Alden Boon

Human Rights Defender Sherry Sherqueshaa on Crimes Against Sex Workers, Love, and Her Muslim Faith



The men in her life

As she got used to her routine, the disgust and guilt she initially wrestled with dissipated, in fact transmuting into a sense of self-empowerment. ‘As a gay man, my chances of meeting someone were low: I wasn’t the typical attractive hunk. But after I transitioned into a woman, I found that an increasing number of men reciprocated my interest and affection. The intimate act itself wasn’t any different, because in my heart I have always been a woman. But over time, I began to understand my body better. I became aware of what I enjoy doing to men, and what I like for men to do to me.’

Being a transgender woman, and a transgender woman who moonlights as a sex worker at that, Sherry has had to build walls to protect herself. That men saw her as an object for instant sexual gratification came with the territory. ‘As a sex worker, you enter every relationship thinking that your partner is probably just fooling around, because no man would ever accept a sex worker as his woman.’

At the four-year mark, Sherry felt she was riding the crest of her career and life. Having also joined Project X, Singapore’s only organisation that protects and advocates for sex workers’ rights, as an activist, she was feeling fulfilled. A relationship was the last thing on her mind. But fate would make her cross path with a younger Chinese guy, whose smarts surpassed his years. ‘I tested him. I’d tell him I had a booking. And he’d reply: “Okay, call or text me when you’re done.” There was no guilt trip, such as his saying: “Do you really have to go?”. He simply accepted that I was a sex worker, neither discouraging nor encouraging my life decision.’ When out with him, Sherry says her insecurities melted away. She felt safe, that she was fundamentally a human being. She was not at the receiving end of unwanted stares that she had got so used to. ‘I didn’t feel that others were eyeing us suspiciously, wondering in their minds if my boyfriend was a client or if I was his provider. I was simply someone’s girlfriend. He made me forget about my other life as a sex worker, as an activist.’

By the time she entered her third relationship, Sherry says she was a fort. Her third boyfriend was the typical bad boy, heavily tattooed and with a penchant for clubbing. From his cheeky demeanour to the cologne he used, Sherry’s defences were chipped away. ‘He was very open about being my boyfriend. In turn, I wondered: “What exactly does this guy want with me?” It made me curious. Was he after sex or money? Did he just want to fool around? But it was none of those things. He was very proud to show me off to his friends, and whenever he was free, he would bring me on a date or call me.’

While Sherry’s ex-boyfriends wanted to support her financially, she had an independent mind, wanting to make money on her own. Getting them to separate the relationships from her job required a lot of mutual understanding. ‘With sex work, there’s nothing more to it than the physicality. With my clients, I only seek to satisfy them, but I don’t expect them to make me feel good. But with my boyfriends, there’re emotions attached to the physical act. They also want me to achieve sexual satisfaction. That’s the difference.’

Having something to lose

Whereas these relationships of hers were transitory, Sherry’s fourth and current one would prove to be transformative. ‘He has made me a better person. This was the kind of love I have been seeking my whole life; the kind of love I have been praying to Allah SWT about. I know that my love for him won’t be wasted; that it has no expiration date.’

This ‘anchor’ as she calls him is her son, to whom she has been a caretaker and fulfilling motherly responsibilities since he was two weeks old. ‘He grounds me. He’s made me think about how my actions impact others. I’ve become more conscious of the things I say in public. I’ve toned down my dressing. In the past, my life revolved around work: I’d be out on the streets with the sole aim of making lots of money. But with him around, I find that I don’t really need that extra cash and that I’d rather spend more time with him. It’s something I never ever thought would happen to me.’

Thanks to the new ‘man’ in her life, Sherry has also been able to suppress the temptation to use drugs. For transgender sex workers, Sherry says drugs are an easy escapism. ‘I found comfort in crystal methamphetamine (meth). It gave me the motivation to work. Whenever I was on drugs, it allowed me to focus and get work done.’ She would start her day by smoking for half an hour or so, get ready to work, and then reach home at three in the morning and try to sleep. But sleep would not come easy, teetering always on the edge. And then she would have to take drugs — the dopamine that they release in the brain gave her the motivation to work. ‘I was advising my fellow friends on how to control their drug use, because I was a so-called high-functioning drug user who was still able to churn out reports and meet her deadlines. “Look at me, I can still get things done.” That’s not good, because it was as if I was superior to them.’

Quitting cold turkey wasn’t a walk in the park: Sherry had to get a friend to dispose of her stash. ‘It was a huge struggle at first because using drugs had become a habit. Before, I knew I could rely on this power smoke to relieve my stress. There’s this corner in my room where I kept my stash, and whenever I caught a glimpse of it the desire would arise.’ The thought of using meth is ever parasitic, triggered whenever it comes up in conversations or whenever a client broaches it. ‘I’ve seen my friends get arrested because of their drug use. I thought: if I got arrested, I’d lose out on six months to a year of my son’s life. I’d miss out on his milestones. That he may forget me when I’m locked up is a thought that scares me. I don’t want to take that risk.’ On the wall of that corner in her room is now plastered photos of her son, which are a reminder of the true joy in her life.

Human rights activist

While earning her keep in the food and beverage industry, Sherry discovered her knack for talking to people. Her natural charisma made her a perfect fit as an outreach activist with Project X. As part of her work with Project X, she is a walking sexual health book, educating other sex workers on sexual health matters. ‘They know of the need to use protection, but they are unsure of what to do when the condom breaks. Many clients do not want to use contraceptives for fellatio, but that puts the sex workers at risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI), such as chlamydia or even HIV. We educate them about mitigating the risk of HIV through the use of Pre-exposure prophylaxis. Also, we teach them that when they go to the hospital, there is no need for them to disclose that they’re a sex worker; just that they were exposed to the risk of a STI. And then there’s the question of how much the consultation would cost. As an activist, I address all their concerns.’

Besides sexual health matters, Project X also hosts regular training workshops, educates sex workers about general laws as well as offers access to pro bono lawyers. It is highly demoralising for sex workers whenever they lose their earnings, be it through non-payment or robbery, so Sherry suggests for them to seek therapy. While the hope is for sex workers to come forward and make a police report, legal recourse is rarely sought. Some of them are migrants. Many know going down that route will likely yield no outcome but only more grief, as Sherry knows all too well herself. ‘So, we do the next best thing. We jot down the physical descriptions of the perpetuators, and disseminate the information to other sex workers so that they can keep a lookout and be aware.’

Initially when Sherry stepped into her newfound role as activist, she was met with disdain. ‘My sisters thought: “Oh, Sherry’s no longer fun. They thought that I, being in the same community and a sex worker, was in no position to lecture them about their sexual health.’ There also was inertia, as many questioned the motives of Project X and thought how the initiatives would not benefit anyone, and how their attempts to change the system was but a fool’s errand. For sex workers, being cheated, robbed or abused had become accepted as part and parcel of their fates. ‘Over the years, they’ve come to accept my activism because they sense my sincerity. And I’m happy that some of them have also come onboard to be a part of our movement. They appreciate our efforts, and they know that we are doing these things to make life better for them, to make Singapore a safer place for them to work.’

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.