Transphobia and Sex Worker Oppression in Toronto

August 19, 2008

Just in case anyone in Toronto reads this blog…

Residents of the Maitland and Homewood area in Toronto (Sherbourne and College) have formed a “safety association” to force sex workers, in particular trans* sex workers, out of “their” neighbourhood (h/t Questioning Transphobia).  More here

First of all, there’s the obvious issue of “who’s safety?”  Because these tactics are rather obviously endangering sex workers, forcing them into more secluded areas.

This is also part of a general pattern in Toronto, relating to the gentrification of certain areas and the utter contempt with which the new residents view the old residents.  Maitland and Homewood was an unofficial “red light district” when I was a kid.  I remember taking the streetcar home from university late at night and seeing sex workers at Jarvis and College.  For all these residents’ talk of “their neighbourhood”, the fact is the sex workers were there first.  It’s just as much their neighbourhood.

The area in which I grew up has experienced something similar.  For most of my life, it was a mixed working-class/middle-class area.  There had been a lot of factories at one point, but they closed a few years before my family arrived, and the impact on the neighbourhood was obvious.  It had the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the city, at the time.  There was a lot of public housing, but there were also families like mine, middle-class families who couldn’t afford to live in a nicer area, but figured that the area would become more affluent eventually.

Well, it did become more affluent – a few years ago.  When I left to do my MA it was still greasy spoons on every other corner; when I came back 14 months later, I could no longer afford to eat breakfast anywhere.  Several steps in the gentrification process have been skipped, and it’s now yuppie central.

And, during the last election I was there, the liberal candidate for Parliament ran on a platform of trying to get the remaining public housing closed.

The yuppies would rather not be bothered by the people who actually grew up in the area.

Something similar is happening in the Maitland area – it’s also an area that’s been gentrifying rapidly.

I urge everyone in Toronto to fight this transphobia, classism and sex worker oppression.

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5 Responses to “Transphobia and Sex Worker Oppression in Toronto”

  1. Zenobia Says:

    And, during the last election I was there, the liberal candidate for Parliament ran on a platform of trying to get the remaining public housing closed.

    The yuppies would rather not be bothered by the people who actually grew up in the area.

    That stuff makes me so mad. You could be describing parts of Cardiff there too, it’s happening slightly where I live, I mean the main street at the moment is full of empty run-down shops, and what’s there is convenience stores, tanning parlours, plus a couple of really great butchers and green grocers, some fish and chip places, and this really weird internet cafe that also sells curtains, jeans and pasta. But there are a couple of yuppie health food places opening too, and all the houses are being done up.

    Argh! If there’s any one type of person I can’t stand, it’s property developers.

  2. Gwen Says:

    I don’t think some gentrification in itself is necessarily really bad. When I was a kid, the neighbourhood where I lived mostly had pawn shops, greasy spoons, corner shops and what was voted “the scariest mall in Toronto” (it wasn’t scary at all, but it was crap). There were no bookstores, and 1 record store. When I moved out of my parent’s house, I moved into a part of Toronto that was still really cheap but had second-hand clothing shops, and an anarchist bookstore, and some nice food stores, etc.

    Gentrification becomes a problem when the new shops and whatnot are priced beyond the range of the original residents. There is something very dispiriting about wandering around your old neighbhourhood for an hour trying to find somewhere to have brunch.

    It also becomes an issue when the newer resident are selfish and greedy and scared of poor people. Which the United Way (a huge Canadian charity) has identified as the main problem with gentrification in Toronto right now (I’m serious, they were more polite, but that’s basically what they said).

    And for some reason there are STILL no bookstores in my old neighbourhood.

