MANDEL: Exotic dancers demand anonymity in fight against shutdown

When lawyer Naomi Sayers advocates for Ontario strippers suing the province for the unfair way they were treated during the COVID shutdown, she knows of what she speaks.

As a former dancer herself, she remembers well what it’s like to be stigmatized for being a sex worker.

“Yes, that was a part of my past,” admitted Sayers, 34. “Me, being out, I do experience targeted harassment and I have missed job opportunities because of my sex working past.

“As much as people say it doesn’t matter, it does matter.”

The Sault Ste. Marie lawyer is representing the exotic dancers’ group, Work Safe Twerk Safe, in its Charter claim that the Ontario government unfairly targeted them in late September with its sudden move to shut down their industry while still allowing bars to operate.

With cases surging, Premier Doug Ford announced adult entertainment clubs were going to be shuttered within 12 hours but Ontario bar and lounge owners could remain open with an earlier last call.

If they have to reveal their real names, she said, strippers could face retaliation from club owners, harassment from police or child welfare agencies, and the loss of future employment.

Earlier this month, the provincial government announced some clubs can reopen if they’re in areas with lower COVID-19 infection rates and have a safety plan. The strippers’ organization complains the new regulations still “do not consider dancers’ perspectives.”

The women believe they continue to be scapegoated by public officials and stereotyped as vectors of disease. “It has a very deep effect on their sense of self-worth,” their lawyer says.

And as uncomfortable as she is speaking about her own past — which she says was a “significantly long time ago”– Sayers can sympathize with how ostracized they feel.

On her blog and in a Walrus magazine article, she’s described being a 20-year-old Anishinabe woman from Garden River First Nation who boarded a Greyhound bus to work as an exotic dancer for a network of clubs in southern Ontario.

“I am treated differently once people are aware,” she says. “I think as lawyers, we try to understand our clients’ cases, but can a lawyer with non-sex worker experience truly understand?

“Likely, no.”

The decision followed Ford’s anger in August when Toronto Public Health reported over 500 people could have been exposed to the virus at the Brass Rail and many of its patrons had given fake names and contact information. In September, another outbreak was reported at Club Paradise.

You have to ask yourself the question, why do these places have to be open?” Mayor John Tory said at the time.

Twelve days later, Ford ordered the strip clubs closed.

“It was how it was dealt with,” explains Sayers. “They singled out strip clubs and they did so in an unfair manner.

It’s that kind of stigmatization that has the lawyer seeking court approval to use initials only, and not the strippers’ legal names, for her clients in their application for judicial review.

“Strippers who provide an affidavit to the Honourable Court without the
Initialization Order will be subject to further isolation, alienation and ostracization in their personal lives and in their professional lives,” the motion says.

Without being anonymous, many won’t be able or willing to submit their affidavits for their court case, Sayers says. One of the strippers, for example, is pursuing a “professional designation” that would be in jeopardy if they learned of her side job.

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