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Political Demands of sexual minorities and sex workers in India
*Can Sex Workers and Transvestites Change the World?* Sex and Revolution
By RAUL ZIBECHI
The alliance between Zapatistas, sex workers, and transvestites shows the
power of social change in a key cultural way-when it's anchored to daily
life. In Mexico, one of the strongest and most overbearing enclaves of
patriarchy and machismo, Subcomandante Marcos has opened the doors to debate
about discrimination in a controversial area.
What purpose is there, in classic revolutionary logic, in covering thousands
of kilometers to meet with a handful of whores and cross dressers ? What can
such alliances offer to strengthen the "accumulation of power," any
professional politicians' central task? It seems obvious, from a
cost-benefit analysis, that this type of effort should be useless. However,
Subcomandante Marcos has been committed to this kind of meeting since
January of last year under the auspices of *The Other Campaign *(La Otra
Campa~a*)*, with the understanding that it means looking for new ways of
doing politics. It passes through places that are far from the madding crowd
and takes place with actors who, like indigenous people, understand social
change as an affirmation of difference.
*Brigada Callejera de Apoyo a la Mujer* (Women's Supportive Street Brigade)
is a Mexican collective that has managed, in the last 15 years, to weave a
wide net of social work with prostitutes and transvestites, called the
Mexican Sex Work Network. This has meant transcending the "victim" role and
becoming people who want to be recognized as workers by their peers, not
seen as beings who have "fallen" into the world's oldest profession through
ignorance, poverty, or submission. A quick look at what they have tackled so
far reveals a deep work of emancipation.
*Education, Clinics, and Condoms *
A differentiating characteristic of the Network is that its members don't
want to depend on the State, although they are constantly criticizing it.
Street Brigade began its work 15 years ago, its base a group of sociology
graduates from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). The
small initial nucleus-Elvira Madrid, Jaime Montejo, and Rosa Icela-began to
weave a net that now reaches 28 of Mexico's 32 states.
Over time they chose to work in a horizontal form, but not for ideological reasons.
"The government co-opted many state coordinations, a habitual practice in the
political culture of this country, so we saw that the best way to work is
horizontally, in an assembly style, and trying not to have representatives,"
Elvira points out.
The Network encouraged women to form cooperatives to avoid dependence and to
make themselves the bosses of their sources of employment. They rented
hotels and shared the profits among the members. The first were the
transvestites who formed the cooperative Angeles en Busca de Libertad
(Angels Searching for Freedom).
"The cooperative hotels exist in various states but some of them failed
because the members would end up replicating the same behavioral patterns as
the ones they were organizing against," Rosa comments.
But the star project, the one most valued by the workers, are the clinics.
Two clinics already exist in Mexico City and are self-managed and free of
charge. They were born from the corruption and discrimination of the state
organisms that only provided them with services through bribery. Moreover,
Elvira indicates, "Getting tested scared them because it could mean loss of
income, given that when a girl has AIDS there are state governments that
will put her photo up in hotels so that they don't give her a room." On the
contrary, in the Network clinics tests are voluntary and confidential,
emphasizing education. "The majority of sex workers are illiterate and many
are indigenous. For this reason we dedicate most of our efforts to
education, to the point that most of the participants in the Network are
health promoters and educate their peers, which is much more effective."
The clinics, one of them situated in the center of the city right in the
"red light district" offer colposcopies and pap smears and also
electrosurgery because, as Rosa says, "in Mexico papiloma viruses (HPV)
cause more deaths than HIV." While inefficient public hospitals have
two-month waiting lists for being seen and one year waiting lists for
surgery, the Network clinics' results are ready in just a week.
The prostitutes and the transvestites seem enthusiastic about "their"
clinic, where they often bring their partners, and where some even drag
their clients. "The main part of our work is respect. We don't ask why they
got infected, rather we concentrate on educating them so it doesn't happen
to them again, so they aren't just patients any more, so they begin to be
active participants in their health care," Elvira says. The project is
rounded off with a food program for people with limited resources or who for
some reason can't work, a school assistance program for the kids, and
another to help mothers finish school.
The Network's projects are financed by "social condom marketing." Condoms
are sold at different prices depending on the ability and responsibility of
the buyer, and represent 85% of the Network's income. No one is salaried and
the only people who are paid for their work are the doctors. "We don't agree
with sex work, but it exists and will continue to exist, and in the meantime
we have to do something. We were an abolitionist group but later we saw that
it wasn't about saving anybody, but really about working together," Jaime
intervenes. For those who are looking for alternatives to sex work, there
are productive projects, the most outstanding of which are handicrafts,
production and sale of clothing, and condom stores. Although some projects
have turned out to be unviable, as families collaborated they managed to
keep two-thirds of the attempts open.
*Survival in the Jungle *
In 2004, the members of the Street Brigade came into contact with the Health
Collective for Everyone (Colectivo de Salud para Todos y Todas), university
students who coordinate health projects in the autonomous Zapatista
communities in Chiapas. For two years they worked with a group of health
promoters in the communities, indigenous people chosen by their neighbors to
specialize in sanitary assistance. "One of the first challenges was breaking
the fear of supposed cultural resistances about the subject of
contraception, sexual and reproductive rights, and sexually transmitted
diseases," they relate.
During these consultations and workshops they chose the themes that would
later resurface in the elaboration of a long and densely-named manual: *The
Other Campaign of Sexual and Reproductive Health for the Indigenous and
Peasant Resistance in Mexico*. Over 270 pages, this text, full of detailed
illustrations designed for work with indigenous women, covers the usual
issues like anatomy and physiology of the reproductive organs, use of
contraceptives, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other
illnesses. They also speak of abortion, although the catechists condemn it.
"Samuel Ruiz, a man who is very close to the indigenous people, toured the
communities when the Zapatistas decriminalized abortion, saying that it's a
crime," Jaime remembers.
But there are sections imbibed with diverse currents of alternative health.
One of these concentrates on "women's bodily autonomy," which covers
education on how to avoid illnesses, choosing how many children to have, and
how to enjoy one's sexuality (almost a taboo among indigenous people).
Bodily autonomy supposes, according to this manual, the exploration of the
senses, connection with language to do with the body, and the different
reactions of the body in extreme situations. Collective and self-massages
link this to a holistic conception of health and curing.
*Can Transvestites Change the World? *
Can indigenous people? Half a century ago, one of the founders of so-called
"scientific socialism," wrote that the proletariats could change the world
because they had nothing to lose "but their chains." Today, the heirs of
those proletariats are rebellious at the hour of losing privileges like
steady work and retirement, they refuse to pay taxes, and they strike to
avoid being charged the tax on their income.
Marcos himself hints at this in his epilogue to the manual, laying bare how
the alliance between health and sex is one of the strongest nuclei of social
control. "Capitalism converts health into a market good, and health
administrators, doctors, nurses, and all the apparatus of hospitalization or
health distribution are also turned in to a type of foreman of this
business, turning the patient into a de facto client, from whom the object
is to get as much money as possible from without necessarily giving more
health back in return." It seems to be no coincidence that, along their
dependency-breaking road, the Zapatistas have run up against the area of
prostitute health and organized transvestites, groups that have been forced
to take control of healthcare into their own hands. Seen in this light, some
people belong in the "disposable" category, barely even having chains,
material or symbolic, to lose.
*Translated by Nalina Eggert.*
*Rau'l Zibechi* is a member of the Editorial Council of the weekly Brecha de
Montevideo, teacher and researcher of social movements at the Multiversidad
Franciscana de Ame'rica Latina, and adviser to social groups. He is a monthly
collaborator of the IRC Americas Program .