # 14645

Dear Emi Koyama,

Super 8 Worldwide is in receipt of your concerns regarding your stay at SOUTH BEND , IN on or about 10/27/2016. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this has caused you.

Super 8 Worldwide appreciates you bringing your concerns to our attention. We take these matters very seriously. While Super 8 Worldwide is solely the franchisor of the Super 8 Worldwide trade name, trademarks, and service marks to independently owned and operated Super 8 Worldwide guest lodging facilities, we require all Super 8 Worldwide facilities to comply with applicable law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and its directives. We have contacted the owner/operator of this facility regarding this incident and conveyed our expectation that he/ she take steps to address it adequately. As this matter is the responsibility of the owner/operator of the facility, the facility is in the best position to respond. Please direct further communications to:

Priti Jairam
4124 Ameritech Drive
South Bend, IN, 46628-9126
(574) 243-0200

Customer Care
Wyndham Hotel Group
Tele: 888-675-3379
Fax: 888-565-7707

Response from Super 8 Hotel South Bend:

November 1, 2016

Dear Ms. Koyama,

I, Priti Jairam, general manager at Super 8 South Bend, am writing this email to you on behalf of my employee to apologize. I deeply regret what happened on October 27th 2016 and hope that you accept my apology.

We do not handle situation like this lightly therefore, we would like to give you full refund of your stay with us. We would also like an opportunity to accommodate you in future as well.

Thank you for bringing this to my attention, if there is anything else I can further assist you with, please let me know.


Priti Jairam
Super 8- South Bend
4124 Ameritech Dr
South Bend,IN 46628

Reclaiming Harm Reduction: a new zine released in time for the Harm Reduction Conference

Date: October 30, 2016

Just in time for the 11th National Harm Reduction Conference next week, I am announcing the publication of my new zine, “Reclaiming Harm Reduction: a collection” which compiles my writings related to harm reduction philosophy (excluding my numerous writings on sex trafficking and sex trade, which have been published in other zines). The new zine is available for order from my new online store.

zine cover

Here’s the introduction from the zine:

This booket/zine is a collection of my writings on the topic of harm reduction in my almost 20 years of activism.

Aside from the fact that I am presenting at the 11th National Harm Reduction Conference in San Diego next week (November 3-6, 2016) and wanted share my thoughts with people I meet there, I had a couple of reasons to compile some of my writings on this topic:

First, I live in Seattle area, where the phrase “harm reduction” has become a buzz word among people in the governemtn as well as in social service providers, which is welcome but its actual meaning is often lost in translation: many service providers use the term “harm reduction” when they simply mean that they don’t automatically exclude clients who are currently using drugs, but continue to have judgmental disdain for them or push a vision of “recovery” that does not reflect the needs or wishes of actual individuals who are coping with difficulties in their lives in the best way they know how.

Second, connected to the first point, I feel that harm reduction can be a lot more than just “a better way to deal with drug problems.” Drug use/abuse/addiction has not particularly been an issue that I deal with in my own personal life, but I encountered many of the similar failures of systemic responses to social problems, such as homelessness, violence against women, sex trafficking, and racism/classism/ableism/homophobia/transphobia/etc. In fact, harm reduction is the analysis that connects my involvement in various social justice movements, including advocacy of survivors of domestic and sexual violence, sex workers, intersex people, people with disabilities, and others. I wanted to compile a collection of my writings in these different movements to demonstrate a potential scope of harm reduction as a foundational philosophy and perspective.

That said, I also encountered limits of harm reduction, which I discuss in one of the essays included in this collection. While harm reduction helps us promote social interventions that meet the immediate needs of communities and individuals facing difficulties, it does not necessarily and automatically address the larger context of injustices in which these difficulties occur.

An example of this limitation that I address in the aforementioned essay is a suggestion that the distribution of condoms to U.S. military service members was a successful harm reduction program to reduce the spread of venereal diseases. While I agree such program may reduce the risk of venereal disease among U.S. soldiers, it does not address the violence of U.S. military interventions around the world itself, or the sexual violence too frequently perpetrated by the members of the U.S. forces against native women and girls. If anything, it might enable the U.S. to more efficiently and aggressively pursue military interventions across the globe that ultimately may result in more harms to the nations and peoples the U.S. decides to invade.

Harm reduction without an intentional commitment to the broader social and economic justice agenda can be reduced to a mere technology of population management. There are “harm reduction” housing programs in various cities where drug dealing and use are completely unregulated and unsupervised under the guise of “meeting where people are at,” where residents die from overdose every week without anyone outside of the building even taking a notice. Harm reduction should not be our communities’ excuse for being indifferent: while ultimately respecting how members of our communities choose to live, we cannot stop advocating for a better living environment for all of us, rather than simply pushing some of us aside in “harm reduction” ghettos and forget about them.

