Bianey Garcia is a trans woman and activist who grew up in the Mexican city of Veracruz. In 2005, she paid a coyote to smuggle her across the border, hoping to find a community that would accept her sexuality. “I didn’t have [any]…family here….friends or [a] place to go,” she recalls.
After living on the street for months, Garcia says she was taken in by a middle-aged Colombian man who used her immigration status to intimidate her into working for him as an underage prostitute. “He forced me to do it because he was threatening me by calling [Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” Garcia says.
She eventually escaped and landed a job busing tables at a Manhattan restaurant. When Garcia started taking hormones to begin transitioning, she says that her changing appearance caused her to lose her job. After three months of fruitless searching, she decided to do sex work. “This time, no one was forcing me to do it…I keep the money…I decided who…to have sex with.”
Today, Garcia works for the nonprofit Make the Road New York on its campaign to decriminalize prostitution. Decriminalization bills have floundered in New York and Washington, D.C, in recent months, and the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted attention away from the issue. But advocates hope that the latest push for criminal justice reform could reenergize the movement. The first step is for policymakers to acknowledge that, for many people, selling sex is their best option for survival, and criminalizing that choice only makes their lives more difficult.