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PrettyQueer.com | January 30, 2015

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I Believe in Wendy

I Believe in Wendy
Morgan M. Page

I met a girl who changed my life at the corner of Homewood and Maitland, Toronto’s trans sex worker stroll. It was 2008, and we, along with a hundred other queers, trans folks, and sex worker superheroes were gathered to counter a group calling themselves the Homewood Maitland Safety Association (HMSA). Wendy Babcock was leading the counter protest along with another friend of mine. The HMSA, made up almost exclusively of middle class gay white cis men who had recently moved into the neighbourhood, was harassing and attempting to physically remove trans sex workers from their neighbourhood. Some of the women working there claimed that they had been assaulted with flashlights, photographed, followed, and harassed by HMSA members. This night was the start of many things: a six week long counter-protest lead by Wendy and myself; my friendship with Wendy; and the complete transformation of how I’d been living.

Wendy and I connected that night. At the time I was working on and off in minimum wage retail and barista jobs, sometimes unable to afford to feed myself, after an unsuccessful attempt to launch a career as a makeup artist. Though I’d previously done a small amount of work around sex workers’ rights, I really hadn’t spent much time as an activist then. Wendy and I spent two nights a week for the next six weeks countering the HMSA from 11 pm – 4 am, and in the morning I’d get back up at 9 am and head to work. Our efforts continued over the next several years and we managed to render the HMSA completely ineffectual.

I got to know Wendy, to hear the story of her life that was published and broadcast across Canada. Wendy said that her early life was marked by abuse, that by 15 she was escorting with a fake ID for an escort agency and was no longer living at home, that she lived on the streets for a while and struggled with an addiction to alcohol. After the birth of her son, Korin, Wendy managed to clean up her act and go back to school, becoming one of Canada’s best known and beloved sex workers’ rights activists (and along the way doing an incredible amount of ally work on trans and queer rights issues). Her many accomplishments in her short life as an activist and social worker garnered her not only awards, but also the, sometimes grudging, respect of the general public. And her quick wit and star personality made her a media darling on sex work issues.

She and I connected over a shared history of being teenage sex workers, and she told me about the college program she was about to graduate from, the Assaulted Women and Children’s Counselor/Advocate program. I said I wished I could do that program, but that they’d never let me in because I didn’t even have a high school diploma and I was probably too stupid anyways. She laughed and said that wouldn’t matter, that I could get in for sure, all I needed was a GED. That conversation changed everything for me. I spent the next year planning to get into the program, got my GED, and went — managed to make it onto the honour roll, too! Though I never completed it, that program got me into my current job and gave me all of the opportunities that I have today as an activist and as an artist. Wendy has had a profound impact on my life, and the lives of so many other sex workers and trans people in Canada.

Wendy finished that program herself, and, with the help and inspiration of an amazing teacher from that program, Anna Willats, Wendy managed to get into the prestigious Osgoode Hall law school, part of the first class of students not required to have a BA to get in.

Last August I got a phone call from someone I’d met at Wendy’s birthday party earlier that year. In tears she told me that they had just found Wendy’s body. Her death was a hard blow to the queer, trans, and sex workers’ rights communities in Toronto. We all came together to organized a memorial. The media across Canada covered her death and her inspirational life. Even Osgoode Hall took notice and the students did a fundraiser to create a bursary in her name.

And then the family stepped in. I read with horror an article published by Toronto’s The Star newspaper that gave a platform for an unnamed disgruntled family member to claim that Wendy had made everything up. That she had never been abused, that she had never been homeless, that she hadn’t even been a teenage sex worker. The family member claims that Wendy was mentally ill, and, as a result, we shouldn’t believe her history of abuse. Some of Wendy’s friends claim that this family member bullied the newspaper into printing this opinion piece by threatening them with a libel lawsuit.

I find it difficult to put these words together coherently, because I want to cry and scream. All I can think is “Wendy was my fucking friend! Wendy was my fucking friend, leave her the fuck alone! You already killed her!” But there are more important points that I need to make about this.