Essays collected in this booklet/zine span over 15 years of my writings, so some of the circumstances have changed since I wrote about them (I intentionally left out many writings that critiques the anti-trafficking movements because there are too many and I have compiled them into other booklets/zines). My thinking has also evolved in some of these areas as well. But overall, a commitment to harm reduction combined with social and economic justice continue to motivate my research and activism and it has only become more solidified if not sophisticated.

Thank you for picking up this collection, and I would like to hear what you think about them, or learn what else you are working on. Please feel free to contact me in any of the following ways:

Emi Koyama
PO Box 40570, Portland OR 97240
Twitter: @emikoyama
Facebok: emigrl2

Table of contents:

Stop Calling Human Trafficking “Modern Day Slavery” – Version 0.2

Date: October 30, 2016

This document explains why the U.S. movements against human trafficking should stop calling it “modern day slavery” or otherwise invoking the image of slavery by using terms like “abolition.” Please note that this document is intended for people discussing human trafficking in the United States context, and may not necessarily apply to discussions outside of the United States.

1. In the U.S., the word “slavery” inevitably invokes the specific historical experiences of the enslavement of African peoples by the white settlers in the U.S., which continues to negatively impact African Americans economically, politically, socially, and culturally today. Using the term “slavery” appropriates the historical and ongoing struggles of African American communities against the specific historical event of the Slavery.

2. Human trafficking is a crime. Slavery in the U.S. was criminal, but perfectly legal and supported by the full force of legal, economic, and political institutions. Human trafficking today does not receive such official backing, and cannot be compared to the Slavery. For example, courts today do not enforce contracts for trading humans nor the police detain and send back escaped trafficking victims to their traffickers.

3. It is the modern prison system, not contemporary human trafficking, that is the historical successor of the U.S. Slavery. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime,” and this caveat became a loophole to re-institute Black enslavement in the post-Reconstruction South under the guise of criminal punishment, where the State passed racist laws to criminalize freed slaves, then loaned out “convicts” as laborers to former slave owners. Modern prison system continues to criminalize and incarcerate African Americans at an extremely disproportionate rate while profiting corporations that build and manage prisons and employ prison labor at rates far below the legal minimum wage.

4. Like earlier “wars” on crimes, drugs, and terrorism, the government’s “war on trafficking” center primarily on surveilling, policing, and prosecuting African American and other communities of color, immigrants, street youth, and other communities that are already heavily criminalized. This includes targeting young people of color as “gangs” engaging in sex trafficking, profiling immigrants as both traffickers and trafficking victims at the border and beyond, and treating queer and trans youth supporting each other engage in survival sex as “trafficking” each other. The simplistic rhetoric of “modern day slavery” distracts us from complex systems of power and oppressions that make our communities vulnerable to exploitation, and allows the government to intensify policing and criminalization on marginalized communities, thereby imprisoning and enslaving more descendants of freed slaves in order to rescue “modern day slaves,” rather than addressing social, economic, and political roots of these vulnerabilities.

Version 0.2 – Please send comments or suggestions to emi at eminism dot org.

Next Steps for Safe Consumption/Injection Site in Seattle, or why the City of Seattle should sell drugs and operate brothels

Date: October 29, 2016

In February 2015 the Indiana State Health Department announced an outbreak of dozens of cases of HIV infection in southeastern part of the State resulting from needle-sharing among prescription drug users. It was not particularly newsworthy, except it happened in white rural Indiana as opposed to urban neighborhoods with large Black and Latino populations, causing a shockwave that appears to finally be making drug policy reform an acceptable policy choice to the mainstream.

Among other cities, Seattle and King County are working on becoming the first U.S. city to open a safe consumption (injection) facility in the near future, and I have attended many meetings in which community members, public health officials, social workers, activists, and others discussed how to establish and operate such facilities, as well as what other preventative and treatment options should be pursued. I was initially concerned about some of the random comments made by community members and elected officials who did not seem to know much about the issue, but in the end I feel that the task force came up with a fairly decent proposal (considering the political climate) for the city and county to consider.

Referred to by various names including “drug consumption room,” “medically supervised injecting center,” or “supervised injection facility,” safe consumption sites are “professionally supervised healthcare facilities where drug users can use drugs in safer and more hygienic conditions,” according to a paper by Dagmar Hedrich, Thomas Kerr and Françoise Dubois-Arber. Enforcement of anti-drug laws are often suspended at and around the facility in order for drug users to enter and use the facility without the fear of prosecution. At this point, InSite in Vancouver, Canada which opened in 2003 is the only existing facility in North America, even though multiple cities in the U.S. including Seattle are considering starting one.

