Mardi Gras’ Partnership With American Express Is A “Slap In The Face” For LGBTIQ Sex Workers

"Myself as a sex worker was like 'This is a problem' and they essentially said 'It's going to happen whether you like it or not.'"

mardi gras american express

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Major credit card company American Express has kicked off a three-year principal partnership deal with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras this year, but the partnership has already been criticised, given Amex’s history with the sex work community.

When the partnership was announced last year, Amex flagged its value for embracing differences as a key reason why it wanted to sponsor the major event.

“At American Express we value and embrace differences and believe unique perspectives, backgrounds and experiences are critical to the diversity of communities and the success of businesses. It is therefore with enormous pride that we take our place as principal partner of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Sydney WorldPride 2023,” said managing director for AmericanExpress Australia & New Zealand Corrina Davison.

However, grassroots organisation Pride In Protest has been quick to point out that Amex doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to supporting the sex work industry — which employs thousands of people in the LGBTIQ community.

Representatives from the collective — which holds two seats on the Mardi Gras board — peacefully handed out flyers outside the American Express activation on Sunday until they were allegedly asked by police and event security to stop.

Why Is Mardi Gras’ Partnership With AMEX So Problematic?

As Junkee has previously reported, financial institutions such as banks and credit card companies have a long and complicated history of exploiting legal loopholes to discriminate against sex workers. This is no secret, and while American Express is far from the only organisation to introduce policies that negatively impact sex workers, it is part of the problem.

“[The issue with the sponsorship] takes into account a number of historical problems that American Express has had with sex workers,” Pride in Protest representative Charlie told Junkee. “There is no big finance corporation that is not guilty of committing financial discrimination against sex workers, across any big bank or payment provider.”

Perhaps the clearest example of this is when American Express — as well as Visa and Mastercard — blocked payments to popular sex work advertising site in 2015. The move was the direct result of anti-sex work campaigns in the US, where sex work was illegal, but the repercussions of this decision had detrimental impacts on the community in Australia — which operated entirely within the law.

“These companies pulled out of [Backpage] on the basis of preventing human trafficking, which is a common story that we hear about the reason why these services get shut down. Even though that’s the stated intent, more often than not, it actually does more harm than good,” said Charlie.

As we’ve seen time and time again, legislation — both in the US and Australia — that negatively impacts sex workers is usually aimed at preventing human trafficking, child sex exploitation, money laundering or terrorism funding. However, it’s worth noting that a vast majority of the sex work community is on board with stopping these — obviously — awful crimes but they are rarely consulted when legislation is being written.

“They think that we’re victims or that we shouldn’t actually be part of the process in changing that,” added Charlie.

And — as we saw in the case of sex work platform Switter being forced to shut down last week — the lack of consultation, or care for how these decisions impact sex workers has detrimental impacts to both their career and their safety.

“The lack of meaningful consultation and consideration throughout this entire process has resulted in legislation that is cumbersome and confusing, the consequences of not adhering to the Act is severe and could destroy a small business or community,” Assembly Four told Junkee last week.

The Chokehold Tech And Finance Companies Have Is Suffocating The Sex Work Industry

While it’s not an exaggeration to say the Australian Government has silenced sex workers — and the organisations built to protect them — when it comes to legislation, the issue is bigger than even the Australian government.

As big tech and finance continue to dominate the world as we know it, Australia and the way in which we use the internet is more intertwined with the US than ever before. And unfortunately, this means that international legislation like the highly criticised FOSTA-SESTA laws are wreaking havoc on the lives of people who have never even stepped foot on US soil.

Passed in 2018 by then-President Donald Trump, the House bill known as FOSTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and the Senate bill, SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, have totally revolutionised online sex work — and not for the better.

“American Express and all other American payment providers basically trail US law enforcement and US anti-sex work organisations and politicians in the decisions that they make and their direct tailing of those kinds of policies have led to the implementation of FOSTA-SESTA,” said Charlie of fintech’s impact on legislation. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the concerted effort to shut down Backpage and the role that payment processors and credit card companies played in that was a precursor to FOSTA-SESTA. It was a testing ground. It paved the way for that kind of legislation.”

But while the world wide web’s global reach can bring us all together, its world-wideness means that FOSTA-SESTA’s impacts have been felt in Australia, despite our sex work laws being vastly difference.

