Pride is a celebration and recognition of the Stonewall Riots and all those who have paved the way for LGBTQ equality. On June 28, 1969, after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, an underground queer bar in New York City, the LGBTQ community and supporters rioted and fought back against legal and social repression of the community. The riot was led by sex workers, gender nonconforming individuals, low-income individuals, and people of color, people who were most affected by police actions against the GLBTQ community and who were brave enough to stand up and fight back. While not the first revolutionary act by the community (most would point to the Compton Cafeteria Riots as the first) the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots reverberated throughout the city and country.
On the one year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the newly formed Gay Liberation Front led organization of the Christopher Street Liberation Day, and the first Pride marches took place in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. Every year since then, the number of cities participating in pride have continued to grow exponentially as more and more people started coming forward to demand freedom from oppression and to celebrate their sexuality and gender expression. The entire month of June is now widely recognized as Pride Month and celebrated globally.
At the Sex Workers Outreach Project, we very much care about Pride celebrations. Pride is as much a day for sex workers as it is for the LGBTQ community. We very much remember and honor those who were willing to stand up and demand change against social repression and violence enacted by the state against LGBTQ communities, and also remember the instrumental role sex workers had in making happen. As sex workers continue to come forward and find empowerment in standing with SWOP and other sex worker-led organizations, we will continue to work with Pride organizers to rightfully stand in solidarity with other marginalized and disenfranchised communities who continue to demand recognition and a political voice. While many of us come from a wide variety of backgrounds and may not identify as LGBTQ, sex workers can and should proudly, loudly and wildly participate in the beauty and community celebration that Pride activities mean for people around the country.
What are some issues impacting LGBTQ sex workers?
Survival Sex, Housing Instability & Youth – A disproportionate number of LGBTQ youth engage in sex work as a means of survival. As youth come to terms with their sexual or gender identity, too many families continue to throw youth out of their homes or create violent and unsafe living conditions that make running away the best option. Many housing shelters continue to discriminate against LGBTQ youth, often allowing cisgender and straight-identified peers to harass or enact violence against LGBTQ youth seeking shelter. Many also impose strict policies that reinforce social gender roles based on one’s biological or perceived sex. Without stable housing, survival sex work is a rational choice for many.
Poverty & Employment Discrimination – As a socially disenfranchised community, many members of the LGBTQ community, particularly gender-nonconforming and transgender people, experience rampant employment and social service discrimination, cutting them off from access to resources and leaving many in poverty. For many, the sex trade is an important source of income. For some it may be the only viable way to meet economic needs, and for others it might be an important source of supplemental income to low-wage work.
Exposure Laws & Communicable Diseases – Across the country, people can receive up to 30 years in prison for “exposing” sexual partners to HIV. At least thirty-two (32) states and two (2) U.S. territories explicitly criminalize HIV exposure through sex, shared needles or, in some states, and 14 States specifically criminalize engaging in sex work if the individual knows he/she is HIV+. No exposure or transmission? You can still be charged–even if you use a condom, your viral load is suppressed to the point where the possibility for transmission is virtually negligible, or you engage in a sex act, like oral sex, where risks of transmission are virtually negligible. For sex workers, no sex must even occur, and most sex workers receiving HIV-related charges are charged during sting operations where no sex has even taken place. Because sex workers are criminalized for engaging in an activity at risk of transmitting HIV, sex workers are frequently subjected to mandatory HIV testing during interactions with the criminal justice system, are more frequently in contact with the criminal justice system, and sex workers often face disproportionate burdens for the criminalization of HIV.
Fear, despite overwhelming research and evidence from the scientific community indicating that these laws cause more harm than good, perpetuates these laws. Unless you have every single sexual partner sign an acknowledgment document saying you are HIV+, having sex while positive has become a de facto crime. While most laws target HIV, many states have laws that apply to all sexually transmitted infections and Illinois recently increased laws around Tuberculosis exposure. Given the health disparities experienced by LGBTQ people and sex workers, these laws concern people of both communities.