One of the key decisions made during the early stages of Seattle’s effort to establish a safe consumption facility was the adaption of the “equity and social justice charge” which guided the process. The document states:

The King County Heroin and Opiate Addiction Task Force will apply an Equity and Social Justice (ESJ) lens to all of its work. We acknowledge that the “War on Drugs” has disproportionately adversely impacted some communities of color, and it is important that supportive interventions now not inadvertently replicate that pattern. Interventions to address the King County heroin and opiate problem will or could affect the health and safety of diverse communities, directly and indirectly (through re- allocation of resources). Measures recommended by the Task Force to enhance the health and well-being of heroin and opiate users or to prevent heroin and opiate addiction must be intentionally planned to ensure that they serve marginalized individuals and communities. At the same time, the response to heroin and opiate use must not exacerbate inequities in the care and response provided among users of various drugs.

All recommendations by the Taskforce will be reviewed using a racial impact statement framework. The Task Force will not seek to advance recommendations that can be expected to widen racial or ethnic disparities in health, healthcare, other services and support, income, or justice system involvement. Whenever possible, these concerns should lead to broadening the recommendations of the Task Force, rather than leaving behind interventions that are predicted to enhance the health and well-being of heroin and opiate users.

One of the reasons the task force used the phrase “safe consumption facility” throughout its discussions (although political compromises resulted in it being rebranded as the “Community Health Engagement Locations” or CHEL in the final recommendation) was precisely because the group did not wish to further the disparities between communities using different types of drugs by offering legal and medical relief to people using drugs in one way without doing the same for those using them in a different way (smoking).

Speaking of political compromises, it was interesting to observe how the task force ended up recommending the establishment of “at least two CHEL sites,” one of which shall be in Seattle and another outside. Some task force members commented that the downtown Seattle business association would not tolerate establishment of the safe consumption site if they felt singled out, while officials from nearby cities of Renton, Auburn, and others fought to push the second facility on each other, fearing that the safe consumption facility would bring drug users to their cities (which is ridiculous: people will not travel to Auburn just to use drugs at the safe consumption facility unless they already live in the area). In the end, police officers representing Renton and Auburn Police Departments both opposed to the recommendation to establish safe consumption facilities, but the rest of the task force adapted it.

Even with the political compromises, I feel that recommendations that includes prevention, treatment (including changes to State regulations that are making access to medication-assisted treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine programs unavailable to many who need it), greater distribution of naloxone, as well as the safe consumption facility are positive steps toward protecting the health and dignity of our neighbors.

But before Seattle celebrates itself upon becoming the one of the first cities if not the very first city to establish a safe consumption facility (or CHEL or whatever) and brags about its progressive tendencies, as it did when they legalized same-sex marriage or marijuana use, or when they enacted an ordinance to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over several years, I want to push forward with a couple of proposals to further protect the individual and collective health.

First proposal: Provide a public option. Here, I am not talking about heath insurance policies, which is an entirely different matter altogether. I am calling for the City of Seattle and King County to sell drugs to users directly at the safe consumption facility to remove third party suppliers and ensure the quality and safety of drugs consumed at the facility. In my proposal, consumers can purchase drugs that they consume at the facility, and would not be allowed to bring them outside. This will certainly increase the likelihood that consumers will use the facility–perhaps they might even travel to Auburn if this was available. Users will know exactly what they are putting in their bodies because the City can eliminate any contamination of drugs it sells, and it will make it easier to monitor their health while they us them.

Second proposal: Start a safe prostitution facility. The City of Seattle has been at the forefront of the nationwide effort to shut down Backpage, a website that many sex workers (and yes some traffickers) use to advertise their services, which has led to the recent raid on the site. But shutting down Backpage only pushes sex workers as well as potential sex trafficking victims further underground, perhaps onto offshore websites using encrypted and decentralized payment methods like Bitcoin that are harder to subpoena or investigate even when they needed to be investigated for human rights abuses. Safe prostitution facilities would provide client background check, physical safety, social workers on site, as well as safe and clean environment for sex workers.

In both proposals, it would be essential that the City does not receive fees and revenues exceeding what it costs to offer these products or services, lest the City would itself become financially entangled as a drug dealer or a pimp. The City should certainly promote the services to increase its use among people who already engage in drug use or prostitution, but the system should be designed to minimize the financial incentive for the City to overreach this aim, perhaps by requiring that any profit would go toward lowering the fees for the next year.

These proposals may not be satisfactory to people who demand full decriminalization of drug use and prostitution (and I support that as well), but I feel that they are what is possible under the existing laws under the same rationale that make safe consumption sites possible in Seattle. Some versions of these policies are already practiced in some parts of Europe, such as the prescription of heroin to those diagnosed with substance use disorders or the establishment of government-funded facilities for sex workers to operate at, and if any city in the U.S. could do it, it would be Seattle.


