This month in Zagreb we had very rich discussions regarding the LGBTIQ movement. One of the prominent contributors to two of the discussions in the Zagreb Pride Week was Nina Čolović – the activist from the LGBTIQ Initiative of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities AUT and associate of Trans Aid Croatia. She participated as guest to the discussion Solidarity: the Workers’ and the LGBTIQ Movements Today and as moderator to An Open Discussion About Sex Work, so we asked her a few questions about the topics she highlighted on these events that are useful for our research study.
- Could you present your activity in AUT, as well as your cooperation with Trans Aid Croatia?
I joined AUT in the spring of 2013, the same evening the first meeting was held – when it was decided that the next morning we were going to start collecting signatures for the removing of the In the Name of the Family table from the front door of the faculty to send out the message that academic spaces belong to everybody regardless of their romantic and/or sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression. We have defined nonviolence (structural and active) and an activity based on principles of cooperation and intersectionality (considering the queer movement in the context the workers’, feminist and peace activism) as AUT’s core values that we endeavour to implement in every aspect of our activity and in that way to empower young queer people who often face the loss of support from their families. From 2013 till now, I have participated in the organisation of a series of panels, discussions and activities, and on one of our first panels, TransAkcija 2013. (TransAction), a wonderful and fruitful cooperation with Trans Aid in the creation of various activities for the community was started (workshops about language and gender, violence and safety etc.). A few months ago I have become TransAid’s official member.
- Our preliminary analysis of the bibliography and media content showed that the violence against sex workers is completely neglected topic. Why is that so? Why is this problem invisible?
Sex work in the Republic of Croatia is regulated by the Act on Misdemeanors against Public Peace and Order that, as it is suggested by the name, protects the supposed public peace and order and not the sex workers and, besides depriving them of any kind of institutional protection, prescribes a fine or imprisonment. A life under constant threat of arrest and police violence systematically silences the sex workers, especially those in whose bodies any otherness is inscribed (as in the case of transwomen and transfeminine persons). Consequently, it prevents the formation of any stronger political platform and destabilises the already fragile relations of solidarity and trust between the workers and persons participating in the conceptualisation and implementation of research studies who perhaps do not share their experience and perspective. The criminalisation and stigmatization of sex work displaces the voices of the sex workers from the public sphere and therefore from the media and academic horizon turning them, if not to positions of total absence, then certainly into coincidence, danger and the exotic, which disintegrates the possibility of the establishment of a validated political subject for which the persons repressed to the margins are constantly struggling. Communities who have historically been disabled from public appearance and to whose needs the dominant discourse is not primary intended, are often excluded from the efforts of documenting and thinking about the problem of violence, or are represented in ways that do not correspond to their lived experience since it is always somebody else talking about them. In order to change this, it is necessary to empower the sex workers and to create the conditions for them to build their own narrative about their lives and to fight the system that perpetuates the violence against them. This violence takes various forms that are not separated: the state (institutional) violence in conjunction with social stigma and prejudices, that are again nurtured by the administrative, medical, legal, but also the scientific, educational and media discourses which together create the preconditions for the physical, economic and emotional violence to which the sex workers are exposed in the family, relationships and in the interaction with clients and pimps. Therefore, it is important to carefully untangle this complex chain of oppression and to consider the broader picture in a constant dialogue with the sex workers in order to establish the specificity of the oppression they are exposed as well as the potential solutions for their liberation in the intersectional context of the workers’, feminist, migrant and queer movement.
- If there are any specificities, what are, according to your opinion, the causes of violence against transwomen sex workers?
Transwomen and transfeminine persons that are sex workers are on the intersection of a multiply interlaced mechanism of oppression. The criminalisation and stigma attached to sex work are potentiated by the misogynist, transphobic, homophobic and racist violence that work together and that are impossible to separate. It is therefore important not to look at sex work monolithically but to consider the different ways that oppressive practices break on the bodies of those who practice it, and also to work together on the transformation of the cisheteropatriarchal and racist structures that particularly jeopardise the lives of transwomen, transfeminine and gender variant persons, bisexual, Roma and migrant women. In order to survive, transwomen and transfeminine women often enter different forms of sex work since for many of them it seems like the only option to get to food and shelter considering the unavailability of more secure working spheres and social infrastructures that are, because of the afore mentioned discriminatory structures, out of reach for those who are other and different. From the 1ˢͭ of January to the 31ˢͭ of March 2014, 75 trans* and gender variant persons in thirteen states were murdered (according to the data from the Trans Murder Monitoring; Transgender Europe: IDAHOT Press Release project from 2014), and transwomen and transfeminine persons were especially vulnerable. The specificity of transphobic and homophobic violence is that it is not restricted to the street or working place, but it infiltrates in the family where queer persons are often denied financial and emotional support. According to the studies carried out in the USA and Canada (for now, as far as I know, we do not have such insight into the situation in Croatia and the region), queer persons make 20 to 40 per cent of the young homeless people, and the findings are similar for Great Britain (even though it is considered that they make only 10 per cent of the general population) (for the USA, for instance, the report An Epidemic of Homelessness from 2006, and for GB LGBT Youth Homelessness from 2014). The studies show that LGBTIQ+ youth engages in sex work to survive much often than cis heterosexual persons, and in the case of trans* persons, the chances to become involved in sex work in exchange for shelter are eight times higher than for their cisgender peer (Freeman and Hamilton 2008, according to Dank et al. 2015).
