Chantelle’s Story: Old school, new school, it’s still sisterhood to me
I was a sex worker in Darlinghurst for many years, first on William St, then Premier Lane (nicknamed “Tranny Lane”) and later on working back on William St off Forbes St. The police, treating us all as criminals, pushed us further and further away from the new posh residential developments, but no matter where we worked we kept our identity as a community, supporting each other.
We really had each other’s backs then. There were no camera phones or internet, but if a sister said “I’m just off on a job”, I knew to memorise the car make, colour and number plate. We sometimes had boyfriends come down to watch over us, but that was mostly discouraged as it drove customers away. Instead, we learned to look after each other.
If a girl was being harassed or hurt – by boyfriend, client or standover – we would take him on. It didn’t matter if she was cis- or trans-gendered, we looked after the girls working the general neighbourhood. And every now and then there would be a situation affecting all of us, like a group of men trying to impose a pimping situation. Imagine a dozen 6-foot trans-women, speeding off our faces and looking glamorous, 6-inch stilettos in hand, coming at you. We would beat the shit out of them, rip the car doors off and otherwise let our displeasure known.
One particular girlfriend and I regularly worked together. Whoever got a job first would share the first drugs of the day with the other. We were into stimulants then. We worked out of a safe house on William St, where there were 5 working rooms.
You couldn’t inject in the rooms – too many needle stick accidents – but there was a room where you could do your makeup and freshen up and we injected in there. It was one of Sydney’s early underground injecting centres. There was an antique bureau for our supplies; all the equipment was organised by drawer – needles, spoons, cotton, waters and so on. We also had a needle disposal bin that was so enormous I could imagine one of us jumping out of it - à la girl-in-a-cake!
I remember a day we both got a client around the same time. I finished first, so I went and got the drugs – a double amount so we could each have a decent shot to start the day instead of the usual half share. My friend was doing an extended job. I had been out and was back, mixing up on the bureau, when she came racing in, yelling for me to come quickly, the guy had overdosed!
I finished the mix quickly, swept everything into my handbag and ran to the room. When I got there, the guy still had a fit in his arm, he was blue, and another worker was simultaneously slapping his face and rolling him. “Couldn’t you at least have got the fit out?” I asked. My friend had disappeared - so scared she’d get into trouble, the other worker took off and I was left holding the baby. I yelled at him to “WAKE UP OR DIE!!!”, got him to his feet and started walking him about. More shouting as I asked the guy on the desk if the ambo had been called and was astounded to get a “no”. “THEN DO IT!!!” I screamed.
It was pure luck that the guy woke up as I walked (dragged) him up and down the room. As peers, we had no access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone in those days and no education around overdose except what passed for street “wisdom” that advised us to yell at them, smack them, walk them and shove them in the shower. We know how flawed that advice is now, but it was all we knew to do.
We were reluctant to ring the ambulance, partly because the police sometimes came as well, but also because they administered naloxone with prejudice rather than kindness. On this occasion, the ambos gave the guy a dose of Narcan that would wake an elephant. He came to, swinging punches. I calmed him down – he got it instantly that I was a peer and there to support him not punish him, as the ambos seemed to be doing. In fact, he was so grateful for everything that he turned up later in the day with a shot for me to say thank you.
Today I am thankful that we peers can support each other by being properly trained in overdose prevention and treatment. That “injecting room” would have a drawer for naloxone these days. For sure there would be no panicking, face slapping or forced walking. Peer support has come a long way, baby!
Of course, the thing that has stayed solid and will always remain the same is the support that we sisters give each other – in good times and bad. We can still rely on each other to come through in an emergency and to have each other’s back. It makes me proud.
Want to learn how to lessen the panic and fear around overdose? Learn to identify overdose and how to use naloxone!
· Talk to your local Alcohol and Drug service or needle exchange about naloxone training
· Ask your doctor to write you a prescription and get it filled at a chemist (on the PBS)
· Buy it over the counter at a chemist without a script. Not all chemists stock it, but many will get it in if you ask for it.
· Call NUAA on (02) 8354 7300 (or 1800 644 413 toll-free from country areas).