I met a girl who changed my life at the corner of Homewood and Maitland, Toronto’s trans sex worker stroll. It was 2008, and we, along with a hundred other queers, trans folks, and sex worker superheroes were gathered to counter a group calling themselves the Homewood Maitland Safety Association (HMSA). Wendy Babcock was leading the counter protest along with another friend of mine. The HMSA, made up almost exclusively of middle class gay white cis men who had recently moved into the neighbourhood, was harassing and attempting to physically remove trans sex workers from their neighbourhood. Some of the women working there claimed that they had been assaulted with flashlights, photographed, followed, and harassed by HMSA members. This night was the start of many things: a six week long counter-protest lead by Wendy and myself; my friendship with Wendy; and the complete transformation of how I’d been living.
Wendy and I connected that night. At the time I was working on and off in minimum wage retail and barista jobs, sometimes unable to afford to feed myself, after an unsuccessful attempt to launch a career as a makeup artist. Though I’d previously done a small amount of work around sex workers’ rights, I really hadn’t spent much time as an activist then. Wendy and I spent two nights a week for the next six weeks countering the HMSA from 11 pm – 4 am, and in the morning I’d get back up at 9 am and head to work. Our efforts continued over the next several years and we managed to render the HMSA completely ineffectual.
I got to know Wendy, to hear the story of her life that was published and broadcast across Canada. Wendy said that her early life was marked by abuse, that by 15 she was escorting with a fake ID for an escort agency and was no longer living at home, that she lived on the streets for a while and struggled with an addiction to alcohol. After the birth of her son, Korin, Wendy managed to clean up her act and go back to school, becoming one of Canada’s best known and beloved sex workers’ rights activists (and along the way doing an incredible amount of ally work on trans and queer rights issues). Her many accomplishments in her short life as an activist and social worker garnered her not only awards, but also the, sometimes grudging, respect of the general public. And her quick wit and star personality made her a media darling on sex work issues.
She and I connected over a shared history of being teenage sex workers, and she told me about the college program she was about to graduate from, the Assaulted Women and Children’s Counselor/Advocate program. I said I wished I could do that program, but that they’d never let me in because I didn’t even have a high school diploma and I was probably too stupid anyways. She laughed and said that wouldn’t matter, that I could get in for sure, all I needed was a GED. That conversation changed everything for me. I spent the next year planning to get into the program, got my GED, and went — managed to make it onto the honour roll, too! Though I never completed it, that program got me into my current job and gave me all of the opportunities that I have today as an activist and as an artist. Wendy has had a profound impact on my life, and the lives of so many other sex workers and trans people in Canada.
Wendy finished that program herself, and, with the help and inspiration of an amazing teacher from that program, Anna Willats, Wendy managed to get into the prestigious Osgoode Hall law school, part of the first class of students not required to have a BA to get in.
Last August I got a phone call from someone I’d met at Wendy’s birthday party earlier that year. In tears she told me that they had just found Wendy’s body. Her death was a hard blow to the queer, trans, and sex workers’ rights communities in Toronto. We all came together to organized a memorial. The media across Canada covered her death and her inspirational life. Even Osgoode Hall took notice and the students did a fundraiser to create a bursary in her name.
And then the family stepped in. I read with horror an article published by Toronto’s The Star newspaper that gave a platform for an unnamed disgruntled family member to claim that Wendy had made everything up. That she had never been abused, that she had never been homeless, that she hadn’t even been a teenage sex worker. The family member claims that Wendy was mentally ill, and, as a result, we shouldn’t believe her history of abuse. Some of Wendy’s friends claim that this family member bullied the newspaper into printing this opinion piece by threatening them with a libel lawsuit.
I find it difficult to put these words together coherently, because I want to cry and scream. All I can think is “Wendy was my fucking friend! Wendy was my fucking friend, leave her the fuck alone! You already killed her!” But there are more important points that I need to make about this.
We live in a culture that punishes survivors of violence (see, for example, CeCe McDonald), while giving the benefit over every doubt to the alleged perpetrators. The burden of proof falls onto the survivor, and even if they do prove that abuse happens, they are likely to face humiliation and social stigma. The Star’s article is a perfect example of how these processes often work in North American culture. Despite acknowledging early in the article that Wendy had never changed her story over the decade she was in the media, that her story had been published unchallenged in nearly every major media outlet in Canada, the article tells us that “the truth is relative.” It gives voice to this disgruntled family member and then agrees that they have “a valid point.” This tells the reader that we are to believe these new claims, and, as a result, to not believe Wendy.
Next up, we are reminded that Wendy lived with mental illness. It’s true that Wendy had a lifelong battle with depression, which, she claimed, largely stemmed from her history of abuse, her interactions with CAS (as both a child put into the foster system, and as a parent whose child was taken away), interactions with the criminal justice system, and all of the many ways that the world punishes and attempts to destroy sex workers. But what the placement of this fact does is to again cast doubt on her life story, and it does so by playing into ableist (or mentalist? I’m unsure of the correct terminology) stereotypes of people living with mental illness. They don’t bother to tell you that by mental illness they mean depression, instead it’s left vague so as to suggest that she could be, for example, a compulsive liar, or have any number of mental illnesses that would make her “delusional” and thus unbelievable.
The article validates the family’s claim that abuse never happened by casting all of this doubt. Reducing it to what the article calls a “she said, she said” conflict. This is exactly what the criminal justice system and the rest of society does to all survivors of abuse, creating a culture of fear that leads to the massive underreporting of all forms of abuse. This irresponsible journalism, perhaps forced by threats of lawsuits, perpetuates an environment where survivors must continue to experience abuse, disbelief, and stigma, even after they are dead. And that is the condition that allows for abuse to continue unchallenged in our culture. This is basic stuff that any first year women’s studies student could rattle off.
One wonders what the family hopes to gain from this article and from their constant commenting on other articles about her. On a visceral level, this feels to me much akin to the ways trans people are often treated posthumously by our families, with our chosen names and pronoun erased and our friends disinvited to our funerals. It makes me afraid of what might happen after I die. Will my rapist claim that he didn’t rape me? Will my family call me by my birth name? Will newspapers print my birth name? It’s terrifying to think about. My entire life could be rewritten by people who aren’t even close to me.
We must work to create a world in which we do not doubt survivors of violence. We must work to create a more responsible media that does not defame someone’s entire life simply because their abusers deny abusing them. We must create communities that support, rather than stigmatize, survivors of abuse.
And that starts with validating the experiences of people who disclose abuse.
I believe in Wendy. She changed my life.