When Laya Monarez first started, it was a way to get some extra cash for art supplies she needed in college.
She never knew it would almost end up killing her.
Laya is a former sex worker. She told Circa that she worked the streets a few times during college, and after, for financial reasons.
"I was a little desperate and so I thought maybe this could help me make a little extra money so I could finish my classes."
After she graduated, Laya landed a job as a middle school art teacher, so she thought her days as a sex worker were in the past. But things didn't exactly work out as expected.
Realizing her true self
Donning a teal tanktop and a black skirt, Laya offered us a glimpse into her life--how she got to where she is today, and the experiences that paved the way for her to become such a staunch activist, particularly when it comes to recently proposed legislation to decriminalize sex work in Washington, D.C.
Raised with strong Christian and Latino family values, Laya said she realized she was transgender at five years old, though didn't know how to label her conflicting feelings at the time. All she did know, she added, was that she wanted to wear dresses like the other girls, play with Barbies, and grow her hair long.
"As a child, I always felt like pretending to be a boy," she added. "I never talked about it, though, as I thought I would just have to be a boy the rest of my life and I should just 'man up.'"
There was one part of her identity, though, that she didn't have to hide--her artistic talent and passion for art history. During a time where life didn't seem to make sense, Laya found comfort in the works of Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali and the eccentric Pablo Picasso.
"I think what I liked about them is that they had big personalities, and that connected with me because I was kid of discovering myself and I knew I was different than a lot of other kids. And so, particularly Salvador Dali with his strange mustache and his bizarre lifestyle and his weird art, I was like, I feel like that guy is me. I see myself in him"
She added, "To him, everything morphed, melted and the real was unreal, making life all a dream. To me, living in my own body felt like living in a dream because I always felt like I was in someone else's body," the almost 35-year-old added.
Her formal transitioning
It wasn't until Laya's teenage years when she said she discovered others like her. For the first time in her life, she didn't feel alone.
But the road to her formal transitioning had just begun. Not only did she hesitate to reveal her true identity to her father--whom she described as a "macho Hispanic man"--but she said she found it difficult to come to terms with her true self on a more personal level. There would be many times in her early twenties when she would throw out all her female clothes and work out to look more masculine. That ended up creating problems, though, particularly when it came to relationships. A string of unsuccessful romances and a heightened sense of gender dysphoria in her mid twenties forced her to reexamine her choices. That's when made the calculated decision to live the life she wanted--as a woman.
So she began to medically transition when she was 27. She said it was the right choice to wait until after college because it took a while for her family to come around, especially her father who refused to talk to her for five years.
Discrimination at work
The isolation she felt from her family seeped into her work life. When she was a middle school art teacher, she said she faced routine discrimination as a transgender woman. So, she quit--thinking that she wouldn't have a hard time getting another job. After all, she did have a college degree and professional experience under her belt.
That's how Laya ended up back on the streets.
"I didn't know how difficult it was to find a job when you're a transgender woman, particularly one who's brown. I couldn't find a job. I just struggled and struggled."
Ostracized from her family with little-to-no resources, Laya said she went back into sex work as a short-term solution. She needed to pay rent, but didn't have the money to do so.
"If I can just make one more month's rent, maybe someone will hire me," she thought. But then two months turned into three, and then into four, and before she knew it, she said she was putting my life more and more at risk.
She recalled one traumatizing experience that left her nearly dead:
"I was in a car with a gentleman and he suddenly refused to pay me, and so, then I asked for him to let me go. He wouldn't let me go, so then he sped up his car and he pulled out a knife. He stabbed me here, and he stabbed me in my arm. And then I had to jump out of the car. We were moving about 40-50 mph. I got up, and he turned the car around and started chasing me to run me over. I ran up a hill, and luckily I survived."
Despite her mangled shoulder and intense road rash, Laya never did what most people would do after experiencing such danger. Fearing she would be arrested for prostitution, she never sought medical attention or reported what happened.
Some may find it difficult to understand Laya's decision making at the time, but she explained that a scarlet letter on her record would perpetuate a cycle she was so desperate to get out of.
"If you really want to help these people, instead of throwing them in jail, help them find systems or work programs, or other things that might help them."
After this incident, Laya still needed money, so she said she continued to work the streets. That decision put her life in danger for a second time--this time in an alleyway.
"I was with a gentleman and he decided to steal my purse," she continued. "I had made a lot of money that night. I need it, so I struggled with him a little, and he ended up throwing me to the ground. He kicked me in the head. He kicked my earring out--my ear is split now. He [put] me in a headlock. I thought he was going to kill me, but I wiggled out and I was able to get away."
Laya said this was another time when she "probably should have called the cops."
A possible, yet controversial, solution
Stories like Laya's are why D.C. Councilmember David Grosso (I) proposed legislation in late 2017 to decriminalize sex work in D.C. He told Circa that a culture of arrests by law enforcement officials haven't worked, or made the streets any safer.
According to HIPS, a nonprofit who closely worked with Grosso's office to draft the legislation, more than 80 percent of sex workers reported experiencing violence in their course of work.
"If you decriminalize it then that allows the client to point out to the police when something bad is happening," Grosso said. "If they notice somebody's been beat up, if there's a minor involved, or if there's a pimp that's doing illegal activities. You can then intervene and you're have more eyes on the ground."
During the interview, Grosso, who led efforts to decriminalize marijuana in the District, listed a host of other arguments to decriminalize prostitution. Besides promoting safer streets, he said it'll help empower the disenfranchised community--help them come out from the shadows.
But all of this doesn't mean the legislation will pass. Even Grosso admits it's unlikely to get a vote before the end of the session. D.C. council Chairman Phil Mendelson told the Washington Blade that decriminalization could open the door to other crimes, including human trafficking.
Mendelson, along with another critic of the legislation, Councilmember Jack Evans, declined to sit down with Circa for an interview.
Evans expressed his opposition to Grosso's bill on WMAL, saying the decriminalization of sex work could lead to a girl "on every corner."
Grosso said he understands, but disagrees, with these criticisms. He explained that the D.C.'s decriminalization model is actually based on one in New Zealand, which decriminalized the practice in 2003.
"It doesn't create a red-light district, or some kind of brothel situation," he continued. "It also does not, all of a sudden, make it legal to beat people or pimp people out or traffic people."
When New Zealand passed its decriminalization legislation, it established a committee charged with assessing the number of sex workers at the time of the bill's passage, as well in the following years. The most updated report was completed in 2008 and found:
"On the whole, the [law] has been effective in achieving its purpose, and the Committee is confident that the vast majority of people involved in the sex industry are better off under the [law] than they were previously."
If it similar law were passed in D.C., the city would become the first in the United States to decriminalize sex work.
A fight worth fighting
Grosso told Circa that even if the legislation isn't passed this session, he has no intention of giving up anytime in the near future.
That could make all the difference for people like Laya, who are forced into work because of systematic failures.
Laya has since gotten out of sex work, and is now working for an LGBTQ rights organization in the District. But she noted that not all stories end like hers. Until they do, she'll continue speaking out and promoting the rights of sex workers in D.C. and elsewhere.
"We need to realize that they're people," she spoke passionately. "That could have been you, that could have been your brother, that's your sister. That's someone's son, that's someone's daughter, that could be someone's mom. We need to help them. I think just saying, 'Let's throw them in jail and not worry about it,' that's not the answer. We need to have compassion for one another."
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