Date: October 13, 2016

i didn’t expect this to happen, but i’m starting to have deep empathy toward the first woman running as a major party candidate for the president in history, who has to share the debate stage with an opponent who is possibly the most outwardly misogynist man to be running as a major party candidate in history, and she must act like she’s just having a normal debate because she’d get penalized as a woman for expressing one millionth of emotional reaction or instability that he is freely displaying. and no this isn’t an endorsement for her but i’m identifying with her as a woman like i never expected.


this is really getting to me hard. more and more women coming forward and speaking out about what this man did to them over the span of decades and how he always got away with it because he was “a star” as he said. his followers posting home addresses and phone numbers of these women online. his mocking the appearances of the women, suggesting that nobody would ever want to harass or assault someone who look like them. and i imagine that it must have felt like this for many american muslims and mexicans and others for many months before it started affecting me this way and it sucks.

(compiled from my ramblings on October 13, 2016 in Facebook)

A brief comment in response to Seattle Times columnist’s call for more cops to stop rapes

Date: October 13, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, an activist friend asked me to provide a brief comment that they could quote in a community statement in response to this horrible column published by The Seattle Times earlier. The column criticized activists working to halt Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s plan to hire 200 additional police officers, arguing that the apparent increase in the number of reported rapes is a reason Seattle needed more cops.

Sadly, the statement they were working on did not materialize, so I am posting it here.

For many women in our communities, especially women in the sex trade, women who are homeless or marginally housed, women of color and immigrant women, women with cognitive and mental disabilities, and others–the very people who are most vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence–the law enforcement is a major source of violence rather than a resource they can safely reach for help. We do not oppose increased police presence in our communities because of some unfounded prejudice against police officers, who by the way are four times more likely than average to be perpetrators of domestic violence, but because of our lived reality that more police does not make our lives safer nor does it address underlying vulnerabilities resulting from poverty, racism, sexism, as well as failed criminal, drug, and immigration policies.

Filisa Vistima was more than just a martyr: a history of trans women in Seattle’s lesbian community in the early 1990s

Date: October 7, 2016

On Monday, October 10th, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project at the University of Washington, Department of History will celebrate the opening of the new LGBTQ Seattle Activism Project curated by doctoral student Kevin McKenna. The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project already offers an amazing collection of historical materials and testimonies about civil and labor rights, so I was excited to hear about the launch of this new section.

The news of its opening also reminded me that I had done some research about an important part of Seattle’s lesbian and transgender history last year at the Seattle Public Library but procrastinated documenting what I found, and motivated me to finally do just that.

My research was about Filisa Vistima, a 22-year old trans woman living in Seattle who committed suicide on March 1993. In addition to being transgender, she was an active member of local lesbian community, volunteering her time at Seattle’s Lesbian Resource Center, which has since been closed. Last entries of her diary, archived by trans activist and writer Cristan Williams document her struggle with love, life, depression, and (often internalized) transphobia:

I am encountering many old desires of mine, e.g. swimming. By the comments [name withheld] has mentioned to me (“Your hands are large,” “You’re shaped like a boy” and so forth), I have been self-conscious of myself. I wish I was anatomically “normal” so I could go swimming.

If i was “normal” I would no longer have any reason to hide behind my clothes other than to hide my modesty. I could go swimming without clothes… I would love to do that so much!!

But no, I’m a mutant, Frankenstein’s monster.

Now I am feeling the same feeling I had some days ago but forgot about them, the feeling that I hate myself, the physical self. I remember having these feelings when I was a child, hitting thighs with my hands so I would cry. I’m, crying now…

[…] I feel inferior to “real women” and I may never be able to resolve the conflict.

(From Filisa Vistima’s Diary, January 5, 1993)

In The Transgender Studies Reader, trans historian Susan Stryker adds further context to Filisa’s suicide:

What drove her to such despair was the exclusion she experienced in Seattle’s queer community, some members of which opposed Filisa’s participation because of her transsexuality–even though she identified as and lived as a bisexual woman. The Lesbian Resource Center where she served as a volunteer conducted a survey of its constituency to determine whether it should stop ofering services to male-to-female transsexuals. Filisa did the data entry for tabulating the survey results; she didn’t have to imagine how people felt about her kind. […] Even in death she found no support from the community in which she claimed membership. “Why didn’t Filisa commit herself for psychiatric care?” asked a columnist in the Seattle Gay News. “Why didn’t Filisa demand her civil rights?” In this case, not only did the angry villagers hound their monster to the edge of town, they reproached her for being vulnerable to the torches. Did Filisa Vistima commit suicide, or did the queer community of Seattle kill her?

Cristan Williams also writes:

From what I can ascertain, prior to her Filisa’s death, she was made responsible for entering data from a Lesbian Resource Center (LRC) survey asking their service population if they felt that the LRC should continue to provide services to MTF transsexuals. RadFems had taken a hard line against providing services to transsexuals and Filisa was the one who had to record each venomous RadFem objection just prior to her death.

In the footnote, Stryker clarifies that her description “draws extensively on, and sometimes paraphrases” opinion pieces written by Margaret Deidre O’Hartigan and Frederic Kahler (separately) and published several months after Filisa’s death in Bay Times, a weekly LGBT community newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area.