We live in a culture that punishes survivors of violence (see, for example, CeCe McDonald), while giving the benefit over every doubt to the alleged perpetrators. The burden of proof falls onto the survivor, and even if they do prove that abuse happens, they are likely to face humiliation and social stigma. The Star’s article is a perfect example of how these processes often work in North American culture. Despite acknowledging early in the article that Wendy had never changed her story over the decade she was in the media, that her story had been published unchallenged in nearly every major media outlet in Canada, the article tells us that “the truth is relative.” It gives voice to this disgruntled family member and then agrees that they have “a valid point.” This tells the reader that we are to believe these new claims, and, as a result, to not believe Wendy.

Next up, we are reminded that Wendy lived with mental illness. It’s true that Wendy had a lifelong battle with depression, which, she claimed, largely stemmed from her history of abuse, her interactions with CAS (as both a child put into the foster system, and as a parent whose child was taken away), interactions with the criminal justice system, and all of the many ways that the world punishes and attempts to destroy sex workers. But what the placement of this fact does is to again cast doubt on her life story, and it does so by playing into ableist (or mentalist? I’m unsure of the correct terminology) stereotypes of people living with mental illness. They don’t bother to tell you that by mental illness they mean depression, instead it’s left vague so as to suggest that she could be, for example, a compulsive liar, or have any number of mental illnesses that would make her “delusional” and thus unbelievable.

The article validates the family’s claim that abuse never happened by casting all of this doubt. Reducing it to what the article calls a “she said, she said” conflict. This is exactly what the criminal justice system and the rest of society does to all survivors of abuse, creating a culture of fear that leads to the massive underreporting of all forms of abuse. This irresponsible journalism, perhaps forced by threats of lawsuits, perpetuates an environment where survivors must continue to experience abuse, disbelief, and stigma, even after they are dead. And that is the condition that allows for abuse to continue unchallenged in our culture. This is basic stuff that any first year women’s studies student could rattle off.

One wonders what the family hopes to gain from this article and from their constant commenting on other articles about her.  On a visceral level, this feels to me much akin to the ways trans people are often treated posthumously by our families, with our chosen names and pronoun erased and our friends disinvited to our funerals. It makes me afraid of what might happen after I die. Will my rapist claim that he didn’t rape me? Will my family call me by my birth name? Will newspapers print my birth name? It’s terrifying to think about. My entire life could be rewritten by people who aren’t even close to me.

We must work to create a world in which we do not doubt survivors of violence. We must work to create a more responsible media that does not defame someone’s entire life simply because their abusers deny abusing them. We must create communities that support, rather than stigmatize, survivors of abuse.

And that starts with validating the experiences of people who disclose abuse.

I believe in Wendy. She changed my life.

Comments

  1. Dee

    Thank you for this, Morgan. I know it must have been incredibly hard for you to write.

  2. I’m so glad you wrote this Morgan! This was great and inspiring to read, I was unfamiliar with Wendy’s work but am really interested in reading up on her now! I especially appreciate the part about the importance of queer and trans and sex worker communities (as well as other communities that are usually separate and marginalized from people’s families of origin) keeping our histories alive because of the ways they are often erased when people are gone and their families of origin or the mainstream media gain a supposed ownership of a person’s “real” story

  3. Monica Forrester

    This story of Wendy, diagnosised with mental health, and her life experiences were false and brought on by her so called diagnosis is something that happens so often to sexworkers. As community member for 23yrs in the sexwork community and have lost many of my colleges from addictions, violence, suicide, and HIV/AIDS, the families have always use their sexwork lives as contributor of their deaths. But in realities its the oppression sexworkers face from family, friends, society and the system that allows them to put judgment on our lives and isolate us in a way that sometimes feeling powerless…
    As very proud sexworker and advocate and working for sexworking agency i can understand some of these things that i have and still experience by my previously employers that have looked at me as just a sexworker, and have used this to discredit my professionalism and intelligents. These experiences have put me in a depress of state but i’ve pulled out of their ideas of who I am or where a stand in their eyes and society…
    There needs more validation for sexwork and the work that consist to being a sexworker and it is been the hardest, fun, lucrative and self empowering profession I ever had…. RIP Wendy, we will stand together to dismiss the allegation of you and others that have fallen victim to the so called **** people. xoxox

  4. Jenn

    Thank you sooo much Morgan for writing this!!! I know there will be backlash but I don’t care because Wendy would stand up for anyone she felt was her friend or couldn’t defend themselves.

