For Chantell Martin, a transgender, former sex worker, the last 30 years has seen a shift in attitudes… but there’s still a way to go.
“When you're talking about being transgender, when you're talking about being a sex worker, they’re right at the top of the list of things with a huge amount of stigma.”
Originally from New Zealand, Chantell Martin moved to Sydney in the 80s. It was on arriving to Sydney that she not only started her transition, but also began working as a sex worker.
“Transitioning in the 80s and working as a street sex worker here in Australia was an awkward time. It was hard to navigate the whole thing because it was at the start of the AIDs epidemic and people were dying. On top of that sex work was criminalized, and the public attitudes to transgender people was really low.”
During these times, when support and services were limited, Chantell says that the Trans sex worker community drew strength by banding together.
“My experience was fun being around my sisters, working together, we were really like family. I mean we laughed with each other, we cried with each other, we fought with each other.”
In a time when the laws criminalising sex work meant that you couldn’t even report an incident for fear of being arrested, it was looking out for each other that got them through difficult times.
“That was our strength. Working together, keeping ourselves safe together and holding ourselves together as one.”
But change was on the horizon. In 1995, NSW became one of the first global jurisdictions to decriminalise sex work.
“A lot of street-based sex workers back then were unaware of the changes and how this was going to impact our industry because a lot of us are just down there to make money, to survive and get by.”
“I do remember a commander from the Kings Cross police station coming down and introducing himself. He would ask how we are going and give us an update on the neighbourhood. We would meet with him once a month at a café. Things started to change around that time.”
Despite the myriad of challenges facing Chantell in her day-to-day life as a street-based sex worker, her family provided some surprising support.
“I was two years into my transition so, I decided to write a letter back to mom and dad. It was pretty much one of the hardest letters I've ever had to write.”
“Looking back now, I probably could have chosen my words better, but I sat down, and I wrote to them and told them I was a sex worker, using drugs, and I was transitioning into a woman.”
“I got a reply 3 weeks later and it was a 12-page letter. That made me nervous because my dad had just started his priesthood and here I am writing to him to tell him I’m transitioning. But it was the sweetest letter I’ve ever had. They’ve both been supportive.”
Today, Chantell works as a community services worker for an organisation that supports sex workers. Working predominately with Trans sex workers, Chantell’s role involves liaison and advocacy work with support services, visits to Trans sex workers in male prisons offering peer support and referrals, connecting with lawyers regarding support letters, working with parole officers, and following up after they are released.
For NSW, decriminalisation of sex work remains the best regulatory system for sex workers because it allows sex work to be treated as what it is, work.
In 2012, The Kirby Institute released The Sex Industry in New South Wales report to government. The report stated that NSW’s sex industry was ‘the healthiest sex industry ever documented,’ and advised the government to rid itself of the remaining few laws related to the industry.
But Chantell worries that as time has moved on, support and services have started to drop their focus on sex workers.
“From 1995 it took around 10 years for the change to really happen. But now we’re moving on. We’ve had decriminalization now for 25 years.”
“So if you ask me what I rise for, I rise for my community to be better treated, with respect and dignity.”