CANS Can’t Stand: Liberation for Black Trans Women

[bell dings]

[classical music]

[Narrator] Prostitution, the girls call it a living.

The pimps call it a business.

The law calls it a crime.

But in New Orleans, young males also preen and prance

in the French Quarter waiting for older men

to make cautious advances and arrange dates.

And, of course, there are the transvestite prostitutes.

They all share one sad task.

They must score by hook or crook.

I ain’t going to put too much on

’cause it gets hot out here.

I believe that I ‘came a leader because of my experience.

[muffled talking]

My activism didn’t just start

from being affiliated with the nonprofits,

which I feel like I’ve been doing these things.

[indistinct chattering]

And one thing I can take and tell you,

them white folks put that screw in my back, honey.

They meant it, honey, with this Crime Against Nature,

but I refuse to let them bring me down.

[upbeat music]

[indistinct chattering]

It’s the inclusion of people of color, honey,

our people of color.

CANS Can’t Stand, we love y’all.

[upbeat music]

[crowd cheering]

The law was Crime Against Nature.

That law, that basically destroyed

my life and many, many others.

And what we’re going to do, we are going to march

and we’re going to fight to the bitter end.

[crowd cheering]

[Host on microphone] I can’t hear y’all!

Are y’all with me?

[crowd cheering together]

[Host] Repeat after me:

CANS Can’t Stand!

[Crowd] CANS Can’t Stand!

[child muttering]

A lot of women in my community didn’t have

the support that they needed from family, right?

I utilized my own home

to be able to give women in my community

a place to lay their head.

A place to, you know, take a bath,

a place to be able to eat.

[sorrowful music]

My mother was a woman who grew up in a time

where a lot of things were segregated.

My oldest siblings used to talk about my mother’s issues

as the things that she had to go through

as a black woman, right?

She had to drop outta high school,

she experienced incarceration.

With me coming out to my mother,

and thinking about my own issues, right,

as being a woman of trans experience,

a black woman of trans experience.

My mother saw herself, right?

Seeing that, my child is going to

go through these same issues

as black women.

After that conversation, then that’s when I began

to experience the things that my sister was telling me.

You know, discrimination and being stopped

by a Police Officer in Charge.

Yeah so,

I remember walking up this street,

I was on my way to Club Vibe.

And so, when you look down there,

they have a street that’s named Governor Nichols.

That’s the street that I turned on, you know,

going towards the Vibe to get on Esplanade.

I saw an officer, he stopped me.

And so, me and the officer began to engage in conversation.

He was very attractive.

This particular night I was looking real nice

and I wanted to go meet my friends.

We talked for a little bit and about 10 minutes

into the conversation, he began to talk about language

that’s in the Crime Against Nature law.

[chilling music]

He began to talk about oral sex and anal sex

and all these different things.

He went into his wallet, tried to give me his number

but all a while he was going for his badge

and he told me that I was under arrest.

I was just in disbelief, like, what am I being arrested for?

And so, that’s when I found out about

the Crime Against Nature law.

CAN stands for Crime Against Nature by solicitation

which covers oral and anal sex for money.

All they need to do is offer the sex for money,

and that is a crime.

The prostitution law in Louisiana

also covers oral and anal sex for money.

But in 1982,

they attached much more severe penalties to CANS.

It was put on the books to criminalize

same gender loving individuals.

A person charged with prostitution,

if it was vaginal sex,

then it was treated one way.

And that person basically walked out of the same door

that lawyers and judges came in.

And if it was Crime Against Nature,

a different sort of sex, that person had to register

and oftentimes found themselves going to jail.

[suspenseful music]

Our game plan calls for long sentences

and an aggressive approach to prosecution.

[tense rhythmic music]

[cellmate coughing]

[Chariman] I think that maybe we can

intimidate with this statute.

[Speaker 1] Thank you Mr. Chairman.

[Chairman] Time flies when you’re having fun.

[Speakers laughing mutually]

Over the years, it started to affect many of individuals

within our community specifically trans women,

black trans women who engaged in survival sex work.

It also affects black women or anybody really engaged

in survival sex work.

But, these are the demographics

that they were really targeting.

You can’t just carve out certain sex acts and go,

‘Wait wait wait, if you’re doing missionary, that’s normal,

if you do another thing, it’s a felony’.

But that was kind of the end goal,

when they changed the law.

If you was a woman of trans experience,

you could get stopped,

you could be charged with it.

People knew these things, right?

People knew what this law was just for.

If you was in the area where LGBTQ people had,

if you feel like you was that person, you was gonna get it.

[Interviewer] How is the life of a prostitute

in New Orleans? Pretty tough?

Very much so.

[Interviewer] Why?

The police, the danger,

when they catch you, they catch you.

There was homophobia involved in that.

Transphobia involved in that.

There is no other way to explain the creation

and application of those laws.

It’s hard to investigate a rape case.

It takes days to successfully write

a good armed robbery police report.

That’s heavy lifting.

You know what’s easy lifting?

It’s picking up somebody because they look different

walking down the sidewalk.

You can do that in 35 minutes and then be off to lunch.

[group cheering]

[muffled group chatter]

I just want you to thank all of you for coming out.

This has been a labor of love for all of us

but also pain.

[group clapping and cheering]

I started my transition at 13 years old.

I found who Milan was at 13.

I embraced her at 15.

I had to literally kick down doors

and fight my way through school,

just to exist as a trans youth.

Unfortunately, trans women engage in survival sex work

because they are not afforded opportunities.

