Maya Angelou, Sex Worker and Hero

February 23, 2022

For many, Maya Angelou needs no introduction. Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, MO in 1928, Angelou became a household name in the 1970s, after publishing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of her seven memoirs. She continues to be renowned for her writing and contributions to the civil rights movement. But Angelou is also a cultural icon that transcends her written work. She created space for raw honesty and a fearless representation of the messiness and contradictions of what it means to be human.

This unabashed realness, both on and off the page, was revolutionary, breathing life into the work that made her beloved to so many. It was also what caused I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to be banned in many schools when it was first published. The novel discussed Angelou’s experience with sexual abuse when she was a child.

Undeterred, Angelou’s second memoir, Gather Together in My Name details her experiences as a sex worker and madam in her early adulthood. The protagonist, Marguerite, is a single mother, negotiating racism, education, poverty, literacy, and stigma as she attempts to find her place in the world. “I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, ‘I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? — never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet,’” Angelou said of the book. “They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, ‘Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.’ They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives.”

When Maya Angelou passed on May 28, 2014, the world lauded her genius, a figure of aspiration for women everywhere, particularly women of color. But the discussions of her life’s work were largely silent on the subject of her sex work. In a review of obituaries or tributes released after her death, it is mentioned cursorily, if at all, as a “brief stint” in commercial sex, glossed over as unimportant and distasteful — an affront to respectability politics and her legacy. This is particularly troubling given how open Angelou herself was about it.

Sex work was only one of Angelou’s many professions. It was not until the late fifties and early sixties that she moved to New York to concentrate on her career as a writer. Before that, she was a nightclub performer, fry-cook, and the first Black woman to ever drive a streetcar in San Francisco. Later in her career, she worked as a Southern Christian Leadership Conference coordinator and correspondent in Egypt and Ghana during the decolonization of Africa.

But sex work was important enough to Angelou for her to dedicate space to it in her writing. She did this purposefully, to demonstrate that humans are messy, imperfect, and multi-faceted. We make personal choices every day to survive, to get ahead, to do the “right” thing, and these choices, particularly those that have to do with our own bodies, are ours to make. As Dr. Angelou said herself, “There are many ways to prostitute one’s self.”

Throughout the many iterations of her career, Angelou was never ashamed of her own past. As Peechington Marie writes in her article commemorating the erasure of Angelou’s sex work history:

It comes to this: there is no way, in the minds of most people, to have worked as a prostitute and not be ashamed of it. … To most people, there is no way a woman of Maya Angelou’s caliber could ever have performed as a sex worker. The idea just won’t gel for them, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the truth. Maya Angelou: Poet Laureate, Pulitzer nominee, Tony Award winner, best selling author, poetess, winner of more than 50 honorary degrees, mother, sister, daughter, wife, National Medal of Arts winner, Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, consummate and powerful woman, artist, and former sex worker. Yes, the woman you love, the woman we all love, the incomparable Dr. Maya Angelou was a sex worker and she proved, in her life and her stories, that there’s nothing wrong with it.

In a world where sex workers are often reduced, to either drug-addicted criminals or voiceless, nameless victims, Angelou did what she does best: she told the truth and created space for what is real, even when that truth is complicated and makes people feel negative, confusing emotions about everything they thought they knew. She continued to push, for women, for people of color, for those who felt lesser than, to raise their voices and own their precious, unique lives.

In her own words:

Now you understand
just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
the need for my care.
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
(Phenomenal Woman)

Decriminalization is the best and only way to give sex workers the dignity and respect they deserve. It is about safety, health, and combatting exploitation, yes. But it is also about recognizing that the choices an individual makes with their own bodies are theirs to make, and all of our responsibility to respect.

Maya Angelou in 1969 (Chester Higgins, Jr./New York Times, 2014)

Maya Angelou in 1969 (Chester Higgins, Jr./New York Times, 2014)

DSW Newsletter #33 (February 2022)

DSW Releases Groundbreaking Report on Sex Work and Human Trafficking in New York State

February 15, 2022 Decriminalize Sex Work (DSW) released a historic report which examines arrest and conviction data for prostitution and human trafficking-related offenses using legal, socio-political, and historical context. In “By the Numbers: New York’s Treatment of...
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DSW Releases Groundbreaking Report on Sex Work and Human Trafficking in New York State

The EARN IT Act Threatens Free Speech and Sex Worker Rights

February 11, 2022 A dangerous bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, reigniting a fiery debate around online sexual content regulation and freedom of speech. S3538 was introduced by Senator Lindsay Graham late last month. The...
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The EARN IT Act Threatens Free Speech and Sex Worker Rights

