Iman never thought she’d be a sex worker. She never thought she’d be working the streets, doing drugs and later making attempts on her own life. But when she came out to her family as transgender more than 10 years ago, she was kicked out of home and found herself among a community of sex workers in downtown Toronto, fighting to survive.
"I’d see girls like me going to the corner, making money, but I didn’t know how to start that stuff," Iman tells me over the phone. But she learned quickly what she needed to do to make ends meet. She explains that it wasn’t long before she slipped into drug use and even considered selling to avoid having to do sex work ("Some people like sex, but I hate sex"), but the legal repercussions of dealing (i.e. jail time) eventually became too much of a risk.
That all started back in 2007. Roughly 10 years later, Iman met documentary-maker Lisa Rideout. Iman says that being the subject of Lisa's new short film, One Leg In, One Leg Out, sparked a real turning point in her life. "If it wasn’t for her I don’t think I would’ve been able to do anything and who I am today, I would not be. I’d still be doing the drugs and on the street but when I met Lisa, everything stopped."
They were introduced through a friend while Lisa was filming a documentary about a cross dressing store that Iman would often visit. They got to know each other over the course of a year and in that time, came to lay the groundwork of what would later become an eye-opening short film touring the 2018 festival circuit. The hope is that it'll challenge the narrow perspective of sex work among the transgender community. Iman's dream is that it'll be a step towards helping members of her community who otherwise have little support.
Needless to say, there remains a huge stereotype and judgement around the sex industry, and the experiences of transgender people within it are often afforded an extra layer of prejudice. Compared to some countries, trans visibility has been fairly high on the social agenda in Canada for a little while and Iman does think that attitudes are changing (on a very, very small scale), but as it stands it's not enough. On the other side of the coin, the decriminalisation of sex work has been campaigned, debated and challenged in Canadian courts over recent years. Although the conversation is certainly moving, the wider understanding of what a life reliant on sex work might look like, particularly from a transgender perspective, continues to be pretty limited.
"I had everything that any child could have dreamed about," Iman explains. She grew up in a relatively affluent family and, until she was kicked out, had "never made a bed in her life". She was raised in Saudi Arabia where her mother was an ambassador, "but she wasn’t there as a mother because she was working," Iman adds.
Since moving to Canada and later telling her family that she identifies as transgender, their relationship has been fraught. The extent to which is heartbreaking: "My dad is in the hospital and I can’t even go see him because my sister and her [mother] teamed up and said you’re not welcome to come as 'Iman', you have to come as a boy," she explains. But what's remarkably inspiring about Iman and her story is that even under the weight of this pressure, discrimination and sadness, she refuses to crumble. "Before, it used to bother me but now it does not because if you don’t love yourself first how are you going to love other people?"
The focus now is to go back to school and train to become a social worker, and it's this early stage of Iman's new career journey that we follow in the documentary. Of course, it comes with its challenges. Chatting to Lisa over Skype a little before Iman and I speak, she tells me that the biggest misconception about sex work is that it's a choice, but the people she's met in the time she's spent with Iman assure her that it's not. "Someone like Iman and her friends saying 'no one will hire us because of the way we look, so this is the work that we have to do' – I don't think people understand that at all."
"They really tell me they have no choice. They walk into retail stores or offices and they've applied and they feel the judgement on them and they never get called back for interview," Lisa continues. It's a frustrating reality, which Iman echoes when we chat. "I always wanted to do something to help people like me, for girls like me, because we cannot get jobs the way we are," Iman tells me.
When Iman applies at a local college to study for her social work qualification, the complexity of trying to leave sex work is made clear. Her commitment to pursuing this new career is challenged by calls from clients throughout the day and her initial concern about losing work and money to get by. As Iman's transgender friend Mary, who is also a sex worker who has been working in the area for 20 years, says in the film: "We have to work to keep our light bill on."
Nevertheless, Iman is determined to make it work, not just for her but for everyone else who's struggling with a similar experience. I ask her if she feels it's a big responsibility, becoming an advocate and representative for such an important and overlooked cause? "It does, but it's my passion, it's what I want to do," Iman replies. "My dream will be that every transgender person has the same rights as other people. If I live for that, that’d be amazing."
Watch One Leg In, One Leg Out below.
If you are an LGBTQ person and you would like some more information on your rights or any of the issues raised in this article, check out Stonewall’s website.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please visit FRANK or call 0300 123 6600 for friendly, confidential advice. Lines are open 24 hours a day.