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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.

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 life expentancy. 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]

Seattle PD drowning #BlackLivesMatter rally with Christmas tunes

Date: November 28, 2015

Yesterday I attended the whitest #BlackLivesMatter rally that I’ve ever seen in downtown Seattle. I have things to say about the whiteness of the Seattle BLM crowd or the seemingly opportunistic white socialist/communist/anarchist/lefty/etc. groups promoting themselves at BLM rallies, but that’s not the topic for this post.

BLM Seattle Banner

As I arrived at the Westlake Park where the rally was held, I immediately realized that I could not hear anything speakers were saying because of the loud Christmas songs blasted through the sound system in the park. But this being the Black Friday for the rest of the community, I thought the music was something that just came with it in a busy shopping area like the Westlake Center area. But it wasn’t.

The sound was blasting from the “Pine Street Holiday Stage” set up in the park, but the stage was not in use at the time.

BLM Seattle Stage

And the music was not endless looping track: there was a hired DJ in the audio booth set up for this stage, along with at least a dozen police officers inside the fence protecting the booth. The man in the top right of the next photo is the DJ. I looked at his computer screen and verified that the music was coming from the computer.

BLM Seattle DJ

Of course there were cops everywhere—several dozens of them, including some on the second floor balcony looking over the park. Curiously, they were almost all on one side of the park facing Macy’s and Nordstrom.

BLM Seattle Cops

After a while, the march began, leaving the park almost empty. At that moment, the music also stopped. And it started blasting again from the sound system about fifteen minutes later when the march that went around a few blocks came back to the park.

BLM Seattle March

BLM Seattle Return

I understand that police officers were “just doing their job” surveilling the rally and protecting fancy department stores. But intentionally drowning the rally by blasting Christmas songs near the rally (perhaps the DJ was hired by the business association or something, but he was clearly collaborating with the police) seems more than a little pathetic and mean-spirited.

Dear the white BLM participant holding a sign demanding more “trainings” for police officers, do you really think that’s the solution?

(Also posted on Tumblr)

Seeking button stories for a new zine

Date: July 20, 2015

Friends! Have you bought/worn my buttons? Do you have funny, heartwarming, infuriating, etc. stories about them? Any good conversations or hookups my buttons facilitated? I want to make a zine of button stories. All contributors who are accepted will receive a free copy of the upcoming zine and maybe some special buttons.

Here’s my own example of a (true) button story: I was wearing a button that says “I (heart) MY CUNT” when I was shopping at a convenience store. A South Asian man at the register saw my button, and asked, “what does your button say?” “It says I LOVE MY CUNT,” I replied. “I love my country?” “No no, it says I LOVE MY CUNT.” “What does ‘cunt’ mean?” he asked. Realizing that he may not be familiar with the American vulgarity, I gave him a definition of the word that might have come from some scientific dictionary. “Oh,” he said, totally embarrassed, handing me the change without looking my direction. But as I walked out of the automatic door, he said “it’s good to love yourself.” So while he seemed very embarrassed, he got the message completely correctly.

I’m interested in hearing what sort of conversations my buttons sparked! I’ve been making buttons for 15 years, so I’m sure that there are many other stories that need to be shared. If you have any stories, please do email me at emi at eminism dot org. Please don’t feel intimidated: contact me if you are not sure if it’s worth printing. Thanks!

A note about trans exclusion at New Orleans Women’s Health Clinic in 2009

Date: March 30, 2015

Back in June 2009, I saw a post on now-defunct Questioning Transphobia blog that called attention the website of New Orleans Women’s Health Clinic, which read, in part, “We are currently not able to provide care to trans people who were male assigned at birth or who have had genital sex reassignment surgery. Please call for referrals.” The poster, a white trans woman who had recently relocated to New Orleans and was looking for health resources, was outraged to read the outright discrimination against trans women. When the post went up, many people were also outraged, and it ignited a firestorm of criticisms against NOWHC’s transphobia.

I agreed that NOWHC’s statement was deeply problematic and offensive, but I was also concerned how an army of mostly white trans women and allies initiated a campaign of full-on attacks on NOWHC, a small reproductive health clinic (which was at the time on hiatus due to lack of resources) established by (mostly) Black women affiliated with Incite! Women of Color (now “Women and Trans People of Color”) Against Violence after Hurricane Katrina left many women completely devastated and without needed services such as this. Yes, NOWHC’s exclusion of trans women must be addressed and corrected, but I felt that there was a better way to achieve that.

