POLITICS

Nina Arsenault, Trans Icon, Says Trudeau Should Legalize Sex Work To Save Lives

11/27/2015 09:05 EST | Updated 11/27/2015 09:59 EST

Trans rights have become the new civil rights movement of our time.

Though still facing alarmingly high suicide and homicide rates, progress is being made in the political sphere. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he will add gender identity to the Canadian Human Rights Act and protect the trans community under hate speech laws, while President Obama passed an executive order protecting trans people from federal employment discrimination and has hired others for his administration.

And there's never been more visibility in pop culture. "Orange is the New Black" star Laverne Cox landed on the cover of Time, Caitlyn Jenner turned her transition into the latest Kardashian reality show, and Against Me!'s album "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" gave the movement a punk-rock soundtrack.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Tambor won an Emmy for his role in "Transparent" and this week sees the release of Tim Hooper's "The Danish Girl," an Oscar-courting biopic starring Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, the first recipient of sex-reassignment surgery.

But long before trans people approached this cultural tipping point, there was Nina Arsenault.

nina arsenault Nina Arsenault is seen in a photo taken in Toronto in 2010. (Photo: Jim Rankin/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The Canadian artist, activist, and former sex worker has come a long from the trailer park where she grew up in Beamsville, Ont. Arsenault began transitioning in the late '90s, and has since examined transgender issues via her own personal transformation through her mid-2000s column "T-Girl" in Fab! magazine, acclaimed stage shows like "I W@s B*rbie" and "The Silicone Diaries," and the book Trans(per)forming Nina Arsenault - An Unreasonable Body of Work.

After an intense TEDx Talk in Toronto (watch above) Arsenault sat down with The Huffington Post Canada to talk about trans issues, cultural visibility, and what Trudeau’s government can do to help save lives.

As someone who's been living this for decades, what's it like to have this progress happen seemingly all at once?

I think it's great because it's changed my life so much for the better. In terms of my lived experiences, the right to go out during the day, the right to not have your wig pulled off, the right to not be publicly humiliated, the right to live as a woman past 40 in a first world country, that's now a possibility.

When I first started transitioning in 1998, I looked at the generation of women above me. Around 40 most of them disappeared, except for a couple who were very strong.

When you say disappeared, what do you mean?

Maybe girls were in the sex business and they went down and police didn't really investigate it. Some women de-transitioned because as they aged they felt they re-masculinized. Because for us, the youthful skin or the elevated face reads as femininity and that was very painful for them. Some native girls I knew just sort of went back to the reservation and we didn't really know what happened to them.

During those times in the early 2000s, there was really only two job occupations you could have if you weren't passable as non-trans women. We could be sex workers or we could be nightclub hostesses — which are both exquisite professions, I've been them both and in many ways loved it — but could you imagine if you only had two job choices?

"The heart closes because it's too painful to remain open."

So what happens when you're no longer young and beautiful and glamorous? As trans women, even way more than our skin colour, our beauty, our femininity, our passability determines our social status outside our community and within it, our social clout, often our ability to make money, our ability to access non-transgender privilege.

The ability to have a romantic partner that will walk down the street during the day with you, so the ability to be loved in a way where you're not someone's dirty little secret.

When one sees a differently gendered body, there's a visceral response. And in time, being subjected to all those visceral reactions over and over on a daily basis, that young trans woman might begin to shut off her empathy because it's too difficult to actually experience what other people are feeling. And once she shuts off her empathy, she might not even be aware that she’s closed her heart. The heart closes because it's too painful to remain open.

I think gays in the first world aren't as tortured by that now because there is more acceptance.

While that's not totally happened for the trans community, it's starting. Caitlyn Jenner's not important because she's a Kardashian, she's important because in the ‘70s she was the epitome of the man's man. The older generation, they didn't just view him as Kim's dad,he was a decathlete. So Bruce's transition to Caitlyn is really blowing their minds in a way that Laverne Cox could never do, because they never knew her as anything other than a her.

