Sitting in the back booth of a dark bar, Rebeka Refuse looks elegant in a punk sort of way, with stringy pink New York Dolls hair and a modest shirt buttoned up to her neck. She has a ring in her nose and one in her lip and considers her aesthetic to be "sad Catholic." She grew up in a fundamentalist church and has a complicated relationship with religion—she went to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, but she was tripping on LSD at the time. Her politics are Marxist and feminist. Still, Refuse has ideas, not too far from the tenets of Jesus or Karl Marx, that could radically change the lives of transgender people at risk in Baltimore. But, even though she runs Transgender Housing Network, she's not sure anyone will listen to her, yet.
Five years ago, Refuse ended up homeless. "When I became homeless I was gender nonconforming and then I began to transition while I was homeless, which certainly didn't make things easier," she says.
She wound up in upstate New York in the winter, which, she acknowledges, was not the obvious place to go when you didn't have somewhere to stay. But she knew someone who did construction and kept herself from freezing to death by sleeping in unfinished or unoccupied apartments. "They had no heat but they did have hot water, so I would go in the bathroom and try to sleep by putting my coat on the floor and lay on that and turn the hot water on in the shower and it would get the room from near freezing to 50 or 60 [degrees], enough to fall asleep for an hour. Then the steam would run out and go back down and repeat the process."
Eventually she made her way to Baltimore, where she started working as a barista. "I wasn't really getting harassed by customers often," she says. But it happened enough to convince her that the job, which barely paid minimum wage, and the two-hour commute it took to get there were not worth it. "So I went back to being a confirmed member of the lumpenproletariat," which, in Marxist language is someone who has become cast out of the working class by labor conditions. "I'd been lumpen for many many years so therefore I moved again into less conventional forms of labor."
"I started doing porn, webcam stuff, escorting, whatever," she says. "I've dabbled in every form of sex work there is, but those are the main three."
Refuse says that she is not the kind of sex-positive person who wants to reform pornography and make it more respectful of trans people—who are often called "she-males" and other terms that the community finds offensive. "Amongst trans women there is a lot of resentment about the kinds of words they use and the general aesthetic of a lot of mainstream porn, and you see some backlash against that with queer porn and alternative and independent kind of people," she says. "I don't really care whether or not this is good or authentic representation or whether or not the words they use are respectful because porn in and of itself—it's not a neutral media product that can have good content or bad content. It's a technological system of sexual labor and this system of commodifying sexual labor is inherent to patriarchy and the sexual division of labor which occurred at the dawn of class society."
She says it was her experiences in the sex industry that made her rethink both economics and gender and pushed her in the direction of Marxism. She acknowledges that some sex workers enjoy their work, but she finds it increasingly difficult to be motivated. She was nominated for two trans porn awards, which will be awarded in Los Angeles in February, but she is not going to the ceremony.
"Whenever I am with a client or doing any other kind of sex work I get into this weird state of mind—it's almost like the kind of Buddhist meditation on death," she says. "I'm not thinking about sex or anything that I'm feeling, I'm just contemplating the mortality . . . if it's a client I'm thinking about his mortality. Not in a resentful way, like I hate them for being a John and want to kill this person and want them to die. It's just like I'm seeing them as an animated corpse, and it's a weird state of mind to be in about sex."
She says she is a good internet detective and has never found herself in a bad situation as an escort, though she knows it is possible. "I had sex with a cop for money once in Baltimore. This guy, after we were done having sex for money, told me to be careful because there are cops out there. And then flashed me his badge," she recalls.
Refuse would like to leave the industry. Shortly after she began doing sex work she also took over Transgender Housing Network, which she had used in New York City when she was homeless. She noticed that the Tumblr hadn't been updated in a while and wrote a message asking if they needed help. She already had a Tumblr following and was able to successfully promote the site, which now has an advertising budget, partly thanks to, in a weird twist, the owner of trans porn sites.
Transgender Housing Network helps trans people who are on the street find others who are willing to house them temporarily, or even provide a couch for the night. But Refuse has more ambitious plans, one that would require minimal resources. "I want to try to create some really small, easily replicable shelter programs—they don't have to be big," she says. "I would need a small room, in a city this size, five to 10 cots."
Though homelessness is an epidemic in the trans community, in a city the size of Baltimore, there are relatively few trans people in desperate need of help.
"So if you had five, 10 cots in a room you could probably serve the [members of the transgender community] that need the most urgent help. And that's a doable thing that as a society we're just not doing. We're letting women get beat in men's shelters or try to stay up all night in McDonald's, we're letting people freeze on the street."
Refuse seems like the perfect spokesperson for this kind of work and would like to do it full time. Though she's begun networking, she's hesitant to reach out to the city for help. "I don't plan on doing that anytime really soon," she says. "If things get going with some kind of program and if there's people participating in it that are more respectable than myself—blogger/porn model/escort—then we will be able to contact the city and see what kind of programs and support is available."
For More Information, visit transhousingnetwork.com