Commentary  Remembering the deaths of trans sex workers

Hyde Park

Today marks the occasion of the 10th annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. The day is held to commemorate the death of Rita Hester – a black transwoman and sex worker – who was murdered on November 28, 1998. In many cities in North America and Europe, this event is marked by candlelight vigils, speakers, and other ceremonies to “memorialize those who were killed due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice,” reads the Day of Remembrance’s web site.

However, at most of these events, little is done to address the disparity between those holding the event (mostly white, middle-to-upper class, university-educated transfolk and their queer allies) and those whose deaths are remembered (mostly poor transwomen of colour who do sex work).

There is rarely even an acknowledgement of the race or occupation of the people who were killed, thus these parts of their identities are erased, and the trends that I am drawing attention to are made invisible. We may wonder why the vast majority of people killed due to “anti-transgender violence” come from certain marginalized groups. Certainly racism and classism are important factors here, but there is at least one other factor at play.

I have been told many times since I came out as trans, and started presenting myself more or less as a woman, that the streets are no longer safe for me. Since then, I have walked home alone at night many times in Montreal, and have only once felt the threat of violence. This was on a night at which I was MCing a cabaret night, and was dressed in a miniskirt, heels, copious amounts of makeup, and a top hat. I was standing on a street corner, waiting for a friend, when I started getting harassed by passers-by (mostly drunk men). While I am not going to go into the details, it was clear to me from the nature of the harassment that I was being perceived as a sex worker. The threat of violence was much stronger when I was being perceived as a trans sex worker than when I was simply perceived as a transwoman.

Sex workers, especially those who work in the street, often become subject to violence due to the societal stigmatization of their profession. The criminalization of sex work has not only put sex workers in a position where they are more likely to be targets of violence, but makes it much harder for sex workers to report the violence done to them. Police are often times the perpetrators of violence (in the name of law enforcement or otherwise), and police rarely fully investigate cases of violence against sex workers, even in jurisdictions where sex work is decriminalized.

Due to employment discrimination and other forms of systemic oppression, a disproportionate number of transwomen – especially poor people of colour – choose to work in the sex industry. (I should note that I am focusing on transwomen because there is little to no information available on transmale sex workers.) I’m not suggesting it’s a tragedy that these people are in sex work – it is a profession like any other – but due to the disproportionate number of transwomen involved in sex work, sex workers issues are important issues for trans activism.

It is simply wrong for us to ignore the struggles of sex workers simply because we come from the more privileged university environment. It is even worse to ignore the interlocking oppressions that are experienced by the subjects of violence, and label the violence simply as “anti-transgender hatred.” Thus we should look to the death of Rita Hester and that of all trans sex workers as a call to action against all of the oppressions that Rita faced. We must acknowledge that she was a woman, a person of colour, a sex worker, and a trans person. Only by considering these factors together can we understand the implications of her death.

Telyn is a MSc Candidate in Mathematics and a member of the Union for Gender Empowerment Collective. She can be reached at