Why listen to us when you could listen to Meryl Streep? (Photo by Flickr user mostribus84)

Why listen to us when you could listen to Meryl Streep? (Photo by Flickr user mostribus84)

On July 22, a long list of prohibitionists, working through the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, released an open letter to Amnesty International as part of their long-running fight to stop them from officially adopting a pro-decriminalization of sex work stance. The letter urged the organization to vote against a draft proposal supporting decriminalization at their International Council meeting in Dublin this coming week. Besides roping in many of the usual suspects in anti-sex work circles—Janice Raymond, Julie Bindel, Rachel Moran, Robin Morgan, Meagan Tyler, etc.—the petition sought celebrity endorsements in an attempt to use fame to advance its cause. And sign on the celebrities did: Lena Dunham, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Emma Thompson, Lisa Kudrow, Kevin Kline, Christine Baranski, and Chris Cooper were among the more prominent names included.

When I first read that list, besides feeling like half of my favorite films had just been ruined for me, I was also really worried. People look up to these names. Who would listen to us in the sex workers’ rights movement when they could listen to Meryl Streep? The battle to support Amnesty International’s proposed stance has been a long and draining one for sex workers internationally, and it saw some particularly nasty fights here in Australia when prohibitionists tried to shout down sex workers at Amnesty Australia’s annual general meeting last July. As absurd as it was that a bunch of Hollywood’s most privileged could consider their voices about our oppression more important than our own, there was a lot of power and money in that list of names, and I was concerned that it might actually shift the course of Amnesty’s vote.



Marsha P Johnson, Stonewall riot participant, STAR House founder, ACT UP activist, and Black trans woman street sex worker. (Screenshot from "Pay It No Mind: The Life And Times of Marsha P Johnson")

Marsha P. Johnson, Stonewall participant, STAR House founder, ACT UP activist, Black trans woman, and street sex worker. (Screenshot from Pay It No Mind: The Life And Times of Marsha P. Johnson)

Like many of my LGBT peers and allies, I am grateful for the contributions made before and for the possibilities ahead. This summer, the Supreme Court acknowledged the humanity of LGBT individuals. And one of our pinnacle liberation symbols, New York City’s Stonewall Inn, the site of the 1969 Stonewall riots, was made a national landmark—all substantial markers of the rapidly increasing acceptance of LGBT individuals in mainstream America.

Over the past decades, important work to raise awareness and funds for the #gaymarriage movement has dominated the LGBT landscape. Each $1000-plate dinner and garden party brought together the well-dressed and privileged of the LGBT community to establish a strong presence against prejudiced, formidable foes. Many of these participants called on the ghost of Stonewall as an emblem of retaliation, reaction and unity. Simply by uttering the “S-word,” the President inspired LGBT people and their allies nationwide to have confidence to continue pushing for broad rights and protections. This summer our victory cry has been #lovewins.

But something is missing in all our gratitude. While it’s great that gay men and lesbians are building wedding registries, shopping at malls, and openly holding hands in places where it was previously forbidden, many of our most high profile spokespeople risk encouraging a spineless edit of history. We are so swift to lionize Stonewall and all of the early LGBT civil rights movement that the process has forced us to acquiesce to an acceptability politic which punishes many identities which represented the very heart and soul of our liberation mantras.

We must challenge our collective desire to strip a story that subverts a normative way of seeing the world. We as LGBT individuals and allies must tap our recent tragedies and triumphs to prevent our own story from disappearing into the exact same narrative most embraced by the bigots who used that norm against us.

The riots at Stonewall are, in fact, the perfect example. Conversations about its history selectively ignore significant components of the rioters’ identities, often including the vital presence of trans women (Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major, Marsha P. Johnson) and gay men but excluding the fact that many of these individuals were hustlers and street workers. Look for the biography of Sylvia Rivera, one of the most well-respected trans activists and Stonewall participants, and you will find her experience of street work excised. This, despite how sex work may have formed her only available opportunity at that time to afford to engage in her activist work. She was hardly the only trans woman of color involved in the sex industry supporting the riots. And then there were the hustlers, the young men working to support themselves after escaping to the city from lives that would have ended up in false marriages, depression, or, as it did for many, suicide or deaths by gay bashing. These were the people, harassed by the police to the point of exhaustion, willing to publicly engage as LGBT people at a time of great risk, the people who actually make up our liberation narrative.



Monica Jones and Derek Demeri in the United Nations Gardens in Geneva. (Photo by Derek Demeri, courtesy of Penelope Saunders and Derek Demeri)

Monica Jones and Derek Demeri in the United Nations Gardens in Geneva. (Photo by Derek Demeri, courtesy of Penelope Saunders and Derek Demeri)

On May 11th, American sex workers’ rights activists Monica Jones and Derek Demeri met with the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in Geneva to advocate for protections for sex workers, in preparation for the Council’s quadrennial Universal Period Review of the US’ human rights record that same day. The following interview was conducted with Demeri, of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, via e-mail and edited for clarity and length. 