  5. Anon

    Great article Morgan! You touched on some really important topics.

    Just a note though – Osgoode Hall has always (or at least for as long as I can recall; at least 20 years) accepted students without BAs, or any undergraduate degree.

  6. Karen

    Great article Morgan.

    I had the pleasure of first meeting Wendy as a youth worker at a shelter many years ago. I can personally attest to her life story knowing her from a very young age. I later went on to meet Wendy again and we became professional colleagues, then of course friends. Wendy was a little sister to me. I am so proud of her bravery, perseverance and accomplishments. Stories like yours ensures that Wendy’s memory continues to inspire others and lives on.

    Thank you!!!!

  7. Kym Hothead Hines

    I believe Wendy. I too have spoken ot about childhood abuse, my family mostly is not in touch and its all superficial. I often wonder if my blod family may turn against me ne day, I hope not. We all must be courageos and brak the silence. Truth and Reconciliation regarding Residential Skkkools are a reminder for all of us who come form Colonial Hell Europe, like myself as French Acadian Roots, Catholic Skools were extremely abusive and we are survivors.
    Many family’s are scared to tell the truth and find it embarrassing. It is why accountability towards change is important in forgiveness. Cannot have one without the other.
    As uncomfortable as it is, we break the silence, we grow.

  8. Jill

    Thank you for this. As a childhood survivor of sexual abuse it seems back then it was acceptable and children were rarely believed. Wendy was a rare gem that turned her life around and fought for others. Her family should honor her memory by keeping their unwanted opinions to themselves.

    • ModifiedLibrarian

      “Her family should honor her memory by keeping their unwanted opinions to themselves.” That’s not fair; everyone else is expressing their opinions (even those who had never met Wendy), they also have the right. They remained silent for so long because they were grieving, while still grieving the loss of another immediate family member. If you don’t agree with someone’s opinion, it doesn’t mean they are wrong and you are right.

  9. Danna Waldman

    Thank you for your writing. I sometimes have wondered how my death will be reported (if it ever is) and how my siblings who have cut me out of their lives might respond, if they actually ever care enough to do. In the end, I know I have friends now and always will who know the truth and would not be silent in the face of socio-normative censoring of history. There will always be those who publicly and vigorously re-frame us as sub-human, deviant, and demonic because the self-hatreds and miseries they endure prevent them from being able to even imagine the possibility of being whole, happy and even moderately self-fulfilled.

  10. Flo

    Powerful post, Morgan. Thank you for responding to an irresponsible news story (whether or not they were “bullied” into publishing it, it’s a disgrace to journalism ethics) and helping to restore Wendy’s memory to the truth of someone who didn’t just survive but dedicated her life to social justice advocacy and improved so many people’s lives.

    RIP Wendy, your friends will keep your memory safe and proud

  11. Maurganne Mooney

    Thank you for your passionate advocacy for the legacy of Wendy. I believe Wendy too. Some people jump out of airplanes and climb Mt Everest to demonstrate COURAGE and Strength. An Elder told me once true Courage and Strength come from standing in your circle and speaking your truth! No matter who tells you to sit down and shut up. Wendy demonstrated Courage and Strength throughout her life. She walked her talk. We have her writing and her video and all of her organizing to show what she believed in.

    Wendy’s abusers cannot hurt her anymore! She could not be kept down when she was here with us and she cannot be controlled ever again. Each one of us have the opportunity to learn the lessons Wendy taught us with her walk here on earth.

