The Midtown Ponce Security Alliance’s notorious transphobic war against area sex workers inspired a new critic who blasts the effort in a book on what “citizenship” means to transgender people.
Isaac West, a gay ex-Atlantan and now a professor at the University of Iowa, published the academic work “Transforming Citizenships” in December. In the book’s intro, he writes that he saw the MPSA’s crackdown firsthand – and dubs it an offensive freak-out by “sex-panicked residents of the gayborhood around Piedmont Park.”
“I lived in Atlanta from 2006 to 2008 while I was teaching at Georgia State University, and this is when I wrote the first draft of the book,” West told Project Q Atlanta. “As a resident of Midtown at the time, I was disappointed in the level of vitriol and violence directed at suspected sex workers and transpeople. At the time, the public discourse collapsed these two populations together and stigmatized them both as violent and dangerous criminals, and the evidence of the supposed violence and danger did not justify the fear of either of these groups.”
In the book, West (second photo) recounts some of the MPSA’s worst excesses, which include saying the trans sex workers smell like goats, calling them “thugs in drag,” crying wolf with sensationalistic claims of “transvestite gangs” roaming the streets and aiding the demise of the iconic nightclub Backstreet. And he absolutely demolishes the crusade as laced with racial and class bigotry and gentrification-fueled gay hypocrisy.
After laying out Piedmont Park’s long history of gay culture and public sex, West writes:
“Undoubtedly, more than a few of Midtown’s current residents have firsthand knowledge of this history even if they have conveniently forgotten their own participation in it. Therefore, the communal outrage directed at those whom they had termed ‘transvestitutes’ was not animated by surprise or shock as much as it was by naked financial self-interest and the judgment that sex work is somehow more threatening and shameful than the free exchange of pleasures. In addition, racial prejudices played no small part in these confrontations between primarily white residents and the presumed non-residents who were often people of color.”
West points out the us-versus-them mentality that portrayed trans people as criminals, not fellow citizens or peers in a historic gay neighborhood.
“As a white, gay, middle-class man, who did not identify as transgender, I was ashamed of the MPSA’s actions, but, sadly, not surprised. LGB repudiation and demonization of trans people is a regrettably common occurrence,” he writes.
The ugly war inspired the book, West writes. He wanted to explore ways that trans people find a sense of citizenship, and most of all, to give them a spotlight and an open mic:
“Throughout the coverage of the controversy in Piedmont Park, I noticed a distinct lack of voices from trans communities as trans people were considered objects of the law instead of as equal citizens worth of being addressed as such. Even sympathetic coverage approached the situation from the vantage point of what LGBs could or should do for trans people.”
West’s book highlights moments when trans communities overcame us-versus-them situations, but Midtown isn’t one of them.
“I wish I could write a happier ending wherein these events led to some greater understanding between Midtown residents and the assumed to be non-resident trans people,” West writes. But, he notes, MPSA members “continue to target trans people with vigor and pride.”
But, West told Project Q, maybe his book can inspire some reflection.
“In short, I would like for us to think more about what we share as LGBTQ communities than what divides us—the rest of the world does a good enough job on that front,” he said.
While “Transforming Citizenships: Transgender Articulations of the Law” is an academic book, the intro about the Midtown sex-work wars is an easy read. View it here.