"We Are Kinda Unbreakable"
Trans sex workers remain resilient in Baltimore while navigating neighborhood associations, cops, gentrification, and more
By Raye Weigel
Photos by Marie Machin
Rhue Cook sits at her desk in The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore (GLCCB) building in Old Goucher and writes down the supplies she has for the night—hand sanitizer, lip balm, condoms—and says aloud, "It's hot in here, so I'm dressed like a boy."
She wears a gray T-shirt, something quite different than what she wears later on.
Cook leads the Transgender Action Group (TAG) outreach night, which offers safe sex/hygiene kits to transgender women and men who are sex workers in Baltimore and operates through GLCCB. TAG can direct people to certain legal and housing needs they might require, too.
Twice a month, Cook walks the streets of Baltimore in the dark handing out plastic bags filled with condoms, chapstick, hand sanitizer, and gum to women working near Charles Street in Old Goucher and Station North between midnight and 4 a.m. Cook and her team members return to the office every 30 minutes to check in for safety reasons—if they aren't back in time, the people waiting at the office call 911.
Though the plight of trans sex workers has gained more media attention in recent years, there are still considerable hurdles to providing safety on the streets and necessary resources like healthcare and housing. Here in Baltimore, murders of transgender people have become more prevalent, and a Department of Justice patterns and practice report on the Baltimore Police Department found that officers often misgendered arrestees and did not appropriately process them. The sex workers in Old Goucher face a new threat: the push of gentrification, including the newly renovated Baltimore Eagle, a gay landmark, that initially sought to pull the late-night business license from a gas station where sex workers seek refuge.
Before Cook goes out, she exits the room and reappears with long, fluffy, curled black hair, effervescent eyeshadow, a pink tank top, and a tiny black skirt. Terry and Ann, two sex workers who are each being paid $100 to take a night off sex work and walk, help out.
They all step into the drizzle with a blue umbrella and hand-outs. Cook knows the names of, or at least recognizes, nearly all of the women on the stroll. She walks over to two women she hasn't met before and introduces herself with smiling eyes and some advice.
"It's rough out here but get your money," she tells them. "Keep your money on your mind and your mind on your money. . . If you ever need anything just call for Aunt Rhue, honey, I'm always around."
Green and red lights reflect in wet streets and despite the occasional hiss of a car speeding by in the rain, the city is quiet. It is 2 a.m.
Since Cook spends so much time working the stroll, she refers to herself as the "aunt" of younger girls working today. Everybody knows who she is. She passes a car parked on the side of the street with the passenger door open. A man is inside, slouched and unconscious with his pockets turned out. Cook takes one look at him and observes that being on the street isn't easy for anyone. Dealing with day-to-day prejudice and stress is the reason she is on antidepressants, she says.
"You're an afterthought, we all are. So don't think these guys are gonna date you or babe you or boo you up . . . they know you're a prostitute. Why the fuck would he take you home to his family?" she says. "We're kinda like a little family here. And I don't wanna see anybody get hurt or get robbed or get raped."
For her own safety, she has carried weapons with her, she says: mace, a knife, a gun, even a razor blade under her tongue: "I would spit the razor blade out between my fingers and just slice your ass up real quick. I was in juvenile hall for I think 18 days for cutting up this guy." The guy was harassing her little sister.
Cook spots a woman with hoop earrings and long hair down her back on the corner.
"Hey sugar, you need condoms?" Cook says as she approaches her. "You're looking cute and all summery, here, take them Magnums."
Cook has been a sex worker on and off for the past 25 years. When snow was up to her ankles, she was out working. Some nights she didn't get any dates, and walked the whole way home sobbing. It's stressful to be out for eight hours and make nothing when and rent and electrical bills are due.
More recently, Cook has been focusing on working with the GLCCB and outreach: "Although I don't do street work anymore, I'm trying to help every girl that I can help that's willing and wanting to come from out there from doing that to find their happy place—a job, a stable place to live—and find a group of people that can understand and know what we're going through on a daily basis."
