Issue 10.1-10.2 | Fall 2011/Spring 2012 / Guest edited by Joseph N. DeFilippis, Lisa Duggan, Kenyon Farrow, and Richard Kim

Sex Work and Queer Politics in Three Acts

(PAGE 3 of 4)

Felix Gardon

Felix has been an activist in Latino/a and LGBT communities since the early 1990s. He worked as an organizer with GAlAEI, a LGBT HIV/AIDS prevention organization in Philadelphia, where he developed and was the first coordinator of the Midnight Cowboy, a project that serves male sex workers in the Philadelphia area. In New York, Felix worked as the outreach coordinator for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) for a number of years. He now consults with LGBT organizations, the New York City Department of Education (DOE), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and various organizations throughout the city. He was a founder of Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ).

FG: My interest in working with QEJ was to try to address all of those intersections and places where our community usually gets disenfranchised, or actually loses power. Sex work, to me, was one of those places. We needed to create awareness about the many ways that the LGBT community is forced to survive in many different atmospheres without a safety net. Because many times we’re put in [bad] positions because we’re ostracized from our families, or our communities don’t want us. We end up doing any kind of survival work because we might not be ready to use any of the other skills that we have, or we don’t know that we have any other skills. There’s a lot of shame, too, about this. People have a lot of shame. Many of us come from such sex-negative communities, where sexuality isn’t something that you speak about, it’s something that you do. I mean I struggle, I think: “Oh my god, I’m going to go talk about my sex work days and, you know, in a book! I’m gonna put it out.” It’s not something that I think people are always ready to speak about.

When I was in college and my parents decided not to fund my school because I came out, my only resource was to become an escort. So I was a sex worker. I was also working as a maid in a hotel and I was stripping, which is another form of sex work. We usually equate sex work with an act, but there are other kinds of sex work that are not specifically about engaging in a sexual act. So there were many ways that I got involved in this life. I was also one of the creators of the Midnight Cowboy project in Philadelphia [in the early 1990s], which was one of the first projects to work with male sex workers in the streets. There might have been programs doing outreach in the areas where sex workers were, providing condoms to them, but there was not a thrust to help people understand how to work the system, how to organize themselves. Part of what I wanted to do was to figure out how to create some kind of network for protection, because there were a lot of young people who were being beaten up. There are issues of youth and sex work and exploitation. When I came into it, I was in my twenties, still trying to finish college, trying to understand how to survive the United States. I was from Puerto Rico; this is my second country, so I didn’t have tons of family here. I had to try to survive in this country, and I think I’m one of the lucky ones. A lot of my friends died from AIDS, or were people who were in the streets who I just don’t see anymore when I go to Philadelphia or to some of the places I used to hang.

SS: They just didn’t survive.

FG: They didn’t survive […]. There are other issues, too, because of the way the law system addresses those kinds of crimes, you know, “moral turpitude”—there’s a morality attached to the fact that we are sexual beings and there are people who might be willing to pay for sex. And in the United States that’s the most horrible thing you can do: to actually think that you’re going to pay for sex. But if you do it with an individual, or you do it for a film or something, it’s like, a little less. You can buy your books, you can buy all this other stuff—that is still sex work—but in the moment in which you engage another person in sex work, people freak out.

SS: Why do you think people freak out?

FG: Because I think people are very phobic about sex. People buy into what many religions have put forth about what sexuality is. Like the way that the Bible and many of the systemized religions have put sexuality in the space of reproduction only, as opposed to a place of pleasure. Sexuality is about pleasure, but people don’t talk about pleasure. We just have such fear about saying: “Oh my god I had an orgasm,” or, “I felt so good after I had sex!” Because people think they are immediately debasing your humanness, that’s something you don’t talk about. But it’s a basic need of humans to be able to have sex, to feel good about your body, and actually feel completed in that way.

SS: Can we talk a little bit about the need for a space to talk about sexuality and class together? Because I really see QEJ as a unique space where you talk about economic survival among LGBT people. I think there are a lot of assumptions about people’s class in the LGBT movement that feed into the ways we end up talking about sexuality.

