Street Wise

Cyndee Clay constantly walks the intersection of society and sex, survival and discrimination in an effort to uncover the humanity hidden by stigma

Interview by Will O'Bryan
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on April 12, 2012, 4:32am | Comments

Growing up in suburban Maryland, the most dangerous element in young Cyndee Clay's life may have been going to public school. Hers was a conservative Mormon upbringing.

Today, as the executive director of D.C.'s Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS) and sporting magnificent blue dreadlocks, one might guess Clay's trajectory did not follow its expected path.

Cyndee Clay of HIPS

Cyndee Clay of HIPS

(Photo by Todd Franson)

''I'm not living the life that my folks had hoped that I would live, but they can still see the good in what I'm doing and really support me in that,'' says Clay. ''The awesome part is that I know that my family still loves me, and I still love my family.''

With a sly laugh, the 38-year-old adds, ''We don't get into the details a lot.''

Clay's fans go beyond family. Philip B. Terry-Smith is one of those fans, as well as a professional peer. Having headed the now defunct Prevention Works! harm-reduction agency with values similar to those espoused by HIPS, he knows the challenges Clay faces daily.

''She's very intelligent, very connected to the community, and she epitomizes outreach,'' says Terry-Smith. ''She's out on the streets at 3 a.m. At Prevention Works!, she was one of my closest allies.''

He adds that the work Clay leads at HIPS is crucial in any metropolitan area.

''Unfortunately, for many of the young people in our community tossed to the streets, for transgender people who can't get jobs, the sex-work industry can be the only place they can get an income,'' he explains. ''To have someone who can reach that population is vital.''

Vital as it may be, Clay is also dealing with budget cuts, having recently lost about $300,000 in city funding, more than a third of her annual budget.

''It's a lot of belt-tightening,'' she confirms. ''We've always prided ourselves on running a highly cost-effective program. We utilize about 60 volunteers to make our programs work, and we've always been able to be pretty nimble. We're going to squeeze every last penny out of every last dollar to do work that we are all just really dedicated to and believe needs to happen. But it's been hard to raise money, especially from individuals. We're trying to tackle issues in a very honest and real way, and it can be hard to engage people.

''We lost all of our victims-assistance funding,'' she adds, working her way through a catalog of program cuts. ''That was primarily our crisis services, 24-hour assistance to anyone engaged in sex work. We lost that funding right before the wave of violence that hit the transgender community, which was heartbreaking. You want to talk about a time that was heartbreaking? That was definitely it. We had these amazing programs and protocols set up, but then we no longer had the funding to utilize them.''

Clay, who lives in Petworth with her partner, Michael, Great Dane, Maeve, and adopted alley cat, Kitty, manages to roll with the punches, though. She continues the outreach, making inroads where she can, as well as wading through the wonky business of spreadsheets and conference calls. And she does it with charm, humor and a sense of social justice that may well trace its roots to her Mormon upbringing – even if her current spirituality is closer to the pagan.

You get traces of all three when you ask if she's had the opportunity to see The Book of Mormon on Broadway.

''No! And I really want to,'' she laments. ''You can't get tickets. You have to get 'em like a year in advance. Ex-Mormons should get a special pass or something. I'm going to organize the Former Mormons Working in Social Justice movement to get us into The Book of Mormon.''

What do you want, Cyndee?

''Tickets! When do we want 'em? Now!''

METRO WEEKLY: Your HIPS bio has your career sort of starting in 1995. What happened?

CYNDEE CLAY: That's when I began to get clued-in to the whole worlds of sex work. I was still in school and had some friends who had some experience around sex work.

Cyndee Clay

Cyndee Clay

(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: In the D.C. area?

CLAY: It was actually in Utah.

MW: Brigham Young University?

CLAY: Yeah.

MW: Seriously?

CLAY: Seriously.

MW: Some students at BYU recently posted an ''It Gets Better'' video.

CLAY: There are some really good people at BYU. When I was there I had a lot of experiences like a lot of young people in general, young women in particular, around how you pay for college. I was working graveyards at 7-11. I began to meet all kinds of people who had different experiences. It really got me thinking, got me clued-in to some of the different issues that people who do sex work face. I grew up in the HIV age when these conversations were starting to happen. At that point, I just started changing the way I might normally have thought of sex work.

