For Ellie Ade Kur, joining the University of Toronto’s Queer and Trans Research Lab (QTRL) at the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies has meant finally finding academic support for her research and activism on behalf of sex workers.
“It’s the safe space I wish I had as an undergrad,” says Ade Kur, who has been at U of T for 14 years and is now completing her PhD. “It’s one of the only places on campus where I’m exposed to integrating perspectives of social justice with academic work. It’s important for academics to be actively working alongside sex work and social justice organizations. And I’ve finally found a space that can walk the talk.”
Ade Kur – along with DJ, drag performer, and activist Alphonso King Jr. – is a community leadership resident at the QTRL, part of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. The residencies allow activists and community leaders to share, develop, and circulate their work, as well as to establish connections with students, teachers, artists, and other researchers both at the Bonham Centre and at the University.
Ellie Ade Kur
“If we treat sex workers like they deserve the violence that happens to them, we can’t be shocked when violence happens,” says Ade Kur.
Ade Kur is a sex worker justice organizer, who has volunteered with Maggie’s Toronto (https://www.maggiesto.org/) since 2016. She is part of their Sex Worker’s Action Project, which provides support, advocacy, and a safe drop-in space.
Ade Kur vividly remembers the disappearance of sex worker Alloura Wells in July 2017. Wells, a young, Black and Indigenous trans woman, had been an active participant at Maggie’s. But when she disappeared, the community was unable to get help through official channels and was forced to mount their own search. Wells’s body was found in a city ravine in August 2017, but was not identified until November.
“The police just didn’t want to look for her,” say Ade Kur. “A sex worker, a racialized trans woman, the police say they disappear and reappear all the time. It was pretty brutal to have to do a lot of that work on our own.”
Even before she began volunteering at Maggie’s, Ade Kur’s academic work had focused on marginalized communities. She has a BA from U of T in Sociology, Political Science, and Criminology, and a Masters in Sociology. But she says she found the Sociology Department too conservative. So, for the past seven years, Ade Kur has been working towards a PhD in Geography.
Her thesis examines how sex workers and unhomed people are marginalized by city structures and urban authorities.
“My focus is on Toronto, how the city implements local bylaws and zoning regulations to keep certain businesses out of it,” she says. “My thesis looks at the development of the Yonge Street strip and how the municipal government works with police to push sex workers and homeless people out of the downtown core.”
As part of the QTRL, Ade Kur is working on a project even closer to home: addressing the stigma and discrimination facing students who also earn money as sex workers. Ade Kur plans to hold a series of consultations and develop resource guides and workshops to help those students navigate the dangers and prejudices that they face.
Ade Kur says that, for her, sex work is an umbrella term that includes everything from full-service escorting and exotic dancing to webcamming and phone sex work.
All of these women can face discrimination.
“There’s been a significant increase in revenge porn. Students may be asked to leave residence, they can be kicked out their programs,” says Ade Kur. “If they’re even suspected of doing sex work, they’re seen as a threat to other students, even if they’re not working out of the residence. Even if you’re a cam model, that tows the line. The idea is that sex workers make others unsafe and bring danger to others.
“You never know how people will react if they find out. If you’re a parent or a caregiver, somebody could call Children’s Aid, and you run the risk of losing your kids or your income.”
Ade Kur’s project will help sex workers on campus develop toolkits to deal with legal, economic and academic issues, including how sex work may affect international student visas or how cash payments may affect student aid.
“We’re looking at how you avoid exploitation, how you advocate for yourself, where student sex workers can go for support. We’re compiling it all in one place.”
Ade Kur says her academic experience has taught her that minority groups are often marginalized within the curriculum, as well.
“For a lot of my academic career, I’ve been looking at texts that sensationalize Blackness and poverty, that are voyeuristic accounts of Black life. But if I come into my undergrad class, teaching equity studies, Black students see someone like them who has values like them.
“I’ve faced a lot of disdain and resentment for my commitment to centering the community. But it’s important to me that the people at the heart of those struggles get to tell those stories.”
Alphonso King Jr.
Alphonso King Jr. has been an activist for people with HIV since he was diagnosed in 1990 at the age of 22. Today, he worries that it’s taken for granted.
“There’s this rebranding of HIV,” he says. “Now that we have commercials for meds, it makes it look like you take a pill and everything’s okay. We have to remind young people that it can happen to you. The problem with PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] is people having unprotected sex. They’re still open to other STIs. Syphilis is on the rise.
“And if you’re partying all weekend and you miss a dose, you can become positive. Even for those who are using it properly, it can still damage your body. It’s not a walk in the park.”
But even with the ongoing dangers, King says things have improved since 1990.
“I lived in Tampa back then. The only thing we had was AZT, and the people I knew who were on it were dying. When I found out I was positive, there were no resources, there was nowhere to go. I knew something had changed in my body, but back then you could lose your job, your housing, you had to be very careful about who you told. The woman who gave me my results said, ‘If you’re not religious, you might want to start.’”
Scared his parents would discover his status, King moved to New York City.
“I had seen the movie Paris Is Burning [a 1990 documentary about New York City’s drag ballroom scene], and I landed right in the middle of the cast. I became a member of the House of LaBeija.”
King also started DJing under the name DJ Relentless, which he still uses. He also resumed performing as a drag queen, changing his name from Ebony, which he had used in Tampa, to his current name Jade Electra.
But King says New York changed after 9/11. He was also getting sicker, developing diabetic ulcers and his T-cell count dropping. He finally went on medication in 2005, but with no healthcare coverage, found the city increasingly expensive.
“That same year, 2005, I met my husband in Montreal. We reconnected in 2009. Gay marriage wasn’t an option in the States at the time. I weighed my alternatives, and New York wasn’t getting any less expensive, so, in December, 2009, I relocated to Toronto.”
Seeing few events for people with HIV, King started a monthly social event called POZ-TO (now Mingle) at downtown club Goodhandy’s. When Goodhandy’s was forced to relocate, the event moved to the dance club Crews & Tangos.
“At Goodhandy’s, people weren’t embarassed to come in, because nobody would see them,” he says. “But when we moved to Crews and Tangos, attendance dropped, people didn’t want to be seen coming in. But I didn’t change the name. I wanted to fight stigma, and you can’t fight stigma in a closet.”
The event, now held at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, raises funds for HIV/AIDS support organizations like People with AIDS and the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention.
In 2013, King started the POZ-TO Awards to recognize activists for people living with AIDS. In 2019, he began POZPLANET Magazine, where HIV+ communities can freely share their stories about living with HIV.
As part of his project with the Queer and Trans Research Lab, King is mounting a campaign in POZPLANET called “HIV is Everyone’s Business,” which publishes statements from people from all walks of life, whether HIV+ or not, about HIV.
The QTRL is helping to expand his own perspective on HIV, says King.
“I’m getting exposed to things I hadn’t thought about, such as a presentation about sex workers [by Elie Ade Kur], and how these things tie into HIV. It’s very easy to get tunnel vision. The QTRL is an opportunity for me to grow and learn.”
He also continues to perform as DJ Relentless and Jade Elektra. In 2019, Jade became one of the first drag queens to perform at Toronto’s AIDS Memorial, redoing Nat King Cole’s song “Unforgettable” as “Undetectable.” The performance went viral and is one of the songs on a new album released in December. You can view the live performance here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRzgBTbx8sM
“Because I’ve been out and working in gay bars since 1985, I think the stuff I’ve been doing will inspire people to give back,” says King. “I hope other people see that and say this is a good way of living.”