However, in my research I found out that some important details surrounding Filisa’s death were not entirely accurate.

There was a major controversy among members of Seattle’s lesbian community, but it mainly was over the acceptability of S/M in lesbian community, not transgender issues. The August 1992 issue of LRC Community News, the monthly publication of the Lesbian Resource Center, reported that “Seattle will play hostess to POWERSURGE, the first international Lesbian SM conference ever held.” “It is an event that heralds a new chapter in lesbian herstory,” proclaimed author Julia Kaplan.

The conference was being organized by Outer Limits, a local lesbian S/M group that held orientation meetings for new and prospective members at LRC, whose presence at the community center was heavily disputed by lesbians who believed that S/M glorified abuse and violence against women. Community member Maureen Brooks submitted a letter published in the same issue of LRC Community News arguing:

Once upon a time the Lesbian Resource Center was focused on creating a safe space for Lesbians to congreate. All Lesbians. It no longer serves that purpose.
[…] For example, the Lesbian Resource Center has become a staunch supporter of the S/M crowd. You can now attend workshops at the Lesbian Resource Center that offer actual demonstrations of Lesbian style sado-masochism. […]

What does S/M have to do with being a Lesbian? What does a trans-gender male or female have to do with being Lesbian? […] The Lesbian Resource Center is Lesbian space. […] My life has been dedicated to Honoring Women and the Female Energy. Obviously, the Lesbian Resource Center does not share in that commitment.

Brooks ends her letter by urging similarly minded lesbians to join her fight against the LRC leadership.

I don’t believe that I’m the only one who feels this way abut what’s happening in our space. […] Our concerns aren’t being represented at the Lesbian Resource enter. Our concerns are real and need to be heard before our Lesbian space is taken completely away from us. I can write letter after letter of protest, and the Board of Officers [of the LRC] will answer each letter praising the god of diversity. One person cannot accomplish change. But together we can reclaim our space and make it safe for Lesbians again. Talk to me. My telephone number is [redatcted].

Brooks does mention her opposition to transgender inclusion at the LRC in the passing, but the bulk of her arguments revolve around the acceptance of S/M at the LRC, as understood by other readers who sent in their criticisms of Brooks’ position in the September issue of the LRC Community News:

You talk about what you think the S/M women do in the LRC “space”. I know you haven’t encountered the shocking display of someone actually practicing S/M when you walk through the LRC door. That would be non-consensual, and that’s not what S/M is about. So it’s KNOWING that they were THERE at some point, and might be THERE again that bothers you. (name withheld)

[…] think about the fact that S/M or transgender women who love other women are also lesbians, and therefore have the same right to the LRC as you. […] I fail to see how an S/M workshop on, say, Tuesday makes the LRC “unsafe” for you on Wednesday (or Tuesday, for that matter). (Tonya Mikulas)

How does an event that happens when you are not in the LRC make it unsafe for you to be there at some other time? […] I understand that you may disapprove of me or the other Lesbians based on your own self-definition and “I honor that self-definition in all of us,” yet I realize that the LRC can be, and is, a safe place for both of us, for all Lesbians, for all women.” (Jane Seidman Vosk)

I am very involved in the lesbian S/M community and I do not know of anyone who either hangs out there [at the LRC] or wishes to “take it over.” I don’t understand her [Brooks’] paranoia just because diverse lesbians occasionally meet there and do not fit her lesbian standards. […] I believe that the LRC News handled itself in a fair and true journalistic manner by reflecting the very diversity of which she wrote, by including both her anti-S/M letter and, on the following page, a big story of POWERSURGE, the upcoming Seattle S/M lesbian conference.

All through her letter she referred to S/M dykes as not being lesbians. She wrote about female energy and then referred to the God, not Goddess, of diversity. I’d stake my Goddess-filled leather up against her bigoted cotton drawstrings any day and I’d still come up a dyke! (Julia Kaplan)

I wish to note the number of leather dykes who work in leadership positions in our local, national, and international community. To deny these women–these lesbians–full participation in the LRC is ludicrous! […] My experience with S/M dykes at [sic.] that of all sub-groups within the lesbian community, these are the women most ready to come out, step up, and volunteer their time to their sisters and brothers. […] To restrict the LRC to only a particular type of lesbian is to restrict the LRC’s purpose–and ultimately, the LRC’s funding and thus its ability to survive. I ask all of you to consider what could be accomplished if people like Ms. Brooks stopped spending their time and energy worrying about “how do I keep THEM out” and instead spent it on “how can I keep US strong.” (Karen T. Taylor)

There are many lesbians who share Brooks’ anti-S/M attitude. Many S/M dykes once felt this way too. I encourage those who feel this way to learn more of what S/M is about before passing judgment on the personal lifestyle choices of others. […] As lesbians we are a diverse group with diverse needs and thank Goddess for that! I wish us all support and resources on our paths toward empowerment. I am an S/M dyke and the LRC is as much for me as it is for Maureen Brooks. (Jennifer Greenstein)

The letters section also included a statement, signed by dozens of S/M lesbians, that simply noted “We, the undersigned, feel that S/M lesbians have as much right to use the LRC as any other lesbian.”

