“I was surrounded by an angry mob,” says Paul Hyde. He’s talking about the night that 80 people showed up to protest his group, the Homewood Maitland Safety Association (HMSA), who stand at a Toronto street corner popular with trans sex workers and discourage clients from approaching the women. Hyde says the protesters asked him to speak, but they wouldn’t listen to him. “They stood around me in a circle, calling out ‘Hitler’ and ‘fascist’ whenever I opened my mouth.”
Controversy over sex work flared up on the streets of Toronto’s queer village this summer. In one corner, a frustrated residents group who don’t believe sex work should take place on their doorstep. They are facing off against street-based trans sex workers — many of them women of colour — and their supporters.
The sex workers are trying to make a living in a risky environment. The residents seek to get rid of them. They say they care what happens to these women, but that no one will work with them on a common solution. Many activists — some of whom don’t even live in the neighbourhood — seem to see only class hate and gentrification greed.
This is no surprise based on some of the violent anti-sex-work rhetoric that’s been flying around the blogosphere recently — which the HMSA officially denies any hand in, even though some online commenters have identified themselves as HMSA members. When the viewpoints and allegations on this issue diverge so widely, it can feel hard to know who to believe. Is there any room for common ground at the corner of Homewood and Maitland?
The Homewood-Maitland Safety Association says they’ve been misunderstood — and they want to set the record straight. They don’t hate trans women or sex workers. But the number of women working on the corner has dramatically increased, they allege — bringing noise, bumper-to-bumper traffic and fights at all hours.
“This has been a corner known to transgender sex trade for a long, long time,” admits Hyde. “But over the last 4 or 5 years, we found crystal meth has found its way to sex-trade workers’ use. That kept them working longer, extending their hours.
“At daybreak, they were still on their corners, and kids on their way to the high school and public school were passing them. The johns were sticking around, too. Then drug dealers — guys on bicycles and cell phones — started hanging around,” says Hyde.
That’s when things got violent, he says. “The sex workers would get into fights with one another.” He says more and more women began to work on the stroll. “Where it used to be 2 or 3, it became 10 or 15. Last year it became 35 or 40. That’s a lot of people working a single corner and its surrounding strip.”
The HMSA’s Michel Bencini says the neighbourhood has changed, and that condo owners just won’t accept an active sex trade in their midst. “We can’t turn back the clock — this area has become gentrified. It’s just a sociological fact. The kind of upper-middle-class person who buys here has a very low tolerance for illegal activity.” He thinks the sex workers should move to a non-residential area — such as Queen’s Park Crescent. “There’s even a place for the johns to park behind the legislature.”
Both men are sympathetic to the situation facing trans women in sex work, and say their group includes trans women as well as both gay and straight members. The government’s refusal to legitimize sex work puts both the women and residents at risk, they argue. “There should be a safe and legal red-light district,” Bencini says, “just not in our residential neighbourhood.”
Hyde says no one — from the city to the 519 — would answer their cries for help, so they were forced to take matters into their own hands. Sex workers he approached, Hyde says, just told him to fuck off.
The people who protested them just don’t understand, according to Hyde. “They are passionate about human rights and they should be. But people supporting this activity do it from a distance. If they had it outside their doors, if they had sleepless nights, if they had this illicit activity happening in their front yard, and if that endangered their children or their spouses or their visitors, their sympathies wouldn’t be long-lived.”
By holding up signs and flashlights and standing near the women any time a client tries to approach them, the HMSA may have reduced the number of sex workers, but they’ve gotten a lot of bad press and haven’t made many friends in the process. Why?
“Even if this group succeeds in getting rid of sex workers, they will just move to another residential area, and new sex workers will show up to replace them in this neighbourhood,” says Laurel Ronan, who spent years as a Toronto-based sex worker and sex-work advocate, and was on staff at Maggie’s, a drop-in centre whose main clientele is street-based sex workers.
Does she see any validity to the HMSA’s concerns? If the issue is safety, Ronan says yes. “Everyone should feel safe in a community — homeowners, outdoor sex workers, business people — all people who are present in a neighbourhood have that right.”
But residents groups themselves compromise safety in their aggressive focus on extinguishing the local sex trade, argues Ronan, who says she’s dealt with many of these organizations over the years as a member of Sex Professionals of Canada. “When one side sees the other as not members of their neighbourhood or community and ostracizes them, I don’t think any success can come of that.”
“They may be willing to entertain hearing the other side — but ultimately they just want the sex workers to leave,” she adds. She says if the residents group really cares about the plight of women selling sex on the street, they should expand their efforts to actively fight for decriminalization — and other things that would improve their situation, such as better job training, affordable housing and childcare. “There are so many gaps in our society. And we don’t really like to look at those. We just like to look at the outcomes, we don’t like to look at the cause.”
