CJ Palmer, a trans woman and sex worker living with HIV, was recently arrested in the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW). Coverage of this case in the media has been stigmatising, with many reports including her birth name, working name and photographs.
State police services from Western Australia and New South Whales arrested CJ in NSW. She was then sent to Western Australia (WA) to face charges of “grievous bodily harm” in relation to allegations of HIV transmission.
In the lead up to the initial hearing, People for Sex Worker Rights Western Australia stated, “HIV should not be a crime. She should not be in prison, but if she does go to prison it should be a women’s prison because she is a woman.” Despite this, CJ was placed in a men’s prison and is still there.
Corrective Services in Western Australia say they must obey the Gender Reassignment Act 2000. Under this legislation transgender people must undergo complex and expensive medical treatment to have their birth certificates changed. This means there are many barriers for trans people who, upon conviction, want to be placed in a prison that respects their gender identity.
A bail application was heard before the Perth Magistrates Court to have CJ released from prison. The bail application was rejected. People for Sex Worker Rights in WA believe police supplying the court with copies of CJ’s sex work advertisements influenced this decision. The court noted that a significant issue was the possibility CJ could work as a sex worker if on bail. Her lawyer argued that the complainant was a lover with whom she was having a romantic relationship, not a client as claimed in the media.
Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association and the National Association of People with HIV Australia (NAPWHA) published a joint media release to counter the misleading statements being made in the media. Janelle Fawkes stated, “the involvement of money in sexual transactions does not increase the risk of HIV transmission. Sex workers with HIV can routinely exchange sex for money without putting themselves, or their clients, at risk. Any suggestion that occupation or gender identity is somehow responsible for HIV transmission is extremely naïve.”
Cameron Cox from SWOP NSW addressed the key problems with the criminalisation of HIV. He stated, “criminalising HIV transmission undermines the notion of shared responsibility to prevent HIV, creates stigma which disincentives people from getting tested and discourages disclosure of HIV status. This undermines prevention efforts and increases the risk of further HIV transmission.” In 2008 another sex worker living with HIV in Australia was jailed and vilified in the media. In the four-week period following the court case, the numbers of sex workers attending the local service for testing dropped from an average of 40 per night to three.
CJ remains in a men’s prison in Western Australia and will be in court again later this month. In the meantime, sex workers and sex worker-led organisations continue to speak out against media portrayals of CJ and the stigmatisation and discrimination faced by sex workers, transgender people and people living with HIV.