5 Heroes in the Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights

To start this Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting the lives and work of just a few of the bold and revolutionary women fighting for the equality and safety of all people.

Earlier this week, advocates and lawmakers launched legislation that would decriminalize sex work across the state of New York. If passed, the legal penalties for anyone engaged in sex work would be completely dropped, largely ending the targeted persecution of sex workers that leaves them unsafe, exposed to violence, and a common target for abuse by police.

Sex work is a crucial and valid source of income for many marginalized people across the US, including immigrants, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community. According to the U.S. Transgender Survey, one in five transgender women have engaged in sex work, including nearly half of all Black transgender women. Because their livelihood is arbitrarily criminalized, those who do sex work not only face harassment and violence but are discouraged from seeking help when they need it.

The history of the transgender rights movement has largely been fueled by sex work and sex workers. Despite this, sex workers are too often forced to the edges of our society and our movement. To start this Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting the lives and work of just a few of the bold and revolutionary women fighting for the equality and safety of all people.

Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson

While the 1969 Stonewall riots are mainly remembered today as the symbolic launch of the modern LGBTQ rights movement, the uprising was largely led by transgender women of color and sex workers fighting against abuse by police. Many were transgender women of color like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, fighting against police who routinely harassed and abused LGBTQ people of color in New York.

Homeless from a young age, Rivera engaged in sex work both for her own survival and to partially fund much of her own activism. Rivera founded the seminal Gay Liberation Front and, alongside Marsha P. Johnson, co-founded Streets Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR).

Commonly cited as the first organized transgender rights movement in the US, STAR also provided housing, food, and support to many sex workers across New York City. As Rivera recounted in a 1998 interview with Leslie Feinberg:

“STAR was for the street gay people, the street homeless people and anybody that needed help at that time. Marsha and I had always sneaked people into our hotel rooms. Marsha and I decided to get a building. We were trying to get away from the Mafia’s control at the bars.
We got a building at 213 East 2nd Street. Marsha and I just decided it was time to help each other and help our other kids. We fed people and clothed people. We kept the building going. We went out and hustled the streets. We paid the rent.”

As the gay rights movement grew in size and visibility, Rivera and Johnson constantly challenged other organizers to prioritize the needs of those whose lives and livelihoods were criminalized by police. In a now-famous 1973 speech, she challenged cisgender activists who frequently set aside the rights of transgender people and sex workers like herself:

Rivera, Johnson, and STAR were prominent throughout the peak of the AIDS crisis, providing shelter and care to those diagnosed with the disease — a hazard that heavily impacts those who relied on sex for their income.

In 1992, Johnson was found dead in the Hudson River. Though her death was ruled a suicide, Rivera challenged the narrative put forward by police up until her own death in 2002. Rivera and Johnson fought endlessly for the rights of LGBTQ people throughout their lives, leading efforts to secure non-discrimination laws in New York City.

The commitment of Rivera and Johnson to the most vulnerable people in their community remains a model for the transgender rights movement. Sex workers largely began this movement, and their rights are inextricably connected to the fight for transgender equality.

Margo St. James

Over the course of the 20th century — as urban centers grew across the United States — cities pushed stronger and stronger legal penalties for those who engaged in sex work. Much as they do today, these laws damaged the ability of sex workers to establish safe houses and maintain the safety of one another. This criminalization led to the founding of STAR in New York City and the work of Margo St. James in California.

A frequent sight in the famous Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, St. James first founded Whores, Housewives, and Others (WHO) to advocate for the safety of sex workers like herself. The first meeting of WHO took place famously on the houseboat of philosopher Alan Watts.

St. James would go on to establish COYOTE — Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics — as one of the first advocacy organizations in the US dedicated to the decriminalization of sex work. As St. James writes herself, she remembers cornering the sheriff of San Francisco to help her establish sex workers rights as a priority alongside other progressive causes:

“I cornered him at a party once and asked him what it would take to get [National Organization for Women], and gay rights groups to support prostitutes’ rights, because he seemed to have most of the support of the liberal groups in town. He said that we needed someone from the victim class to speak out, and that was the only way the issue would be heard.
I decided to be that someone, even though I had only worked for four years, and wondered what effect speaking out would have on my life. I received support from my family, my mother, the housewife-secretary, my sister, the gospel singer with eleven children, my sailor brother, my son, the salmon fisherman, their families. Together with friends across the country and around San Francisco, they convinced me that speaking out was the right thing to do.”