So I told folks on the blog that I was contacting someone I knew from Incite! New Orleans to get it addressed, and asked them to give me a little time to do so. For this, I was viciously attacked for a prolonged period of time for supposedly attempting to “silence” trans women’s righteous anger over the statement, but I was simply asking white trans women to take a step back and let me, a trans-ish woman of color with existing ties to Incite!, work things out with the women I knew from Incite! New Orleans.

After several email and phone conversations, NOWHC publicly apologized to trans women and had a statement posted on Questioning Transphobia blog. The original poster also apologized to NOWHC for rushing to publish the article attacking the clinic only an hour after sending them an email questioning the statement instead of waiting for their response.

Questioning Transphobia blog has since disappeared, as did many other blogs and websites that discussed the incident, so it has become difficult to learn what happened and how it got resolved. An unfortunate result of this is that it left a vague memory that Incite! has done something transphobic in the past, with no knowledge or awareness of a resolution, which continues to give the impression that Incite! might still be a trans women exclusionary institution.

I cannot find any web archive of NOWHC’s statement or Questioning Transphobia blog, but I was able to find email exchanges from 2009 that included the statement. With the permission of the Incite!, I am publishing an excerpt from the statement below.

We agree that the questions and concerns you raise are very important. The priorities we hold in providing safe, accessible, and unbiased care to women regardless of their race, income, sexuality, gender identity, body type, citizenship status, work sector, legal history, ability, age, language, and family size and status are often regarded as a “risk” and “liability” by many medical professionals. This reality has delayed our efforts to hire a new Medical Director and created many barriers for many members of our community, including you, in seeking safe, quality, and respectful services.

In making the statements “we are currently not able to provide care to trans people who were male assigned at birth or who have had genital sex reassignment surgery. Please call for referrals,” we were referencing the lack of experience and training that our former medical staff had in providing trans affirmative care to all women regardless of their body types, and gender identities and expressions. We recognize that the current language on our website marginalizes trans women in particular, even though it says elsewhere that we provide services to “all women.” Although “services” provided at the Clinic are not restricted to our medical programs, we recognize that the way it is written implies that we offer no services at all to trans women, which is marginalizing and confusing. It would be more accurate to say that our goal is to provide medical services to all women, though we are having a difficult time reaching it. We take responsibility for this inaccurate representation, and for the ways in which the language is disrespectful, and we sincerely apologize.

Collectively and organizationally, we are committed to creating institutions and environments that challenge gender-policing and trans and homophobia by dismantling racist, heterosexist, patriarchal, classist, and xenophobic ideologies of exclusion, discrimination, hatred, and violence, which creates barriers for many members of our community, particularly those persons who are women of color, poor, LGBTQ, immigrant, differently-abled, homeless, heads of households, disabled, sex workers, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, young, and living in racially and economically segregated communities. Our website doesn’t reflect this politic effectively and we are currently in the process of modifying it.

Besides language, we share the concern about the core issue of offering safe, quality, and respectful services to all women. Since our founding, we have struggled to hire medical staff who don’t pathologize, demonize, and criminalize the bodies of undocumented women, women with disabilities, l/b/t/q/i women, women of color, low-income women, homeless women, and women working in the sex industry because of our sexuality, reproductive decisions, and gender expressions. Currently, we are evaluating if we can realistically find medical staff that meet this expectation, particularly given the current conditions of the city.

In the future, I think it would help to post such statements to Incite!’s own website/blog in addition to where the firestorm originated from so that memories of the organization’s mistakes and growth can survive the forgetfulness (except in the NSA database) of the internet.

I will not deal with “consumers” anymore.

Date: February 20, 2015

I make and sell buttons and zines, and I enjoy how they spread awareness and start conversations. But it has never been a major source of income, and I cannot prioritize filling orders promptly like a business would. So I give this disclaimer on my online store:

Please understand that this is not a real business per se; it’s just one girl manufacturing and distributing her stuff on her spare time. Thus, it may take a while before your order can be shipped. If you are worried that I might have forgotten your order, feel free to check the status of your order by email.

On January 18th, someone from Fargo, North Dakota ordered some buttons through my website. I usually dedicate one or two days per month to filling orders that came during the interval, but I had just made a shipment so I held the order for the next “shipping day.”

Then in about ten days, this individual filed a complaint to Paypal alleging non-receipt of the buttons, triggering Paypal to withhold his payment. I replied citing my shipping policy, and promised to ship the next week. No response. Then on February 2nd, I did ship his order, and sent him a photo of the U.S. Postal Service receipt that shows a shipment to Fargo, ND. Again, no response. I waited for a little while to allow the delivery to take place, and once again I sent him a message asking him if he had received the package, and if so please withdraw the complaint. No response.