In what could be considered a conservative environment – or a really conservative environment – I was lucky to meet people both inside the church and outside who were very open-minded, very forward-thinking. That was a lot of my reason to leave BYU. I realized I wasn't in a place where I could get the education I wanted. I was a social-work major, and realized it wasn't the place for me. I ended up leaving and trying a different path.

MW: Where did you go?

CLAY: I came back to the University of Maryland. In all honesty, the University of Maryland was actually the only other school I had ever heard of, because my life plan was pretty much that I was going to go to BYU.

MW: Then when did you start working with HIPS?

CLAY: I started volunteering with HIPS in '96, not long after I got back. I got introduced to HIPS through a fundraising event they had with Bikini Kill, an old ''riot grrrl'' band.

I absolutely fell in love with the organization. It made a lot of sense to me, so I started volunteering. The organization was doing really ''on the ground'' work with people that not many people were interested in talking about or caring about. The very pragmatic, very nonjudgmental approach the organization took to the work just made sense to me. It also felt like the most radical volunteering I could be doing as a young college student to really push myself and my comfort zone and my politics.

MW: After school, did you join HIPS full time?

CLAY: I started working for HIPS part time while I was still in school. HIPS got a grant to run a summer youth drop-in program that we ran in collaboration with [the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League] at the time. I started running that program, reaching out to young people who were doing sex work or potentially doing sex work. That was my first position in the agency.

MW: Did you have any second thoughts? I mean, I imagine the work could be overwhelming.

CLAY: I get the ''overwhelming'' question a lot. But I don't ever remember a time when I was like, ''This is too weird.'' The more I got involved with it, the more it made sense, and the more excited I was to be a young person working alongside, providing services to, other young people – who, in some cases, had very similar experiences [to mine]. Or totally different experiences.

MW: Did entering this world of sex work upend any of your values? Or perhaps reinforce some?

CLAY: My upbringing was extremely Christian and conservative. Service was a big part of my upbringing. And also this general – I don't know how to say it – kindness. That is part of what you're supposed to exude as a Mormon. This was a way to channel that energy, to channel those ethics I was brought up with in a way that didn't necessarily buy into a traditional Christian model.

HIPS allowed me to go with ''love the sinner'' without having to look at the people I was working with as sinners, because I didn't actually believe that they were. I wasn't actually the best Mormon in the world. [Laughs.] That's one of the reasons why I eventually left the church. I just couldn't reconcile these messages of love and nonjudgment and Christ loving everybody with some of the really bad political things that the church was doing, the way that women were treated, and even the way they talked about empowerment and these really strict rules around behavior and sex.

One of the reasons I was so drawn to HIPS was not only the way I personally felt about the concept of sex work and sex trading, but it allowed me to continue with the concept of love and service, reaching out to what many people in this society consider ''untouchables.'' HIPS's whole mission is about helping people see the good inside themselves.

MW: What was your sort of career path at HIPS?

CLAY: First I was an outreach volunteer. And a hotline volunteer, and a crisis volunteer. Then I did a case-management internship. Then I ran the drop-in center. It's a small nonprofit, right? [Laughs.] Then I came on as a case manager. Then there was this kind of weird time when there were three of us who were kind of left after the founding executive director left, so we all kind of ran everything. Then I did development work. I did an interim executive director position. I went back to development work. Then I came on as executive director officially in 2001.

MW: And what are the services HIPS provides?

CLAY: We provide pretty comprehensive services for anything that's going to help people move along this path of health and wellness. We have in-house programs, which are run through our community center in Brentwood. Those include weekly support groups. We have daily maintenance groups for active drug users. We do case management, linkage to care and services, including HIV testing and drop-in syringe access. On the streets, we do pretty much the same thing. We have our outreach van, which is out during the day primarily for drug-user outreach; and Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. for mainly sex-worker outreach, with counseling, HIV testing, assistance if people have been victims of violence. And our bad-date sheet.

MW: ''Bad-date sheet''?

CLAY: Our bad-date sheet is a place where sex workers can report acts of violence against them. There's not a lot of reporting that happens to law enforcement, so that bad-date sheet was started by a sex-work organization out of Portland, Ore., and they trained us and we adopted it.

MW: And condom distribution?

