Paris Lees hasn’t had an easy life: Until 10 years ago, the British woman lived as a man, and an abusive childhood lead to years of sex work, starting as a young teen. But just seven years after graduating from college, and now proudly living as a woman, she returned to her alma mater to accept an honorary doctorate. And while she was there, she made an extra special dedication.
The University of Brighton graduate took the stage at the school’s graduation ceremony on Monday to accept her honor, donning the graduation robes worn by fellow doctorates. Lees shared the moving remarks she delivered at the ceremony on her personal Facebook, and they provided a unique glimpse at just how difficult it is growing up trans—and how sex work can actually be a way out for some people, as opposed to, as many see it, a negative path.
“Up until very recently trans people weren’t celebrated for anything—we were simply objects of ridicule, or data points in academic debates,” she told the audience. But now, as a trans rights activist and journalist, she’s gone from object of ridicule to a person of power.
In her speech, Lees explained how losing her grandmother a decade ago was the devastating turning point that lead her to fully embrace life as a woman. “One of the first times I went out in the day as myself I was wearing one of my grandma’s old summer dresses, which I had customized and made considerably shorter,” she said. “I wore it with trainers. Lily Allen was number one at the time with Smile. I didn’t feel much like smiling and I didn’t much feel like starting university as I was still grieving and trying to get to grips with my new life. But, another month later, I was living in Brighton.”
Up until then, though, she had struggled immensely. In a 2013 piece she wrote for the Guardian, Lees revealed that her family had difficulty accepting her gender identity, and she started trading sexual favors for money at age 14. By 16, she’d moved out of her father’s house and out on her own, where her life was consumed by drugs, partying, and sex work to get by. After getting caught trying to rob a client, Lees was sentenced to prison. Teenagers are often known for their single-mindedness, and Lees used this focus to make sure she left prison with a clear mind.
“I wanted to be educated, healthy, respected and, more importantly, a girl,” Lees wrote. “I made a pact to try my best. Life doesn't end at 18.”
She would soon attend college at Brighton, and though she said it was still not easy to have a non-binary gender identity there, in her speech she thanked the university for its help. “I want to be clear that the university was wonderful—they offered me support, counseling and extensions on my course. I very nearly dropped out. When I finally graduated in 2009 I was both proud and amazed to find myself walking across this very stage.”
Back on the stage seven years later, she closed her remarks by dedicating her honorary doctorate to the profession and people who helped her, ultimately, survive.
“I do not wish to distract from this wonderful and happy moment but I feel compelled to dedicate this doctorate to a group of people who seldom enjoy public praise: Sex workers,” she said. “Quite the opposite. Sex work is part of my past now, but the truth is I would not have got my degree and forged the career I enjoy today without making some tough choices. I would like to use the prestige of this award to undo even just a tiny bit of the very great stigma sex workers still face.”
A majority of sex worker organizations in the UK favor decriminalization of sex work, as does Jeremy Corbyn, head of the country's Labour party, and Amnesty International, Lees said. And a report released in June by a parliamentary committee calls for measures that will lead to decriminalization.
“As a first step, there has been universal agreement that elements of the present law are unsatisfactory,” Keither Vaz, chair of the committee, said in a statement at the time of the report's release. “Treating soliciting as a criminal offence is having an adverse effect, and it is wrong that sex workers, who are predominantly women, should be penalised and stigmatised in this way. The criminalisation of sex workers should therefore end.”
Transgender people face similar struggles and stigma. Back in January of this year, members of another parliamentary committee urged fellow members to help improve life for the up to 650,000 people who are "gender incongruent to some degree," the BBC reported at the time.
A formal report released on July 7th laid out ways the committee would like to create greater support for the transgender community. The committee asked that parliament amend the Equality Act of 2010—which established “gender reassignment” as a “protected characteristic” against discrimination—to include “gender identity” as a protected characteristic as well. They also call on the government to look into the “need to create a legal category for those people with a gender identity outside that which is binary and the full implications of this.”
While there is still a long way to go for full acceptance of non-binary people and sex workers, Lees is is a shining example of, as the influential campaign says, “it gets better.”
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.