The following are prepared remarks from one of our organizers, Red, who participated in last night’s “Sanctuary Dinner & Dialogue.” Red is also one of the artists being featured in the exhibition “Sanctuary: Art Exploring Refuge, Community, and Resistance” curated by the UIC’s Gender & Sexuality Center.
In my piece, “The things that people say we are” (made with acrylic paint, nylon and silk stockings, silicone lubricant, beeswax, dental dam, postcard, paper, tatted lace and safety pin on canvas; 25 pairs of stockings suspended beside) I am interrogating the civvy (civilian ie non-sex worker) gaze. This piece, though abstract, features direct referents to various “tools of the trade” for many sex workers: the panty hose, the lube, dental dams etc are all things we may use, but these objects do not determine our identity, even if they might lead to our conviction if we are picked up for prostitution. The civvy world equates sex workers only with sex and objects, with violence and lack of agency. We are more than the things people say we are.
I made this art piece with the theme of “sanctuary” in mind as it specifically impacts sex working people and erotic laborers.
This concept, Sanctuary, is incredibly important to accurately define considering there are so many people, namely politicians, who misuse this word. Right here in Chicago Rahm Emanuel claims he’s upholding a “sanctuary city.” What does sanctuary mean in Rahm’s Chicago?
Sheriff Tom Dart leads anti-prostitution sting operations that cost taxpayers thousands of dollars, and sees hundreds of sex workers and their clients arrested, charged, fined and humiliated and harassed.
The Chicago Police Department engages in targeted terror campaigns against outdoor sex workers on their strolls. The cops demand free sexual services most commonly, using the threat of arrest against workers. Outdoor workers have also reported rape, sexual harassment and assault at the hands of cops.
Most shelters are reluctant to house women or trans* folx they suspect are sex workers (that is if those shelters even have housing room to offer at all).
Undocumented and migrant sex workers face increased targeting from ICE especially if they’ve reported domestic violence or sought any emergency services, medical or otherwise.
If a sex worker ends up in the ER and they are identified as such, police are almost always immediately involved.
Trans*, GNC, Non-Binary & Queer sex workers are often ignored or shamed by the mainstream LGBTQAI community service providers. One of the most notorious cases of this here in our city is the Center on Halsted working with police when complaints were filed against houseless trans* youth of color who were suspected of sex working near the center and “disturbing the shoppers of Whole Foods.” Or for instance the infamous CAPS meetings where the “respectable” cis white gay men business owners of Boystown were demanding more aggressive action from police to “clean up the streets” specifically referring to those same youth of color.
It’s not shocking to those of us gathered here in this room that this is not a sanctuary city. Rahm has no concept of sanctuary, no concept of honoring the needs of the communities that he oversees the terrorizing of. Rahm doesn’t care if people in this city live or die. He may offer lip service and lies–but obviously sex workers are left out of these lies. Sex workers are not even regarded as people capable of work, bodily autonomy, let alone societal contributions. In Rahm’s twisted concept of Sanctuary, sex workers are only able to be victimized, arrested, shut away in county or run through some bogus “exit” program that tells folks they have no agency and no say over their own bodies.
But fuck that. We can build the city we want. It will mean we have to focus on expressing, imagining and building the city and the world that we know would be just. It means showing up for sex workers, listening to sex workers and respecting sex workers.
A real “sanctuary city,” offering real community support in practice would mean:
No police, No ICE, No sheriffs, No jails, No prisons
Decriminalization of sex work
Free and excellent healthcare for all
Free and excellent housing for all
Free and excellent creative outlets for all
It means seeing sex workers as people, as artists, as students, as organizers, as brilliant, as capable, as strong, as fed up, as full of righteous anger, as ready and willing to fight.
It means showing up, funding our organizing efforts, listening and learning from us and becoming accomplices in our collective struggles for liberation.