  3. Michael Says:


    I live on the street. Sure Homewood is gentrifying but selfish and greedy? C’Mon. We converted a crackhouse (good Gentry!) into affordable housing for seven people. Naturally we’re looking to profit from our investment but we’re not ogres. As for the sex-workers, it’s not like we’re deporting them to Kabul. We simply feel that their behaviour (which is pretty awful) has no place on a residential street. they can move one block north south east or west and the problem is solved for local residents. Of course our neighbours North South East and West might not agree but give a climate where the politicians, the community support groups (519, 410 Sherbourne) and the prostitutes representatives (SWAT, SPOC) are none of them prepared to recognize that there IS a problem, let alone work toward solving it, residents have very little choice but to take action themselves.

    While there certainly has been a learning curve and a few blunders by the residents (partly out of ignorance and partly because feelings run high) it is an absolute fiction to state that residents have crossed the line into anthing approaching the kind of criminal activity that is being described. The Blogosphere doesn’t always deal in objective fact, which we all know. Anybody can say anything without a fact-checker in sight.

    I think that Ms Babcock was extremely irresponsible in sending an open invitation to more than 500 people to descend on Homewood and for what? To preserve the status quo? Local residents were outnumbered and surrounded by these so-called coutner-demonstrators whose bellowed message was basically to allow prostitution to have free reign on our streets without constraint OR to suffer the consequences from an angry mob.

    It was a striking sight to see a small group of gay men and a couple of old ladies being subjected to such animosity by a hostile mob. I hope the counter-protesters are proud of themselves. Since when are old ladies and gay men the oppressors? Since when is it acceptable to call an 80 year-old woman a Nazi and compare her to a serial killer?

    Trust me, we’d much rather be tending to our tomato plants than demonstrating against the bumper-to-bumper John traffic but given the choice between lying in bed and seething about the constant disturbances or getting out on the streets and trying to restore some kind of order to the chaos we choose the latter.

    For the record, I was born at Toronto Grace on Church St. and I’ve lived virtually my whole life within a ten-minute walk of Homewood and Maitland. The prostitutes have been there for 30ish years but so have I.

  4. Gwen Says:

    I wasn’t at the protest, as I live in the UK, so I can’t comment on what any protesters did. For the record, your neighbourhood safety association has been accused of using transphobic slurs, and being extremely aggressive towards sex workers. Two wrongs don’t make a right, of course, but I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that a few people on both sides are behaving badly. So let’s focus on the issues at hand, shall we?

    I can appreciate not wanting constant John traffic, but you’re behaving in a way that makes things more dangerous for the sex workers, and easier for abusive Johns. You are forcing sex workers into less populated, more isolated and less well-lit areas. By your own admission, you are trying to “restore order” to your particular street, not provide these people with some options to help them get out of sex work once and for all. In fact, your approach seems to be very “out of sight out of mind” – if you don’t have to SEE the sex workers, then who cares what happens to them?

    I don’t think your “good order”, or anyone’s, for that matter, should come at the expense of other people’s lives. And that is not an exaggeration – look at the recent rash of serial murders in Vancouver and Alberta. Here in the UK there was recently a serial killer targeting sex workers in Ipswich – and every sex worker and supporter interviewed on the subject noted that the people involved had been pushed into poorly-lit, isolated industrial parks which had made them a lot more vulnerable to violence.

    Why not work with some of the community groups and the sex workers to find some sort of mutual solution? I am assuming here, as you said, that any errors you have made are through ignorance, and that you simply did not realise that you are endangering peoples’ lives.

    As for the issues of newer residents of gentrifying neighbhourhoods – I don’t know you personally, so this is not a personal attack. But the problem of newer, wealthier residents treating older, poorer residents with contempt has been recognised by The United Way as a major feature of gentrification in Toronto. I grew up in the East End, and I saw it there, and my sister lives in the West Ends and is seeing it right now.

  5. Gregory Says:

    “First of all, there’s the obvious issue of “who’s safety?” Because these tactics are rather obviously endangering sex workers, forcing them into more secluded areas.”

    When people buy a house they have rights,

    they are entitled to complain about drugs, trash, dog-fouling, and environmental issues.

    Why not do X in one’s own nest if X must be done, why commute?

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