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Transgender Sex Workers in New York City Struggle to Survive the Pandemic

Advocates say the “progressive” city has left them to die.

Members of Decrim NY demonstrate in New York’s Foley Square on February 25, 2019.(Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In the epicenter of the nation’s novel coronavirus outbreak, the situation is dire for transgender Black and Latinx sex workers. “We’re scared, but we know no one cares about us,” said TS Candii, a Black trans sex worker and advocate. Candii explained that the normal rates Black trans sex workers charge their clients have plummeted during the pandemic, as has the number of clients.

Before the pandemic, trans women in New York City faced widespread discrimination. They risk arrest when walking down the street due to a law that criminalizes “loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense.” Advocates refer to it as “walking while trans” because Black and Latinx trans women are arrested by the police who assume they are engaging in sex work for reasons as arbitrary as what they’re wearing or where they’re walking. The grassroots coalition Decrim NY, which Candii works with, has been pushing to repeal the law. The bill passed the state assembly’s Codes Committee last March, but the full legislature has yet to vote on it. As the coronavirus spreads, Decrim is focusing on financially supporting struggling sex workers. 

For homeless sex workers, the options are limited. They depend on their daily income to purchase food and a hotel room for the night. “Maybe all they got is $80 for someplace to sleep and $20 to eat,” said Tahtianna Fermin, a former sex worker who works with the Alliance for Positive Change. 

Since the spread of the coronavirus, many of the services sex workers previously depended on are unavailable or increasingly dangerous. For example, some food pantries have shut down, while others are on the verge of collapse. The city recently expanded the availability of school meals to any adult in need, which is accessible at certain locations.  

Trans women say that homeless shelters have generally been unsafe places for them. Ceyenne Doroshow was formerly homeless and “terrified of the [shelter] process. You are in harm’s way upon intake because nobody wants to be anywhere near you.” She is now the executive director of G.L.I.T.S., an organization that works to advocate for trans sex workers’ rights and health. 

Alisha King, a trans woman and advocate with the Bronx Sex Worker Outreach Project who was formerly a sex worker, said trans women risk being placed on the men’s floor at a shelter and then raped by the men there. (The city’s Department of Homeless Services says its policy is to make “every effort to place clients where they feel safe, and where staff can ensure appropriate, affirming, and culturally competent services.”)

Now that the pandemic is here, the danger is compounded: Shelter residents in New York City have already been diagnosed with COVID-19, and staff warn that it can spread rapidly within shelters. The Department of Social Services spokesperson Isaac McGinn told The Appeal that “If any New Yorker experiencing homelessness reports any COVID-like symptoms, we stand ready to get them the care they need, whether in [the] hospital or isolation.” As of April 5, there had been 213 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 among shelter residents: 62 individuals were hospitalized, 11 had died, 124 were in isolation units, and 16 people made other arrangements and left the shelter. 

Homeless individuals are at a higher risk of catching and dying from the virus. “Do you want to get corona making money or get corona getting shelter? You have to pick your poison,” King explained. Advocates have called on the city to provide permanent housing options and point to the high number of empty apartments that could safely house the homeless.

If they do contract the virus and fall seriously ill, trans women must deal with hospitals where they have faced discrimination. “The discrimination against the trans community has always been [in the hospitals], but now it’ll increase,” said Joselyn Castillo, a trans woman and former sex worker, in Spanish. A 2015 survey of trans individuals across the country found that 33 percent of respondents had a negative experience with a healthcare provider in connection to being trans. 

“There’s already issues getting care being a trans woman—and being a sex worker on top of that? You get looked at real crazy,” King said. Hospital staff once asked her what was between her legs, she said. 

Five Black and Latinx trans women who spoke with The Appeal described past experiences of discrimination at hospitals across the city, particularly in Queens and the Bronx. Now, the two boroughs, which have high populations of poor people of color, are experiencing the highest rates per capita of COVID-19 hospitalizations, overwhelming the hospitals

In the absence of government support, sex workers have created mutual aid funds to support themselves. Decrim NY, Black Youth Project 100, and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration organized a mutual aid fund to support Black individuals with financial need, including Black trans sex workers. The Sex Worker Outreach Project has also created a mutual aid fund providing stipends to sex workers in New York City while the Black Trans Futures fund aids Black intersex, nonbinary, gender non-conforming, and trans people. 

While the funds are valuable, without a major influx of donations, they provide limited relief. With the funding, “I can sit down for a minute, but then I have to go back to work,” Candii said.

The increasing COVID-19 death toll in New York City is taking a heavy toll on the trans sex worker community. “We’re going to lose some of our leaders,” Doroshow said, “We’re going to lose some people we’re never going to touch or hold again. Their bodies are going to be discarded the same way we’ve been discarded our whole lives.” As of April 10, Doroshow said she knows 24 people who have died from COVID-19 and anticipates losing many more.

The effects of the coronavirus on the Black trans community has received little attention. “We’re going to wind up finding dead bodies in places we should not find them because girls [Black trans women doing sex work] are going to want to look for shelter someplace and something’s going to happen to them,” King explained, “or they’re going to get sick and be scared to go to the hospital and die where they are.” 

Last year, the New York City council voted to build four new jails at an estimated cost of $8.7 billion, in order to shut down the notorious Rikers jail. “What would it look like if as a city, as a state, [and] as a nation, we spent time, money, and resources investing in communities and infrastructure, not in the carceral and police state?” said Saye Joseph, Black Youth Project 100 policy and advocacy manager, who is also part of the Decrim NY coalition. “Would we be in this place where our health system can’t hold more people and can’t respond to this pandemic?”

Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio continue to shame individuals for not practicing social distancing while ignoring the realities of low-income residents. The Mayor recently authorized the NYPD to enforce social distancing with fines up to $1,000. Since the NYPD enforcement of low-level crimes is disproportionately focused in low-income Black and Latinx neighborhoods, advocates such as Candii predict social distancing enforcement will be similar. “The policing is going to be heavy in communities where Black and Brown people live. We already know what that looks like. Police gunning down unarmed black young men,” Candii said. 

Castillo supports her family back home. She noted that undocumented workers like herself do not qualify for federal coronavirus relief. “We’re not receiving any support from the city, so practically they’re killing us because we have no means to survive.”