A Constitutional Right to Sex Work

February 1, 2022 In a recent Boston Review article, theorist and associate professor at Yale University Joseph Fischel explores whether there is a constitutional right to sex work. He heads off naysayers by noting that, though it...
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A Constitutional Right to Sex Work

Victoria Becomes Australia’s Third State to Decriminalize Sex Work

February 10, 2022 After a multi-year effort to decriminalize consensual, adult sex work in Victoria, the Sex Work Decriminalisation Act 2021 passed the upper house by 24 votes to 10, clearing its final hurdle to becoming law....
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Victoria Becomes Australia’s Third State to Decriminalize Sex Work

Chilling Effects: Amnesty International reports on Ireland’s 2017 End Demand Law

January 24, 2022 Amnesty International released a report reviewing Part 4 of the Irish Criminal Law (Sexual Offenses) Act, enacted in 2017. The provision introduced amendments to the previous sexual offenses law, passed in 1993, criminalizing the...
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Chilling Effects: Amnesty International reports on Ireland’s 2017 End Demand Law

Maya Angelou, Sex Worker and Hero

February 23, 2022 For many, Maya Angelou needs no introduction. Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, MO in 1928, Angelou became a household name in the 1970s, after publishing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,...
Read More
Maya Angelou, Sex Worker and Hero

DSW Newsletter Archive

Hero of the Month: Joaquin Remora

December 21, 2021

After more than a decade of commitment to harm reduction in transgender, sex worker, and housing rights spaces, Joaquin Remora has never lost his sense of curiosity about his community. “I understood very early … that these dynamics, people living on the streets, are entirely misunderstood. To do this work I needed to have curiosity rather than an opinion. Like, hey, what’s your story? What do you need?” Now the Director of Our Trans Home SF, a coalition of organizations addressing housing instability for Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex (TGI) people in the Bay Area, Remora has channeled his open-minded, dynamic nature into building the city’s first transitional housing program for homeless Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming (TGNC) adults.

Remora initially moved to San Francisco from Vancouver, Canada, looking for a community in which he would feel comfortable transitioning. He joined St. James Infirmary, the first occupational health and safety organization for sex workers in the country, and a parent organization of Our Trans Home, as a participant. Remora’s care for his community and expertise was quickly recognized and he was asked to join St. James’s board of directors. Our Trans Home was founded in January of 2020 and Remora began to volunteer. When it became apparent that the program needed strong trans leadership to succeed, he stepped in as director.

Navigating enormous obstacles, of which COVID-19 has only been one, Our Trans Home has flourished with the support of Remora and other transgender leaders, now serving about 150 participants. But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to need. Remora had previously worked at a housing navigation center, gaining expertise on the risks and challenges posed by housing programs, particularly for TGI community members. The San Francisco shelter system is built on a temporary housing model, ill-equipped to provide any kind of long-term resources to the communities they serve. Many unhoused trans folks end up leaving the system because they don’t feel safe. Funding, says Remora, is the biggest challenge.

Born on the western peninsula of Mexico, Remora was raised near Vancouver, BC. He was drawn to the richness and diversity of the culture in San Francisco, something that he felt was missing in Vancouver. Remora describes growing up “in a very specific way that made the bigger picture very clear. ​​Whereas maybe if I had been raised in a more progressive home or my parents had been liberals, or if I wasn’t mixed-race, maybe anything like this would have not made everything stand out so stark[ly] to me.” He also points to the different cultural cues he received from his father’s spiritual indigenous family and his mother’s more material white one providing a great deal of insight about his own journey: “Understanding the systems and the way they impact people emotionally and spiritually, and seeing that you can have a lot of very dysfunctional behaviors due to the trauma that you deal with. But you can be more in touch with your humanity that way [than] someone who is aligned with the system and has access to more resources and yet there is so much more suffering and detachment.”

While living in Vancouver, Remora began doing harm reduction with the unhoused population there. He was also working at the BC Compassion Club Society, the oldest and largest medical cannabis dispensary in Canada which is completely consensus-based and run by indigenous women. Vancouver is also home to North America’s first safe injection and needle exchange facility and a lot of harm reduction policy innovations. After working as a service provider for so long, Remora took an enormous risk, moving to San Francisco without documentation, money, or permission to work legally. He was dealing with his own substance use and beginning to transition and relied a lot on St. James for resources and community until his life stabilized and he once again became a provider.

