Now she was on a mission to help them, to help prevent the next black transgender woman from being killed at the fringes of the nation’s capital.
“Hey love, you need condoms?” Spellman called out the window. On the passenger side next to her sat Emmelia Talarico, a fellow advocate for sex-worker and transgender rights.
It was just past 11 p.m., at West Virginia Avenue in Northeast Washington. A tall, thin woman stood on the sidewalk, wearing a short red skirt and a white tank top. Like most of the women they see on these drives, Spellman and Talarico recognized her. Spellman passed her a card and told her to call if she needed anything.
“Try to work with somebody else,” said Spellman, who by day works for the D.C. sex-worker advocacy group HIPS. “I don’t want y’all walking by yourselves. It seems like they’re escalating.”
For transgender sex workers in the District, everything seems to be escalating. Threats to safety, police intimidation, rising rents that have pushed so many to take to the streets to survive.
Spellman has been going on these drives every weekend since Zoe Spears, a black transgender woman, was shot and killed in June near the Eastern Avenue strip just outside the District, less than three months after another black transgender woman, Ashanti Carmon, was fatally shot blocks away.
The deaths became a local paragon of the dangers faced by transgender women of color across the country. At least 18 transgender people nationwide have been fatally shot or killed in 2019, according to the Human Rights Campaign; the American Medical Association has called violence against the transgender community an “epidemic.”
But Spears and Carmon had something else in common: Both women had at some point in their lives turned to sex work, a dangerous profession that has over the past year become even riskier — especially for those who are black or brown or trans.
Federal measures that shuttered websites like Backpage and Craigslist’s personals eliminated a digital safety net that allowed sex workers to better control what clients they accepted. Instead, they have been forced onto the streets to find work.
A controversial bill to legalize prostitution is gaining steam in Washington. But transgender sex workers can’t afford to wait to see whether the District can find ways to better protect them.
They’re doing it themselves.
They keep watch at night, organize rallies, collect money on GoFundMe to provide emergency housing and services. A group led by Talarico has given the homeless among them a place to live in Northeast Washington — a community that is now under threat.
Spellman tore into a sticky pink Laffy Taffy from the pile of candy in the car’s console. She needed sugar to keep her going until the early morning. Nicki Minaj blasted through the radio speakers. Talarico rolled down the window.
“Ya’ll got condoms?” she called.
A year and a half ago, President Trump signed into law a pair of measures meant to cut down on illegal sex trafficking online. The bill — a combination of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) — made websites liable if users were found posting ads for prostitution on their pages.
The goal, to make policing the online sex trade easier, received overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress. The bill’s most immediate result, though, was that various websites, like Craigslist personals and Backpage, where sex workers could communicate with potential clients, vanished abruptly.
So, too, did business prospects for D.C. sex workers like Tiara Moten and Kim, who relied on those sites.
“When Backpage shut down, my phone stopped ringing,” said Kim, who asked to be identified by only her first name because of pending criminal charges related to prostitution. Instead of coordinating dates from her home or hotel, she had to pick up clients on the streets.
Advocates with HIPS, which operates an outreach van along popular routes, said they have seen about three times more sex workers on the streets since the websites shut down.
Online, sex workers could better vet clients. They could check social media, coordinate a place to meet, even set up a GPS tracker with their friends. They had the power to set their own prices and offer only the services with which they were comfortable, many said. It made an unsafe profession feel somewhat safer.
“When you’re in that car, in their car, they have the ball, it’s in their court,” Kim said.
Sex workers aren’t the only ones who say losing these websites has made their jobs harder. It has become more difficult for police to investigate and monitor sex trafficking, D.C. police Lt. Brett Parson said. In the past, investigators could build a case against traffickers using an ad posted online. The main websites, he said, were generally cooperative with law enforcement subpoenas.
Now, the online commercial sex trade has moved into lesser-known corners of the Web, on sites not based in the United States. That means law enforcement subpoena powers are limited, Parson said.
Even some organizations that aid victims of sex trafficking have found that the closure of these sites has made outreach harder.
In June, D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At large) introduced a bill that he said would bring sex workers “out of the shadows,” improving public safety. It would make the District the only U.S. jurisdiction to legalize prostitution, outside of some areas of Nevada, where legal brothels exist.
Grosso’s decriminalization effort failed in 2017, the last time he introduced the idea to the council. But he’s more optimistic now, with several of his fellow council members signing on as co-sponsors of the legislation.
“Right now the issue is everything that happens in that world is done underground, in the shadows, where criminals tend to be, where people who think they can get away with assault and murder go to,” Grosso said.
He and his supporters have said the bill would make it easier for sex workers to find housing and leave the industry because they would not have prostitution-related arrests on their records.