Many of us don’t afford the opportunity to graduate

because we’re pushed out of schools,

we’re pushed out our home.

Nobody don’t want to hire us.

No one want to give us housing.

No one don’t want to give us any of these things, right?

We have to live in hotels.

You know, a lot of us live in hotels.

Yes, I got many interviews,

but I got turned away when Milan walked through the door

because people couldn’t see past this.

And, I had to do what I had to do.

I feel like without sex work

a lot of us wouldn’t be able to live.

So, my first time being convicted

and charge with a Crime Against Nature, I was 16 years old.

It was just a typical night in the quarters for me.

You know, I was out, I was having fun, having a good time.

I was approached by an undercover officer,

one thing led to another.

I was swarmed by other officers and I was taken to juvenile.

I was the first youth to ever come through that system,

or through that court, with a Crime Against Nature.

That’s something that was equipped to be a felony,

and being that I was 16,

they didn’t know really what to do with me.

For a whole year, I was put on probation.

The judge, I’ll never forget what he told me

the day I left out of his courtroom.

He said, Milan, this could have went

totally a different way,

but I didn’t want to see a young person like you

throw your life away.

I was one of the fortunate ones.

Let me just say, I said all that to say I was fortunate

because I know

other women who had to register as sex offenders.

[intense sorrowful music]

[daunting music]

When you’re labeled as a sex offender,

it’s like this modern day scholar letter, right?

And, so you are unable to do things, right?

You are unable to access employment, access healthcare,

access housing and all these different things.

My life was surrounded around shame.

You know, I had to present IDs

with the words sex offender on it.

And, I didn’t want people to see me in that way.

I was unable to get jobs.

And then, someone who I knew hired me

to work into the nursing facility, right?

Some workers found out that

I was required to register as a sex offender.

They began to print out papers of my profile

that was on a sex offender database

and began to pass these flyers out.

I had suicidal thoughts.

I wanted to just end my life.

I remember me

being stopped by an officer,

when he realized

who I was,

I remember him hitting me with the billy,

the side of my face was kind of fractured,

multiple of my tooths began to fall out.

After being misgendered and throw water on

and laughed at and talked about,

after I was released,

one of the officers who misgendered me

and did all these things, he raped me.

And, he had the power to do that.

And, this is why no one was gonna believe me.

For number one, I was a woman of trans experience.

Number two, I was a sex offender

and he was an officer.

I was on the phone with one of my girlfriends

telling her this law, it’s hindering me.

And then, she began trying

to connect me with different people.

So, one of the people she asked me that I know,

she asked me did I know, Deon Haywood?

[Reporter] At a press conference this morning,

a group of lawyers and advocates announced

a lawsuit against Bobby Jindal and others,

on behalf of nine anonymous plaintiffs.

Now, the goal is to have them taken off

of the sex offender registry

for Crime against Nature convictions.

I think this is a groundbreaking moment.

I think if we’re talking about a new New Orleans

and the new city and reforming the criminal justice system

and making New Orleans a better place

for its residents, this is a step in the right direction.

That’s when I was appointed a NO Justice project.

It was anonymous.

We went from there

and in 2012, we won.

A settlement with the state of Louisiana

removed 700 such individuals from the sex offender registry.

[group clapping]

No one had to register as a sex offender anymore,

the sex offender logo on their IDs;

it had to be removed within 30 days.

They was able to access some type of housing.

They was able to access some type of employment.

Although it was a victory, it wasn’t a complete victory.

[hopeful music]

In 2018, I found the CANS Can’t Stand.

My goal is to get the law eradicated.

[people protesting]

A law in the books

is gonna always give an officer that discretion,

so the law needs to be taken off the books.

When this law be removed,

they’re always gonna find ways to try to

attack this community.

CANS is still on the books,

so is prostitution.

And whatever you think of the exchange of sex for money,

do we want to be throwing people in prison?

CANS and prostitution are two of many laws

that are still used to make life worse for people

whose lives are already really hard.

It kind of got swept under the rug and stuff like that,

but Wendi like, you know, kind of kicked that rug

and was like, no, we not sweeping this under the rug.

This is the problem in the community.

We are constantly sweeping things under the rug.

We too busy tie into the respectability politics.

We worrying about how other people feel.

And, trans women are uncomfortable

pretty much 90% of the day.

It’s okay if you’re uncomfortable

five or 10 fucking minutes,

it’s okay.

The trans community in New Orleans is changing.

A lot of women are more open

and they’re talking out,

they’re fighting.

Then, when I was coming up it was more of like:

you don’t have a voice, so you can’t speak.

I talk.

It’s because I’m carrying all of that

and I survive so I can be here and I can say this with you.

You know, and I tell people all the time like that

a younger generation, they more of like

that adrenaline for us, right?

And they’re more like that adrenaline to help us

not accept whatever’s being thrown at you.

The oath that I took was

that I’m gonna fight

with every breath I have in me.

And even if it takes for me,

and I really mean this when I say,

if it meant for me to have to

transition out of this reality,

just to make sure that my community,

my generation behind me,

has it just a little bit easier and better,

then I’m willing to do whatever it takes.

And I know that liberation,

it comes without compensation.

[Group Chanting] We’re here! We’re trans!

We’re fabulous, don’t fuck with us!

We’re here! We’re trans!

We’re fabulous, don’t fuck with us!

[chanting continues]

We’re here! We’re trans!

We’re fabulous, don’t fuck with us!

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