What were your goals in making recommendations to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council? If the Council absorbed just one point from your presentation, what do you hope it was?

Ultimately, we want people in positions of power to hear and recognize the struggle that sex workers have been facing for centuries. Sex workers and their allies know all too well the violence that comes at the hands of the police and [those in] other positions of authority. We know how deep stigma runs in society when sex workers can face eviction from housing or termination from employment for past experience in the sex trade. We know how the government has completely failed to aid sex workers against the HIV epidemic that continues to sweep the country. Our community knows these things, but we need to let the world know.

Unfortunately, there were no specific recommendations that sought to protect sex workers during this UPR [Universal Periodic Review] round of the United States. There were several recommendations that encouraged the United States to do more to end human trafficking, which we of course know means more policing of our communities and public shaming for our work. However, Thailand made a recommendation to have “more holistic monitoring” and “evidence based” research when combating human trafficking, which we can use to support sex workers. Many countries also made recommendations regarding ending racial profiling, torture in the prison system, and ending police brutality, which are all important for our community.


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Sex workers and allies at the April 9th Amsterdam protest. (Photo by Robin van Lokhuijsen, courtesy of Felicia Anna)

Sex workers and allies at the April 9th Amsterdam protest. (Photo by Robin van Lokhuijsen, courtesy of Felicia Anna)

On April 9th, over 200 Amsterdam sex workers and their supporters protested the closing of legal sex businesses in the Red Light District by the city council. The demonstration consisted of a march from the Amsterdam Red Light District to city hall, where the protesters handed a letter to the mayor demanding the reopening of their closed workplaces and the active participation of sex workers in the city’s policy regarding their jobs.

Project 1012

Amsterdam has closed down at least 109 windows already as part of Project 1012, an initiative to bring the number of legal window workplaces down by 40% from 476 to 284. Project 1012, named for the Red Light District area code, is a massive gentrification project aimed at ridding Amsterdam center of “low value” businesses like marijuana coffee shops and the windows.

Government officials consider closing down legal work locations for sex workers an effective measure to prevent trafficking because they believe these businesses to be “sensitive to criminal activity” (“criminogeen” in Dutch, a new word invented solely to justify this policy) simply because they are part of the sex industry. Ironically, even local police voiced a preference for reopening the windows in order to keep sex work legal and visible.

The demonstration, the first of its kind in the Netherlands, was facilitated by PROUD, a sex worker-led union that launched earlier this year. The letter they addressed to Mayor Everhard van der Laan, demanding that the city stop closing windows and reopen closed brothels, as well as actively include sex workers in the city’s sex work policy, was signed by nearly a thousand supporters, many of whom are Red Light District sex workers themselves.

The mayor dismissed the sex workers’ concerns by saying that “the war is over,” maintaining that the issue has already been concluded decisively. He asked the protesters, “You tell me in what other city sex workers can demonstrate in these numbers in the streets,” implying that sex workers should be grateful for the rights they already have. He also stated that the city had already decided to close down fewer brothels, though this policy decision was actually motivated by the city council’s desire to lower Project 1012’s 108 million euro budget.




Kevin Brown (via


5/1/15 Kamylla’s GoFundMe was taken offline and replaced with a Tilt fundraiser, which has also now been closed down. We will update if we hear news of another fundraising effort.

5/3/15 Here’s an updated fundraiser link.

There’s been no shortage of coverage of A&E’s 8 Minutes, the ostensible reality show in which cop-turned-pastor Kevin Brown makes appointments with sex workers and then has the titular amount of time to make a case for them to stop their work. Lane Champagne wrote here in December that

Of all the professions to produce potential sex work interventionists, law enforcement and clergy are at the very top of the Unsuitable list. Behind those two are literally every single other profession, because sex work interventions are vile exercises in the hatred and shaming of sex working individuals and shouldn’t exist.

Supposedly, women who want to leave sex work will be given help. From A&E’s website: “8 Minutes follows Pastor Kevin Brown and his Lives Worth Saving team as they help sex workers and victims of sex trafficking leave their dangerous situations behind to start over.” And how do they do that?

Last week, one woman, who goes by Kamylla, came forward on Twitter to hold the show’s producers accountable for promising her assistance in exchange for her appearance on the show, then leaving her twisting in the wind when she was arrested soon after, having returned to work from economic necessity when they didn’t provide the promised help in exiting the industry.

Kamylla received a call on her work number from the producers of the show, who immediately identified themselves as such (this is in contrast to the premise of the show, which implies that the women believe they are coming to a normal appointment, only to be met by Brown). She agreed to tape a segment for the show, in which she said she wanted help getting out of the business, and after the taping was told she’d soon hear back with more information and assistance.

She never heard back from them, and instead reached out herself, but no meaningful help was to come. Kamylla found herself broke and needing to work again. She posted an ad, using the same number the 8 Minutes producers had contacted her on, and was arrested in a sting. Now she was broke, frightened, and facing criminal charges, and when she reached out for help from 8 Minutes, Brown offered to pray for her. [READ MORE]