What are sex workers and the LGBT community saying about Pride?
What many don’t realize is that the police brutality the trans community faces is directly tied to other forms of discrimination we face. Some TWOC are thrown out of their homes (even as children) and have to support themselves by attempting to get a job. Discrimination against transgender people in the workplace causes us to be unemployed or underemployed, so we have to turn to sex work. As sex workers, we get mistreated by clients and the police. Police violence against sex workers, and those presumed to be sex workers, goes unpunished and uninvestigated because sex workers are seen as expendable by clients and worthy of destruction by the state. It’s a vicious cycle that is worsened by the constant threat of police violence towards anyone who is transgender or gender non-conforming.
-Princess Harmony Rodriguez, Whose Lives Matter?: Trans Women of Color and Police Violence
A huge number of LGBTQ members are sex workers. If GLBT doesn’t want the government in their bedrooms, why would it be OK for the government to invade the bedrooms of sex workers and their clients? GLBT individuals should be outraged that sex workers face violence due to stigma and criminalization.
-Bella Robinson, Executive Director – Coyote RI
I have come to the realization that even at my lowest and loneliest hour, I was always a small part of a big movement. Now I grasp the importance of a solidarity that transcends the many stigmatized subsets of industrialized sex, a solidarity that goes beyond gender identity, social class, and color. I challenge all who read this to fight all forms of violence wherever they find it, to strive to better understand the plight of those who are stigmatized, and to persistently look for ways to exist in solidarity with one another.
-A. Passion, One Black Trans Sex Worker’s December 17th
Trans people’s history is tied up with sex work due to the variety of economic and cultural factors that have often made sex work the most viable option for trans survival. And it’s personal, too—my own history as a trans woman and as a sex worker are connected so closely that I cannot speak about one without the other. So often trans people seeking the supposed safety of respectability try to jettison our connections to prostitution, and while I understand this strategy and the emotions behind it, I can see that this comes at the cost of rejecting sex workers. And that rejection has profound implications for our life chances, which multiply exponentially for many trans sex workers of color.
I’ve noticed some folks tend to equate the sex that sex workers have at work, or the version of our sexuality that we sell, with our in real life sexuality. I.e. lesbian community members will sometimes say that a female sex worker can not identify as a lesbian because she has sex with men at work. That ain’t cool. Some parts of the LGBT community sometimes seems to fall into the trap of not viewing sexual labor as LABOR just as much as heterosexual community does, if not more so.
-Rachel Carlisle, SWOP-Denver Organizer
Lesbian and gay communities must question whether they will continue to allow non-sex working gays, lesbians, and queers to be held up as experts on sex work and allow the misleading ideologies and representations of queer sex workers that they perpetuate to remain prevalent…Failure to recognize the contribution of queer sex workers to the queer community allows ‘othering’ of sex workers; it means that sex workers are repeatedly not recognized as part of queer communities and that sex worker-led campaigns for decriminalization are not recognized as a queer issue.
-Ryan Elizabeth Cole, Academic (p. 230, Queer Sex Work)
Trans women of color come from a legacy of resilience. When obstacles have prevented us from access to care and wellbeing, we created our own paths….It was trans women who fought in liberation movements alongside cis men and women. We organized in our communities against AIDS. We organized among sex workers to protect ourselves. And even now, many of us are on the front lines of movements today. We live and breathe revolution.
-Princess Harmony, Why We All Need To Recognize That Trans Women of Color Are Powerful
The LGBTQ community is vastly, disproportionately affected by criminalization of sex work.
-Kate D’Adamo, National Policy Advocate at The Sex Workers Project
The (cis- and trans-) misogyny and sexism that endangers our lives and violates our autonomy is part of the same systemic heteronormativity that policies and oppresses all of us!
-Vanessa Soma, Founder & Managing Attorney at V. Soma Law