    Love you Wendy..and love all who are working so hard so that Sex workers have the same HUMAN RIGHTS Others enjoy here in Canada.
    Maurganne Mooney

  12. I had no idea that this family member’s article had been published. And what total crap for lack of a better term. I was homeless *with* Wendy when she was doing sex work in high school. I don’t just believe Wendy’s story, but I was there to witness it firsthand.

  13. barney

    it is my belief that the majority of families in canada are sick, with long histories of sexual abuse and dysfunction (not a huge leap considering the kind of society canada is & its roots). that her family is trying to deny her reality of having lived through it is not surprising. abusers and deniers will go to great lengths to discredit their victims.

  14. Louise

    mentalism, sanism — those are some of the terms for what you’re describing. thanks for writing this critical response. people with patient histories or mental health diagnoses are often considered unreliable narrators, when if you take the time to listen there is no reason to believe that we’re any less honest than the next person. we tend to forget that who gets identified as certifiably mentally ill or not can be quite arbitrary (and “arbitrary” is a placeholder for a lot of complicated relationships of power involving race, class, gender, sexuality).

    • Rich

      @Louise I know exactly what you mean. Since puberty I’ve had serious problems with depression/anxiety. I’m fairly open these days about it since I figure the stigma won’t change if people like me stay silent, but so many times after I’ve disclosed my chronic health problems I get treated as if my IQ is the same as my shoe size, some family members assume I’m totally incompetent and a chronic liar about recent or past events, some still don’t believe I have an illness at all and tell me I’m just lazy and need to “get over it”. Most people though haven’t changed their opinion of me after learning about my health problems but there has been too many who reacted badly in my opinion, still lots of work to do yet. I have lied a lot in my past, I was a closeted gay boy and a closeted opiate pain killer addict, now sober 3.5 years after 20 years of use, and I’ve totally denied, even to myself, that I had any mental health problems because I was afraid of wearing that stigma. But that had nothing at all to do with my health problems or being queer and everything to do with my fear of other’s reactions to knowing the truth about me. I’m not at all surprised that Wendy’s family has used her health problems against her. I’m sure she has lied as well for the same reasons I did but every single person does that as well sometimes and it doesn’t mean she wasn’t honest about her life when she felt able to be honestly talk about it. Its important, in my opinion, for people affected by any mental health problem to talk about it with others to reduce the stigma around it, if they feel capable of doing so at least. Some people are unreachable and will never change their bigotry, for others it just takes time. Often when I disclose to someone I hear about that person’s own experiences with mental health and/or addiction problems and they feel relieved they’ve found someone they can talk to about such things without fear of judgement. Wendy did so much good for our society by being so open about her life. I have no doubt that just my talking about her life she has helped so many who’ve traveled a similar road. Her death was a great loss not just for her family and friends but for all of us, one person like her can and do make a big difference in our society. I never knew her though I knew about her and she was part of the reason I became so much more open about my own life, I had other influences as well of course but she had a very positive impact on my life and I never even met her. Society will change in time because of people like her.

  15. Thank you for writing this Morgan, this really needed to be said. Wendy was a beautiful and selfless woman; even though she had a natural shyness, she compelled herself to speak up for social justice, not only for those issues that most directly affected herself but for all of us (queers, trans women, sex worker or no) that the system loves to abuse and leave behind.

    All your friends miss you Wendy and we will love you forever <3

  16. claudia

    Thank you for sharing this, its very powerful and honors not only Wendy but all sex workers and trans-people. Its very true that people die nameless because of transphobia and ignorance.

  17. I feel a little unworthy of adding to an excellent, undoubtedly hard and personal piece, but i’m gonna try anyways: an important element of supporting and not stigmatizing survivors of abuse is that there are often pre-existing and abuse-created mental illness/disability issues which lead to challenges in survivor-positive space that we need to rise to meet and work with. As a mentally disabled person, this kind of hits close to home because often the very mental disability/illness that is used to discredit someone is the product of the abuse that created this mental illness/disability.

    You’re right-on in tagging that frequently ableism is used to silence our stories and concerns but this has to apply not just in public-facing spaces but just as much in spaces for survivors, too. Part of “it’s okay to be a survivor” is “it’s okay to be a survivor who lives with mental disability or illness.”