- In order for persons to be accepted into shelters for women victims of violence, first they have to report the violence to the police and therefore many transwomen are reluctant to do it because of the gender in their document is not matched with their gender identity. What, in your opinion should be changed in the protocols of accepting women in the autonomous women’s houses in order to facilitate the access to transwomen?
I think it is important not to condition the access by the report since the role of the autonomous houses is to help women to depart from a violent situation and provide them with resources necessary for its transformation. If in the very beginning women are faced with expectations that for different reasons they feel they cannot fulfil, it is more unlikely that they are not going to seek help and establish a relationship of trust with the institutions that provide it. Since their work is criminalised and they experience a large amount of violence from the police, insisting on the report distances the sex workers. Talking about the safe places for women, as well as all gendered spaces, there is a serious danger of falling into essentialist ideas about what femininity is, and therefore, who has the right to access the women’s shelters and the systems of support they offer. For that reason it is important not to use the category ‘woman’. Autonomous women’s houses must be open to all persons who experienced violence, wherein it is crucial to take into consideration the experiences and needs of women who have historically been excluded from such spaces: transwomen, transfeminine women, Roma women, sex workers, lesbians, bisexual women and migrant women.
- Since sex work in Croatia is a misdemeanor, do you think there are any ethical issues in researching this problem?
I think the persons in sex work, or that had this experience, should always be included in the conceptualisation and implementation of research studies about sex work. In other words, by the empowerment of their community, the conditions for including them in the discussion about subjects relevant to their lives should be created. Taking in account the present position of sex work in the legal system, it is especially important to make sure that the safety of sex workers is not jeopardised, to minimise the level of potential harm, and that they can participate in the studies to the extant and in the way that does not create any kind of discomfort. We must not forget the fact that the researchers themselves are not isolated from the society they are researching and that, among other things, their research studies will contribute to the shaping of the public perception about sex work. It is therefore important always to maintain a critical distance from ones work, as well as a consciousness about the responsibility one has when working with vulnerable groups.
- During the Zagreb Pride Week you participated, as a guest and as a moderator, in two discussions: Solidarity: the Workers’ and the LGBTIQ Movements Today and An Open Discussion About Sex Work. What were the moments in these discussions that you would single out as relevant?
I am really glad we had the chance to organise both discussions and I hope this is only the beginning of a lasting collaborations with the workers’ and unions, as well as with the persons who work actively with the sex workers’ communities. Even though the collaboration might imply that these are independent issues, the distinction is only here to make it clear that we are not leaving anybody behind. In the discussion about the solidarity between the workers’ and the LGBTIQ+ movement we attempted to point out the role of the unions for workers’ organising, think over the concept of queer workers, as well as the socio-economic reality of the queer experience. Since sex work is one of the aspects of that experience, the discussion about sex work was a kind of extension to the conversation we started and that we want to expand further. Queer persons are also (sex) workers, and among (sex) workers there are also queer persons. Hence, the workers’ rights are a crucial question for the queer struggle which is inseparable from a wider struggle for economic and social justice.
- Do you think that this brought to a significant shift in the discussion about the solidarity between the LGBTIQ and the workers’ movement? Are there any perspectives for the development of a movement for sex workers’ rights?
I think we already moved things a little by connecting the workers’ and queer activists and union representatives with the discussion on solidarity, and by the fact that we always try to listen and learn from each other in order to think actively about the possibilities of deepening this collaboration. Even though for now there is no movement for the rights of sex workers in Croatia, its roots are present inside the queer, feminist and workers’ movement, and some activists are already leading the way to it by communicating their experience and warning about the problems they face. The queer movement was always a coalition and its revolutionary roots go back to 1969 when transwomen, transfeminine persons, gender variant persons, lesbians, gay men, bisexual persons, transman and transmasculine persons; and some of them, as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who were also sex workers, together revolted against police brutality. The heritage of that history that we must continue to cherish is therefore the solidarity with everyone who suffers different kinds of state and economic violence, as well as the recognition of different groups in our society that are affected by them the most.
 The In the Name of the Family initiative was collecting signatures to organize a referendum with the aim of introducing the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman in the Croatian Constitution. Most of the voters at the referendum voted in favour of this definition and it was therefore eventually introduced in the Constitution.