Though the city is changing, she says new people moving into the neighborhood who aren't friendly to transgender sex workers don't phase her much—or rather, they just can't phase her because she has to keep going.
"I think just the mere fact that we are transgender means we are kinda unbreakable. We bounce back," she says. "We're so used to carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders, so to speak. . . It doesn't affect us but for a temporary moment then we kind of just let it roll off our backs and keep on pushing, because if we don't, we're dead in the water."
Many of her friends and acquaintances who worked on the street are dead now.
"Tricking is not a game," she says. "It's either you're going out seriously to make money or you come out here to play games and those who play games often get played."
The Human Rights Campaign compiled statistics about 53 known transgender homicide victims from 2013 to 2015. The number may be higher, however, due to a lack of accurate data collection on the subject or misgendering in reports. Forty-six of the victims were people of color, and at least 34 percent were likely engaged in survival sex work at the time of their deaths.
Terry, who walks with Cook, has been doing sex work for 30 years. Talkative with a resplendent smile, highlighted brown hair and bangs, she glows as her large gold hoop earrings the size of her palm swing side to side.
Terry is passionate about animals—she mentions going to the zoo to see the pandas; she speaks fondly of her animal-loving father, who fed all the feral cats in her neighborhood. As far as sex work, "there is no favorite part," she says. Her least favorite part is "going out there and dealing with those assholes." She says on a typical night she will make around $150.
Cook, Terry, and Ann walk and share hilarious, gloomy stories.
Laughing, they describe dates such as the client who liked rough feet—apparently, he would lay out a row of toy cars then watch as whomever he had hired would tiptoe across them. And there's the man who solicited one of them in the dead of night with his small children asleep in the back of his car.
"They won't wake up," Ann says he told her.
Terry has had a client pay her $100 to tweak his nipples and another who wanted her to beat him. She describes many clients as "regular sex addicts."
The climate for sex workers in Baltimore has changed dramatically over time, Cook says: "You've got some dates that don't care about us, they just want to use us for our particular body parts or whatever sexual experiences they can try to get out of us—so yeah it's a big difference when I trick now as when I tricked back in the '80s and '90s."
Back then, the dates were more respectful. They'd take them out to dinner, spend time with them, and pay them more fairly. Now, it can be a struggle, especially with rich clients. Sometimes, she can hardly get $20 out of a guy driving a brand new Cadillac.
Some of the sex workers Cook greets are young. Cook called out to a group of girls just about to pass out of view behind a building. They didn't respond.
"Some of the young heifers: little 12-year-olds," she says.
Cook says there's a 13-year-old who she has seen out a few times.
"That might be her right there," she says, pointing to a girl walking away with brown hair all the way down her back.
A huge rat leaps out from behind a trash can and everyone jumps back except for Terry. Rats don't scare her. Johns don't scare her either, or, at least, she knows how to control them. She says she likes to have her client's hands on her if she is doing anything to him, because then she knows where his hands are and he can't reach for a weapon such as a knife or a gun.
Terry walks and offers advice about how to be a lady (a lady always carries a pocketbook, for example) and then, she steps on a bug—most likely a cockroach—and laughs. She likes stepping on them because of the popping sound they make under her feet, she says.
We avoided Guilford, where Alphonza Watson, a transgender woman, was shot and killed earlier this year.
There's no indication that Watson was engaged in sex work the night she was killed, it's important to note, but widespread prejudice poses a threat to the lives and well-being of all transgender people.
There have been 14 homicides involving transgender people in Baltimore since 2005. The issue, nationally, is so grave that family and friends of the murdered gather on Nov. 20 each year, on national Transgender Day of Remembrance, to remember the lives of the lost.
At the 2640 Space following Baltimore's Trans March of Resilience on that day last November, Ava Pipitone of the Baltimore Transgender Alliance addressed the crowd, who gathered for an evening of food, conversation, and performances.
