Queen of the Night: Part 2, Living Her Truth
Warning: explicit language and graphic content
1:00 a.m. We’re outside Club Escape, a gay nightclub on the south side. The club will close in about 45 minutes and that’s when some of the outreach workers will be coming out. She greets people with waves, kisses and starts every sentence with ‘what’s the tea?’ That’s when they share a little gossip and talk about the night’s strategy. Reyna says she wears a lot of hats in advocacy work: therapist, guidance counselor, medical advisor, among others.
2:00 a.m. On 76th and Halsted, the glow from a gas station lights up a good part of the block. Across the street, outreach workers go through nylon bags, divvying up supplies to pass out to sex workers they’ll see on the stroll: condoms, toothpaste, mouthwash, wipes and little pieces of paper with the address of TransSafe, where they can get medical, legal, job and housing info.
Ortiz wants to make sure the girls know they can get affordable health care, not just a person to get hormones from. Ortiz says she didn’t see a physician until she was in her 30’s. She says going to LGBT organizations for info left her sad because she felt judged by her prostitution work. Ortiz was determined not to let others feel the same way.
“I hated how my community was being underrepresented,” says Ortiz, who on this night is working for Chicago House. “I knew there were a lot more resources available that were not being given to my girls.”
“My goal is to find these girls primary care physicians. A doctor they can see on a regular basis to make sure they don’t have diabetes and not know,” says Ortiz adding that she doesn’t encourage or discourage the women on the stroll. “Ideally, I hope one day all my girls can be integrated into society like everybody else and get a job and a career and make 65K a year, so they don’t have to sell their bodies.”
2:00 a.m. As a group of eight to ten sex workers and advocacy workers walk down a block, a police car starts to circle the block. They take a side street to avoid attention. Ortiz sees a couple of sex workers and gives out items to two young women named Raven and Avery. “I think this is helpful for the community. People don’t have money to buy condoms,” says Raven, 20, a sex worker who’s been transitioning for two years. Avery, 20, adds “A lot of people don’t know what’s on the street. I found out about different diseases I never knew about. But (Chicago House) coming out here handing out condoms, it’s a good thing.”
2:30 a.m. As the group walks down a side street back up to Halsted, a police vehicle slowly follows. A decision is made by the advocacy workers to call it a night. Mallik Pullum, a trans man and advocacy worker with Chicago House gets into a verbal back and forth with police about the treatment of the sex workers and how his group is just trying to help. Pullum becomes angry and frustrated with the police, telling them, among other things, to go solve a murder. Shortly afterwards, Pullum is taken into custody. Ortiz pleads for the police to release Pullam but to no avail. That’s when she posts images of the police and the vehicle on social media. Ortiz soon gets on the phone with the group’s attorney to explain what happened.
In a statement to Modern Brown Girl, the Chicago Police Department says people are encouraged to come forward with allegations and complaints.
“The Chicago Police Department values the diversity that makes our city and the residents of its 77 communities unique. We strive to provide professional service to every Chicagoan and actively hold diversity and sensitivity training for our officers. If anyone has concerns about the actions of a member of the Department, we ask them to contact CPD's Bureau of Internal Affairs or the Independent Police Review Authority. At all times, residents are encouraged to engage with their local District CAPS office.”
3:30 a.m. Ortiz is heading home to an apartment miles away in the western suburbs she shares with her mom. For the sex workers still on the south side, the night is just beginning. Ortiz says they’ll be out at least until 6:00 a.m., with or without the police around. She says ultimately the advocates are out there because they want the girls to get help and to ultimately get off the streets. “Our method takes a lot more work (than CPD which is) to scare them away or to arrest them,” says Ortiz. “We’re trying to get to the root of the cause. Why are the girls prostituting?”
Despite Pullum’s arrest, Ortiz says it was a good night.
“To connect with community is important,” says Ortiz, who stopped her journey as a sex worker about 16 months ago. “There are hazardous things that happen doing this work. You hope you don’t get arrested, hope you don’t get shot or mugged. We still have to do this work, girl!”
After a few hours rest, Ortiz will take a train back into Chicago in the morning for more advocacy work. She says there’s too much work to do to dwell on the events of the previous night. Ortiz will work with girls on getting information for their new identification (for a permanent name change). She calls a “navigation day” to help trans girls work through the system instead of around it.
“If they’re not convicted felons, I can get them through a name change mobilization, where they can change their name and change their gender marker so they’re walking around with legal names. That minimizes the barriers we face as trans people.”
Working as an advocate doesn’t mean she’s put her past behind her. She wants to be open about her former life to destigmatize for others walking down the same path. “A lot of girls don’t talk about sex work. And that’s a big problem because our whole community is engulfed by sex work and nobody wants to talk about it,” says Ortiz. "But I’m ready to talk about it.”
What else is she ready for? Ortiz has published a memoir about her experiences as a sex worker and advocate. Most of all, she wants to be an example to others.
“I just want to be normal. I want to start my business. I want to be an entrepreneur,” says Ortiz with a smile. “ I want to build history and I want other girls to tell their stories.”