A Trans Organizer on the Movement to Decriminalize Sex Work (ep. 105)

June 18, 2020
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Public opinion and the law of the land aligned this week to affirm trans equality in America: Thousands of people took to the streets of New York City over the weekend to remind their community and the nation: Black trans lives matter. Then on Monday, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision establishing that under federal law, it's unlawful to fire someone just because they’re part of the LGBTQ community. Still, there's so much more to be done to protect and uplift trans people nationwide. LaLa Zannell, the ACLU's Trans Justice Campaign Manager, joins the podcast this week to talk about the state of the movement for Black trans lives, and why decriminalizing sex work is a meaningful and concrete next step as we continue to fight for true equality.

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EMERSON SYKES
From the ACLU, this is At Liberty. I’m Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney here at the ACLU, and for this one final episode, your host.

I couldn’t be more proud to bring you this conversation with my colleague LaLa Zannell, the ACLU’s Trans Justice Campaign Manager. It’s one of my very favorite kinds of episodes of At Liberty. It’s a timely conversation with an ACLU insider, who speaks with passion and poetry about her life and her work. Even though this conversation was recorded live in studio before we shut down our offices in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it still feels extremely timely. The week we’re releasing this episode falls at the same time of Juneteenth and during Pride month. We’ve seen thousands of people take to the streets to demonstrate and demand that people recognize that Black trans lives matter. And, last but not least, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in a landmark ACLU case, argued by our Legal Director David Cole, holding that employment discrimination on the basis of sex, which is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, includes discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Now under federal law, its unlawful to fire someone just because they’re queer or trans. Lala and I talked about the state of the law, the state of the movement, and her personal journey to the ACLU. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did, and I hope you learn as much as I did, as well.

[00:01:52] There’s a growing movement to decriminalize sex work in the United States. Currently, it’s illegal to either buy or sell sex in almost every state. And while bans on sex work are often put in place with good intentions, the impact can be devistating on the people most in need of help. The effort to decriminalize sex work isn’t just about normalizing the profession, it would reduce mass incarceration, racial profiling, and transphobic policing. Here at the ACLU, we support the decriminalization of sex work; and according to a recent report, it turns out many 2020 voters agree.

Joining us today is LaLa Zannell, the ACLU’s Trans Justice Campaign Manager. She’s here to talk about our fight for decriminalization and why this fight is personal.

EMERSON
[00:02:36] Lala, welcome to the podcast.

LALA ZANNELL
[00:02:38] Thank you for having me.

EMERSON
[00:02:40] It's a pleasure to finally have you on. I've been wanting to have you on as a guest for quite a while, in part because your title is one that people might not understand exists even within the ACLU. Are you the first Trans Justice Campaign Manager?

LALA
[00:02:53] Yes, I am.

EMERSON
[00:02:54] We are, we are very lucky to have you on our team. And I want to hear a lot about the work that you do. But you've also taken a somewhat unconventional path to the ACLU, and now you have this really fascinating role. So can you tell us about sort of what brought you to the ACLU? You're new to the ACLU, but not new to advocacy.

LALA
[00:03:12] Yes. Formerly before I was working at the ACLU, I was the lead organizer at the New York City Anti-Violence Project. They're an organization that focuses on any kind of violence that happens LGBTQ folks in New York, but also nationally. They're the only organization that actually submits reports of hate violence and domestic violence to national entities. And so I was there for eight years, I've been doing a lot of national work. I spoke at the White House twice. I testified in front of Congress. And just meeting so many different trans folks and just queer POC folks across the country and felt that I was, like New York had hit pretty much everything that trans folks kind of wanted here in New York, I feel like they had it. And so I wanted to be on a platform where I was able to go into other outlets of the world to help people have a little New York where they live at. And so, I was just like scrambling to figure out what the next move was. And a lot of things came along I was like, no, no -- it was all New York based.

And so a friend of mine had sent me this job description. I wanted it, like I just knew then that this was like the next era of my career. I was like, I have to be at the ACLU, like, I want this job. So I'm here.

EMERSON
[00:03:32] I'm wondering if there was a moment that you really became activated and politicized, realizing that, no, this is what I want to do full time. This is the fight that I want to have.

