Surviving Trauma: Trans Sex Worker Advocate Supports Others Facing Trauma

Chose sex trade to support child as she transitioned from being a male teen 

BY DIONNA DUNCAN
URBAN HEALTH MEDIA PROJECT

WASHINGTON, D.C.– At 15, Tamika Spellman got a girl pregnant.

Born a boy in Buffalo, N.Y., she’d had a pretty “typical childhood” growing up with her parents, she said. But it was around the time Spellman’s girlfriend got pregnant when she realized the male body she was born into was not her true identity. 

“I always felt I was supposed to be a girl,” said Spellman, 53, a Black trans woman who is now an advocacy director at Honoring Individual Power and Strength (HIPS), a D.C.-based organization that provides harm reduction services, advocacy and community engagement for those engaged in sex work, sex trafficking and drug use. 

Living her life as a young woman, despite her genetic identity, made sense to Spellman. But she began to lose relationships with her relatives because they disagreed with her choice.

While she wasn’t kicked out or disowned, Spellman moved out of her parents’ home at 16. She was too young to receive government assistance, and being transgender made it difficult for her to find a good-paying job, she said. She was also supporting her child and the child’s mother, whom she maintained a relationship with during her transition.

Tamika Spellman, an advocacy director at Honoring Individual Power and Strength (HIPS) and consenting sex worker, answers questions of Archbishop Carroll High School junior Dionna Duncan. Duncan is a participant in a journalism workshop focused on surviving and thriving post-trauma sponsored by the Urban Health Media Project.

Sex work was best money available

That’s when Spellman decided to become a sex worker.  

Spellman said the move “just kind of happened,” but was aided by the fact she already knew about that world;  an uncle worked as a pimp and other family members were involved in the sex trade, she said, and she “knew where the sex work areas were.”

To Spellman, this type of work meant fast money and a way to provide for her son, and for a daughter born four years later with the same woman. “It was a good bit of money for that time period,” she said. 

Most people, though, including law enforcement authorities in every U.S. state but several counties in Nevada, consider sex work to be illegal and dangerous. Where Spellman lived in the Buffalo area, this work could get her arrested at any time if caught by the police. 

Or worse: “I have been raped by police in D.C., Alabama, New York, Detroit,” Spellman said. Many police officers feel they have a right to sexually assault sex workers, she said, and take advantage of sex workers during arrests, when pat-downs can turn into assault.

Spellman’s experience of trauma as a transgender Black teen and then as a sex worker also included being robbed, shot, and spending time homeless. Her trauma led to mental health and drug use disorders, she said. 

“I don’t know if it was an act of God that saved me,” she said.

Finally, therapy helps her help others

It took her a long time to get help to cope with her traumatic past, she said, but she started therapy in the 1990’s. “It’s something we don’t do and don’t talk about,” Spellman said, but it helped save her life.  

After many years of fighting to survive, learning to heal from the traumatic experiences of her past made her realize she needed to be a voice for change, she said, and to stand up for people who have experienced the same kinds of pain and suffering. It led to her vocation as a fierce advocate for those who have chosen, or been forced, to become sex workers. 

As an advocacy specialist at HIPS, she uses her voice and experience to challenge the prevailing notions about sex workers and works to stop the criminalization of sex work and the violence that is often directed towards Black and brown women who do this work.


Tamika Spellman, an advocacy director at Honoring Individual Power and Strength (HIPS) and consenting sex worker, stands outside the group home for sex workers she manages in Washington, D.C. HIPS is a D.C.-based organization that provides harm reduction services, advocacy and community engagement for those engaged in sex work, sex trafficking and drug use.

Unlike white women who often end up selling sex online, Black and brown women usually work on the streets, exposing them to more danger of violence from customers and even police, Spellman said. 

Current laws are “not keeping us safe,” she said. “In fact, it’s doing the absolute opposite. Police tend to not have respect for sex workers… instead of the protective force or watchful eye they could be.”

Advocating for harm reduction for sex workers

In fact, criminalizing sex work can often make it far harder for people to escape the work and make money another way, she said. At times, when Spellman tried to work in other industries in order to secure health insurance for her family, she ended up stuck in low-wage jobs, such as fast food restaurants, with no chance of increased pay or advancement, she said. 

“Me being criminalized caused me to be stuck,” said Spellman.

The harm-reduction approach to sex work recognizes that sex workers will continue to do the job regardless of it being illegal, and seeks to make the work as safe and risk free as possible. 

To that end, Spellman distributes condoms, clean needles and injection supplies and helps provide access to overdose prevention supplies such as naloxone. She’s spoken out in favor of decriminalizing sex work on many panels, conferences and functions, and has authored articles on the topic. Spellman is also a member of the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition (SWAC), a group that wants to advance and promote the human rights and wellness of sex workers in the Washington, D.C. area. 

While Spellman works hard to change the laws about sex work, she also wants the world to be a better place for people like her and for those who follow in her steps. Spellman has five grandchildren and a great grandchild. 

“What kind of society are we trying to leave them?” Spellman asked.  “I can’t leave my grandkids what we have today.” 

This story was published on Feb. 8, 2021 in the DC Line, a nonprofit media organization launched in 2018

Video by UHMP intern Sierra Lewter.

Editor’s note: Dionna Duncan is a junior at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. She was a participant in the Urban Health Media Project’s fall 2020 workshop “Surviving and Thriving Despite Trauma,” sponsored by The National Council for Behavioral Health (www.thenationalcouncil.org).

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