Activism

tolivefreelyA version of this review originally appeared in issue 19 of make/shift magazine

In March 2016, South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa made a historic announcement of a nationwide scheme to prevent and treat HIV among sex workers, proclaiming, “we cannot deny the humanity and inalienable rights of people who engage in sex work.” Though Ramaphosa remained mum on the topic of decriminalization, the rousing endorsement this statement represents can’t be underemphasized. It’s impossible to imagine a U.S. politician of any importance saying something similar. The credit for this sea change in attitude goes to South African sex workers’ rights organization SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce) and sex worker peer organization Sisonke. In her book, To Live Freely In This World: Sex Worker Activism In Africa, Fordham University law professor Chi Adanno Mgbako covers SWEAT and parallel organizations in seven countries.

Mgbako deftly and concisely goes over sex workers’ rights 101 material. The epilogue’s history of global organizing comprehensively places the African movement in its broader context, from the 1970s—Margo St. James’ COYOTE and the French Collective of Prostitutes—to the 2012 Kolkata Sex Worker Freedom Festival. Mgbako explains the importance of not reducing sex work to “a single story” of victimization, the necessity of respecting human agency, and the need to understand sex workers’ rights activism as a labor movement. She traces the connection between violence and criminalization as represented by police abuse and client violence and the structural violence of social stigma, labor exploitation, and healthcare discrimination.

To Live Freely also transcends respectability politics and actively includes the sex workers often left out of our histories. One of the book’s seven chapters is dedicated to the multiple stigmas navigated by queer, migrant, trans, and HIV-positive sex workers. Mgbako makes sure to discuss sex-working queer women, trans men, and gender nonconforming people, who because of their lower visibility are too often excluded.

Many times throughout the text, Mgbako provides long oral histories from sex worker activists. In an admirable and sadly rare move for an ally, she explicitly connects this choice with the fact that she is not a sex worker herself, “and too often, non-sex workers take it upon themselves to speak for sex workers when the latter are fully capable of speaking for themselves.” I found these sections of the book and the solidarity they represented perhaps the most valuable. Kenya Sex Worker Alliance’s Phelister Abdallah’s harrowing account of gang rape by police, the moment representing her personal awakening as an activist, was particularly affecting. Yet, Mgbako never allows these stories to become tragedy porn for non-sex-worker readers—in her introduction, she avers that she only included narratives of abuse when those narratives illustrated the sociopolitical realities of sex workers’ struggle against criminalization. “There are no broken people in this book,” Mgbako declares. Instead, the author’s interest lies in displaying the “radiating strength” of African sex workers.

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Sharmus Outlaw. (Photo by PJ Starr, courtesy of Darby Hicky)

Sharmus Outlaw. (Photo by PJ Starr, courtesy of Darby Hicky)

Sharmus Outlaw, longtime trans, HIV, and sex workers’ rights activist, died in hospice care at the age of 50 on July 7th from lymphoma. Her death was hastened by systematic healthcare bias: she endured a long delay in processing her Medicaid application because doctors were “confused” by her gender marker, and faced numerous other difficulties accessing treatment as a Black trans woman.

An integral figure in the Washington D.C. activist community, Outlaw played a major role in local organizations like HIPS, Us Helping Us, Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, Different Avenues, Casa Ruby, Transgender Health Empowerment, and Metro Teen AIDS.  She contributed her leadership to many national and international sex workers’ rights groups, such as NSWP, Desiree Alliance, Red Umbrella Fund, and Best Practices Policy Project, as well. She spoke at the International Harm Reduction conference in 2007 and as a representative of the global sex workers’ rights movement in 2011 before the High Income Countries Dialogue convened by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law. In 2009, she was presented with the Port in the Storm Award by the Washington Peace Center for her work with HIPS. Outlaw was also essential to the publication of two seminal sex worker led research papers: Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington, D.C. (2008) and Nothing About Us, Without Us: HIV/AIDS-Related Community and Policy Organizing by U.S. Sex Workers (2015), which she she co-authored.

Readers can donate to Outlaw’s memorial fund here

Her friends in the community remember the way she changed their lives for the better:

Sharmus Outlaw. (Photo by PJ Starr, courtesy of Darby Hicky)

Sharmus Outlaw. (Photo by PJ Starr, courtesy of Darby Hicky)

GiGi Thomas:

There was this young black queen, three months clean from drugs and alcohol. She was sitting in the bookstore when a beautiful black queen offered her some life saving materials. The woman said her name was Sharmus and she was just trying to help save people’s lives.

Not only did she save my life, she pushed me forward to advocate for others, become a leader in the community, receive my Masters in Social Work, and buy my first home. I can never thank her enough for being a mentor and a big sister to me. My way of thanking her is by staying strong no matter what the situation may be. So I want to say thank you, Sharmus, for instilling that in me. Love you always.

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Alisha Walker. (Courtesy of Sherri Chatman)

Alisha Walker (Courtesy of Sherri Chatman)

by Brit Schulte and Cathryn Berarovich of the Support Ho(s)e Collective 

Alisha Walker was just 20 years old when she had to defend herself against a client who was drunk and violent. She was 22 when she was convicted of second degree murder and 15 years in prison for defending both her own life and the life of a friend who was also on the scene. She is now 23 years old and behind bars at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois, seeking new legal representation and awaiting an appeals process.

In January 2014, Alisha Walker and a close friend of hers went to Alan Filan’s house in Orland Park, a Chicago suburb, to do a double session with Filan. Walker had seen Filan at least twice, and she had not screened him through any online resources. Afterwards, Walker told her mother that she immediately knew something was different about Filan this time. He was heavily intoxicated and very aggressive. He insisted that Walker’s friend didn’t look like her photos in the Backpage advertisement. When the two women refused to have unprotected sex with him, he threatened them with a knife. Walker was able to wrestle the knife from Filan and stab him several times, saving her own life and the life of her friend.