FG: Well, for example, we never talk in depth about what it is to be somebody who’s straddling class, somebody who comes from [the] working class or middle class and starts studying or starts changing, and what does that mean to move to another class? You might have parents in a different background, or have siblings in a different background, and you’re growing into a different class status. What does that mean to you when you come back to your family and you’re LGBT and they still see you as a second-class citizen because you’re LGBT? But in your [socioeconomic] class status you’re higher than them. For me, I come from the lower-middle class in Puerto Rico, [a] working class family, and I went to college and did all this stuff. I think there was a bigger issue for my parents that I was gay than that I ever did any sex work. Granted I’m a man—I think it would have been different if it had been one of my sisters, because there are all these gender biases coming from the Latino community around the permissiveness of engaging in sex as a man versus women, where you are seen differently when you are seen to be engaging in sex.

SS: Are you out to your parents about having done sex work?

FG: They knew that I actually had guys that moved me out and helped me with stuff, but they never would call it sex work. They would call it survival; they would call it, “it’s okay, it’s what a man does.” It’s a double standard, because for a woman it would have been, “well, that’s prostitution.” But for men it’s: “You did what you had to do as a male. So what if you sold your butt to get money for your apartment? That was not sex work.” That was a very big double standard in terms of the male and the female, and how we engage in sexuality, again, because we’re so sex phobic.

With all the fear that people have around this issue, it becomes a big question: How can I come out and say that I’m a sex worker, because I’m going to be even more ostracized within my community? Or again, you might not be believed because you’re a man and it’ll be, “oh, that’s just what boys do,” you know? If you’re a girl you’re a whore. But if you’re a man: “That’s what boys do; boys have sex. The penis is just taught for it.” I heard it from my mother! “That’s what boys do.”

SS: Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to talk about this for this book?

FG: Well, I think it’s important for us to create a space to start addressing the fact that many people in our community use sex as a survival tool in many ways. There’s nothing wrong with that. We need to find spaces in which we start advocating for less criminalization of sexuality in our community. Because there is no need for people to be criminalized for this. I find it very offensive that many of our trans sisters are actually arrested on a daily basis just for walking the streets, and there is a presumption of [their doing] prostitution. I find that horribly offensive. Certain people can get away with it but other people, because they’re from low-income communities or have different color skin, get immediately put into a system that then debases them and actually destroys their lives. Meanwhile other people can do this who are white, who have money, who can keep it in the up and up, who can have a network and have pimps, and can survive in this and actually make tons of money, and nobody makes a peep about it. You know, there’s a really big hypocrisy happening in this country. It’s okay for the rich to have their prostitutes, or their sex workers, or whoever comes to do their massages, but if you’re somebody from a low-income community, you’re gone.

SS: I think male and trans sex workers are visible in a way that other sex workers are not. And yet there’s this irony that we don’t usually talk about sex work in the context of queer and trans communities.

FG: Well, I think we have a lot of fear around our community of being penalized because of something that is viewed by mass society as a criminal act. And because there has been so much guilt put on us around AIDS and pandemics, because we’re promiscuous and this and that; it’s hard to bring in that other association around sex work when mainstream society doesn’t understand it. I think the queer community doesn’t want to own that. It’s that fear of saying, “OK, you know, they’ve brought all of this weight onto the community.” We’ve brought AIDS into the community, now we say we’re advocating for sex workers, or we’re going to speak about sex work, they’re again going to ostracize us. You know, the idea of being sex-positive is still seen as what got us into this mess and [the AIDS] pandemic. It’s a shame that AIDS happened, but it’s not because of us trying to be sex-positive that AIDS happened. It’s [one reason] why sex work becomes pathologized, because all of a sudden there’s HIV and all this stuff attached to it. [This perspective] loses the intrinsic reality of survival sex and what it means. It is part of our lives and it is there, but it’s not that we’re trying to get sick—as if we’re going out there like, “oh let’s go out there and get us some syphilis!” [laughs]

SS: What would you like to have happen with this issue–in your ideal world?

FG: I would like to stop talking about marriage as the most important thing in our community and to talk about sex in our community. [We should] talk about what is sexual health in our community, regardless of whether an individual has sold sex or not, [is in] a monogamous or polyamorous relationship, likes orgies, or is bisexual. Regardless of your identity, how do we create a sexually healthy community? Because it’s important. We need to be speaking about that. If you start having those conversations even with your partners or the people you love, about what it means to be sexually healthy, we can actually create better communities.

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