The room is full of nuns. They’re easy to spot with their short hair and pastel blouses, elastic waist pants, and sensible shoes. More than that, they have an aura of calm and camaraderie that I think comes from having been together a long time. They were probably girls when they first met, when they first started out on their nuns’ lives. They’re old now. It’s so rare to see a young nun.
The nun sitting next to me looks up only slightly when I greet her. She is a famous nun in our community but very quiet. She seems to be at critical places as a witness, her witnessing legendary in its length and consistency. During the panel discussion, she writes tiny notes on a piece of paper. Her handwriting is so small that the pen scarcely moves. She writes as a student given a single piece of paper to last all through the school year.
We are listening to a panel discussion about sex workers in Milwaukee. I’m here because it seems like homelessness would be a big problem for sex workers and because I’ve been thinking about making the program that is working with sex workers one of the distribution sites for my Time of the Month menstrual supplies collection for homeless women. I’ve thought about this in the past but something always stops me. I shuffle the idea around in my mind. Are these women really homeless? Do I want to collect donations to support sex work? I knew something wasn’t resting right in my mind so I signed up for this panel discussion. I need to listen to some wisdom, I thought, rearrange my head.
We are three or four speakers into the discussion when the program director stands up, shakes her head as if to clear it of all the talk about public health and housing and gets down to the nub of it all. She looks out over the audience and says, “It’s about who’s deserving and who’s not.” She goes on to explain that somehow we’ve decided that women who are trafficked are deserving of our help and women who aren’t, who are engaging in sex work to “do what they need to do to get by,” get through the day, get money for food or drugs or a room, those women are seen as not deserving. And so these undeserving women are draped in stigma even through they have been victimized by sexual trauma, violence, racism, poverty, and oppression that repeats every day.
And I think, damn. I have held this stigma in my heart, unknowingly maybe, but surely. I have regarded women who are sex workers as less deserving than women who are homeless, held back on this little bit of help I offer – my donated tampons, pads and underwear – because of what, what they have to do to get by, or because, as the speaker says, they are doing something I would never do?
I know without asking that the nuns in the room have long ago sorted this out and made the choice to embrace all women as their sisters. Their acceptance is palpable, like it is a real thing living in the room with us, and I wonder why I hadn’t noticed it until this moment. It isn’t that easy, though, to be surrounded by acceptance and become accepting oneself. It takes more time, more work, but I begin and am glad for this time and this place.