Feature story

Mobilizing COVID-19 relief for transgender sex workers in Guyana and Suriname

02 June 2020

Twinkle Paule, a transgender activist, migrated from Guyana to the United States of America two years ago. As the COVID-19 crisis deepened, she thought of her “sisters” back home and in neighbouring Suriname. For many of them, sex work is the only option for survival.  She knew that the curfew would starve them of an income. And she was worried that some might wind up in trouble with the law if they felt forced to work at night.

After making contact with people on the ground, her concerns were confirmed. She made a personal donation, but knew it was not nearly enough.

“Being somebody who came from those same streets, I knew we had to mobilize to take care of our community. I know about lying down at home and owing a landlord … about getting kicked out because you can’t afford to pay rent,” Ms Paule said.

She collaborated with New York activists Cora Colt and Ceyenne Doroshow, founder of Gays and Lesbians in a Transgender Society (GLITS Inc), to start a GoFundMe campaign. After launching on 12 May they’ve already raised enough money to cover rent subsidies for one month for six transgender sex workers. The money has been forwarded to Guyana Trans United (GTU), the organization for which she worked as a peer educator when in 2015 she left sex work behind.

That she can now use her position of influence to mobilize emergency relief is itself a stunning success. When she migrated, she’d felt herself tottering on the brink of suicide. The emotional weight of exclusion and injustice was bearing down.

One successful asylum claim later, she’s now a full-time communications student at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She completed her high-school education last year—something she hadn’t been able to do in Guyana. While studying she worked as an outreach officer for GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis).

She seamlessly slipped into advocacy mode, addressing the city council last year about repealing New York State Penal Law § 240.37, a loitering law that is used to target transgender women. She immediately recognized that this was from the same tradition as the vagrancy laws she’d first been victimized by, and later fought against, in Guyana.

Ms Paule is acutely aware of how much her life prospects have changed due to migration.

“It just shows the difference it makes if somebody is given opportunities and the right tools to make other decisions in life. It showed me what I was lacking was adequate resources and the ability to go into an environment without having to worry about discrimination and violence. I am not saying everything is perfect here, but I don’t face the same level of injustice on a daily basis. I was able to access hormone therapy. And to me the most important thing,” she reflected, “is that I was able to go back to school.”

Her mother died when she was a child. Her father moved on with a new family. She was left in the care of his relatives. There wasn’t always enough money for her education. Some weekends she cleaned a church to earn some cash.

But poverty wasn’t the only challenge. Since she was very small she remembered feeling different. She did not have a label for what she felt, but instinctively knew it would not be accepted. At school she strained to stay under the radar. One day her heart skipped when a classmate said she sounded like an “antiman”—a Guyanese derogatory term for a gay person.

Over the years she repeatedly overheard adults in the household agreeing that she should be put out if she turned out to be gay. At 16 years old it happened. A relative spotted her “dancing like a girl” at a party. Now she was homeless.

Ms Paule sought refuge with other transgender women and, like them, used sex work to survive. The burgeoning regional movement to address the needs of vulnerable and marginalized communities had an impact on her life. From the newly formed Guyana Sex Work Coalition she learned about safer sex and accessed safer sex commodities. When some of her peers started going to conferences they found out for the first time that there was a word for their experience. They weren’t “antimen”. They were transgender.

But life on the street was brutal. If someone was robbed or raped they could not report the crime.

“The police tell you plain, “Why are you coming here when you know prostitution and buggery are against the law?”,” she remembered.

She said sometimes rogue police officers threatened to charge them and extort money from them.

Once the police locked up her and other transgender women together with men at the police station and threw condoms into the cell—a green light to the other detainees. She was a teenager at the time.

She accompanied a friend to the police station to make a domestic violence report one day. Instead a policeman told her, “You are involved in buggery. I am locking you up.”

In 2014, a group of them were arrested for sex work in Suriname. Among other indignities, a prison guard forced them to disrobe and squat outside their cell, in the presence of other detainees.

Seven years ago, one of her friends was killed, her body was thrown behind a church. There was no investigation.

Trauma after trauma. It takes its toll.

Even when nothing happens, there is lingering fear. Will I be put out the taxi? Will people insult me on the street? Will I be mistreated because of what I’m wearing?

“The girls take it like it’s their fault,” Ms Paule reflected. “Even in my personal experience I felt people had a right to do me things because I was not behaving in accordance with societal norms.”

Even as she stepped into advocacy, she didn’t feel whole. She attempted suicide once and began having a drink or smoke before turning up to work. Two years ago she was unravelling. Now she’s rallying forces in the service of her community.

Ms Paule credits the work of organizations like the Society against Sexual Orientation Discrimination and GTU for advancing the dialogue around inclusion in Guyana.

“What is still missing is safety and equity for the community,” she insisted. “We need a state response to say, “These people should be taken care of”. The trans community has no jobs, we are bullied out of school, we suffer police brutality. These things are wrong. We need more robust action from our elected officials.”