  18. Theresa Schrader

    Rest in Peace Wendy! Very nicely written. May we carry on the Wendy Babcock Legacy in all the work we do. Thank you for inspiring me Wendy.

  19. It’s a vicious cycle. The circumstances of oppression and abuse lead to mental illness and the mental illness is used as a way to dismiss allegations of abuse. The fact of that invalidation puts those suffering from mental illness at a greater risk of abuse because we are “safe” victims. Thank you for writing this piece. This is the second time in two days I’ve encountered a story of a woman driven to depression and then having that depression held against her. This is one of the many reasons I choose to be self-employed, no boss to doubt me when I need a mental health day.

  20. Thank you for writing this. i have so many things I want to say, but the tears won’t let me.

  21. I knew her too.

    The CAS doesn’t take a child away from his mother for trivial reasons nor do they oppose reunion for trivial reasons. They do do when the mother poses a risk to the child.

    • Robin Fern

      Dear “I Knew Her Too”,
      I am constantly suprised by the faith people put in child protective services and the family court system. Both agencies have a very narrow definition of the ‘best interests of the child” which means that once your child is removed for any length of time it is very difficult to get them back and if you are not a wealthy, conforming cookie cut out you’re sunk before you start. That isn’t trivial either.

      • I knew her too.

        Wendy’s son has a very difficult life ahead of him and in a large measure that is as much Wendy’s legacy as an Osgoode Hall bursary.   

        I think it interesting how Morgan looks back on her first meeting with Wendy on Homewood with rose-colored glasses.  As far as I can recall the counter-protest pretty much fizzled after the first heavy rain.   Yes, Morgan continued to show up in her jaunty little police hat exhorting the gang of (yes it’s true) mostly gay mostly white and mostly middle class Evil HMSAers to see her point of view and being met with polite skepticism.  

        As for the Toronto star article,  it’s hardly something to be horrified about. It’s a bit lightweight as far as journalism goes.

        • As usual, an HMSAer shows up. You have no right to talk about Wendy or her son like that.

          Also, polite skepticism? We have very different ideas of what polite means. Getting shouted at with transphobic and whorephobic language and having anonymous threats of violence sent to me isn’t what I would call polite.

          Go back into whatever hole you crawled out of.

          ~M

          • I knew her too.

            If Wendy was an inspiration to you far be it for me to denigrate that relationship. That said, it is fair to state that Wendy’s dark side was very dark indeed and that her legacy is not unalloyed gold.

            As for shouting bigoted things in your face, perhaps you’d care to elaborate because I don’t recall anything of the sort taking place. I do recall being surrounded by a hostile screaming mob gleefulky led by Wendy. That was pretty damn spooky.

            So if you want to deify her, that’s really up to you but when I think of the Wendy’s of this world I’m very much aware of the fact that there are those whose love for the cause is so great that they deny the humanity of those standing in front if them. I hope that is not the inspiration you draw from Andy because there was most definitely the whiff of the fanatic about her.

  22. ModifiedLibrarian

    First, let me offer my condolences for the loss of your friend Wendy, whom I also knew, having first met her about 15 years ago. I understand there is a lot of pain and anger surrounding Wendy’s passing, but I must point out your generalization in claiming that the family is accusing Wendy of making up everything, that’s not what’s stated in the article, and not once have they called her a liar. Not sure what your definition of responsible media is, but mine includes verifying the facts and presenting an unbiased and fair story without sensationalizing. The article does not defame her entire life, in fact it has brought new attention to her accomplishments and raised new awareness of the issues that were so important to her. Rather than continue to attack, accuse and blame the family, we should be focusing on the inspiration and legacy Wendy created in her too-short life.

  23. emily

    I met Wendy around the time she had Korin, we attended a parenting class together. I’ll be forever sad about not getting to know her better, I don’t doubt the veracity of her stories though, she told me the same things about her past.

  24. Lynda H

    I believe in you.