“They can make the decision over there and they’re affecting the lives of Australian sex workers over here even in a state where work is decriminalised. There is nothing illegal about our work being advertised on Backpage and yet American Express can make a decision to shut it down,” said Charlie. “It’s just a slap in the face. It’s just an insult.”

So Why Did Mardi Gras Agree To The Partnership?

At this point, you’re probably wondering why an organisation like Mardi Gras would agree to a partnership with any financial institution or big tech company — given how intertwined the LGBTIQ and sex work communities are.

According to Charlie — who sat on the Mardi Gras board at the time the three-year partnership was first discussed — the issue was raised and ignored.

“I was on the board of Mardi Gras for two years and I am personally a sex worker and when the American Express sponsorship came across, I moved in the meeting to cease negotiations on this basis. It was only me and the other Pride In Protest board member at the time who actually voted for it, while other board members argued that they had done the right thing on Backpage,” she told Junkee. “Myself as a sex worker was like ‘this is a problem’ and they essentially said ‘it’s going to happen whether you like it or not.'”

According to Charlie, the issues flagged regarding the potential sponsorship was never appropriately discussed. “They didn’t even pretend to take the situation with Amex really seriously. They just think we’re the people who want to complain about everything and that our complaint isn’t legitimate.”

When asked if the decision came down to agreeing fundamentally with what American Express stands for, or if it was merely a financial decision, Charlie asserted that you can’t take the money without the morals. “I think there’s a distinction without a difference, what is the difference between taking the money and agreeing with them. But in saying that, I don’t think there was any real attempt to do anything about it,” she added.

Fundamentally, the corporatisation of Mardi Gras is an issue in itself for Pride in Protest — with major sponsors taking priority over marginalised groups. “They’re ideologically committed to Mardi Gras being corporatised. They like corporates. It’s not that they tolerate them, it’s that they genuinely, actively like them. “As long as they’re ideologically committed to corporates being present, they’re never going to actually take the lead and say ‘we support sex workers.’

“They are bound by wanting to have those people there.”

Mardi Gras told Junkee that it takes its responsibility to partner with appropriate organisations seriously and has an “ethical charter framework” to help ensure this.

“We look to our values and ethical charter when we are considering a potential partner, and we expect those partners to meet us and maintain this ethical standard and values alignment,” a spokesperson for Mardi Gras told Junkee.c”All our partners must show an ongoing commitment to our LGBTQIA+ communities within their organisation and externally within the broader community.

“American Express signed on as a partner of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Sydney WorldPride 2023 following a proper review through the Ethics Charter.”

Pride in Protest is holding a rally on Oxford St on March 5 to protest the religious discrimination bill, decriminalise sex work and introduce transition leave.

In a statement provided to Junkee, Mardi Gras rejected claims that American Express discriminates against sex workers.

“Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras recognises the rights of sex workers and stands with them against discrimination. The assertion that American Express discriminates against sex workers is inaccurate,” a spokesperson for Mardi Gras told Junkee. “Adult services, such as escort services and in-person adult entertainment, that are legal in Australia, have the opportunity to apply to accept payment via American Express cards.

“As a company, American Express has a longstanding global policy that prohibits payments made by American Express cards for digital adult content. This is mainly because there is an inability to monitor, control, and protect across online platforms.

“For the past 18 years, American Express has scored 100 percent on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, based on its organisation’s policies and practices that support LGBTQI+ inclusion. This principal partnership announcement with Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Sydney World Pride builds on the organisation’s involvement in the 2017 Marriage Equality debate and its work and membership in Open for Business, a coalition of global companies making the economic and business case for LGBTQIA+ inclusion in companies around the world.

“American Express Australia has been a proud sponsor of LGBTIQ+ organisations and events for many years, including the sponsorship of Mardi Gras Film Festival (2017- 2019), Sponsorship of the OUT leadership Conference (2018- 2020) for Australia, Donations to Twenty 10 and support of Wear it Purple and ACON World Aids Day Red Ribbon Appeal.

“American Express Australia has an active PRIDE+ network, which was established 10 years ago and a global network which has been running for 25 years. The PRIDE+ colleague network aims to cultivate a globally inclusive and supportive environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual or allied colleagues so they can perform to their fullest potential.”

Lavender Baj is Junkee’s senior reporter across news, politics, and finance. Follow her on Twitter.