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Feature

Disproportionate victims: the māhū prostitute

Discrimination forces many transgender women into prostitution to survive. But once in the sex trade, they are disproportionately effected by both violence and criminalization.

in Human Trafficking

“There are rules.”

This is what transgender activist Tracy Ryan says when I ask her to describe the transgender prostitution industry in Hawaii.

“There’s a real sense of sisterhood, the girls really had your back,” she says about the transgender women who worked in Chinatown in the 1980s and 1990s. From what she tells me, if you were a transgender sex worker, you really needed someone to have your back.

“Up until probably the 1980s, if you were male and had chosen to live as a female, your opportunities to survive in a square job or legal job were very, very limited,” Ryan says. “Very few girls did it; almost all of them were working in prostitution.”

“Trans people are being discriminated against when trying to obtain jobs, housing, educational services … they have far fewer opportunities in society to be successful than non-trans individuals,” IMUAlliance Executive Director Kris Coffield says. “That’s a very sad part of the structural coding of our society.”

Transgender women weren’t always discriminated against in Hawaii. Prior to western contact, “māhū” were important members in a communal society, often given ceremonial roles as guardians of traditional arts—specifically hula. It wasn’t until missionary influence took hold that heteronormative gender roles became set in stone and the “third sex” became taboo.

One extreme example of discrimination began in 1963, when transgender women were legally required to wear a button or label reading, “I am a boy” or “I am a man.” Any transgender woman who failed to wear the label could be charged with “intent to deceive,” arrested on the spot and charged a $500 fine. It took a decade of activism to finally end the discriminatory practice.

With such an atmosphere of prejudice against them, prostitution became one of the only viable ways for transgender women to earn a living.

But Hawaii’s prostitution laws criminalize women, even if they were coerced or forced into the sex trade by economic circumstances. With so many transgender women facing discrimination and, consequently, entering the sex trade, these laws hurt transgender victims at a disproportionate rate.

Until recent decades, Ryan says transgender women working in the sex industry in Hawaii faced extreme violence from both “johns” and from law enforcement officers.

“Years ago, transgender people working in the sex industry in Chinatown were frequently assaulted by law enforcement [officers],” Ryan says. “This is not the common situation now, but not so long ago it was.”

She says transgender women working in the industry back then were also frequently assaulted by potential “johns.” Many times, “johns” would react violently when they found out that their date was a biological male.

“One of my friends has been shot at with a shotgun,” Ryan says. “Luckily, the guy was not a very good shot and she ran fast.”

Ryan says that this level of violence is much less frequent since the Hawaiian cultural revival in the 1970s and LGTBQ movements of recent decades. But Hawaii’s prostitution code is still a huge source of criminalization for transgender women today, she says.

“There are various aspects of the current criminal code and how it’s applied that have severe negative affects on transgender people working in prostitution,” she says.

She says that the mandatory jail terms that come with multiple prostitution arrests are especially hard on transgender women who are placed in male prisons. But it’s the criminal records that prove to be the most debilitating in the long run. Any chance that the transgender women might have had to work in a successful, “square” job in the future usually disappears with a conviction.

“I have a friend who … has a conviction for prostitution on her record from 20 years ago that has prevented her from receiving various educational [grants] which would allow her to get degrees and things to help her in her work,” Ryan says.

Coffield says that he doesn’t think that anybody should be held criminally liable for committing acts that, ultimately, they were forced to commit in order to survive. Workplace discrimination, a poor economy and the inability to obtain government services still force many transgender women into lives of prostitution today.

“When you live in a state with the highest cost of living in the country, eventually you have to survive,” Coffield says. “And in some cases, prostitution can be a way of simply earning the money necessary to pay bills, to pay for housing, to pay for food.”

Coffield says that we need to eradicate discrimination against transgendered people in the areas of housing, the work force, education and the military in order to address complaints about prostitution. He says that prostitution, whether by trans or cis individuals, will always flourish if there are few job opportunities over minimum wage and even fewer affordable rental units.

“If the community is so concerned about the level of prostitution, you would think that they would make it easy for people who are prostitutes to move out of that industry,” Ryan says. “You’ve got a criminal law that frankly makes no sense.”

This feature is part 3 of a series of 4 articles covering sex trafficking in Hawaii.

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