Toronto
3 min

Wake-up call, girl!

A safe-sex comic for transexual prostitutes hits its target

WHASSUP? Christina Strang (left) talks sister-to-sister with Monica Forrester. Credit: Joshua Meles

After Christina Strang and Monica Forrester presented their latest project at last week’s Women And HIV/AIDS Conference, they found themselves surrounded by people from AIDS service organizations, eager to find out how to improve their hiring practices.



The reps were taken with the booklet-wielding transexual activists.



“They wanted to know how to hire people like me. They were really open and asked questions I’ve always wanted people to ask,” says Strang.



The hot-off-the-presses booklet that triggered the buzz is The Happy Transexual Hooker. Strang was hired by the 519 Church Street Community Centre to coordinate it; Forrester has been distributing it as part of her job as a TS outreach worker.



It uses photos and comic book-style dialogue bubbles to tell the story of Sacha, an off-duty trans prostitute, and Tony, the sweet but underinformed guy she meets in a bar. The steamy story is aimed at helping sex workers get their facts straight about HIV and STDs. Strang says that because the book is produced by transexuals speaking as peers, the message will hit home.



“Transexuals rarely get to play themselves.” says Strang. “The worst thing is when they make reports saying it’s in need, then they don’t do anything about it. Or they don’t hire from within the community. We speak the language, we can get what they need.”



Despite research suggesting the HIV-infection rate is high among transexual sex workers, mainstream AIDS organizations have had problems reaching them. Strang says that when she started working in the sex trade, the only HIV prevention information out there was for gay men. Since then, Strang says some agencies have recognized the special needs of trans prostitutes, but haven’t made it a point to act on their findings.



The format of The Happy Transexual Hooker may be fun and easily accessible to a large audience, but it is very sharply targeted. Strang says it was a challenge to create a guide that didn’t employ the usual talk-down and moralizing. They conducted focus groups.



“They wanted someone in the booklet who was sexy, a beautiful TS woman who was a sex trade worker herself,” explains Forrester.



They found several areas where there was a lot of misinformation, and used the storyline to talk about them. For example, you can take anti-retroviral meds and hormones at the same time, though some doctors will argue with you about it. You need to use different needles for recreational drugs and hormones. There’s no cross-the-board reason to not have sex reassignment surgery if you’re HIV-positive. And neo-vaginas do absorb HIV.



So how does this booklet get out to the right people? Is it as effective on the streets as it was at the AIDS conference? Forrester has been handing out the booklet when she does her street outreach work. Copies have been well received, partly because they’ve been coming from her.



“I’ve worked out there for 10 years. Being a woman of colour helps – about 80 percent of the girls out there are ethnic. I’m also pretty out-going, I’ve never had trouble communicating with them.”



While they recognize sex workers as safe sex professionals, the guide is useful in dispelling myths that do exist; many TS sex workers use condoms with their clients, but not always with their lovers.



“They often have a great working knowledge of safer sex, but then they’ll date a guy for three months and take the condom off,” Forrester says.



Another big safe-sex issue is self-esteem. In the booklet Sacha talks about how much she loves herself, and wants a lover who will treat her with respect.



“Since I am so special I am going to hold out for guys who treat me right and love me so fine… like Tony,” reads the text bubble.



Strang takes this part of the message very seriously: “We’re the most beautiful, unique people.” Her own sex-work experience helped put a positive slant to the booklet.



“It was validating. It wasn’t freakish or weird. You know, I could’ve done other work. I could’ve squeegeed. But sex work paid well, facilitated my transition, made me feel good about myself, like it was my own business. It also gave me access to other transexuals. We are a vibrant part of the sex working community.”