LALA
[00:04:42] Oh my gosh, oh, I must say there were so many things, because I was working even in the moment as I was organizing as a baby organizer, I still had limitations. And limitations, I mean so at my old job, I would do art, I would do interviews under a pseudonym because I did not, I was not all the way 100 percent, a publicly out visible trans woman. It was out, on my terms. And so when I moved to New York City, I was like, I still was gonna be out on my terms. It was not until after Islan Nettles died -- who was a Black trans woman out of Harlem who was just simply, she was in school, she just got her apartment, was on her way to FIT university for fashion, was trying to go home. And a guy cat-called her. She told her truth and beat her to her death. It was not until she passed away -- I was at work and at my job, I already knew like, I don't do these presser things. I'm not gonna do that. And they understood it. And my boss called me was like, I know you hate doing stuff like this. I know you do. But I left something at work. And you, you’re the only one that's there still, you have to bring it. I’ll come meet you like you know it’d be very very easy. Me just, yeah, okay. But the logic of, I think the universe just wanted it to happen because I believe in the energies in the universe. Things happen for a reason.

[00:06:09] So of course when I got there, I was not, they were not answering their phones, so I had to find them on my own. So I had no choice but to go into the crowd ofg Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem and to just see so many Black trans women, Black queer people mourning the life and death of a Black trans woman was just so powerful for me. So in that moment, I just said I don't care anymore. I was to the moon after that. After that, it was just like, I don't have to like be in, be out, even though I am still to this day very clear in certain spaces when I move how I want to be out or visible, but in that moment to see that many other trans folks just in Harlem visibly mourning other trans women -- I'm from Detroit, where girls is killed all the time and you’d be lucky to light a candle. And so to see that, I just, I let everything go was like, I'm all the way in.

EMERSON
[00:07:08] It's a very exciting time to be at the ACLU for a whole bunch of different issues, immigrants rights, reproductive freedom. But trans rights has also been at the forefront of our work for the last few years. And one of the main issues that we've been addressing, in addition to decriminalizing sex work as we'll get to, has been discrimination in employment. And I know that that's something you, as a trans person of color have faced in your own career. You talked about all of the highlights of your career speaking at the White House, in front of Congress, now with this great role within the ACLU. But life has not been easy for you or for other trans folks trying to find a job.

LALA
[00:07:42] That's correct. So it's like a long journey for me to be here. Like, I sometimes have to pause and just look at all the things I've been able to do. And I'm just like, wow, I cannot, I would never believe I've ever done half the things I've done, because that was not my goal. That was not my dream to wake up and say, I'm going to be this amazing organizer, or activist. And when I started organizing in New York with all the amazing rights the New Yorkers have, lots of trans folks in New York can't get a job.

And so there was a lot of information around what can happen when you have a job and lose your job. That's a little bit more sometimes than the law kind of able to explain. But there was no way to explain someone trying to apply for a job and proving that it was because you were trans. And so at my old job, I created the first ever New York survey on job discrimination in employment, which included some of the laws that New York City Human Rights Commission had, like folks didn’t know that they can make a complaint. Did they know that -- what was the process of the complaint? Did you know that they had to respect your gender and pronouns? Like all these things that my community members did not know. So I wanted to collect that information to show the city that even with these laws and policies, the community does not know about these things, and for the folks who did know about those things, their experiences -- they still experience transphobia and retraumatizing themselves in the process of making reports.

As well as we learned that a lot of New Yorkers had bachelors degrees and went to college and a lot of trans folks are making between $10,000 and $14,000 a year with degrees. And so like the math of like you go to school, you get your degree and you go on life and you're gonna be well off. For trans folks, that was not true, particularly here in New York.There are a lot of trans folks who actually have degrees, who go to school, who have graduated, who have BAs and above and still can't get a job simply because of who they are.

EMERSON
[00:09:37] It's an important story that you tell of the sort of trans experience, but it's also your personal experience. You talked very inspiringly about how you refuse to be limited by being trans and in your opportunities. But as we've said, in most places, it's perfectly legal to not hire somebody because they're trans and that has real effects, and changes the options for trans people, and people make do any way they can. And you've talked -- you've written about your experience having to do sex work at different times in your life because so many doors were closed. And that's not an experience unique to you, as well.

