Metro Weekly

Forum: Decriminalizing and destigmatizing sex work will make the District safer for transgender women

At Whitman-Walker Health, and in the Gender Affirming Care team in particular, we know that shame and stigma steal the quality of our health and wellbeing. We choose to not stigmatize our patients who work in the sex trade. Recent reports of the murders of transgender women of color, individuals our staff knew in community, remind us that silence in the face of violence is complicity.

The following is an anonymized account from a patient of Whitman-Walker Health:

“When I told my family that I was a woman, they kicked me out. I was abandoned and told to survive any way that I could. I had nowhere else to go so I turned to sex work. I survived for a year this way. Eventually I was able to immigrate to the United States and, while I was here, I turned to sex work again, trying to survive while getting on my feet. Getting my name changed and my gender marker changed while working on my immigration paperwork put me in danger until all my documents could match. Even now I am uncomfortable doing things like grocery shopping or riding the metro. Even now, with a 9-5 job, I have a hard time making ends meet. Even now, sex work is my choice, so why not let me do it?”

“We can reduce the harm that sex workers…face through the decriminalization of commercial, consensual sexual exchange between adults.”]/pullquote]

Our clients have many jobs, sometimes several at the same time, and sex work is one. It is not our job to judge them, but to see them exactly as they are and to provide the care and assistance that they need. Due to widespread discrimination in education and employment, a disproportionate number of sex workers are transgender women of color. We can reduce the harm that sex workers, especially transgender women of color, face through the decriminalization of commercial, consensual sexual exchange between adults. We also have to reduce the stigma around the sex trade.

Stigma is harmful because it breeds shame. Stigma around HIV is harmful because it causes people to avoid knowing their status and avoid getting treatment. Stigma against LGBT people produces violence against our community.

Stigma is particularly harmful to transgender people because of the discrimination transgender people often experience. Stigma can block someone from receiving or seeking gender affirming healthcare. Gender affirming care opens doors to opportunities for a healthier quality of life, employment, and self-expression that may feel otherwise unattainable.

Stigma against sex workers is pervasive and dangerous. Stigmatized sex workers do not get the services they deserve or the healthcare they need. In our own healthcare center we have experienced that stigma can prevent patients from disclosing their participation in sex work to us, restricting us from giving our patients the tools they need to keep themselves safe and healthy. The criminalization of sex work, expressed through laws prohibiting solicitation and prostitution, is a systematic expression of the District of Columbia’s judgment about the value and worth of sex workers.

Systemic problems demand systemic solutions. That is why Whitman-Walker Health supports the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019. This bill decriminalizes commercial, consensual sexual exchange between adults, and sets up a task force to study the effects on the health and wellbeing of our community.

We arrived at this position by listening to our patients and clients. Whitman-Walker Health is a community-based health center, and we are proud to support the community of advocates leading the way to a less exploitative world.

In addition to creating an environment of stigma and shame, sex work criminalization leaves sex workers vulnerable to attackers, abusers, and exploiters because of fear of the arrest, incarceration or deportation from law enforcement. Criminalization obstructs paths to stability, housing, education, and employment other than sex work through arrest records, incarceration, and convictions.

In contrast, decriminalization of consensual, commercial sexual exchange between adults recognizes that sex workers are a part of our community, that sex work is about survival, and that criminalization punishes vulnerable members of our community for surviving.

Decriminalization of sex work destigmatizes sex workers and people stereotyped as sex workers. Destigmatizing sex work is part of the destigmatizing of sex, destigmatizing of sexually transmitted infections, and destigmatizing of LGB and especially transgender identities and experiences.

We look forward to continuing to fight with our community for resources for affordable housing, job training, and educational opportunities to address the root causes of vulnerability to exploitation.

The Gender Affirming Care team at Whitman-Walker works to support transgender, gender expansive and non-binary individuals in navigating the health care system and overcoming barriers to access culturally competent, dignifying care for hormone replacement therapy, gender affirming surgeries, sexual health and more.

The opinions expressed in Forum do not necessarily reflect those of Metro Weekly or its employees. Add your voice to Forum. Learn how at

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