Opponents of the legislation argue that it would put more women at risk of exploitation and abuse, and turn the nation’s capital into a red-light district.
Tina Frundt, founder of Courtney’s House, which provides services to underage survivors of sex trafficking, said she supports partial decriminalization efforts that protect sex workers from being charged with crimes. But, she argues, Grosso’s full decriminalization bill would embolden pimps and increase trafficking.
Grosso rejects the idea that the bill would legalize pimps or any kind of coercion in the sex trade.
“My law only addresses sex work when it’s a noncoercive situation between two consensual adults,” Grosso said. “Bringing that out of the shadows will actually make it easier to identify and stop trafficking.”
At a rally introducing his bill in June, Grosso handed the microphone to activist and sex worker Shareese Mone. Her eyes welled as she recalled the time she was kidnapped, how she was gagged and tied and left for dead.
As she spoke, two black trans women nodded knowingly, holding hands in the back row.
A safe house
Turning a corner in the NoMa neighborhood, blocks from Union Station, Talarico spotted two women she knew. One wore a suede skirt and a transparent crop top, the other a sports bra and leggings.
“Ayy, what are y’all doing?” Talarico said.
“Trying to make a living,” one replied.
“When y’all out here, y’all work in pairs,” Spellman added.
“They already know,” Talarico said. “She’s an NJNP girl.”
Talarico recognized her as one of nearly 30 transgender women of color who have spent all or part of the past year living in a Northeast Washington safe house run by the activist group No Justice No Pride.
After FOSTA/SESTA passed and the websites closed down, Talarico’s phone exploded with desperate messages from trans sex workers in need of a place to stay. They were short on rent. They couldn’t afford hotel fees. They were running out of options.
A longtime community organizer, Talarico offered her own home to half a dozen women to start, then got to work raising enough money to rent a rowhouse. They landed in a five-bedroom, four-bathroom place in Eckington and relied on donations to make the $4,250 monthly rent.
About eight trans women of color moved in right away. More followed. The house quickly turned into a teeming hub of activity.
Family dinner nights meant voguing in the kitchen. Impassioned debates over Beyoncé and Disney films crackled with jokes and jabs. The space was, above all, a place where black and brown trans women could feel free to be themselves, to feel safe, to burst up from their chairs and dance.
Before she moved into an upstairs bedroom in the NJNP house, Kim was in and out of homelessness for years. She fell into sex work when she was 18, after losing her job. The more she worked, the harder it became to quit. Prostitution charges kept her from finding a new job.
Moten, 18, was one of the first women to move in. After a troubled childhood and a family that struggled to accept her transition, she set out on her own.
Sex work, she said, helped her gain independence. But Moten is young enough to have known sex work only in its online form. Like others whose primary client base existed on the Web, she estimates that her income has been cut by as much as 80 percent since Backpage and Craigslist closed. Using Backpage, most women could make about $300 a night. On the street, many said, they earn about $60.
At the end of August, the place where these women had created a no-judgment community was taken away. Their landlord declined to renew NJNP’s lease. The group has yet to find a new home.
'Where the dates come to kill'
Just before midnight, veering through a dark residential neighborhood near K and 12th streets NE, Spellman lit a cigarette. Talarico looked out the window and pointed out a corner.
“This is my spot, right here,” Talarico said. “I drop the kiddies off . . . then I come back by myself.”
“You know that’s not safe these days,” Spellman told her.
On nights when Spellman and her car don’t patrol the District’s streets, Talarico walks the line of women waiting on corners, making sure everyone has condoms, a buddy, a place to stay. She uses the Find My iPhone app to keep track of “kiddies” like Moten and other women from the NJNP house.
The street darkened as the women wrapped around the District to Eastern Avenue, blocks from where Spears and Ashanti were gunned down.
Back when she still worked the streets, Spellman avoided Eastern Avenue at all costs.
“This is just known to be the beat where the dates come to kill the girls,” Talarico said.
Now the street reminds Spellman of the last place she saw Spears alive. It was early one morning, and Spears had a date “trailing her,” Spellman said. “I can’t talk to her right now, she’s busy,” she remembered thinking.
She kept driving. On the corner of 51st and Meade street, they found a woman wearing a pink tank top and a fanny pack. Spellman offered her condoms.
“I just want to make sure you’re safe while you’re working,” said Spellman.
“Don’t worry, I question them before getting in the car,” the woman said.
“I know, but you can’t never tell these days,” Spellman said. “Too many other girls have been killed, and I just want to make sure you out here being safe, sugar.”
As Spellman pulled away, a white sedan pulled up on the opposite side of the street. A man rolled down his window as the woman in pink walked up to his car and leaned in.