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The Trans Woman Advocating for Sex Workers’ Rights

By Hillary Kang

'Trans sex workers used to run away when they saw police officers, but now they know their rights.'
 
Photograph by Katherine Ang and Aman John, styled by Michelle Kok
'Trans sex workers used to run away when they saw police officers, but now they know their rights.'

As a secondary school dropout, Sherry Sherqueeshaa feels wistful about the life she has not lived. But she is nevertheless proud of what she has achieved with Project X — a non-profit organisation that provides support to sex workers in Singapore — where she is one of three full-time staff members providing aid to some 10,000 sex workers.

When the circuit breaker began in Singapore, Project X set up an impromptu emergency relief fund for sex workers whose livelihoods had been crippled by the pandemic. The aim of the fund was to give out a maximum of S$800 to each individual successful applicant. Other sex workers were given aid in the form of grocery vouchers, cooked food and assistance with tele-medicine services. 

“The pandemic caught most sex workers by surprise,” says Sherqueeshaa, herself a sex worker and escort. “Most of them don’t have any savings to get by with, so they were struggling with rent, groceries, and dependants like parents or children. Some of these sex workers didn’t work at all during the lockdown — but some of them took extra risks to go back out in the street and work.”

The closure of licensed brothels and the lack of foot traffic in red light districts like Geylang and Orchard Towers also forced many sex workers to “go underground”: Sherqueeshaa says that up to half of sex workers who were formerly doing street sex work have gone online, making it harder for Sherqueeshaa and Project X’s volunteers to reach out and offer aid.

“It’s even harder to reach out to them now, let alone find them, because time is so crucial for them — whenever they can make money, they have to. They can’t consider meeting me or even getting on a phone call,” says Sherqueeshaa. “Plus, if we reach out to them via WhatsApp or text, they might be suspicious. Most of them don’t reply. And if they are operating on their own, we won’t know if anything happens to them.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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A large part of Project X’s work lies in assisting sex workers when they face abuse and exploitation, like if a customer assaults them or refuses to pay for their services — something Sherqueeshaa says is unfortunately common for sex workers. Most of the time, these women choose not to make a formal report out of a belief that their cases will “not be taken seriously” by police officers. If a woman does decide to make a police report (and, according to previous Project X figures, up to 70 per cent don’t) then a volunteer from the organisation will accompany the woman throughout the entire process, from going to the police station to getting legal aid. 

It’s all a far cry from what sex work was like a decade ago. As a trans sex worker of some 10 years, Sherqueeshaa says that there was always a pervasive sense of hopelessness amongst sex workers at the time.

“A lot of sex workers feel like they aren’t able to make a change, like whatever happens to them is bound to happen,” she says. “When I first started, I remember hearing from senior sex workers: ‘Sherry, if something happens to you, just let it be, just suck it up, don’t try to fight’.”

It was a culture that unsettled Sherqueeshaa, so much so that she eventually joined Project X in 2014. The organisation had initially begun life as a “bunch of volunteers just giving out condoms”, but under the guidance of executive director Vanessa Ho — who joined in 2011 — Project X began offering various programmes, like counselling, sexual health classes and sexual health testing. Sherqueeshaa liked being able to advocate for her community, to “correct stigmas and myths” surrounding sex workers to the public. She also made it a point to reach out to fellow trans sex workers especially, many of whom are unlicensed. 

“I won’t say it’s my credit, but in the trans sex worker community, they know better now how to address challenges, issues and abuse,” says Sherqueeshaa. “Trans sex workers used to run away when they saw police officers, but now they know their rights. They know — so what if I have a lot of money in my bag? So what if I’m dressed skimpily in Geylang, or if I have condoms in my hand? They aren’t scared now — they don’t have to run away.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Yet for all the good work that Sherqueeshaa has done, some part of her feels unfulfilled: “At 30, I’m still a mess,” she confesses. It’s a feeling that stems from her childhood, she says. Growing up as a boy that liked other boys and was fond of wearing her mother’s heels, Sherqueeshaa had a tenuous relationship with her parents. She says she looked forward to entering National Service at 18 to “prove to [her] parents [she] could be the son they wanted.”

But after leaving National Service two years later, Sherqueeshaa found herself struggling to find work, even though she had experience working in the fine dining sector: “Even if [with] the necessary qualifications, who would want to hire a trans woman?”

With a rapidly dwindling bank account — and a self-admitted desire to feed her “vanity” — Sherqueeshaa turned to sex work. She did this despite knowing how trans sex workers are often exceptionally vulnerable to violence due to misunderstandings about “what’s between their legs.” Sherqueeshaa eventually found a sense of empowerment through her work and advocacy, one that continues to fuel her work today.

But part of Sherqueeshaa also feels guilty in contributing to what she says is a longstanding tradition of Malay trans women becoming sex workers. She says she hopes to speak out against the trend and break what she deems a vicious cycle.

“It’s almost a tradition among trans Malay women,” says Sherqueeshaa. “You transition, you drop out of school, you become a sex worker. I find it sad... and it scares me because I don’t want future trans women to continue doing this. I don’t want young trans women to think, ‘Sherry can make it [as a sex worker], so I should follow her.’”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Sherqueeshaa says she isn’t trying to stop anyone from entering the industry, or even to “rescue” them; rather, she wants trans youths to know that sex work is not the only option for them.

“I want to make sure these youths are aware of the various options out there, like continuing their education,” says Sherqueeshaa. “I don’t want them to feel like they have no choice, they are running out of money — so they just suck it up and feel dirty for the sake of buying new dresses. Don’t think that sex work is the only option — because I [have] felt likewise before.”

She adds: “But I cannot tell sex workers ‘you ought to find another job’ because it is their personal choice. I can only be here for them if they need anything.”