Meet a trans sex worker and poet in Pittsburgh

Ashley, a transgender sex worker, shows her tattoo, a trans symbol, in her apartment on Thursday, June 16, 2017, in a Pittsburgh neighborhood. (Photo by Justin Merriman/PublicSource)

Ashley is the only friend for whom I have invented a word to describe our relationship. It is “snarkmaste”: the divine snark in me recognizes and salutes the divine snark within you. When I sent her a text to set up the interview, our exchange went like this:

Me: Let’s go for noon on Sunday.

Ashley: Deal. Where?

Me: Your place? Someplace I can record without background noise, and give us privacy if you’re cool with that.

Ashley: Okay. Incall, two hours. That’ll be $550. 😛

Me: Ha! A bit out of my budget.

Ashley has a wonderfully sardonic sense of humor. I learned from her in this exchange that “incall” is lingo describing when a sex worker hosts a client appointment.

Ashley is a transgender sex worker.

When I arrive to Ashley’s apartment, the decor is austere with white walls, a large couch and empty walls, not at all like the woman who lives in it with her fluffy curly hair, retro bubble dress and makeup on point. Twenty years old, her sense of style reminds me of old Hollywood movies.

Ashley and I have had many conversations regarding our mutual obsession with vinyl, and I immediately notice her record player, stereo and albums. I ask if I can turn on the air conditioning because it feels a bit stuffy. She mentions it is cooler in her bedroom.

“Welcome to my office. See what I did there?” she says, putting a finger near her nose and winking. We sit on her bed.

“This feels a little bit like a slumber party, being in your room with our lattes,” I say.

My friendship with Ashley began over poetry. We met because of mutual friends. We both spend time with people who want to be clean and sober. Ashley’s drug of choice was cocaine; mine was alcohol. Through the natural course of socializing, we each discovered the other was a poet.

Just as we are beginning our session, Ashley’s work phone chirps.

“I’m sorry, I need you to stop recording for a moment.” I pause the recorder while Ashley answers the call and sets up a meeting for later that evening. She mentions to me after she hangs up that her client has requested her to wear a long flowing dress. We start again.

I ask Ashley to describe the moment that made her realize she was transgender.

“I was 16. I dressed up as Julia Child for a French class. And I shaved my legs. I did the full drag thing. And I felt right being Julia Child. Unfortunately, I’ll never be Julia Child, but I can put on bras and shave my legs.”

“What was that like, coming to the realization you did?”

Ashley’s work phone rings again, and we pause. Once again, I stop recording. A client calls for an appointment, and she explains she isn’t able to accommodate the time slot he wants because she has not had time to properly vet him. Her attention returns to me.

Ashley explains about using a website for verification and how she's asked another provider to help her vet him but they were not able to, so a red flag. “So now I have to ask him to provide something else as verification that he’s not, you know, a serial killer. That’s a good thing,” she says.

She knows I worry because she is my friend. One time I dropped her off after having dinner and writing together and when I found out she was meeting a client before the night was over, I made her text me before she went to bed.

There are more websites Ashley would like to be on because they’re effective nationwide. She did not feel comfortable sharing what those sites were. Providers can only get access to the sites through a reference from a client and from a reference through another provider on the website.

Ashley tells me about her high school in Philadelphia where she grew up, with 2,000 students and how she was one of the best known students, being president of six different clubs. It dawns on me that Ashley was still a male in high school. I try to imagine Ashley as a young man. I can’t. I’ve only ever seen her as a woman.

As Ashley was coming out, peers doubted her sincerity.

“A lot of people thought I was joking. I came out to the president of the GSA, the Gay-Straight Alliance, and he said it was rude to make fun of trans people.” The home situation was even more difficult. Her father delivered an ultimatum: stay and don’t transition or leave. Ashley stops speaking for a moment, lost in her own thoughts.

Things were easier with her mother, who had mixed feelings but did eventually come around.

Ashley goes on to tell me how she came out publicly in front of her math class. The students were in class an extra hour that day due to a fire drill. As she tells the story, I imagine her standing up in front of her peers, announcing she is trans, will start dressing like a girl soon and how she felt she would faint in front of them. As she took her seat afterward, she was proud of how she didn’t faint.

She says she encouraged people to gossip about it "because I didn't feel like coming out more than once. Which by the way I don’t feel like I have to come out to every person I meet, but as a trans person who is aggressively out, I still have to come out because I have passing privilege, which I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

I tell Ashley I didn't know she was trans until she told me.

“Other trans people can tell, but we have a sixth sense for that.”

I find myself thinking again about the dynamic with her parents. “Compared to me, my sister had it pretty easy. We had both been through things together. There were things between me and my mom that eventually led to me running away.”

Ashley is 20. When I first met her, I thought her much older than 20, not because she didn’t look youthful but because of how she comported herself. She has had to grow up so fast.

“How old were you when you ran away?” I ask.