In part because of his full-circle perspective, Remora doesn't identify as an activist, but rather an advocate or a friend to community and sex workers. While his advocacy has blossomed into a career, for Remora that was never the point. “I don't want to identify the work as separate from my own path. … For me, this is just how life should be. These things are a part of my story and therefore this is just what comes with showing up to that story and telling [it] so that things can improve for anyone in that situation. I want to normalize it.”

Remora sees relationship-building as central to his work: getting to know people, understanding their unique stories, struggles, and trauma, and helping them achieve their goals with appropriate support. It’s far from perfect, but seeing people build up their self-esteem and become more and more themselves every day, simply by having access to basic resources is incredibly rewarding to him. “There is so much gratitude,” Remora says. “I don’t ask for any gratitude because housing is a human right. But … when you go from having nothing to feeling like a normal part of the world, that is a really generous place of gratitude.”

Reflecting on the most significant challenges he has faced, Remora pauses. “There is still so much that society at large doesn’t understand about trans people — the city doesn’t understand that they are not going to stay in their resources because it’s not safe for them.” Remora says he too is learning every day, about transmisogyny and other invisibilized forms of violence. When asked if he ever feels like he’s trying to put a band-aid on a bullet hole, Remora laughs. “Definitely. But I’m lucky that I have some really radical mentors that are like, ‘We can’t really put too much weight on this because it’s kind of shoveling water.’”

Remora also reframes the work — away from solving the problems themselves, and towards setting up systems and solutions that allow people with lived experience to lead. “There are little ways in which I’m not looking at this as a solution. I’m just saying let’s just put those problems in the right hands, more than anything.” He feels fortunate to have strong mentors who are uncompromising in their dedication to taking action based on consensus and setting up strong boundaries.

Looking forward, Remora hopes that the success of Our Trans Home will be a jumping-off point for other programming. He is optimistic that the city will agree to help fund a navigation center for a specifically trans and TGNC shelter system focused on serving people of color. He also hopes to budget for trans and TGNC staff, who already donate so much of their time to this work. Again the need is enormous: they need services for people living on the street who aren't yet ready to transition to permanent housing, better mental health services, access to healthcare, and employment development. “Right now we just need to demonstrate to funders how well our program is working and how much more it needs to grow to make a difference in the larger population.” He also hopes that the organization can develop direct referrals for asylum seekers and programs supporting migrant sex workers in order to get trans people out of detention centers faster, referencing a detention center in New Mexico with 60 trans women from Central America seeking asylum.

Remora is forever staying attuned to how the movement can heal its own trauma, build solidarity, and take collective action to challenge systemic violence. “It requires everyone to do a lot of healing and self-exploration, deprogramming from the things that keep us separate, and being curious about each other’s cultures. Because that’s what’s going to help us be stronger together.” He sees what they are up against as rooted in centuries-old systems of oppression. “To look at another person and say ‘you’re not human,’ that comes from a very injured place. Transphobia and whorephobia are the same thing … to me, it’s a spiritual disease that’s the issue and how do we help each other do that healing and that deprogramming?”

For Remora the answer is simple — through, curiosity, and love. “There’s a lot of things that cause harm to the movement … understanding what love really is and what it isn’t. This work comes from a place of love but if you are confused about what love means we’re not going to be able to make the right moves. To me, the lesson is really defining one’s philosophy of what love is, love for the community, love for all humans. That’s always the thing that re-centers me. Because that’s love, Instead of saying, well I suffered, now I’m gonna get my piece of the pie, no I’m gonna remember that I suffered so other people don’t have to.”

Joaquin Remora

(Courtesy of Joaquin Remora, 2021)

DSW Newsletter #31 (December 2021)

Burlington, VT City Council Votes To Remove Language on Sex Work From Its City Charter

December 13, 2021 In a historic move, the Burlington, VT City Council unanimously supported a resolution to remove harmful, stigmatizing, and archaic language around prostitution from its city charter. Burlington voters will now have the opportunity to...
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Burlington, VT City Council Votes To Remove Language on Sex Work From Its City Charter

Johns Hopkins University Hosts Panel on Decriminalization

December 2, 2021 The Oregon Sex Workers’ Committee (OSWC) collaborated with Woodhull Freedom Foundation to present a discussion on decriminalization and marginalized communities. The panel was hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human...
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Johns Hopkins University Hosts Panel on Decriminalization

Honoring International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers

December 17, 2021 Each year, International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (D17) brings together community members, advocates, and allies from around the world to honor the lives of those who have been lost to violence...
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Honoring International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers

Hero of the Month: Joaquin Remora

December 21, 2021 After more than a decade of commitment to harm reduction in transgender, sex worker, and housing rights spaces, Joaquin Remora has never lost his sense of curiosity about his community. “I understood very early...
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Hero of the Month: Joaquin Remora

DSW Newsletter Archive

Hero of the Month: Gwendolyn Ann Smith

November 20, 2021

For Gwendolyn Ann Smith, the end of Rita Hester’s life was a beginning. Smith was living in San Francisco, working as a computer programmer when Hester was found, with more than twenty stab wounds to the chest, in her Boston apartment on the evening of November 28, 1998. Hester was almost 35-years-old, a Black, transgender woman, who was a cornerstone member of Boston’s transgender, non-conforming (TGNC) rights movement. She died shortly after arriving at the hospital, leaving her community reeling from shock and grief.