Alisha Walker, like many of us, comes from an average working class family, while her clients, like Filan, are mostly well-off and well-connected. Filan’s brother William Filan is a high-paid lobbyist whose clients have included the city of Chicago and JP Morgan Chase. His sister Denise Filan is a judge in the third subcircuit of Cook County.

Even Alan Filan himself was covered in a veneer of respectability, a seemingly-upstanding community member who taught at Brother Rice Catholic High School. It was easy for the media to portray Filan as a good man, rather than the violent aggressor he was, despite his tendency to be a mean, misogynistic drunk. Our efforts to screen his e-mails revealed multiple accounts of sex workers listing him as a bad client, cautioning against booking sessions with him. Even the articles most sympathetic to his memory recount his casual verbal abuse of the young soccer players whom he coached.

Walker was held in Cook County without bond for over two years while the media sensationalized the death of her attacker with wildly differing accounts of how many stab wounds he’d actually suffered, going so far as to include hesitation marks among the mortal wounds. Accounts of the stab wounds numbered from 10 to 14 in news articles, though the coroner’s report lists 14 hesitation marks and only two mortally inflicted wounds. Walker’s account of Filan’s drunkenness was confirmed by toxicology reports showing Filan’s blood alcohol content registered at a 0.208 when he was found days after his death.

Filan was remembered as a flawed but lovable man, brutally murdered. Walker, however, was never spoken about as a human being, the devoted big sister and caring and outgoing young woman her mother describes her as. Media outlets covering the story rarely mentioned that she had seen Filan at least twice without incident before he attacked her. Nor did they remark on the fact that she saved her own life and that of another woman’s in the face of Filan’s assault. There were at least 20 Backpage ads printed out on Filan’s desk, but the media often omitted this detail in their stories on the case. Nor did most articles on Walker address rumors that Filan was a habitual client of sex workers, and often (as Chicago sex worker screening sources record) was not respectful of the workers he saw.

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New chapter SWOP-Minneapolis honoring Dec 17th 2015 with a vigil. (Courtesy of SWOP-USA and local SWOP chapters)

New chapter SWOP-Minneapolis honoring Dec 17th 2015 with a vigil. (Courtesy of SWOP-USA and local SWOP chapters)

SWOP (Sex Worker Outreach Project) is the most recognized name in sex workers’ rights advocacy in the U.S. Currently, they have over 25 chapters around the country, and a board of directors—SWOP National. The only requirements to be a chapter are that March 3rd (International Sex Worker Rights Day) and December 17th (International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers) are recognized in some way. To avoid outing and endangerment, SWOP does not require its members to identify as current or former sex workers, though the board’s president must always be an out sex worker herself.

Savannah Sly, SWOP National’s president, newly elected in the spring of 2015, e-mailed us about the mistake the SWOP National board felt they’d made not supporting Oklahoma City serial cop racist Daniel Holtzclaw’s victims more as an organization. This mistake highlighted long held bad feeling about SWOP among sex workers who felt the organization did not stand up for sex workers of color, survival sex workers, and other less privileged members of the community. SWOP National wanted to address the community publicly about their commitment to working on these problems. I asked Sly if I could interview her about the way the organization worked and its goal to be more inclusive. The following is an abridged version of our ensuing e-mail conversation:

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Bonnie at the Different Avenues office in D.C. (Photo by PJ Starr)

Bonnie at the Different Avenues office in D.C. (Photo by PJ Starr)

Content warning: This interview contains graphic descriptions of police violence and rape, imprisonment, and domestic abuse.

Bonnie is a veteran sex workers’ rights activist who has done outreach work in the D.C. area since 2001. She was a HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive) client who lived on the streets in Maryland. Later, she was inspired by the work of Robyn Few and others to participate in activism and community organizing through SWOP-Maryland. Last year, she recorded sound for No Humans Involved, a documentary film produced by PJ Starr about Marcia Powell, the street sex worker killed by the negligence and cruelty of the Arizona prison system in 2009. Currently, she’s on a community advisory board with John Hopkins researchers for the SAPPHIRE (Sex Workers And Police Promoting Health In Risky Environments) study, which examines the role of police in HIV risks faced by Baltimore cis and trans sex working women.

You’ve been doing outreach since 2001, originally to D.C. and Prince George’s County Maryland, and later to Northern Virginia and Baltimore as well, using HIPS supplies and sometimes your own money. Where does your dedication come from?

I enjoy it and have to do it and will never stop doing it. That’s because I have memories where the ends of bread, dry socks, housing, a place to get high [where they would] not send me to jail, or a place to avoid drugs (depending on my mood), were my biggest dreams.

I have 8 years where I can proudly say the drug I am allergic to has no power over me. 

Up until very recently I provided housing. I had to stop, and now I provide referrals and transportation to shelters or transitional living or an affordable place to live, whatever is asked of me.  My current venues are methadone clinics, BDSM clubs, immigrant sex work apartments, drug testing clinics, and sex or BDSM party houses. I never leave someone who wants to be inside outside. What if it was the last time I saw that person? What if they were arrested for being homeless i.e. trespassing or loitering; really any charge. A Prince George’s County cop told me and I will never forget: it does not matter what I/we do, it only matters what he/they write on their papers.

Privileged, housed people may not understand that, and it is something I cannot explain. There are two separate worlds, where the language barrier is experience.

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