S/M Lesbians' Statement

Letters published in this issue of the LRC Community News were all in support of S/M lesbians in the LRC and larger lesbian community, but Brooks published her own “community survey” as a paid advertisement on the same issue under the ad-hoc group “Lesbians for Abuse-Free Lesbian Space.”

The “community survey” contained twelve items that are leading questions designed to promote Brooks’ own opinions on issues at hand and seeking agreement. For example, the question number three reads:

A woman who has experienced abuse enters the LRC. She sees S/M posters on the wall. She reads the LRC publication that announces an S/M workshop at the LRC, complete with demonstrations. She attends an LRC dance and is exposed to the token slave-on-chain being led around by her Mistress. What is the possibility of this woman feeling safe at the LRC or any of its functions? What is our responsibility to this woman?

Brooks questions the inclusion of “bisexual and transgender community” in the LRC (questions nine, eleven and twelve) as well as “whether a male can validly define himself as a Lesbian, even after the surgical removal of his male genitalia and the surgical introduction of artificial female genitalia” (question ten) near the end of the survey, but the focus of the survey clearly is the issue of S/M (questions one through eight and twelve).

Maureen Brooks Survey

The survey concludes by asking readers to submit their responses to “Maureen Brooks c/o Lesbian Resource Center,” promising that “the results of this survey will be presented to the Board of Officers of the Lesbian Resource Center along with a request for action on their part to resolve this growing problem.”

The publication of the anti-S/M and anti-bi/trans survey as a “paid advertisement” in the LRC Community News resulted in a flood of criticisms against its editors, some of which were published in the next (October) issue.

As a dyke who has been involved with the LRC since 1976 (such as LMNDF, workshops, discussion groups, guest speakers, etc.), I clearly question the continual discussion and on-going attacks on s/m dykes and other groups. All dykes should have equal access to the LRC and its resources by virtue of simply being dykes. i am the s/m dyke recently referred to in your (newspaper), but not by name. If any womyn on the LRC board, staff, etc. have questions as to how i have run my workshops and/or what was said or done, ask me directly. Do not use covert references to third hand instances such as Maureen has done in her letter and her survey. (slave falcon, with full support of her Mistress Kate)

As a Queer woman and past contributor, volunteer and client of the LRC, I feel compelled to respond to Maureen Brooks’ letter and subsequent ad in the LRCCN… […] My initial response to the letter was “here we go, tearing our own community apart from within, better than the right-wing does from outside.” But the appearance of the so-called survey by “Lesbians for abuse-free Lesbian space” was just too offensive to ignore. Ms. Brooks’ blatant manipulative language and own personal agenda (is there anyone else in this “group”?) smack of Republican hate-mongering tactics. Distortions and labeling (dehumanizing) are fascist tactics used by far better propagandists than you, Ms. Brooks. (name lost due to editing error)

In response to these criticisms, the Board of Lesbian Resource Center published its apology for publishing the survey:

Two months ago, a letter to the editor appeared in the LRCCN concerning one individual’s concern that the LRC is no longer a safe place for lesbians. Her concern centered on the presence of certain groups of lesbians at the LRC. The editor and the Board discussed whether the letter should be published. While the Board unanimously stands behind the LRC’s mission statement that the LRC is a place for all lesbians to enjoy, we decided to allow its publication. We felt and continue to feel that the LRC and the LRCCN provide forums where ideas and controversies can and should be explored.

The following month the editor received numerous letters opposing the initial letter (no letters in support of the initial letter were received prior to the publication deadline). Many of the letters were printed as space allowed. In addition, the author of the initial letter requested space in the LRCCN for a survey she wished to publish. The editor agreed to publish the survey provided the writer pay for the space at the going advertisement rate. In addition, the editor granted the writer’s request that she be offered the same courtesy other advertisers receive–namely, the option of having responses to her ad received at the LRC. This in no way represented the Board’s or editor’s endorsement of the survey or the idea therein expressed, or any intent by the Board to use any material sent to the author as a community barometer. Unfortunately, our zeal to allow freedom of expression and to stand in the face of criticism and controversy, we overlooked the oppressive nature of the survey. And truly, the survey was oppressive. To suggest, as the survey does, that the LRC should limit access or services to any group of lesbians is oppressive to that group. To question the right of any lesbian to use the LRC, to discuss the issues important to her, to share her knowledge and experience, based on that lesbian’s beliefs, private consensual sexual practices or affiliations is oppressive.

We offer our heartfelt apology to the lesbian community for having published a survey which is oppressive to S/M lesbians, bisexuals and transgender lesbians. We affirm that the LRC remains committed to supporting all lesbians and to refraining from “print[ing] items which are oppressive” in the LRCCN.