LALA
[00:10:13] For me, when I was indulging in sex work, I've learned the most about how the world works and even just my own transition and femininity and being a businesswoman and all these things I learned -- protecting and fighting and all these things and even my rights came from sex workers. They're not people who are just discarded, who are not smart and savvy. A lot of them know early on that this is who I am and this is my profession. And that's what it is. There are some people who are doing it for survival and need a way out because they're tired of doing it. But for a lot of people, this is their profession and they're very smart and can tell you about politics in the world more than anyone else. And I think that we need to dismantle that disparities of, like, sex workers just being like these lazy people or just hypersexual. But like these are actually their professions. And that people patronize them for that profession. You know, and also it's like I can always say, if you want someone to just stop doing something in the world that we live in, then what's the other option?

EMERSON
[00:11:24] Right.

LALA
[00:11:25] Like, it's easy for you if you don't have to worry about where you laying your head tonight or how your child gonna eat, or how you're gonna eat, to say just stop doing the sex work, go get a job.

EMERSON
[00:11:36]Right.

LALA
[00:11:37] The mere fact that you're a former sex worker, people who are not sex workers you know that jobs do background checks. So you actually think that someone -- you as an employer, would you hire a former sex worker? Let's start there. You as an employer who is telling someone else, just get a job. If a sex worker stood before you, would you honestly hire them? There are very few that would answer that honestly. Publicly, you would say, of course I would. But ethically, you know, in your spirit, you would not do that.

EMERSON
[00:12:02] Right. I mean, criminalization doesn't deal with the reasons that people do sex work, and it actually makes it, actually harder for them to leave.

LALA
[00:12:10] With like folks who smoke weed, just stop smoking weed.

EMERSON
[00:12:13] Criminalize it.

LALA
[00:12:14] You know, criminalize it. You know, it's just like all those things. But no one ever thinks about, okay, if we want folks to stop doing X Y, Z, then what are the steps that we have to do on our side? What are the steps on the law? What are the steps with the DA, within the prison system? What are those steps? And we say that we do not want to be about mass incarceration, but we're implementing policies that still enforce it and still send people down that prison pipeline.

In some states, like if you're new in New Orleans and you're a trans woman and you're doing sex work, it's a felony charge and it's called a crime against nature. And so in some states, they're purposely highly criminalizing folks depending on who does sex work. So that is, again, power. You can do sex work, but you can't do sex work. And if you do, it's criminalized in this kind of way.

I got transitioned at fifteen, I'm 41. And so I've been around the world in different varieties of things of life. And so, I would see friends of mine who were fairer skinned, their sex worker journey was different. They weren't harassed more, profiled more as me, being Black, or, you know, because they were taking a call on the phone, they weren’t harassed. But if I walked the streets, because of my skin complexion and where I was at in the neighborhood I was in, I was policed along with other Black people in a different way. And so that let me know that it was not just my gender, it was also my race.

And so the thing about sex work, it intersects with so many other, just, social justice issues. If you just pull back the layers: race, class, reproductive health, work and all those other things. It just intersects in a way where you're able to like really just sit with yourself and not say, I'm going to have like this sex worker view, but just like, look at the lenses of social justice. They're all in those entities.

EMERSON
[00:14:06] It's a really important point. And the way you describe it, obviously, anytime something is criminalized, it's going to have a disparate impact. And if it's in the United States, there's going to be white supremacy baked into it. There's going to be the patriarchy baked into it. And criminalizing sex work is no different. As you said, the, the impact is much harsher on trans people of color than others. Sex work is the perfect issue for the ACLU because it brings together so many of the different topics that we care about. But I know that you actually had a leading hand in pushing this onto the ACLU’s agenda. Can you talk about the process of making the case that sex workers rights are central, not just to trans rights, not just to racial justice, but sort of central to social justice overall?

LALA
[00:14:51] So one thing I want to do for people who follow the ACLU -- if you are a real follower of the ACLU -- part of following anything, you have to know their history. And so ACLU has had a history around sex work prior to LaLa being here.

EMERSON
[00:15:06] Right

[00:15:07] And so I just use that as my tool to further push ACLU like, this ages me. Hey, this is the policy y’all been had. But also, you cannot talk about civil liberties if that does not include sex workers.

EMERSON
[00:15:23] You mentioned that the ACLU has long had a public position against the criminalization of prostitution, I think that dates from the 70s that the ACLU went on record on this issue. But nonetheless, when you came in the door, you were a bit surprised by some of the reactions, even the positive reactions that you got when you raised this issue.

LALA
[00:15:41] Yeah, I really was. Because when I came here, I just, I didn't know what to expect. So everyone went around the room and everyone had to bring three priority issue areas that they wanted to work on. And when we went around the room, everyone in the room went around and said that decriminalization of sex work would be one of their priorities that they wanted to work on.

