For Adeline Berry, drawing has been a survival mechanism.
“It helps me now, and it helped me through my childhood,” she said, on a recent Wednesday afternoon at Fegan’s 1924 café.
Berry, a transgender sex worker in the city, had put a call out not long before, for other sex workers to send her their paintings and prose for an exhibition, or underground publication, that she plans to produce.
Now 48, she started to draw in her teenage years, she says. “You draw because maybe there are things that you can’t express.”
Berry was born intersex in Tallaght, she says. Intersex people are typically born with some biological characteristics that are female, and some that are male.
As often happens when intersex babies are born, the doctor decided to choose whether Berry would be female or male – and chose male.
“I’m not a boy, but I spent my childhood being punished for not being what they decided for me to be,” she says.
Disbelief swims across her face as she relates the story, ignoring a cup of coffee in front of her.
Resting her folded arms on the table, Berry says: “It’s not like I need more caffeine anyway.”
She was a feminine, lean and lanky teenager, she says – trapped in a boy’s body, a boy’s clothes.
As she grew older, her desire to wear women’s clothes grew, she says, fed by the belief that everyone deserves to be their authentic self, at least for an hour or two.
Near to her home was “a network of laneways”, with homes where Travellers lived, and Berry loved some of the women’s skirts, she says.
She began to collect discarded colourful clothes, creating her “own secret wardrobe”. Until her secret was out.
Berry’s eyes light up as she describes her childhood secret, although she is slow to laugh or smile, and the story takes a turn.
“My mother found [my] bag and emptied it in front of my school friends,” she says. “I lost my friends as a result. I was beaten up at school and home a lot.”
As a child, she attempted suicide multiple times, she says. “All I wanted was to be accepted; every child deserves to be accepted.”
By her early teens, Berry was on the streets and was engaged in sex work, she says. “This is a job that I do in which I do something for someone, and it’s appreciated.”
Sex workers can feel “very isolated”, Berry say. “It’s important that sex workers can express themselves and get things out.”
She hopes her art exhibition will help some of them do that. And that it will remind people that “sex workers are humans too”.
The end result, she hopes, will be unveiled on 17 December, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
In her own drawings and paintings, Berry aims to rebuke Ireland’s oppressive dimmer days, which irreparably impacted her own life.
One of her watercolours shows American Roman Catholic Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, with a wrinkled face, a black robe and piercing eyes. Above this image, she has written a line referring to the rape by priests of boys and girls.
These days, Berry is also a tattoo artist, mother to twins, and a student of psychology. She mentions the latter with striking pride.
She still relies on sex work to make ends meet and cover college fees, she says. “Nobody is willing to hire me.”
Since her paperwork still defines her as male, she feels compelled to present as a man when looking for employment, hoping to avoid confusion.
Berry goes to job interviews without make-up, but she would still stand out due to her prominent breasts, so she wears chest binders in an attempt to hide them.
Typically made out of nylon and spandex, chest binders act as very tight undershirts, creating a masculine profile for transgender men and gender-nonconforming individuals.
Even if she got a job, Berry doubts a mainstream workplace would suit her. “I don’t think I would fit into that culture.”
A sex worker’s life is made up of stress, harassment, and physical abuse from authority figures – whether landlords, the guards, clients, boyfriends, or husbands, says Berry.
Her landlord learnt of her profession recently, she says. He has refused to renew her lease.
Current laws have made the work more dangerous, she says. “These laws that are put into place to protect sex workers are very disingenuous.”
The “Nordic model”, adopted by Ireland in 2017, criminalises the purchase of sexual services, yet allows “the selling of sex”. Its main objective is supposed to be to protect vulnerable individuals, and curtail human trafficking.
By doubling punishment for brothel-keeping, the Nordic model also makes it difficult for sex workers to work in pairs for safety, she says.
Since the new law’s introduction, crimes against sex workers have significantly increased in Ireland, according to data compiled by UglyMugs.ie, an app through which sex workers can share information to help each other stay safe, and can confidentially report abuse and crime.
“How does working together for safety mean keeping a brothel?” Berry says. “It’s just another way of persecuting sex workers.”
Sex work is often a byproduct of poverty, she says. “If you’re disabled and you can’t stand on your feet for eight hours, if you’re a single mum, and the job you have isn’t paying the bills, you have to do something about it.”
Berry says: “Sex work is the symptom of the society we live in. You can’t punish sex workers, it’s like slashing the tents of homeless people, but that doesn’t solve the housing crisis.”
If you’re a sex worker in Dublin city and would like to share your artwork with Berry, you can contact her at [email protected]