  25. Gina McIntee

    Wonderful..well said and printed!! How true your words spoken! Mainstream becomes uncomfortable when they cannot fit into the conversation, the event, the experience….and sadly insecurity and judgement take their place. However the TRUTH…victims of sexual abuse struggle everyday of their lives…some quietly some visually! I live with a Clergy Abuse Survivor…not all days are quiet! We see, feel and hear his pain however I will never question or understand his moments of darkness…and why would I judge or question! He did not pick Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, severe depression or high anxiety or put his hand up for the Priest to molest him “nor” did Wendy volunteer for her experience! She was not only a victim but evolved into a Survivor and into a THRIVER…a role model for all!! Thank-you for taking the time to write about your friend.

  26. Phil Hozer

    I too believe in Wendy as she changed my life as well. I knew her in her last couple years or so and saw her make such a positive difference in the lives of so many. I know that we would often rally around and would do anything for her. I don’t recall her family being around though or being supportive in anyway.

  27. Teresa

    Very well written article. It hits the nail right on the head. My experience is different, but having survived an abusive marriage, the results are the same…people you thought you should be able to trust turn their backs. I’ve been asked many times by the courts, lawyers and social workers why family members would do this?…I don’t have the answer for that. I’m SO thankful there have been people like Wendy on my journey too. She gave inspiration and hope.

  28. LadyRadisson

    My friend has worked at the Gatehouse in Etobicoke and he has learned that “real” sex abuse survivors, rarely ever like to disclose sexual abuse publicly. It is indeed a rarity when a person discloses sexual abuse on TV (and sadly it has been romanticized to some extent). I do believe that sex abuse survivors should speak out. However, I don’t believe Wendy was real sex abuse survivor. She bears all the characteristics of someone with a mental illness that was seeking attention. There are many inconsistencies in her story. For example, she said she left home at age 11. But I met her at age 12 and she was living at home. Even in childhood, she’d gave questionable explanations for events in her life. For instance, I’d ask her why she was leaving her school in Alderwood to go all the way to Bloorlea. She said, “because my Girl Guide Leader wants to beat me up.” This explanation did not ring truthful to me. All these liberal protectors of freedom who defend Wendy, need to understand one thing: everyone has the right to voice their opinion. If people who knew her in early life, saw that there were inconsistencies in her stories, they have the right to speak out. Because it’s their right to defend their opinion based on their observations as it much as it is my right to defend opinion based on my observations. It’s called FREEDOM OF SPEECH, and if you don’t believe in it, don’t a Liberal.

    • kym hothead hines

      I have to say its pretty UNBELIEVABLE that folks keep giving their two cents worth on a topic they have NO RIGHT to make such statements as “I think…” or “I believe” when IN FACT who are you to decide or make a judgement in the first place?
      Who the fuck are we to sit here and judge? Were you there?
      If not, “can it” (nice way of saying I am tired of OPINIONS), this is gotten to the point that someone has to say it:
      As a survivor of child sexual abuse I can say “who the fuck are you to judge?”
      Deal with your own issues. I am sure you have some of your own right?
      May you rest in peace Wendy, may those of us alive help end unnecessary violence. Child sex abuse happens daily, rape happens daily, LETS GET BUSY with the work of this how about and allow Wendy some respect and just stop the entertainment tonight style of opinions.
      SOrry I repeated myself, I am post traumatic stress disorder, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue not to mention a radical front line anti poverty anarcho feminist. A “man born woman” person.
      OUT there and PROUD.
      Grateful for all of our diversity!
      kym

      • jill

        Thank you Kym.

  29. Kate Zen

    Thank you for this powerful article, Morgan. Wendy was clearly an extraordinarily strong and kind woman, who was a good friend. When all of society is bent on erasing or distorting the stories of people living on the margins, it is so important that who Wendy is will be remembered truthfully and lovingly through your friendship, and your writing.

    It would be so nice to have a publication of stories or art about who maligned and deceased sex workers really are, through the eyes of friends. Maybe for a December 17th in the future.

    I was so moved by your writing. You are really really brilliant and rad.

  30. wow, awesome post.Thanks Again. Fantastic.

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