In 1982, a local news station in New Orleans broadcast a documentary called “Cruisin’ the Streets,” which aimed a prurient and dehumanizing gaze at gay and trans sex workers in the French Quarter. The same year, swept up in a moral panic over prostitution in the city, Louisiana’s state legislature passed draconian measures that explicitly targeted the L.G.B.T.Q. community. Prostitution was already a misdemeanor in Louisiana, but a new law—known as CANS, which stands for Crime Against Nature by Solicitation—made merely offering oral or anal sex in exchange for money a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison with hard labor. In 1992, the penalties set by CANS were made even harsher: anyone charged under the law was required to register as a sex offender. This development deeply exacerbated the challenges of finding housing, employment, and health care—and it escalated social stigma—for a group that already faced severe discrimination. The short documentary “CANS Can’t Stand,” directed by Matt Nadel and Megan Plotka, uses archival material to explore the history of CANS, but its focus is a group of Black trans women who are fighting today to liberate their community from the policy’s grasp.
Nadel and Plotka first learned of the campaign against CANS in an exhibition at Tulane’s Newcomb Art Museum centered on formerly incarcerated women and girls in Louisiana, which featured a short blurb about Wendi Cooper. Cooper founded the organization CANScantSTAND, in 2018, to continue the work that she had already begun toward abolishing the law. Baffled that such a baldly prejudiced policy was still on the books in 2019, Nadel and Plotka contacted Cooper to learn more about her work. She invited them to a church that she was working out of and, in the course of about two hours, told them a story that changed the way they understood the justice system. Cooper had faced her first CANS conviction in 1999, which led to her incarceration and placed her on the sex-offender registry. Many others were in similar situations—one of the most striking facts presented in the film is that, by 2011, almost forty per cent of the people listed on the New Orleans sex-offender registry were there because of CANS. Within that group, seventy-nine per cent were Black. “It wasn’t about policing a certain kind of conduct,” Nadel said, when I interviewed him and Plotka about the film. “It was about policing a certain kind of person.”
In “CANS Can’t Stand,” Cooper’s group stages an eye-catching protest in which demonstrators dress in orange prison jumpsuits to make visible the oppressiveness of incarceration under a law that unfairly targets their demographic. Their efforts are part of a long campaign that has had substantial successes: in 2011, a bill downgraded first-time CANS convictions from felony to misdemeanor, and, not long after, a lawsuit successfully made the case against labelling people as sex offenders for CANS convictions, resulting in the removal, in 2013, of seven hundred people from the registry. Cooper was one of nine anonymous plaintiffs in the suit. In the TV coverage of the trial, she saw Milan Nicole Sherry, a younger activist also featured in “CANS Can’t Stand,” speaking publicly about her own experience of being arrested under CANS as a minor, and Cooper was inspired to relinquish her anonymity and become more open about her relationship to the law that she was organizing others to oppose.
This kind of intergenerational exchange and support seems crucial as the fight continues; although CANS has been stripped of some of its more devastating consequences, the law remains in place, and those convicted before 2011 still have felonies on their records. In 2021, Cooper testified in favor of a bill that would fully decriminalize sex work in Louisiana, and, though it did not pass, she remains tenacious in her advocacy. “My goal is to get the law eradicated,” she says in one interview. Through CANScantSTAND, she continues to put pressure on public officials to fully, rather than partially, remedy the injustice of CANS. “It kind of got swept under the rug,” Sherry says in the film. “But Wendi kind of kicked that rug and was, like, ‘No, we’re not sweeping this under the rug.’ ”
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The Crossword: Thursday, March 30, 2023