Trans women and sex workers’ struggles are not secondary in anti-poverty and housing movements
Alliance Against Displacement responds to Chinatown Action Group’s open letter aligning themselves with Rape Relief
On May 1st, Vancouver’s Chinatown Action Group (CAG) released a public statement defending Yuly Chan, one of their central leaders, against critiques that she holds political positions that are oppressive to trans women and sex workers. CAG is an anti-capitalist activist organization that defends low-income Chinese seniors facing displacement by gentrification and racism. The critiques their public statement responded to were made by a newly-formed group, the Coalition Against Trans Antagonism (CATA), which released an open letter on April 30th calling for Yuly Chan to be removed from a public panel organized by the Vancouver & District Labour Council (VDLC) and Organize BC. VDLC and Organize BC responded to CATA by cancelling the entire panel.
Alliance Against Displacement (AAD) is releasing a critique of the politics expressed in CAG’s statement because we believe it argues that sex workers and trans women occupy a secondary position in our community struggles around poverty and housing. We hold that catering to trans antagonistic and sex work prohibitionist sentiments in communities puts trans women and sex workers in danger, and undermines the political unity of our struggles.
The auspice of “political economy:” CAG’s sidelining of sex workers within women’s class struggle
In order to defend Yuly Chan against critiques that she holds trans antagonist and sex work prohibitionist beliefs, CAG mischaracterizes Chan’s positions as feminist and anti-capitalist rather than bigoted, and suggests that critiques of her positions are racist and sexist “false accusations.” Overall, CAG’s statement defending Chan aligns with the positions of the leading sex work prohibitionist and trans-exclusionary organization Vancouver Rape Relief, which has demonstrated an ongoing investment in violence against trans women and sex workers. Alliance Against Displacement has a position against working with Rape Relief that elaborates problems with this group more thoroughly.
CAG’s open letter claims that Yuly Chan’s previous work took a “political economy approach of the sex trade” and was not anti-sex work. Both Chan and Rape Relief use “political economy” to frame sex work as a special and unfree sort of commodified labour under capitalism – a form of modern-day slavery. They say that because of the parallel structures of patriarchy and white supremacy, sex work cannot be freely entered by women. This analysis treats sex work as outside the “political economy” of wage labour exploitation, rather than incorporating sex workers’ experiences into a broader understanding of how all workers who are women or gender non-conforming face gendered violence and exploitation. This is biologically essentialist because positing sex work as a unique form of labour means explaining sexuality and gender as having something to do with the “essence of women” rather than as non-stable, fluid categories that change depending on the historical moment.
If sex work is unfree labour then those who pay for sex are a kind of rapist and those who manage or transport sex workers are pimps and human traffickers. This framework of understanding sex work relies less on the actual voices and experiences of sex workers than it does on anti-feminist and anti-queer discourses that seek to control the bodies and labour practices of women, gender-non conforming people, and queers. And like other radical feminist ideology, Chan’s “political economy” of sex work takes her to a focus on “human trafficking” that dovetails with and provides a leftist cover for Canadian and US enhanced border controls and deportation powers.
Are trans women part of CAG’s working class feminist position?
To deflect questions about how this biological essentialism informs Yuly Chan’s beliefs about cis and trans womanhood, CAG states that “trans rights” are “not central” to Yuly Chan’s work in Chinatown. At the same time, CAG denounces VDLC and Organize BC’s decision to cancel the panel where Chan was scheduled to speak as legitimizing sexism. If fighting women’s oppression is important to Chan but trans women’s oppression is not, then it appears that she does not believe trans women face oppression as women.
If members of CAG agree that trans women are women, they would have said so in their response to CATA to substantiate their claim that CATA’s accusations are false. Instead, they sidestep the question, mimicking the slippery tactics that trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) and sex worker exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs) use in order to evade criticism. Tellingly, both Vancouver Rape Relief and the openly sex work prohibitionist and trans-exclusionary web publication Feminist Current published statements in defence of Yuly Chan and shared CAG’s open letter on their respective websites, and CAG has done nothing to distance itself from either organization.
By dismissing CATA’s concerns as “baseless accusations,” CAG suggests that trans and sex worker politics are irrelevant to their work. This is a dangerous dismissal because working class trans women and sex workers are affected by struggles against gentrification and displacement in Chinatown. CAG’s dismissal is also dangerous because it suggests that trans women and sex workers undermine “unity” on the left when they make political critiques or speak out against harm. Trans and sex worker politics matter in Chinatown, just as they matter in leftist social movements more broadly.
The anti-democratic spirit of CAG’s open letter
Another concern we have with CAG’s open letter is that it fosters an anti-democratic culture where challenging leadership is discouraged. In their open letter, CAG asserts that “real” organizers open up space for principled critique, but they also declare that “an attack against Yuly Chan is an attack against Chinatown Action Group and the community of working class Chinese residents that we serve.” CAG then calls on their allies to follow this flattening equivalency where critiques of TERF/SWERF politics are racist, sexist harassment; to “condemn and reject any group or individuals perpetrating this type of harassment towards CAG organizers.” The endpoint of CAG’s logic is that one can be Chinese or trans; working class or oppose the criminalization of sex work.
We believe in working towards an organizational culture where critique of leadership is a central practice that holds leaders accountable and fosters their growth. We did not agree with CATA’s strategy of publicly calling out Yuly Chan because we believed that there was interest among members of CAG for critical discussion of her anti-trans and sex work politics. However, we do not accept the claim that their critique of Chan (or any critique of her politics) is a manifestation of racism and sexism.
We all know from our work in communities, and from reflecting on ourselves, that identity (or positionality) does not entirely determine the politics of an individual, and that oppressed people have the capacity to harm each other. CAG’s response to CATA’s statement rests entirely on the authority of Yuly Chan’s subject position and the instrumentalization of their social base, rather than the actual impacts of her activist work over the years and the political problems raised.
These maneuvers deflect attention away from the harm that Chan’s politics enact on trans women and sex workers in our activist circles and normalize Chan’s politics as the politics of CAG as a group. And the essentialization of Chan’s identity in defense of her politics suggests that trans women are not women and sex workers are not working class. Such a logic emerges from, and enshrines, the fragmentation of working class women and racialized people within the Vancouver activist left.
Political unity or activist co-existence?
Chinatown Action Group accuses its critics of breaking unity in Vancouver’s activism, but what is the unity that they appeal to? Alliance Against Displacement does not support CAG’s analysis of gender power because we believe that trans women are women (and therefore the liberation struggles of trans women are totally bound up in the struggle of all women) and that sex workers are workers (and therefore their struggles occur within class struggle).
We feel that our critique of Chinatown Action Group’s open letter should be read as a political critique of the publicly held positions of a group that we have long felt was our ally. There are not many anti-capitalist groups in Vancouver, and we have been grateful for our relationship with CAG, particularly because few others have fought back against the foreign investment explanation of the housing crisis and rising anti-Chinese racism.
We believe CAG’s statement defending Yuly Chan was hastily written and does not reflect the best, full expression of the group’s politics. We hope that CAG is able to discuss their politics around trans women and sex workers and decide whether they support or oppose Rape Relief’s policies of advocating for laws that effectively criminalize sex work, and trans exclusionary “women-only” spaces. We call for unity – for a women’s unity that includes trans women, and a working class unity that includes sex workers, and we hope to stand in this unity beside CAG in the vast terrain of struggle that awaits us.