"In Baltimore City, there are many transgender communities and it's only in the past few years have we started coming together. And only through coming together can we heal collectively and act collectively like we did today," Pipitone said. "The most important part of today is to reclaim. We are reclaiming our narrative from the morbid news headlines that are far too often too visible stories of our murders, executions, and suicides. We're reclaiming those stories and lifting up and centering the voices of transgender mothers, fathers, parents, artists, teachers, business owners. Those stories. When you think transgender, you should think trans is beautiful."
In any discussion about transgender sex workers, it is vital to note that not all transgender people are sex workers, and not all sex workers are transgender. According to a survey done by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task force in 2011, transgender women engage in sex work at a rate 10 times that of cisgender women.
Charles Xavier Kilborn, a peer navigator with the GLCCB, notes that many transgender women turn to sex work because they don't have many other options.
"It is a means to an end, it is a reflection of the way that the community moves," Kilborn says.
When people won't hire transgender people, they are essentially forced onto the streets. Racism also plays a role in this pattern of job discrimination. Transgender people of color are more likely to report having done sex work: 44 percent of African-American and 28 percent of Latinx transgender people reported engaging in sex work, according to the same survey.
Kilborn also mentions the divide between the white gay community and people of color in the trans community. Part of this divide, Kilborn explains, is represented by the goals of the two groups: White gay men have been focused on marriage rights while black transgender women are still just trying to stay alive.
"It doesn't really make sense to worry about getting married when you can't afford a house or a home," he says.
The Baltimore Eagle, a once-infamous gay leather bar, recently came under new ownership (Robert Gasser with Greg and Chuck King) and reopened last year. Now, it's fancier—a Hard Rock Cafe version of Baltimore's queer history, some have quipped—and security out front. It has also exacerbated neighborhood battles over the gas station across the street from the Eagle, American Fuel, which has a late night commercial operations permit to be open until 5 a.m.
The Charles North Community Association opposed the permit and wants American Fuel's late night hours stopped. Many transgender sex workers take refuge at the gas station because it's open and lit in the area during the night, meaning it provides safety and more business as many of their clients roll through. The Eagle's owners had agreed to sign a petition to revoke the station's late-night operating license. They came to be labeled as transphobic by organizations that advocate for transgender rights, and sent the community into an uproar.
John Yelcick, a lender to the bar, referred to the transgender sex workers as "tranny prostitutes" in a series of messages that went public, adding to ill feelings toward the Eagle. The word "tranny" is widely acknowledged by organizations such as GLAAD to be defamatory.
He also said in the messages: "I think we are all in an agreement that street prostitution, whether it is done by trannies or whatever does bring down a neighborhood and is undesirable."
The owners of the Eagle distanced themselves from Yelcick, but the damage was already done.
"They're literally coming in as like ambassadors of white settler colonialism to displace the neighborhood," Pipitone, who in addition to being director of the Baltimore Transgender Alliance is a co-owner of Red Emma's, says of the Eagle. "They are very much a guilty party until they can prove otherwise."
Taylor, who asked to use an alias, is a sex worker who also works for Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), a group that recently held a workshop to exchange knowledge about the meaning of the stigma around sex work. Taylor says the Eagle is doing exactly what spaces like it had originally been created to protect its community from: "I think [it] is appalling and an embarrassment to our ancestors and to our elders who came before us and made it so places like the Eagle could exist."
The owners of the Eagle were approached by people within the LGBTQ community and met with the Baltimore Transgender Alliance.
"We've been told by a lot of people: 'You wield more power than you think you have,'" says Chuck King, an owner of the Eagle. "I never anticipated being thrown into the middle of such a crazy controversy that has to do with so many issues."
He says it has been eye-opening: "Where we grew up we look at police officers as protectors. . . . I'm not from Baltimore so I look at things differently from people who are from Baltimore."
After further conversation with the community, the Eagle owners refused to sign a second petition to revoke the gas station's late-night operating license.
"We're gay men. We run this operation because we're proud to be part of the LGBT community and we have nothing against trans workers," King says. "We know that it's a necessary evil that they feel in their minds that they have to make a living and we don't want to step in their way. We're not opposed to sex work."