After reading these three months’ worth of the LRC Community News it became clear to me that the version of history Susan Stryker and Cristan Williams wrote contained many inaccuracies: The survey was indeed published, but it was conducted by an individual critical of the Lesbian Resource Center’s leadership (and yes, there is no evidence that the whole thing is more than just one individual’s being unhappy with the direction of the LRC), and not the LRC itself. The survey was mostly about the acceptance of lesbians who practice S/M, and the issue of bisexual and transgender women’s inclusion appears to have been an add-on. The Lesbian Resource Center did not intend to “determine whether it should stop offering services to male-to-female transsexuals” or use the result of the survey in any way.

Filisa Vistima’s name last appears in the masthead of the publication under “data entry” until its October issue (in which the apology was published) and disappears in the November issue. Her departure from the LRC Community News may or may not have something to do with her reactions to the controversy, but it is questionable that she was forced to perform “the data entry for tabulating the survey results,” if the LRC merely agreed to receive readers’ responses to the ads at its address for Brooks and her “Lesbians for abuse-free Lesbian space,” especially since the Board quickly recognized how “oppressive” the survey was.

The controversy over S/M or bisexual/transgender inclusion disappears from the subsequent issues of the publication following the apology, no doubt due to an editorial decision made by the Board and editors. Then in its April 1993 issue, the LRC Community News published an obituary for Filisa written by an LRC staffer Mindy Schaberg, along with a beautiful photo of her. The entire obituary is reproduced below (with her birth name redacted out of respect for Filisa, since I do not know if this was something that was okay with her):

Filisa Sofia Vistima, 1970-1993

The staff and board of the LRC are deeply saddened by the sudden loss of Filisa Vistima. Filisa took her own life Friday, March 5, 1993. She was 22.

She was found by her housemate after she took an overdose of antidepressants. She left a letter to her housemate, detailing her last wishes, which included the publication of her journal documenting her experiences as transgendered. She constantly struggled with bouts of depression and suicidal tendencies.

Filisa was born [redacted] in Webberville, MI to fundamentalist parents. She will be buried in Michigan under her boy name.

At a recent memorial service held at the LRC, twenty friends and acquaintances gathered to remember this person whom one friend described as “deep waters beneath a still, placid surface.”

She was a member of the computer network 28 Barbary Lane, and those who knew her from her highly intelligent and eloquent writing were surprised when they met the reserved and taciturn Filisa. She was a voracious reader, gifted on the computer, intrigued by science (especially microbiology), and education. She loved the natural world, and kept two mice as pets.

While she may have felt most comfortable in a cerebral realm, she loved a bit of raunch and drama as well. One friend described the time she announced that she wanted to feel Filisa’s “tit buds,” as the hormones Filisa was taking took effect, and did. Filisa was shocked and delighted.

She moved to Seattle in 1991, in part because of the city’s transgendered community, and checked in with the Ingersoll Center. She began volunteering at the Lesbian Resource Center soon after. She spent hundreds of hours here as a drop-in volunteer, cataloging the entire collection of periodicals and books, helping out with whatever project was going on. When this newspaper was between editors a year and a half ago, for example, she and then-director Cherie Larsen put in sixteen hour days to get it out.

We knew it was Monday at the LRC because Filisa would appear suddenly, tall and thin, her long reddish hair cascading down her back, a diaphanous scarf knotted at her throat, and settle on the couch with a book. Phone messages would appear on our desks in her tiny, cramped writing, invariably in purple ink–purple fine-point being her pen of choice.

She wrote many short stories and poems. One poem “Message in a Bottle,” written in October of 1992, contains this stanza: “I know you don’t know me / And I hope you get my message. / I come from a far-away place / And time. / I want to give you a part of me / In this bottle of unfulfilled dreams. / I will not begin a new life– / One without mortality– / Through these writings i (sic) have written / And end an old one.”

We will miss you, Filisa.

It is undoubtedly true that Filisa faced prejudice and discrimination for who she was within the lesbian and queer communities as well as the rest of the world. It is possible that Maureen Brooks’ attacks on the Lesbian Resource Center that took place several months before Filisa’s suicide contributed to the already full plate of rejections and disappointments that ultimately led to her death. Suicides, hate crimes, and the slow deaths of depression, social isolation, poverty, and obstacles to self-care continue to claim many trans lives today, after more than two decades of movements for transgender liberation since Filisa’s time.

That certainly is a part of the history of transgender lives in Seattle, but it is only a part. What is missing from Stryker’s and Williams’ telling of Filisa’s story was that Filisa was also accepted and loved by her peers at the Lesbian Resource Center, who at times made mistakes (like publishing her birth name in an otherwise loving obituary). The Lesbian Resource Center did make a mistake by allowing Brooks’ “survey” as a paid advertisement, perhaps motivated by a desire to be held accountable to criticisms, but the Seattle lesbian community deserves more credit than being recorded in history as a group of transphobic haters who forced a trans woman volunteer to tabulate the results of the survey about her own exclusion.