In the early 1970s, she befriended Jessica James, an anthropologist who coined the term “decriminalization” to describe the legalized status that would best benefit and support sex workers. In 1973, the two successfully lobbied NOW — the lead women’s rights organization at the time — to add the full decriminalization of sex work to their official platform.

Around that time, COYOTE and other advocate groups led the fight for amnesty for sex workers who were reporting violent crimes to the police. Fear of arrest keeps many sex workers from reporting violence when they or others they know experience it, increasing the likelihood they will be targeted for violence and rape. Last month, a legislator in California introduced a bill that would take the policy COYOTE fought for statewide.

COYOTE became famous for their fundraisers, known as Hooker’s Balls. St. James toured the world speaking at conferences to promote the end of sex work criminalization and help other advocates effect change in their own cities and nations. In 1999, sex worker advocates founded a health care clinic in San Francisco and dubbed it the St. James Infirmary in her honor.

In 2012, St. James launched the “Someone You Know Is A Sex Worker” campaign, to raise awareness of the health needs of sex workers, and became a consultant to the World Health Organization.

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

Another veteran of the Stonewall uprising, Miss Major-Griffin Gracy ran in many of the same circles as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. A transgender sex worker herself, Miss Major was an active advocate in Greenwhich Village throughout the 1960s. Arrested at the Stonewall riots, she noted the abuse she and other transgender women of color endured from the police and others:

“I’ve had my ass kicked by strangers. I’ve also been chased but not caught. You learn how to run in heels. But even if they don’t catch you, the fear is with you. It doesn’t leave. I’ve been waiting for a bus and had guys drive by and throw beer bottles at me. And I’ve felt the shards of glass rain down on my skin. It’s not always physical contact — there’s mental, spiritual, and emotional abuse, too. The physical abuse you can get over, but if you say something to me, I will think about that every time I look in the mirror or see someone who looks like you. It’s a cloud that follows you, and let me tell you, it rains.”

By 1978, Miss Major took her activism to the West coast, working at shelters in San Diego and eventually providing direct services to people in San Francisco during the height of the AIDS epidemic that decimated much of the queer community in that city. By 2003, she had joined the Transgender Gender Varient Intersex Justice Project, a Bay Area nonprofit devoted to better living standards for transgender people in prison.

Today, Miss Major is widely seen as an “elder” of the transgender rights movement, though she still provides many of the direct services to transgender people as she has her entire life. Nearly forty years after establishing herself in the Bay Area, Miss Major left and founded House of GG, a direct service provider to transgender women in Arkansas, in 2016. As she noted in a recent interview:

“Because the girls in the South are suffering more than the girls are on the coasts. … New York is fighting really hard, and they’re together. San Francisco is together. L.A. is working on it. San Diego is pulling up the ranks. But the girls in the South, they are just struggling so bad…they don’t have to leave their home and where they’re comfortable and move to some big city. Because a lot of people aren’t city folks.”

Robyn Few and SWOP

Though forced into survival sex work as a runaway youth, Kentucky native Robyn Few claimed to have become a professional sex worker in 1996 at age 38. After her arrest by the FBI in 2002, she founded the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP-USA), which remains one of the lead organizations advocating for the decriminalization of sex work and maintains 17 chapters in cities across the country.

Through SWOP, Few led the organizing for the first International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. An idea of SWOP member Annie Sprinkle, the commemoration was born from the communal mourning of the dozens of sex workers killed by Gary Ridgeway, also known as “the Green River Killer.” As Sprinkle wrote:

“Violent crimes against sex workers go under-reported, unaddressed and unpunished. There really are people who don’t care when prostitutes are victims of hate crimes, beaten, raped, and murdered. No matter what you think about sex workers and the politics surrounding them, sex workers are a part of our neighborhoods, communities and families.”

For the 2008 commemoration, SWOP led a march of sex workers in Washington D.C. featuring speakers and events to promote awareness and safety of sex workers.

Though Few died from cancer in 2012, SWOP remains one of the most active sex worker organizations in the United States, both in the services it provides sex workers and the policies it promotes. SWOP’s logo, a red umbrella, has become an internationally-recognized symbol of the sex worker rights movement.

The historic work of these five women is life-changing and life-saving, providing support and help for some of the most vulnerable people in our society today. The stigma and prejudice against sex workers, combined with racism, homophobia, and transphobia, alienates and criminalizes people throughout our society, exposing them to violence and trapping them in a broken and dangerous carceral system.

Any movement for equality that hopes to be moral and effective must also be equitable and supportive of those exposed to the most risk. This is the work of these five women and will remain an integral mission of the transgender rights movement.