On July 31, a transgender sex worker recorded R&B singer Bobby Valentino running out of a room after allegedly not paying for sexual services. Valentino has since denied the accusation and stated, through his representative, “Misrepresentation and deception were maliciously used to target [him]; during the encounter, Valentino was victimized and threatened by acts of extortion, which continued after his departure was captured on video.”
Valentino made sure to note that he was unaware the sex worker was transgender.
For some, this makes sense—many cisgender heterosexual people incorrectly believe that no one would be attracted to a trans person unless they had been “tricked.” Fortunately, many of us know better. We know better because we see cis heterosexual men intentionally targeting trans women for paid and unpaid sexual services in profiles posted online on sites such as Jack’d and Grindr.
And we know they later deny that attraction once it becomes more public because of their own internalized shame and fear. Who ultimately pays the price for that casual ignorance? Black trans women.
Although we know better, it’s hard not to sometimes internalize what we consistently hear. Earlier Wednesday, Bryanna Jenkins, former executive director of the Baltimore Transgender Alliance, made a statement that sank my heart into the floor: “As a single, black transgender woman living in this world, I constantly battle feeling unlovable and undesirable and that my life is disposable.”
She isn’t alone.
Jenkins and many other black trans women face this heartbreaking reality of attempting to thrive in a society that wants to control the very body in which they have a right to live. It was just Tuesday night, for example, that Jenkins revealed that another black trans woman, Miss Tee Tee Dangerfield, was killed in Atlanta.
According to the Anti-Violence Project, Dangerfield’s death marks the 15th violence-related death of a trans woman of color, and the 13th black trans woman reported murdered, this year. The full details of Dangerfield’s death have yet to be released, but if trends are constant, it was based on patriarchal, misogynistic and parasitic systems that allow trans discrimination to remain unchecked and immediately place blame on victims for their own deaths.
This past week, we have witnessed an incompetent president tweet a trans military ban as federal policy; a failed comedian, Lil Duval, joke on The Breakfast Club that he would murder a trans woman if he discovered she was trans; and, now we have seen Valentino run out of a room, allegedly without paying a trans sex worker her compensation.
In the grand scheme of systematic exclusion from military service and a dangerous joke—backed up by laughter from Breakfast Club co-hosts Charlamagne tha God, DJ Envy and Angela Yee days after trans advocate and author Janet Mock appeared on the show to offer her wisdom—the Valentino story may fly under the radar. However, it’s just as important.
There is a danger in hyperfocusing on perceived “trickery,” which is what has been implied in both Duval’s and Valentino’s statements. These irrational, fragility-induced responses imply that trans women are tricking these cis heterosexual men into having sex with them, when we know otherwise. Not only does this remove agency and womanhood from trans women and blame them for men’s violently fragile egos, but it also suggests that these men didn’t know about a trans woman’s identity beforehand. That’s why Valentino was so quick to announce that he didn’t know the woman in the recorded video was trans.
What’s more, we also know that men who enact violence on trans women are not being manipulated into engaging in sexual intercourse and intimacy. Instead, many of those cis heterosexual men specifically seek out trans women and only run away out of fear of being “outed” for finding trans women attractive.
It’s important to dispel the myths of manipulation. It’s also just as imperative that we learn to think beyond the physical body. Far too many cis people reduce trans people to genitalia in ways many of us cis people never experience, yet we think we can demand that from trans people, especially women. This happened with Janet Mock on The Breakfast Club and with Laverne Cox on The Wendy Williams Show, and it happens to trans women in general every single day.
The past week of transphobic controversies has taught me, as a cis person, two things: We, myself included, are terrible allies (and give ourselves too much credit), and we don’t understand anything about sex workers’ health and rights.
Criminalization of sex work creates an environment of stigma and systematic exclusion that prevents sex workers from accessing the support and services they need. It is this lack of support that increases sex workers’ vulnerability to violence and abuse. Coupled with the discrimination that trans people face in employment, health care settings, housing, education and other exclusionary institutions, in some instances, survival sex work becomes the only realistic option. But that isn’t the only form of sex work. Nonetheless, decriminalization not only addresses the human rights abuses that sex workers continually experience; it is also good public health policy and has proved to reduce HIV.
Why does this matter?
There is a direct link between cis heterosexual men like Valentino running out and allegedly not paying sex workers and “jokes” about murdering trans women, like the one we heard from Duval—and it’s connected to how we treat trans women, especially those at the intersection with the sex trade.
When we decriminalize sex work, we also increase the chances that sex workers can report crimes—like theft for nonpayment and rape or sexual assault—to the police. To be clear, law enforcement is no one’s friend, especially not a marginalized person, particularly because the victim will be treated as the perpetrator. To be clearer, if someone agrees to pay for sexual services, engages and then runs off, he has stolen from a sex worker and has committed aggravated assault or rape.
From what we know, Valentino may be guilty, but we’re so focused on our own misunderstandings of “outing” that we are missing something far more important. This happens more often than many of us may realize, but because sex work is criminalized in most states and in many countries, seeking proper recourse becomes nearly impossible—sans taking concerns to social media and demanding payment.
There is more information to come regarding the Valentino story, but one thing is for sure: Trans violence is never acceptable. Sex work is the world’s oldest industry, and instead of shaming the trans woman in the video for “outing” Valentino as a thief, we must create systems to ensure that she would never have to post a video in the first place. We must remember that #TransFolksAreNotJokes and always work to challenge our friends and loved ones accordingly.