I shared my finding with Susan Stryker, who offered the following statement to be published along with this post.

I knew the story of Filisa Vistima only from coverage in the Bay Area gay and lesbian press–two editorials in the San Francisco Bay Times, one (May 20, 1993) by Portland-based trans activist Margaret O’Hartigan, and the other (June 3, 1993) by Frederic Kahler. As I mention in a footnote in the article of mine that you refer to, the paragraph in which I discuss Vistima “draws extensively on, and sometimes paraphrases, O’Hartigan and Kahler.” As such, my citation of these works undoubtedly reproduces any biases or errors in their representation of events. The main topic of the article in which I mentioned Vistima was not her or her death, but rather monstrosity, and the main point I was trying to make was that the denial of humanity to trans people, and the attribution of monstrosity to us, can be transformed into a positive source of power, by rejecting the hierarchy of values that puts “the human” on top of the rest of material being. I mentioned Vistima only because in her journal entries, quoted in the media coverage, she wrote of considering herself a “Frankenstein monster,” which she found to be extremely disempowering, and which seems to have played some role in her suicidal ideation. Her story was in the press just as I was writing on this topic, and I simply used it as an example to illustrate the larger point that I was trying to make. The circumstances of Vistima’s death were not anything I investigated deeply, so if your research shows that the editorials I drew on mischaracterize her relationship to the Lesbian Resource Center, I defer to your greater expertise on the matter, while nevertheless maintaining the point I was trying to make in the article, and the appropriateness of using her self-characterizations to support that point.

Susan Stryker

I would like to thank Susan and the librarian at the Seattle Public Library who found copies of the LRC Community News spread over multiple shelves due to repeated changes to the publication’s name.

Filisa Vistima Obituary

My rejected response to the question “should prostitution be legal?”

Date: October 6, 2016

Note: Below is a piece written for an online media outlet that requested my 300-500 word response to the question “should prostitution be legal?”.

It was uncompensated, but because they were lining up many activists (anti-prostitution and sex worker rights) and scholars (law, philosophy, etc.) on both “pro” and “con” sides of the debate, and I felt that none of them on either side would represent my perspective, so I wrote one on a very tight deadline.

Well, it has been a month since that time, but they have not used my response in their published feature so I will assume that they did not like my piece, or felt that my response was completely incomprehensible to their target audience, who are members of the “personal finance industry,” so I decided to publish here instead.


Should prostitution be legal? Of course it should, as I am sure others can explain how there is no fundamental moral or ethical reason that private sexual transactions between consenting adults should be criminalized, or how, if one were actually concerned about the violence and exploitation that exist within commercial sexual exchanges, prohibition of prostitution exacerbates the problems by pushing the sexual marketplace further underground.

But those who argue whether prostitution should be legalized, decriminalized, criminalized, or combination thereof (as in the case of the so-called Nordic model) often miss the crucial reality that criminalization is not about what the laws on the book say, but about the targeting and persecution of communities and individuals deemed criminal, as the extra-legal executions and murders of Black men and women by the law enforcement and the dearth of prosecutions against such actions attest. Criminal laws do not make criminals; they are merely tools to further persecute those who are already labeled by the society as criminal.

That is why, while I welcome my fellow sex worker activists’ and allies’ efforts to decriminalize prostitution, I believe that the criminalization of sex workers who are people of color, trans women, immigrants, street youth, drug users, and other criminalized populations will continue unabated regardless of how the law might classify the legality of commercial sexual exchange. In fact, I have heard anecdotal stories from youth advocates in cities that have enacted “safe harbor” policies which prevent minors from being charged with the crime of prostitution that the constant harassment, abuse, and persecution of street youth engaging in sex trade by the police have not decreased as a result.

Even laws that ostensively target pimps and sex traffickers are in reality used to further criminalize young people of color (I heard the police chief of a city I lived at the time tell a crowd at a human trafficking community forum that we must “stop listening to that crap, rap music” in order to prevent sex trafficking), in addition to making it harder for people in the sex trade to help each other without committing the crime of “promoting prostitution,” which media often equate with “pimping” and human trafficking but does not necessarily involve coercion or exploitation.

Since around 2011, the federal government reframed “domestic minor sex trafficking” as part of the “gang problem,” setting the government’s “war on trafficking” on the same devastatingly racist trajectory as Richard Nixon’s “war on crimes,” Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs,” and George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” In the meantime, the trafficking of foreign and domestic workers in our farms, factories, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses—none of which are predominantly owned by Black and brown people—remain unaddressed. We need to stop arguing in abstract about whether or not prostitution should be legal, and instead focus our attention on the white supremacy of our social, political, and legal institutions.


Update: Several more months later, they finally posted my response on their website.