Caitlyn, we're talking about an Olympic champion. She didn't come out of the closet before now because she knew it was not safe to come out of the closet. You come out of the closet when you're like, "OK cool, at the very least I will not be lacerated by the people I love or even the world that I live in."

caitlyn jenner Caitlyn Jenner is photographed in Los Angeles this July. (Photo by Tibrina Hobson/WireImage)

How do you feel about how trans issues were dealt with during the recent election?

They weren't dealt with! Someone like Stephen Harper, for instance, passing these new laws about prostitution in Canada. Most trans women I know have done sex work at least once. You know like I was saying before, my generation of women, it was one of two occupations we could have safely if we weren't passable.

Then there was that bathroom amendment to the trans rights bill that killed it.

The bathroom bill I would respond like this: What year are you living in?! What year is it?! I actually don’t even think people are that stupid. I just think these are politicians they have constituents, they make decisions based on what will get them votes. "If we’re the conservatives we have to fight those queers, keep them down, stick to these old time family values or whatever." It has no basis in science, or psychology, or politics.

It’s totally archaic. I don’t even necessarily think they’re malicious. I think they’re just like “I’m in this position. I like money. I like power. I have people who want me to be a certain way, so I do it that way.”

I want to say to those people, as a trans woman, I see you too. They might stand and judge me and say, "I see you and I don't think you're this, I think you're that." Well, I see you too. Let that be known to you. I have eyes and I'll tell you from where I stand you don’t look that good to me. You look fraudulent. You look like you put money over human souls. You look like a fascist to me.

Well, Harper lost, and Trudeau has said trans issues are a priority. What does this new government need to do to make things better and safer for the trans community in Canada?

These women are perhaps the most disenfranchised and disadvantaged people in culture. And then within their own subculture, those who are the most disadvantaged are those women who still only have two job options, or maybe even just one. So let us do sex work because when we can have money, we can survive. It means we don't have to beg. We can at least have a sense of our own dignity.

We have to acknowledge that we're living inside capitalism, so let us participate in capitalism. It’s your culture, it’s your government — before anything else, that’s what it is, it's capitalism. Let us make some fucking money. And if you won't, you're sending us to our deaths. You're sending us to poverty. It’s like we have this one thing and you complicate it or you take it away. It's horrible. So that would be the number one thing I would do right there.

"... giving us more freedom, giving us more dignity, helps non-trans people."

I was working as a sex worker in 2007, 2008 when the recession hit. The first thing to get cut from most people's budgets unfortunately are shemale strippers. That's very humourous to say, but I was in that scene and I was there on the days when we ceased to make $2,000 a day and now we were making $200 a day. And when that shattering effect hit, our community was financially devastated.

It's not so bad to be a sex worker, but to be a poor sex worker where you're fighting for things like that. It gets very vicious very quickly. And so, once you take that much money out of the community — I don't want to overemphasize it because obviously there's trans women who do different things — but just like oil and Arab countries, tranny lovers are our natural resource.

What about, you were talking about how Obama has a trans person in his administration right now. Obviously that's about as far from sex work as you could possibly get. Ideally what you want to have is as many options as possible.

Yeah, it would be great to have a few more options but I'm not trying to steal the dignity of a transgender prostitute and say, FYI you’re the lowest of the low.

I'm not saying that, but there are scholarship programs and things to try and help people get out of a situation where there’s not a lot of money to be made.

I would like to see mentorship programs for trans women. Instead of saying here's a scholarship, go off to that educational institution. The woman might worry, "Oh I might get bashed," or "Oh, you gave me the money, but now I have to deal with all the transphobia." A mentorship program would give them in a certain way a kind of protection. I’d like to see that.

A lot of my ideas get laughed at. OK Justin if it’s a priority, where's the trans woman in your party? Where? Maybe they don’t have one — get one. Find one. If one doesn’t exist with the proper qualifications, get them to her. This is a social need.

It's almost like people think, “Well, there's just a few trans women out there, society’s got lots of problems, how much money do you want us to pump into this?” But giving us more freedom, giving us more dignity, helps non-trans people. I know that for a fact. There are so many ways I've touched the lives of my non-trans friends.

It's like if you look at an ancient temple and you only see it in sunlight, and then there's one time where you see it in the moonlight. When you illuminate something from the opposite side, you expose the form of it.

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