Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
The Canada v. Bedford decision (2013) by the Canadian Supreme Court required the Canadian government to correct conditions for people in the sex industry who’s safety was threatened by certain regulations, even though the sex trade itself was legal. These regulations made it illegal to communicate for the purposes of contracting for sex, for living off the wages of sex work, or operating a bawdy house. The signature plaintiff, Terri Jean Bedford, operated an S&M dungeon in Toronto that would be illegal under these laws.
These regulations made it difficult for sex workers to screen their johns, to meet them openly in public places before contracting for work. The Supreme Court of Canada decided that these regulations were unconstitutional because they threatened the health and safety of workers in what was otherwise a legal business.
The Harper government responded to the Bedford decision by drafting Bill C-36, which makes the sex trade illegal altogether. It prohibits advertising for sex work, and prohibits the solicitation of sex work in any place that would be frequented by children under the age of 18. Johns, pimps and prostitutes could be arrested under this new strict law.
The new set of laws was designed to skirt the decision in Bedford by making the sex trade illegal altogether, forcing women, men and trans people in the sex industry to work undercover, in secret, thus subjecting them to a far higher risk of abuse, injury and death.
I have come out strongly opposed to Bill C-36, not only as a queer sex activist, but as a Buddhist. Why? How could an engaged Buddhist support people in the sex trade? Isn’t that samsara? What about Right Livelihood? Why not just make it illegal altogether so that people don’t do that kind of work? As a Buddhist who is concerned about exploitation in the sex trade, why wouldn’t I support the criminalization of sex work?
Part of it has to do with my life experience. In the mid-90s, I was living in Brooklyn, NY as a butch-identified trans person. I had made friends with a group of women in Transie House in Brooklyn, a privately-owned collective house for trans women, many of whom worked in sex trade in New York City. If not for Transie House, many of these women would be homeless, living on the street. The house was owned by a trans woman who was a full professor at a prestigious metro university, and her trans female partner. These women became my closest friends. I had dinner with them at least once a week, hung out with them, played scrabble and listened to K.D. Lang. We discussed queer theory and politics from the latest publications at the gay bookstores in Manhattan. They ran a support group for trans people in the Village, and I once spoke at their meeting, telling my story as a trans person. I saw Leslie Feinberg speak at one of those meetings, and got to meet my personal hero face to face.
My closest friend, Chelsea, had been a homeless teen trans kid on the streets of Manhattan when she was taken in by Silvia Rivera, who ran her own house for trans street kids and sex workers. Silvia Rivera was a House Mother, Chelsea’s mother. Through Chelsea, I was able to meet Silvia Rivera in person before she died, a great hero of the Stonewall Rebellion, a queer revolutionary.
With the exception of the university professor, almost all these women made their living in the sex trade in New York City. It was a brutal industry, but one that gave them sufficient income to feed, clothe and house themselves. Many of the women engaged in the sex trade for a limited period so that they could raise a lot of money in a relatively short period of time for their transsexual surgeries, which cost upwards of $30,000 or more. Some of them remained in the sex trade because it was the only work they could get as trans women that paid anything decent. For many, the employment discrimination was so extreme, no one else would hire them. It was the only work they could get. This work was dangerous and life-threatening. Hundreds of trans women are beaten and killed every year because of their work in the sex trade. Yet, for many, it is their only means of survival.
So when I hear that the Canadian government is making it illegal for people to work in the sex trade, forcing them to work underground, in secret, and greatly increasing the threat of abuse, injury and death, I take it personally. These are my friends, these are my people, and the government is enacting laws that threaten their lives. I won’t stand by and let it happen without a fight. I will stand up for my friends and loved ones. Trans people face enough abuse and discrimination on a daily basis. They don’t need the added burden of making their only means of self-employment a criminal act, subjecting them to arrest, incarceration and abuse by the police and penal system.
We’ve heard from MP Megan Leslie that B-C36 criminalizes sex work with a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. There is no judicial discretion to consider the offender’s circumstances. The bill does nothing to change the conditions that caused people to enter the sex trade in the first place. In fact, it only makes the situation worse because once you are branded a criminal, the only work you can do is criminal work.
Dr. Angela Davis, the prison abolitionist, said recently in an interview on Democracy Now that trans people, as a group, are subject to higher rates of arrest and imprisonment than any other group in the U.S. These statistics are comparable in Canada, second only to the arrest and incarceration of aboriginal people in Canada, who make up as much as 60% of people in the sex trade in some cities in Canada. We don’t need to make the lives of trans women and aboriginals that much more hellish by adding another reason to arrest them and put them in jail.
These are the people I love, and it is about love after all:
“The two feelings of love and compassion are intimately linked. Without love, compassion cannot arise, and compassion always involves having love. Without love one would not have compassion for others’ pain; instead you would probably have pity, if not total indifference. It is because of love that the suffering of other beings becomes so unbearable that a bodhisattva would endure any pain to help them.” —Karma Trinlay Rinpoche, “What We’ve Been All Along,” Tricycle Magazine.
That’s why, as a Buddhist, I am taking action to oppose Bill C-36 on the National Day of Action for Sex Workers on Saturday, June 14, 2014.