My goal when I came here, regardless, was to push everything. Like, I'm going to take every opportunity, like if I'm going to be here, and you want to be about trans issues, I'm going to push forward the issues that are impacting my community and most of my community, they are impacted by sex work and always getting locked up for it. But in the room at that time when we talked about it, to hear folks, actually like, “Yes,” that's what was a shocking part for me. I was just like, really? I was expecting more of pushback, but there wasn't any.

Our administration is clearly about the rich, about white supremacy, about class, about misogyny, all those things. So people are combating that by joining on decriminalizing sex work, it like intersects with everything.

EMERSON
[00:16:47] No, it's a beautiful story about a coalition coming together. I'm curious to hear what that coalition hopes to accomplish. We understand the general goal of decriminalization and improving the lives of sex workers. But another proposal, and I wonder if you can react to, one proposal, is to actually, so criminalize the buying of sex, but decriminalize the selling of sex. That is people who, exactly flipping what you said earlier. So instead of demonizing the stripper or the massage person or the sex worker, flip it and criminalize only the patron.

LALA
[00:17:19] If we're saying that we're decriminalizing it, either side -- putting either side at fault, it's not solving the problem. We're saying that we are for sex work, then that means that people who are purchasing sex are not liable and the folks engaging in it are not liable. And that's just where I'm at with it. And because that's not going to even stop the process because that's where we're still what? Incarcerating people. We’re still taking people away from their families, we’re still publicly embarrassing people. Some people put things in newspapers. But it has to be full-decrim and in a way that is going to be healthy and safe for all parties involved in a way that we still can attack trafficking.

EMERSON
[00:18:03] I'm fully with you. But it brings back the other question, which is, yes, there's this question about the law and all the ways in which the law has doubled down on the marginalization and the punishment of folks who already face a whole host of challenges. But even with decriminalization, or maybe as a part of decriminalization, we also have to take on this stigma. Right, like we have to change the conversation. So we have lawyers who are fighting in the courts. But you're also an organizer and a campaign manager working in communities. And so how are you working to change those hearts and minds and remove that stigma, just as we're trying to push for decriminalization for people who care about policing and mass incarceration, all those sorts of things, how do we change the public conversation?

LALA
[00:18:48] Well, by first having the conversation, having a difficult conversation, creating spaces for folks who are sex workers, or former sex workers, to talk about their experiences. Creating spaces where folks are able to ask those questions without judgement. And I think a lot of times people don't want to ask those questions because it's always that one person's, like, it's rude or I don't want to be that one person. Which I always say, it is not what you ask, it’s how you ask. And so if you're asking to learn, I'm always inviting folks to that. If you're asking because you want to sightsee in someone's life, or for your own enjoyment, or for you to like to use it against someone later --

EMERSON
[00:19:26] Or judgment.

LALA
[00:19:27] Or judgment, all that, I'm not with that. But if you authentically want to say I'm struggling with this, show up in spaces that are having conversations around sex work. Folks who are doing these decrim bails. Folks who are D.A.s who are choosing not to prosecute sex workers. Have those conversations, have those conversations with your friends.

It's funny when you read the stories around, people, even in rape culture, it's always the -- particularly with the man in power -- the immediate thing is always the other side. The victim has something to gain. But no, the person with the power had the control from the beginning. And so sex work is just like that. There is an entity that holds the power and control and they're controlling that narrative of shame and pushing that out through policy and political venues.

EMERSON
[00:20:18] Well, those are great marching orders. You heard LaLa say it here: You've got to listen more. You've got to read more. You've got to do so with an open mind. And you've got to check your biases at the door and reserve your shame. And I think that that's great advice for folks who want to learn more about sex work and decriminalisation of sex work. But it's also a great way to live your life. So LaLa, I really appreciate the advice. I really appreciate your time and I really appreciate all that you've done at the ACLU and for the world.

So we appreciate you coming in.

LALA
[00:20:48] Thank you. I had so much fun

EMERSON
[00:20:54] Thanks very much for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, please be sure to subscribe to At Liberty wherever you get your podcasts and rate and review the show. We really appreciate the feedback. In the next few weeks, you’ll be hearing some new voices on At Liberty. We’ll be having guest hosts as we decide who will take the mic full time. I really look forward to hearing what’s next. ‘Till next time, peace.

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