Among the flags hanging in the window of the Eagle is the blue, pink, and white Transgender Pride Flag.
On July 21, a transgender woman was shot with a BB gun by a passing driver in front of the Eagle. Now, months later, American Fuel is still being scrutinized, but King notes that while the Eagle "would not sign a second petition...[The Eagle does] however still feel the gas station needs to step up and make their property safer."
The Eagle is also working with Monique Carter, a community outreach worker with the Star Track Adolescent Health Program, an LGBTQ youth group with the University of Maryland Medical Center, to establish a ladies' night for transgender people at the Eagle to bridge the gap between transgender women and the bar.
She is sympathetic to the Eagle and stresses that there are things the bar can do to improve relations such as hire transgender people or have transgender-specified nights, like the one she's working on now. But she also feels the controversy with the Eagle was overblown.
"A lot of people in the community thought that it was petitioning to get [the gas station] closed down, which caused a lot of girls in the community to lash out towards the Eagle," she says.
Others however, can't stress enough how the Eagle's appearance in the neighborhood and its conduct further amplifies the rapid gentrification in Station North and Old Goucher.
"Well-meaning white liberals say 'Oh these poor people I'll call the cops on them so that they can get help,'" Taylor of SWOP says. "If you call the police on someone who is a person of color, someone who's a sex worker, or a person who's transgender, especially when they're all three of those things, that's a death sentence."
Interference from police can be ultimately detrimental and even life-threatening to transgender sex workers. And with more gentrification also comes more police.
Taylor says situations such as what's happening with the Eagle, along with ongoing police harassment, "really just highlight the need . . . for transgender people and sex workers to have safer spaces."
The LGBTQ liaison for the Baltimore Police Department, Sgt. Kevin Bailey, has no clear response to the trans community's accusations.
"I do know the transgender community as a whole may have had . . . some issues in the past," he says. "I can't speculate that. I don't know. I do know that we're working to make sure that everyone feels comfortable with talking to the police and that everyone has a better understanding and the police department has an understanding of that community."
Bailey teaches mandatory educational training programs that serve as a bridge between the police and the LGBTQ community.
Bailey refuses to comment on last year's infamous Department of Justice report, which detailed the police department's rampant transphobia and abuse of transgender Baltimoreans, though he does admit the BPD's methods have a long way to go: "It's a work in progress. I mean, the police department has to understand the community and if that's not something that's in your everyday life or people that you normally hang out with when you're off or associate with it's hard to understand."
In early July, SWOP Baltimore, Power Inside, the Baltimore Transgender Alliance, and other groups and community members in the Station North arts district met to discuss how sex workers on the strip of Charles North and Old Goucher face oppression based on stigmas surrounding the work they do, along with race, class, and gender.
"To address the health and welfare of street based sex workers, the approach needs to be holistic and take into consideration all these aspects of identity," a statement from SWOP about the meeting reads. "Sex workers need access to basic human rights such as housing and health care."
Taylor stresses that more education on the transgender community, like the kind provided at that meeting, is necessary.
"Educate folks who are moving into a community who don't understand the street economy, who don't understand anything about these people's lives, who don't even see them as human," Taylor says. They also suggested that businesses hire transgender people so they're not forced to work on the street, and noted that during the hiring process, it's necessary for employers to understand that they might have a criminal history because they were forced onto the streets.
"There's ways gentrification can serve those that are being affected by it," they say. "When money comes into a community it can be put towards the people in that community who are being marginalized."
Back at the GLCCB offices, Cook surrounds herself with provisions for the night out, making lists, checking them. Pen in hand, she looks up from her clipboard and declares, "We're still thriving, we're still here—we're not going anywhere."
Additional reporting by Brandon Soderberg.
Editor's Note: Some photos from this piece have been removed. The photographs included people from TAG Outreach and their placement in the story suggested they were sex workers. City Paper regrets this error.