Lola Deja-Vu Delgadillo Vargas started her long career as a sex worker in Mexico at the age of 15. After coming out to her family as transgender, she had nowhere to go. Sex work was how she survived.
Now, 20 years later, Lola has become a force for change. As the general secretary of the nonprofit Agenda Nacional Política Trans de México (National Trans Political Agenda of Mexico, or ANPT), she is a fierce advocate for dignity and equality for sex workers and LGBTQ people in Mexico.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of speaking to Lola via Skype. Here is her story, which is also the story of the struggle, and the organizations that have taken it up.
[Note: this interview was conducted in Spanish, and has been translated and edited for clarity and length.]
Why did you decide to work for gender equality?
Since the first week I started as a sex worker at 15, I suffered human rights abuses by public institutions. The police would hit us, abuse us, lock us up; all under the pretense that we were spreading HIV.
We started getting informed and defending ourselves. We worked with sex workers’ organizations to educate people that we weren’t spreading HIV. Our bodies were our tools—if our bodies stopped working we couldn’t make a living.
Since then, I’ve been working for more than 20 years to organize and protect sex workers. We’re always helping our co workers know what their rights are, because if we don’t defend ourselves the authorities can extort us, lock us up, etc. But after a while we realized that we can’t just help people defend themselves, we also need to change the law.
The biggest thing we’ve argued is that sex work is work like any other [job]. Society views us as walking vaginas, walking penises, walking mouths. That’s why there are so many murders [of sex workers]. Because people view us as objects, not as people with rights. We’re always reiterating that, just because we’re sex workers, we haven’t stopped being human.
What’s ANPT’s mission?
Well, it’s really three organizations that all work together toward similar goals: ANPT, Movimiento de Trabajo Sexual de México (Mexican Sex Workers’ Movement), and Red de Acción Ciudadana México Diverso (Citizens’ Action Network for a Diverse Mexico). Above all, we fight to protect sex workers’ rights. And the organizations are led by sex workers ourselves.
We’ve worked with the federal government and the Mexico City government for years. We make sure legislation takes into account sex workers and sexual diversity. For example, when they were creating the Mexico City constitution, we wanted it to mention sex work. There’s also a general law about human trafficking that criminalizes sex workers, so we work to defend our human rights.
Tell me about a time you saw a positive change as a result of your work.
This year, one of our trans colleagues was murdered in Mexico City. The police were right there and they detained the person who did it. But that same night they released him, under the pretext that the dead woman hadn’t filed a complaint.
After that, because people realized there would be no consequences, there were 15 murders in 15 days. We went to the government and demanded justice. From the first murder to the last, there was a big change—the last case had a file with more than 1,500 pages (the first had just a few). They respected her as a real person because of our work.
Three months later, there was another murder. Our colleagues saw the steps we had taken, so they demanded that the authorities detain the person who had killed her. We saw our colleagues become empowered. They told us, we never thought your work was so necessary. But now if someone is discriminated against they already know how to make a claim; we no longer have to tell them how. It’s amazing to see that they can now claim their rights.
There’s also been another change. Here in Mexico City they didn’t give assistance to trans people or sex workers, but thanks to our work now they can get those benefits. Now if someone can’t work because they were hurt by domestic violence, they can get psychological help and a stipend every month. It’s not much, but it helps them survive.
You do incredible work that has gotten a lot of resistance. What was the turning point when you started getting more traction?
For 20 years I worked against the current. People have tried to kill me more than 10 times. We never got support.
Now we have support, thanks to organizations like the Oak Foundation and HIP. It’s a huge step. The moment Oak started supporting us we stopped needing to worry about how we were going to eat the next day. It provided us a salary and allowed us to start focusing on professionalizing our work.
Since then, we’ve grown from a team of two to eight. We have computers, phones, and the internet. We’ve become a reference point for the federal and local government, and governments from other states. We’ve helped create protocols for the federal police, the judiciary, and the health secretariat about how to respect the rights of sex workers.
Now people recognize us as activists who really understand the issues.
What message would you like to share with the public about your work?
We’ve always said that we don’t want tolerance; we want respect. It’s not enough for people not to kill us, for people not to abuse us. We want people to respect us.
People say sex work is the oldest profession in the world. There are other older jobs—fishing, hunting—but sex work has always been an important part of the history of humanity. Not because we sell our bodies, but because we sell a service—company. By doing this we don’t stop being people.
Many of us [sex workers] have mothers, fathers, children who depend on us. Every time people hurt us, they’re also hurting others.