Slut March in Jackson Heights, Queens
Dressed in red and with face masks, banners, and signs that read "No more police persecution" and "All the sluts who were sent to prison will return to the streets," the activists and the advocates demanded the decriminalization of sex work in late September for the Marcha de las Putas (Slut March) in Jackson Heights, Queens. (Photo credit Gabriela Barzallo)

Candy is a 34-year-old transgender woman who migrated from Honduras to the United States more than a decade ago. She fled persecution and transphobia in her motherland because of her gender identity and Honduras’ institutionalized discriminatory system. After arriving in the United States, she sought better opportunities, only to find more of the same discrimination she’d sought to leave behind in Honduras. After being fired from positions at a restaurant, a laundromat, and a grocery store, her only alternative was to engage in sex work, a job that she says has cost her freedom and has subjected her to prison, constant police harassment, violence from her clients, stigmatization, and during this last year, a pandemic that has limited her work even more.

Candy was one of dozens of transgender Latinx sex workers who gathered in late September for the Marcha de las Putas (Slut March). This takes place every year on the streets of Jackson Heights, a predominantly working class and low-income, immigrant, and Latinx neighborhood in Queens, which is the cultural and economic hub for Latin American migrants in New York City. 

Dressed in red and with face masks, banners, and signs that read “No more police persecution” and “All the sluts who were sent to prison will return to the streets,” the activists and the advocates demanded the decriminalization of sex work. 

“For transgender immigrants, the lack of opportunities means that we have to forcibly practice prostitution,” Candy said as she marched the streets of Jackson Heights. She said she has attended two of the three marches and that the empowerment makes her proud of the work she does.

The Slut Walk was founded in 2018 by transgender activist Lorena Borjas, who died from coronavirus in March. “Our goal is to demand that there be a change in the judicial and police systems,” Candy said. “We do not seek legalization because it is a way to allow the state to control our work and for the system to oppress us,” she added.  

Transgender Latinas make up 52% of all LGBTQ+ Latinxs in the United States, according to the U.S. Transgender Survey from 2015, who turn to sex work as opposed to the 5% of nonbinary people marked as male on their birth certificate and 1% of crossdressers.

Furthermore, criminalization of sex work has been intensified by laws, allowing and exposing cisgender and transgender female workers to police abuse. New York’s recently repealed “Walking while trans” law allowed officers to arbitrarily arrest and detain New Yorkers for walking in the street when they suspect they’re loitering for prostitution. 

Sanctuary for Families advocates for survivors of sex trafficking and domestic violence, arguing that decriminalization legislation doesn’t go far enough and would only legalize a system that would turn mostly women and girls into “commodities to be bought and sold.” 

However, there is hope that this will soon change. New York politicians like Assemblymember Catalina Cruz and state Sens. Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar have supported decriminalization and proposed a bill for the decriminalization of sex work.

Despite this glimmer of hope, Candy claims that over the past few months it has been nearly impossible to go out to work due to the quarantine restrictions and risk of possible contagion. “We have no choice. It is working at risk, or starving,” she said. 

Similarly, Lorraine, a transgender woman from Chile, says that early in the pandemic her savings helped her survive. By August, when she had emptied most of her life savings, she had to go back to work.

Moreover, transgender sex workers lack access to health care due to limited legal protection, lack of health insurance, and discrimination.

“I am afraid of getting sick and knowing what will happen to me, how much I will have to pay, or if they will be able to provide health care,” said Lorraine. 

Many people in the Latinx transgender community have worked in the entertainment industry, particularly in LGBTQ+ bars in Queens. Laura Martínez is a Mexican transgender woman who says she began working in the sex work industry when she first arrived in the country. After learning English, she was offered a job at a bar the owner had just opened. Since then, she has sung in Latinx bars imitating Mexican singers.

However, this source of income has also been severely affected by the pandemic because bars have closed down completely, leaving all their employees like Laura unemployed without benefits.

“I have now tried to use the technology from my home, singing from home and broadcasting on Facebook Live, asking for donations,” Laura said. In recent years, Laura has become an iconic figure for the transgender community. She has also used her stardom to raise funds for charities.

“We have collectively organized with many colleagues. It’s the only way to live,” she says.

The majority of transgender women are undocumented and have not been eligible for any assistance or relief. In the absence of government support, sex workers have created mutual aid funds in order to support themselves. Several LGBTQ+ supporting organizations and trans activists have organized numerous efforts, in order to provide the community with different services that the government would normally offer.

Transgrediendo, a non-governmental organization founded by activist Lorena Borjas and led by Liam Winslet, a transgender activist from Ecuador, distributes food and offers HIV tests and legal services for  the community. They also have organized Zoom workshops to educate sex workers about their very basic human rights that the government ignores. Recently, in partnership with the immigrant affairs office, they organized a workshop titled “Know your rights as an immigrant.” 

“We work with trans and gender non-conforming people [and] Latina migrants, and our job is to do advocacy, to do the paperwork so that people can access health services, and also provide them with a safe space,” Winslet said.

Many of the services the group offers come from donations, philanthropic funds, and people within the same community who like to give back and collaborate.

Similarly, Joselyn Mendoza, a Mexican transgender woman and entrepreneur, is the co-founder of “Mirror Cooperative,” a beauty company led by trans women, the first in New York state that have sought to offer opportunities in the beauty and cosmetology industry for transgender Latinx people. The company started because of the need to create more inclusive spaces and to show that the trans Latinx community can see this as a job alternative.

In November, thanks to donations, Mirror Cooperative offered eight scholarships to study makeup and cosmetology at the only center for Spanish speakers in New York. This scholarship was open to LGBTQ+ immigrants. Jocelyn says these efforts have been developing since last year, but during the influenza pandemic they were strictly put into action and deemed as an essential resource.

Despite these initiatives, all the women interviewed still agree that for them there is still a long way to go to achieve better opportunities. However, they are hopeful that things can improve through activism, which has prompted politicians to join and support this community.

They say that Trump’s defeat and Biden’s presidency may be an obvious relief for them as Biden has pledged to work to end what he calls an “epidemic” of violence against transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, and has committed to expanding access to health care for LGBTQ+ people. However, they still feel hesitant and prefer to continue organizing as a community to create better opportunities and social change.

Candy says she’s optimistic sex work will soon be decriminalized and that she’ll be able to do it freely, without having to navigate any state imposed regulations that might result if sex work is legalized. As for the new administration, she says she is not very excited because she doesn’t trust any politicians. She says that for now, she will continue working and waiting until the vaccine is available to everyone. “For people like us, with or without a pandemic, the fight continues.”

Gabriela Barzallo (she/her) is a bilingual journalist and multimedia producer from Ecuador based in New York City since 2014. She writes about immigration, human rights, environmental justice, and Latin...