Trans Latina sex workers drive the story of Caer (Caught)

The New York–based performers in sociologist Nicola Mai’s semidocumentary Caer (Caught) are all nonprofessionals with Colectivo Intercultural TRANSgrediendo

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      Early in Nicola Mai’s film Caer (Caught), two plainclothes New York City police officers are scoping out a transgender Latina woman walking on a sidewalk in broad daylight. The cops look at a photo in their possession to confirm the identity of the woman, who has been the subject of a complaint by a neighbour.

      “Sgt. Richards and Sgt. Hernandez have identified the suspect. Over,” one of them barks into the police radio.

      With that, the male and female officers bound out of the car, run up to the woman as she approaches her residence, and tell her that she’s under arrest. As she’s being handcuffed, a youth, possibly her son, quickly packs a knapsack and flees.

      This compelling film, part fiction and part reality, reflects the realities of transgender migrant sex workers who are under constant harassment from the state. But Caer (Caught) isn’t like others of its kind. That’s because the lead actors are all nonprofessional performers and are members of the Colectivo Intercultural TRANSgrediendo. This group defends and advocates for trans Latina migrant women.

      Plus, TRANSgrediendo was involved at every step of the filmmaking process, including editing.

      Mai, a University of Newcastle professor of sociology, has been studying migrant sex workers for 20 years. He told the Straight by phone from Paris that he wanted to capture the complexity of their lives. So he asked them if they were to tell a story about themselves—either collectively or individually—what would it include? 

      “Who would be the protagonists?” Mai continued. “What would happen? And I think everything flows from that.”

      It's a film made with them, rather than being about them. Caer (Caught) took two years to complete and is being presented at this month’s Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

      The theme of police surveillance and harassment crops up repeatedly in the film because it forms such a powerful undercurrent in the two lead characters’ lives.

      “It’s very important to know that the majority of people working in the sex industry are not victims of trafficking,” Mai emphasized.

      Video: Watch the trailer for Caer (Caught).

      He added that in many cases, they chose to work in this area because if offered a less exploitive situation and better income opportunities than other options. He wasn’t out to celebrate sex work—that’s clear from the legal difficulties encountered by the women. But Mai thinks that a great deal more attention should be devoted to migrant sex workers’ labour rights rather than victimhood, which is then used to justify more state repression.

      “We wanted to look at the impact the criminalization of sex work had on the lives of the people directly concerned,” he said.

      The artistic director of Out on Screen, Anoushka Ratnarajah, told the Straight by phone that there’s been a growing number of people trying to enter the United States because they are fleeing the effects of colonization, climate change, and corporate resource extraction. And a fair number are queer and trans folks.

      “They find themselves in a country that’s supposed to be safer for them but the only way for them to survive is to do work that isn’t legal in that country,” Ratnarajah said. “There are really complex conversations between them about what their experiences of ‘trafficking versus choice’ are, how they have conversations with their partners and their friends about their work, and it being such a dangerous job because the cops and ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] are constantly watching them. And the smallest thing could present the biggest risk.”

      Mai praised Amnesty International for coming out several years ago in favour of decriminalizing sex work between consenting adults.

      "My support of the decriminalizing policymaking position is based on the findings of my own research," Mai said.

      Amnesty International's position was endorsed by the Lancet, a prestigious medical publication. It stated that this "would have the greatest effect on the course of HIV epidemics across all settings, averting 33-46% of HIV infections in the next decade".

      For years, the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform has also been calling for immediate decriminalization.

      Mai said that Amnesty International's stance was "very brave".

      "That shows they are a serious organization who is actually shaped by knowledge and not by political opportunism or funding priorities," he added.