LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately vulnerable to homelessness and survival sex work
White supremacy is fueled and defined by the subjugation and dehumanization of marginalized people.
by Maximillian Matthews
This essay contains discussions of racialized sexual violence and mentions r/pe
“There is probably no greater (or more misleading) body of sexual myths in the world today than those which proliferated around the figure of the American Negro. This means that he is penalized for the guilty imagination of the white people who invest him with their hates and longings, and is the principal target of their sexual paranoia.” – James Baldwin
In July 2017, Gemmel Moore, a 26-year-old Black queer man, died from a methamphetamine overdose in Ed Buck’s West Hollywood apartment. He was the first of two Black queer men to die in Buck’s apartment. According to Gemmel’s personal journal, he was introduced to methamphetamine by Buck who injected him with the drug during their encounters.
According to reports, Ed Buck, a Democratic activist and campaign donor, solicited Gemmel and other Black queer men through LGBTQ+ social networking apps and cruising various areas in Los Angeles. He targeted Black men that needed food, money, and housing. He would offer them money in exchange for coming to his apartment where he would have them use crystal meth and watch their reaction to it. Now, we know Buck had at least 10 victims.
As far back as chattel slavery, enslaved Africans experienced a multitude of sexual violence from white supremacists. White supremacy is fueled and defined by the subjugation and dehumanization of marginalized people. In a piece which, in part, explores serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s cannibalization of Black queer men, Sherronda J. Brown writes, “When the very system of whiteness that you have been indoctrinated into since birth is a sexual fantasy in and of itself, it follows that white supremacy would manifest itself through sexual violence… People’s desire to dominate whomever they hate extends to sexual proclivities, but in sexual violence, there also exists a need to both possess and destroy that which they are ashamed of desiring.”
As the humanity of Black people is universally disregarded, it is unsurprising this would infiltrate into sexuality. Anti-Blackness is so pervasive that it is also found in the bedroom and extends to fetishization because those who fetishize often do not see the person being fetishized as human. It is about satisfying the fetish rather than recognizing the person’s humanity.
In an interview with one of Buck’s victims, Jasmyne Cannick, an award-winning social commentator and former Congressional press secretary, learned Buck used racist language when referring to the Black men in his home. His racism is clearly intertwined with his sexuality. Why else would Buck have “BLACKS +++” on his Adam4Adam profile? Why else would Buck enjoy witnessing Black men in emotional, psychological, and physical pain? Why else would Buck target homeless Black men, those living in poverty and in low-income communities? When people like Ed Buck go on the hunt, LGBTQ youth are disproportionately vulnerable to becoming their prey, especially queer Black youth.
The Trevor Project reports LGBTQ+ youth represent as much as 40% of the homeless youth population as a result of family rejection, discrimination, criminalization, and a host of other factors. Lambda Legal states half of a sampling of lesbian and gay youth who had been in out-of-home care settings reported that they had spent periods of time living on the streets in preference to the hostile environments they had found in these settings. Amnesty International says one survey found LGBTQ+ youth were seven times more likely than heterosexual youth to have traded sex for a place to stay and an overwhelming majority of LGBTQ+ youth involved in sex work are doing so to survive. There are men like Buck who intentionally and strategically pursue those who they can exploit—those who society does not care about and those who are most vulnerable, like poor, homeless Black LGBTQ+ youth trying to survive.
In general, sex workers should have safe avenues to perform their work. The fact is vulnerability can and often does result in exploitation. When age, class, and gender are factored in, the possibility for exploitation becomes even more pronounced. Not only are Black LGBTQ+ youth participating in survial sex work, trans women of color are doing the same as a result of living in a system that does not value their lives, placing them at high risk for HIV/AIDS, criminalization, and violence. In the New York Times Bestseller, Redefining Realness, Janet Mock describes the conditions that lead to trans youth and women having to choose sex work.
“The greatest push factor for trans girls engaged in the sex trade is poverty, stemming from homelessness (often brought on by parents and/or guardians refusing to accept their gender identity) or growing up in already struggling low-income communities where resources are scarce…With this systemic lack of resources glaring in your face, your body aching for food and hormones, your mind internalizing the pressures of society that say you must look a certain way and that you don’t matter, survival sex work becomes a tried-and-true solution that you’ve seen older girls survive on for years.”