Finally, without any response whatsoever from him, and despite the fact I sent them the photo of the Fargo, ND receipt, Paypal ruled in his favor “after careful consideration” and took my money and gave it back to him.

The payment was small, so the financial loss is not that great. But it left me regretting that I did not simply cancel his order when he first filed a complaint with Paypal without any discussion. I sell buttons because I want to connect with other activists, artists, and scholars who share my values, not because I want to run a business. If this guy does not understand that, he is just a consumer rather than a colleague/friend/fellow activists and I have no desire to deal with consumers of my “products.”

So I decided: in the future, it will be my policy that, if someone files a complaint to Paypal without having any conversations with me first and do not respond to me after I explain my shipping practice, I will immediately cancel the order. I am not interested in having a business-to-consumer relationship over my buttons and zines.

Help Emi attend Color of Violence conference and avoid the evil overdraft charge [UPDATE: Goal reached!]

Date: February 11, 2015

[UPDATE February 12th, 2015] Goal reached! In less than 24 hours, I received a total donation exceeding my goal of $400. I will keep some of the surplus for food and printing costs, and contribute some to other women of color I know who are struggling to pay for the trip to attend the conference. Thank you everyone who contributed and/or spread the word! – ek

Original post follows below.


Short version:

I need financial help to get to Color of Violence conference. Please paypal or send check to Emi Koyama, PO Box 40570, Portland OR 97240. You can also support me by ordering my buttons and zines.

Long version:

Hello friends – I am doing two presentations at the upcoming Color of Violence conference in March, and about a month ago I posted a comment on Facebook asking for financial help getting there. But I didn’t set up any crowdfunding page or anything, because at the time I thought I could afford a large part of the cost myself.

Well, things have changed and I have less money now than I did, so I need to get more serious about fundraising to get there. The good news is that I got help with the lodging so that’s taken care of. In other words, I just need to raise enough money for airfare, ground transportation, and food.

The flight from Portland was super expensive (around $600), but it was way cheaper from Seattle so that’s how I’m going to travel. The roundtrip airfare is $362.20 (I’ve already purchased the ticket so it won’t go up, and my bank account is now dangerously close to overdrafting). For ground transportation I use ADA paratransit, which is $3 per ride in Chicago. I plan to go to a grocery store on the first day and stock up in my room to save money. So $400 total would probably work. I have received $40 from my previous facebook request, so my target is $360 which I think is possible.

Just so you know, the two presentations I’m doing are “Anti-Trafficking Policies and the Deputization of Social Service” and “Rejecting Victim/Survivor Dichotomy: From Individual Mandate to Collective Action.” In addition, I’m joining other women of color to do a workshop about critiquing media narratives about sex trade and sex trafficking.

I appreciate support from any of my friends, but I especially want white sex worker activists, anti-violence advocates, and scholars who use my work to support me now. I feel I’ve produced and gave away lots of materials for free that inform and benefit your work, and now is the time that you can help me connect and interact with other women and trans people of color so I can continue to do that.

I can accept Paypal (, Amazon gift card, or check (Emi Koyama, PO Box 40570, Portland OR 97240 – if you send a check, please email and let me know).

There are other ways to support me: you can also order my buttons and zines, or try to get me invited to your college or university if you are affiliated with any.

If I raise more money than I need for the trip, I will spend it on printing more zines and handouts to share at the conference, and/or give it forward to another woman of color who needs money to attend the conference.

Thank you for your help–and for reading the long version!

New Zine: Against Japanese “Comfort Women” Denialism in the U.S.

Date: November 9, 2014

“Against Japanese ‘Comfort Women’ Denialism in the U.S.” was written in response to the recent rise of Japanese right-wing nationalist activities among some of the Japanese residents in Southern California (not Japanese Americans, but Japanese people from Japan), especially their campaign against resolutions, memorials, and other recognitions of Japanese “comfort women” during the WWII by U.S. cities.

This zine analyzes the “talking points” of Japanese right-wing nationalists, and applies the same nuanced approach to the issue of “comfort women” that the author (a co-founder of Japan-U.S. Feminist Network for Decolonization) has advocated for in the contemporary anti-trafficking movement for many years, pointing out precisely what responsibilities Japanese government bears.

The zine is available for purchase online, or at the upcoming workshop “Confronting Japanese Right-Wing Nationalism in Southern California this Friday, November 14th at UCLA.

Faces of CW Denialism

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