CLAY: We passed out nearly a million condoms last year.

MW: That's a lot of condoms.

CLAY: It's a lot of condoms. I like to think we were responsible for a lot of safer-sex by actually putting condoms in the hands of people who are probably about to use them.

MW: Describe the range of people who come to you.

CLAY: Because we're extremely client-centered, it allows us to serve the diversity of individuals who have sex-work experiences. That's your more traditional sex-work people, actively trading for enough money to get a hotel room for the night so they don't have to sleep on the streets. They may be doing sex work to support drug issues they're having, like just to get enough money to get drugs so they don't get sick.

We have some escorts who both volunteer and access our services, in the sense that sex work isn't necessarily a problem. They have a lot of other privilege and their lives aren't chaotic. But they still face the same stigma and discrimination and issues that anyone who is involved in the sex industry can face because of the nature of the industry.

MW: Does HIPS offer much in the way of legal services?

CLAY: I wish we did. We don't. We're working on a couple legal projects right now. We do some legal referrals and trouble-shooting. Until just recently, we were running a pre-trial diversion program with the goal of reducing recidivism, specifically among transgender women involved in sex work. Unfortunately, the funding for that program was cut in October. So we're not doing it right now.

MW: You mention transgender clients. When we talk about prostitution in D.C., anti-transgender discrimination is often part of that conversation. Can you go into that linkage?

CLAY: It's a really needful conversation to have, but also problematic how issues around the trans community are often linked to prostitution. It's a line we try to toe very carefully. We look at how the transgender community is economically disempowered, starting from young trans people having access to safe education spaces and to support, all they way up to workforce development and employment discrimination against transgender people. For many, when you have few other options, sex work is what you turn to in order to survive. That's what we see with a lot of our trans clients who are doing sex work.

MW: Do you see the similar circumstances with sexual-minority youth?

CLAY: It's definitely an issue that we see. Especially back when I was running the drop-in program and started the HIPS peer-education program. It was really designed to reach out to young people who were either transitioning or who had been kicked out of their homes because they're gay and suddenly faced with, ''How am I going to eat?'' We call it doing sex work by circumstance. It's not necessarily that you have a pimp forcing you to be out on the streets. It's like, ''I need to eat. I need a place to stay.''

Formal or informal sex trading is something young people do when they have few other options. I see that happening with all queer youth, not just trans youth.

MW: I'm reminded of the mayor's office offering job training specifically to transgender residents, while there's also a push in City Council for permanent ''Prostitution Free Zones.'' There may not be a direct link, but you can make a connection nonetheless.

CLAY: Our official position on PFZs is that they have a lot of unintended consequences, not doing what we want them to do. It is a Band-Aid on a citywide issue – a Band-Aid that actually hurts people. We're against prostitution-free zones for that reason. We're really tying to bring the people most impacted by the zones into the community dialogue. I believe [we need] a space where residents and law enforcement and sex workers sit down and try to talk about what some of the real issues are.

MW: Is it difficult for sex workers to have a voice in the discussion?

CLAY: It's incredibly difficult. They get dismissed. We've found that when people come testify or come out as sex workers, they tend to get harassed a lot. It can have really far-reaching implications in other aspects of their lives. It's really hard and really scary to have people stand up and talk about the real impact the zones have had on their lives, specifically sex workers. The laws are bad not just for sex workers, but for people of color and trans people, because those are generally the individuals who get targeted most by police and neighborhood individuals during the time a zone is set up. We're against it not just because it's bad for sex workers, but also because it's bad community profiling in general.

MW: Has the transformation of the Metropolitan Police Department's (MPD) Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU), moving from a central force to more dispersed training, had much impact on HIPS's clients?

CLAY: There are great members of the GLLU who are trying to pick up the great work that [former GLLU head, Sgt.] Brett [Parson] was doing, but I don't think they have the resources.

From a bird's-eye perspective, I understand what police leadership is trying to do, in the sense that every officer in our city should be trained and capable of dealing with the LGBTQ community, right? I would hope that we don't have homophobic or racist or transphobic police officers on the force at all. The sad fact is that's just not the world we live in, and it's not realistic. During the time that Brett had the resources and was leading the GLLU, I felt like we were making some serious inroads to getting crimes against the community reported, and to having somebody the community trusted to take them seriously. Things have been harder since the decentralization.

