Toronto: Fragile peace rattled on the stroll

LOCAL NEWS / Angry residents vow to resume protests
Michael Pihach / Toronto / Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Despite the efforts of outreach workers who say they have engaged with transsexual sex workers about respecting neighbours in the Homewood and Maitland area, some residents say the sex workers are still causing unreasonable disturbances.

In a letter sent to city councillor Kyle Rae and obtained by Xtra, Paul Hyde of the Homewood Maitland Safety Association (HMSA) recounts the late evening of May 21.

“There were nine sex workers out at the corner… yet another fight with shrieking and screaming,” he writes. “I can tell you watching sex-workers lashing at each other with fists, fingers, tearing at each others’ faces and pulling off wigs [is] absolutely disturbing.”

Last summer residents of the HMSA launched a campaign of late-night demonstrations in an effort to drive sex workers away from the area. The demonstrations included picketing, photographing and videotaping johns and their licence plates and shining flashlights at the girls as they worked. Some sex workers claim they were threatened aggressively with baseball bats and had eggs thrown at them.

STOMPING GROUND. Last summer saw protests from the Homewood Maitland Safety Association that attempted to deter sex workers in the area as well as this counterprotest in support of the sex workers on Aug 15.(Joshua Meles)At a community meeting held at the 519 Community Centre on May 4 HMSA members agreed to leave the sex workers alone for three weeks so outreach workers could engage with the girls in a hostility-free environment. But Hyde wrote in a May 27 email to HMSA members that the association will resume its protests on Friday and Saturday nights when the period expires on May 29.

Monica Forrester, an outreach worker at The 519, has spent the peace period speaking with sex workers on the stroll. While it will “take more than three weeks to see major changes,” she says, “the girls in the neighbourhood were receptive” to her approach.

“Women were actually telling other women, ‘Hey, we gotta keep it down,’” says Forrester, who usually conducts her outreach work between the hours of 10pm and 3am. “It was a domino effect. They weren’t hard to get along with.”

In a May 5 phone interview Kyle Scanlon, Trans Program coordinator for The 519, told Xtra the outreach initiative would be a collaborative effort between The 519 and Griffin Centre, a mental health centre for youth and adults. Scanlon did not confirm this before press time.

Zack Marshall, an outreach coordinator at Griffin Centre, confirmed that Griffin Centre is working with The 519 but not specifically around residents and sex workers at Homewood and Maitland.

“While we’re obviously concerned, it isn’t our area,” says Marshall, noting that the type of outreach work Griffin Centre primarily deals with is queer citizenship and immigration issues.

Forrester says the HMSA’s complaints are legitimate but she questions whether the group is genuinely concerned about the safety of the girls working in the neighbourhood.

“The biggest issue is how some residents don’t want to get to know the trans women working in their neighbourhood,” she says. “They create their own myths about who we are. That puts a wedge in the communication. A lot of them don’t know about the issues some of these women are facing and why they choose to do sex work.”

She also encourages residents to remember that the area is more than just the tranny stroll.

“A lot of trans women go there to talk about what’s going on their lives. It’s not just a working area. It’s a meeting place,” she says. “Tranny sex workers are a visible majority in that neighbourhood. That’s why they’re getting all the flack.”

Forrester says sex workers took the blame during the Victoria Day long weekend when a shouting match involving a group of “10 to 15 extremely intoxicated men” erupted on the street in the early hours of the morning, disturbing sleeping residents.

Gareth Henry, program supervisor of community services at The 519, who reviews reports collected by outreach workers, says the fight started because the men were harassing the girls.

“The ladies reacted,” says Henry.

The 519, however, says it plans to remain neutral in the conflict.

“We’re here to support both sides,” says Forrester. “We understand the issues and they are valid issues but we have to understand that sex workers have been there for 20 years. New people have moved into the area. Some don’t understand sex work. That plays a big role in how people look at the workers.”

Original at Xtra

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