Ronan argues that the rise of resident protest groups has wide-reaching implications. “It’s not just outdoor sex workers… all street-based populations are under attack by residents’ associations — that includes street people with mental-health issues, drug users and homeless people.”
Her advice for the HMSA? “Acknowledge that sex workers are members of your community and have as much of a right to be there as you do. Whether they work there, live there, or both — they are members of the community.” That basic respect makes all the difference in the world, Ronan says. “Once you create an inclusive space — through real dialogue — people start feeling like they are a member of that community, so they are less apt to do anything anti-social.”
“Engage sex workers as fellow human beings, because they are. We all bleed the same colour.”
Toronto is not the first place where residents have clashed over street-based sex work. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), a UK-based policy think tank, carried out a detailed research study on the impact of street sex work in different communities. They found that residents have a wide range of views on sex workers, from wanting to displace them from to offering them support and sympathy.
According to their research, communities are most likely to succeed in creating harmony between residents and sex workers when the city is actively involved in addressing public space concerns — a gap highlighted by the HMSA — and when sex workers themselves are directly, meaningfully and respectfully involved in developing solutions — which, as Lauren Ronan points out, is missing from the mix. As both sides point out, this issue is not going to go away, so this elusive cooperation will need to be forged somehow. If one group gets to enforce its desires on the other, there will never be a lasting solution.
A few days after I talk to Laurel Ronan, I visit a friend on Homewood Street. In the elevator on the way up to his apartment, a TV screen posts messages encouraging residents to sign up for the HMSA’s street patrols, every Friday and Saturday night from 11pm till 4am. There are sign-up sheets in the management office.
Claude Mercure lives in a building where Hyde and Bencini told me several HMSA members also reside. I ask him if he’s ever experienced any noise or other problems because of sex workers.
“If they were pushy or unpleasant, or if there were many of them, I might object to their presence. But I’ve lived here nine years, and it has never bothered me.
“I’ve seen them out at night, and they’ve asked me or my friends if we wanted ‘a date’ a few times,” he says, adding that as a gay man he found this amusing rather than inconvenient.
He says he frequently spends time all along both Maitland and Homewood streets, and hasn’t experienced the problems the HMSA describes. “I’ve never witnessed any altercations between sex workers and other people in my neighbourhood.”
Mercure says the numbers of sex workers seem the same as ever to him. “When I see them out, which is always at night, there are usually about three. Often there are none at all.” He did see the HMSA protestors on the way home once, though.
“I don’t understand why they do this,” he says. “I try to live and let live. I forget the sex workers are even out there as soon as they pass out of sight. I don’t know why those other people continue to think about them. Maybe they object to the very existence of sex workers.”
It’s 1am on a Saturday night at the tail end of summer, and the streets are bustling. I exit my own condo building near the corner of Church and Carlton, where a handful of women in distinctive PVC outfits stand and advertise their services. Groups of gay men congregate across the street outside Zippers as hot rods and streetcars make their way in either direction. I walk two blocks over to Homewood and Maitland to see what the fuss is all about.
A humid breeze wafts slowly through the air, and I witness a tall, pretty sex worker bearing a slight resemblance to Donna Summer kibitzing with a colleague in a pair of overstated red leather boots. They turn around as another woman approaches. Short and dark-haired with a big white purse in tow, she could pass for a suburban mother from Woodbridge.
“Look who’s back working the streets,” the first woman calls out, letting out a celebratory whoop. She high-fives her approaching friend, a bit awkwardly because of their difference in height. I wouldn’t call her the quiet type, but she makes a lot less racket than the dozen drunken hostellers I pass right around the corner a few minutes later.
Across Homewood, a half-dozen queer twentysomethings hang out. I eavesdrop on their chit-chat, glancing across the street where three dog owners and their assorted canines are assembled. It looks like a pretty peaceful coexistence to me. If any of these people are protestors on either side — and it sure doesn’t look like it — they have reached a curious détente.
I stay up as long as I can, scouting the streets from Jarvis to Homewood to Maitland to Carlton to Sherbourne and back again, looking for any trouble to be found. I exchange glances with the eight sex workers spread out on the various street corners along the way, but no one says a word to me. I think to approach one for an interview, but it suddenly feels rude to interrupt them while they’re on the job.
A police car hovers just south of Maitland briefly. Two working women pass by without incident. The most drama I can dig up is when I pass a guy pretending to use the payphone at Wellesley and Sherbourne who’s actually taking a piss against the brick wall. Startled as I walk close by, he says “Sorry, dude.”
“No worries, man,” I reply, and shuffle away, heading for my waiting bed.