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Fight over trans sex stroll turns nasty

Residents accused of harassing sex workers

POINTING FINGERS. Michel Bencini of the Homewood/Maitland Safety Association (left) confronts sex-work advocates Wendy Babcock and Gerald Hannon.

A local residents’ association is trying to force trans sex workers off of their traditional stroll.

The recently formed Homewood/Maitland Safety Association (HMSA) wants sex workers out of its neighbourhood and activists and workers say things are getting nasty.

“This has long been a place for trans women to work,” trans activist Rebecca Hammond told a rally on the corner of Homewood and Maitland on the night of Aug 15. “The Homewood/Maitland Safety Association, as it’s so euphemistically called, has been harassing the women who were here long before they were.”

Sex work activist Wendy Babcock told the rally she’s been told of trans sex workers in the area being physically and verbally attacked by members of HMSA, and says she has received nasty emails for her stand supporting the workers.

“[There have been] numerous reports of women having rocks and garbage thrown at them, being threatened with baseball bats,” she said.

Paul Hyde, a spokesperson for HMSA, says the group has been out on Friday and Saturday nights, but denies that any of its members have taken physical action.

“We absolutely did not raise a hand or a voice,” he says. “The garbage and rocks come from people driving by, not from us. We call ourselves the Safety Committee because we’re looking out for the safety of the sex-trade workers, the residents and the neighbourhood.”

Hyde says HMSA began this summer because of loud fights among the sex workers.

“In May there was a particular evening when a huge fight broke out, almost a brawl,” he says. “It was seriously violent.”

But Hyde admitted to the rally that supporters of the group — which he said only has five members — might have taken action on their own. He said he also knows of people who have been attacked by the sex workers.

“I’ve had friends beaten up,” he said. “There was one with blood dripping from his nose after he got whacked with a high heel shoe. And there are neighbours that are so angry and fed up, they overreact. There’s extremes on both sides.”

Sheila, a trans sex worker who works in the area, says HMSA has to control what the residents do. She says she has been hit by a bottle thrown from a car, although she doesn’t know who threw it.

“They’re responsible for their friends and guests,” she says. “We try to get rid of the bad girls. They’re bad for business.”

Babcock scoffed at residents associations’ claims of watching out for sex workers.

“Too often they see a woman being beaten, they don’t do anything,” she said at the rally. “But the second they see a woman standing on the street 911 is the first call they make.”

Hyde denies any knowledge of a flyer circulating in the area that boasted the HMSA website would soon have a “Hall of Shame” displaying the licence plate numbers of johns.

But fellow spokesperson Michel Bencini contradicted him.

“We’re keeping track of licence plate numbers,” he told the rally. “We have a right to do that.”

Bencini said that HMSA has no idea where the sex workers should go if they leave their regular stroll.

“We don’t know,” he said. “We’ve just asked to talk it out. If we don’t get the help of The 519 and Kyle Rae, we don’t know.”

Neither city councillor Rae nor the 519 Community Centre have expressed support for trying to move the workers. In a letter to the HMSA Rae criticized its approach.

“The tone of certain emails, and in particular a flyer that was recently distributed, was extremely disparaging and, in my opinion, hateful,” he wrote.

Rae wrote that the city has no power to move sex workers, as “We have no jurisdiction to create a designated red-light district.”

Maura Lawless, the executive director of The 519, says moving the workers would put them in real danger.

“If they’re forced to leave where it’s known that the women are trans, there’s a very real chance that there’ll be an increased level of violence, especially when the johns find out they’re trans.”

Lawless says she too has heard reports of sex workers being physically harassed by residents.

“Very clearly there is a youth contingent within the neighbourhood that is targeting the workers and throwing garbage and beer bottles.”