Mock highlights how sex work coincides with health care, poverty, social norms, and access to education and employment. Those who fetishize, abuse, and manipulate trans people in the commerical sex industry are aware of their struggles, just as Ed Buck was aware Gemmel Moore was trying to survive, and just as Roy B., the person responsible for Orlando Boldewijn’s death, was aware of his vulnerability. These predators are aware that Blackness, queerness, transness, and gender expansiveness are marginalized, unvalued, undesirable, and unprotected, especially when these identities intersect.
Marginalization and the need for money is often what leads youth to sell sex despite the dangers sometimes associated with sex work. This danger comes from their clients, police, state authorities, and health care providers, as young sex workers experience high levels of violence from these individuals, according to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.
“Young people who sell sex are more vulnerable to violence and are more likely to encounter circumstances where it is difficult to insist on safer sexual practices or where harm reduction supplies and resources are not accessible,” their report states.” Studies suggest that police harassment and abuse of young people who sell sex is systematic and widespread, and experiences of physical and sexual assault, rape, and extortion have been well-documented.”
As long as sex work continues to be criminalized rather than protected as a legitimate form of work, the human rights of sex workers will continue to be violated, which has repercussions for homeless and low-income LGBTQ+ youth. However, the circumstances that drive individuals to sex work must also be addressed.
In an NBC News interview, Cannick, who is Black and queer, explains “Our stories aren’t told and our lives are seen as expendable. It’s very easy to write off someone who dies of a drug overdose who was working as a sex worker, but Gemmel was as much a part of our community as the many other young men like him.”
Race, class, and respectability have a great deal to do with who gets written off in our society. To confront the issues intertwined with sex work means confronting respectability politics as sex workers are traditionally viewed as not “respectable.” Renowned scholar-activist Barbara Ransby discusses respectability politics in her book, Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century.
“The ‘politics of respectability,’ a layered and complex notion, is a longstanding mode of isolating and marginalizing those sectors of the Black community who do not conform to middle-class norms of behavior and comportment…the principle of the politics of respectability is to advocate individual solutions to systemic problems and, conversely, to blame individual ‘bad’ behavior and mistakes for system-wide conditions of racism and poverty.”
Sex work protections alone will not be enough to combat the corruption in the commerical sex industry, but it would help lower the vulnerability of sex workers, making all the difference for LGBTQ+ youth who sell sex. The Washington Post found that there could even be public health benefits. From 2003 to 2009, the state of Rhode Island accidentally legalized prostitution. During those years, Baylor University economist Scott Cunningham and his colleagues found the number of reported rapes and gonorrhea among women declined by over a third. While the legalization of prostitution may not have been the only reason for those declines, it shows a positive correlation in making sex work safe.
This is not the only positivity found in sex work as there are sex workers who find the work to be satisfying and fulfilling. In an interview with NPR, RJ Thompson, a human rights lawyer and former sex worker, said the work was “liberating” and “wants to push back against the idea that sex work is inherently victimizing.” Rather than pity, it is far more effective to unpack the oppressions that prevent sex workers from being treated fairly. The sooner the connection between sex work and misogyny, racism, classism, health care, capitalism, respectability politics, and human rights is universally recognized, the more sex workers will be safeguarded.
Sex workers must determine what these protections are comprised of. They know best what their safety looks like, what their predators look like, how the predators operate, and what will stop them. Ideally, this would be a world where no one feels obligated to sell sex in order to survive. Liesl Gerntholtz, deputy executive program director at Human Rights Watch, says “But those who [choose to do so] need to be able to do it safely and with access to health care and protecting their rights.”
Society’s negative framing of sex work serves in the dehumanization of sex workers and help to shift the focus away from the “system-wide conditions of racism and poverty” that make sex work sometimes one of the only viable options for those most burdened by capitalism. The Movement for Black Lives has maintained its efforts are inconsequential if it fails to prioritize the needs of poor and low-income Black folks, which also applies to LGBTQ+ youth advocacy. If we fail to recognize the importance of abolishing our beliefs on respectability and how the decriminalization of sex work ultimately serves LGBTQ+ youth, particularly those who are homeless and low-income, our failures will result in more death and the continued protection of those who exploit them.
Maximillian Matthews (non-specific gender pronouns) is a Black queer writer based out of Durham, NC. Maximillian’s work has been featured on Black Youth Project, Blavity, Afropunk, The Body Is Not An Apology and RaceBaitr. Maximillian has worked in higher education administration for ten years and is currently working on a collection of essays. Twitter: @maximillijamaal