Ashley says she couch-surfed with friends and ended up in a group home, which was not the most welcoming of places. "I was a trans girl... I had tits [due to hormone therapy] and everything and I was on the boys’ floor. That was probably the worst of it. I couldn’t not be out. I was there because I was out." At 17, her mother still had parental rights so she wasn’t allowed to go to a homeless shelter.

At one point, Ashley tried going back home and finishing up high school. The attempt ended in failure and she went on to live in West Philadelphia where she got her GED.

What brought her to Pittsburgh was college. In Pittsburgh, she ended up homeless once again.

“How did you become homeless?”

I don’t mean to ask the question yet but now it is out there and her expression changes. Words, which are her weapons and never seem to fail her, seem to be lost at the moment. In one of her rare guarded moments, she tells me no. It surprises me as she is ordinarily so open about her life and experiences. She does share that what brought her out of homelessness was becoming involved in sex work.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in five transgender people in the United States has been discriminated against when seeking a home, and more than one in 10 have been evicted from their homes because of their gender identity.

Throughout our conversation, Ashley has referenced her cocaine use. When she became homeless, that is when she developed her drug problem. She explains that while some people become homeless as a result of their drug use, there are many where the narrative is reversed; they become addicted to drugs as a way to cope with the emotional stress and personal devastation that comes with homelessness. Part of the allure was getting high, but it also gave her a temporary respite from her situation.

According to the Center for American Progress, it is estimated that between 20 to 30 percent of gay and transgender people abuse substances, compared to about 9 percent of the general population. In its study, the center attributes this to the added stressors of stigma and discrimination.

At this point, Ashley hasn't had any surgery yet but hopes to have a few different procedures done in the next handful of years. She has been on hormones since age 17 thanks to having her mother's insurance even in times she has been on the street. She finances the copays herself. The copays are about $60 per month, a difficult sum to come by when she was still panhandling.

“How long have you been a sex worker?”

"Like a full-time career? Since July [2016.]” It started with putting ads on the Internet.

I am surprised to learn the Ashley started out majoring in social work. I know her to be a brilliant poet so in my mind I can’t imagine her studying anything other than writing. Ashley still hopes to one day have a career in social work. She eventually dropped out of the social work program and returned to school to take a poetry course. During that time she was also getting clean from drugs and found that poetry helped her fill the void.

What made writing so compelling was her continuous drive to read. She first tried her hand at writing at the age of 9.

“My dad, for all the horribleness that came out of our relationship, was a smart guy. He encouraged it in me and I learned to read when I was 2, and I just didn’t stop. I remember having breakfast and reading the cereal box ingredients out loud every morning. Dextrose was my favorite word.” Ashley has this wonderfully musical laugh, and it comes out in a song.

I ask if her family is aware of how she makes her living. She initially told them she worked cleaning houses. The truth came out when she slipped up in conversation with her mother and mentioned she had made $1,000 in one week.

“Obviously I wouldn't make that as a housekeeper. She's not thrilled with it, but doesn't say anything else about it either.”

Ashley eventually tried a job in retail but didn’t like the environment. She was working hard for long hours at paltry wages that didn’t always cover the bills; she got burnt out. She wanted to be her own boss, and the minimum wage was not enough to live on. Her income as a sex worker is about $7,500 per month, which she is quick to point out is above average and atypical.

Sex work allowed her to work a handful of hours a week and gave her the time and space she needed to manage her mental health issues, namely depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. In many ways, she has found the lifestyle to be healing.

The industry is not without its dangers. There are precautions that need to be taken to make sure you are safe. Ashley is very open about being involved in sex work. Regarding physical safety, she has always practiced safe sex and insists that her clients do the same. She argues that what she does is far safer than someone engaged in unprotected one-night stands. In terms of protecting herself from potentially dangerous clients and situations, she screens her clients thoroughly. Her preferred method of screening is a recommendation from a provider on a known site.

A provider reference is golden; it gives Ashley the reassurance that the client is good and not a law enforcement officer. If they don’t have a reference, but they have a presence on a site with a vouching system, she is able to use that. If the client is someone who has never seen a provider before, she asks for some concrete evidence of what they do for work, such as a LinkedIn profile with more than 200 connections as well as a work or state-issued photo identification that matches what is on their professional profile. She says you also learn to trust your gut.

Ashley reads a poem from a series of work she is writing on her experience as a sex worker, both the positives and negatives. Structurally, she is patterning the work after John Barryman’s “Dream Songs.” She reads me a poignant piece on a friend who had an unsafe sexual encounter in her work.

As usual, her poems live with me for days.

Update (6/23/2017): The name of the woman profiled has been changed to protect her identity. Other identifying photos and text have been cut for the same reason.

Janette Schafer is a freelance writer and poet in Pittsburgh. She's a banking and finance professional by day. You can follow her on Twitter @bankbombshell.