MW: How would you characterize the relationship today between HIPS and the GLLU? Between HIPS and MPD?

CLAY: That's always a complicated relationship. [Laughs.] Very complicated, to say the least. We have officers we work fabulously with, who we can tell care and are super interested in both crimes against the community, crimes against sex workers and doing due diligence, making sure these victims aren't pushed aside. Then there are officers [for whom] the individuals that HIPS works with are often, under the law, viewed as criminals, and criminals have to be punished. What they're doing is illegal, and so the police just have to do their job.

One of the things HIPS is trying to do is take a step back and change people's thinking from the knee-jerk reaction – ''Let's get the prostitutes off the streets. Let's get more law enforcement to tackle this problem.'' – to the unintended consequences of those positions and those laws. Let's address some root causes. Residents are concerned about things like trash and traffic. These are issues we can deal with. And we can deal with them without putting people in jail.

We're really there to protect people's health and not to make judgments about whether they should or shouldn't be there, because that's the first step in gaining people's respect and starting the conversation about changes they want to make in their lives. So it puts us [and the police] at cross purposes sometimes, like when the van gets pulled over and told we should move out of an area.

MW: Under what rationale would your van be told to move?

CLAY: What we hear most of the time is that is that if HIPS isn't in the area, sex workers won't be in the area.

MW: Like you're the Pied Piper for sex workers?

CLAY: Potentially. If that was the case, then I would put my van out in front of my office at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. It would be so much easier. [Laughs.]

But if you want to reach highly marginalized populations who aren't accessing other services, who are only going through this cycle of arrest and incarceration, then not having access to jobs because of they've got a criminal history, you need to reach out. Or people cycling through drug-treatment programs that aren't working or aren't culturally competent. You need to be there to do the work that needs to be done in order to help provide services the rest of us kind of take for granted.

MW: Has the work changed much during your years with HIPS? Has HIPS changed?

CLAY: We have definitely grown. We've definitely re-envisioned our work a couple times over the years.

When HIPS was formed, we were designed very specifically as a targeted outreach program designed to get young women, specifically, off the streets. In 1996 and '97, we sat down and realized that our mission of getting people off the streets was actually getting in the way of us being effective. People were like, ''I don't think I'm really ready to get off the streets, so I'm not going to HIPS yet.'' While we were very nonjudgmental in a lot of our outreach, the explicit stated mission was turning some people off. We also realized there were a lot of other groups who were affected by prostitution and sex work that weren't included in the scope of our work, primarily the trans community that we were already serving out in the streets, and LGBT youths, particularly young men kicked out of their homes. There were also a lot of individuals during that program shift who either had done sex work in situations that weren't necessarily exploitative, but that actually worked for them under those circumstances.

So we did kind of go through a mission shift to where we are now, which is very harm-reduction oriented, nonjudgmental, client-centered and empowering. We start with people's strengths and build on them, as opposed to putting a judgment on exactly what they should do with their lives.

MW: We've spoken about identity before, but I don't know how you identify.

CLAY: If I was going to identify with a community, I would definitely identify more with the queer community. I've formerly identified with the bisexual community, a community that doesn't get talked about a lot. I've always been comfortable standing across the line of definitions, questioning why we have these definitions. Radically defining my sexuality in a box hasn't ever been really helpful in my life.

MW: When I look at the intersection of sexual orientation and sex work, beyond discrimination and survival sex, I see a similar argument for having sovereignty over one's body. That argument may have more in common with reproductive choice, though. Are there linkages I'm missing?

CLAY: I don't think you're necessarily missing something. There's a lot of stigma. Even members of the gay community who are doing erotic massage or who are escorting, the stigma and isolation they face is real.

The laws and the attitudes and the stigma used against sex workers right now, the way we're addressing this population, is not so different than the way the LGBTQ community was targeted in the past, and even today.

MW: Different era, same societal buttons?

CLAY: Exactly. If anybody can understand the constant fear of people looking into the intricacies of your personal life or figuring out who you've had sex with or why you've had sex with someone, I think our community can understand what that's like, in a way that it's now being done to people who do sex work.

For more information about Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, call 202-232-8150 or visit hips.org.


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