The reporting around Hester’s murder was not only inadequate, but it was also outright inaccurate and disrespectful. Multiple outlets, including the New England gay and lesbian newspaper Bay Windows, reportedly used he/him pronouns when referring to Hester and put her name in quotes. They referred to Hester as a transvestite and wrote disapprovingly of her “double life.”

Just three years before this brutal murder, Chanel Picket, a 23-year-old transgender woman was found strangled to death in the apartment of William Palmer. The incident was framed in a similar cold and transphobic manner by the press. Palmer used the “trans panic” defense and was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges, only serving 2 years for assault and battery. Many speculated that the cultural response primed the lack of consequences. Chillingly, Hester herself commented on the verdict, telling a local LGBT newspaper: “I’m afraid of what will happen if [Palmer] gets off lightly. It’ll just give people a message that it’s OK to do this. This is a message we cannot afford to send.”

In 1988, Smith had had enough. The serial misinformation and bias in reporting around transgender murders was being recognized around the country. Six years earlier, Smith had lobbied her employer, America Online (AOL), to adopt policies allowing discussions of gender issues on their service. Her work led to the creation of the first public forum centering transgender issues on a major online service — the Transgender Community Forum — allowing thousands of transgender people worldwide to connect on a daily basis. Members of the TGNC community took to online forums to process Hester’s death and the national response. Smith remembers being on an AOL platform, discussing the events with fellow trans folks. When she brought up the parallels between Hester and Pickett, no one had ever heard of the latter case.

Smith could no longer let the deaths of her community members be ignored and misrepresented. She created the Remembering Our Dead project, an online chronicle of violence committed against transgender people. The next November, Smith organized the first-ever Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) in San Francisco while fellow activist Penny Ashe Matz coordinated an event in Boston. From there, TDOR multiplied, spurred by online forums spreading information about the event and those it mourned each year, citing Smith’s project as source material. Today, TDOR is observed around the globe. In the early 2000s, the Associated Press released style guidelines for correct gender-affirming terminology when writing about trans issues, progress that many attribute to Hester’s case and the movement that followed.

While Rita Hester’s death sparked a movement, Smith has mixed feelings about the legacy of her project. In 2019, in an interview with Vogue, she admitted:

On one hand, it's really amazing and fascinating to see it happen, because when I first started to work on the project after that night in the chat room, I didn't necessarily feel a lot of hope around it. I had [a] feeling that nobody was paying attention to this. … I didn't think that it was going to matter to people. So seeing events around the world 20 years later is really mind-blowing, in a good way. At the same time, there are times that I feel like, What did I unleash? Did I do the right thing? Was this the event that our community should have? A lot of TDOR [events] are, for obvious reasons, focused around our deaths and our dying. And can we be something more than our deaths?

Smith tried to keep a relatively low profile around TDOR because the event isn’t about her, it’s about a movement, a community, and building a collective memory that she felt was noticeably absent from her experience coming out in the trans community, but is getting better. “When I was coming out, trying to find the activists who came before me was difficult; when they were going through the process, they had to fight to find people. There’s this seemingly long history of us not having a lot of readily available trans elders to look to. We don’t always share. The traditional concept is that we transition and we’re gone … there’s no historical memory,” Smith told Vogue in 2019. The internet is changing this, creating a permanent and institutionalized memory and Smith is a part of making that happen. She has continued to provide online web management for community members across the country.

Reflecting on ways life has changed for the trans community since TDOR began, Smith recalls a growing community in the ’90s, building trans spaces and therefore greater visibility. That visibility has allowed transgender people like Danica Roem to be elected and then re-elected to office. Visibility has allowed transgender people to become well-known celebrities and have entire shows devoted to exploring their world. But being visible also means the community is targeted, and others might see them as a threat. Even still, Smith knows “the more that people see who we are, what we are, the more they talk with us, the more they experience our existence. The harder it becomes to say, well, there's this scary thing out there that people should be afraid of.”

TDOR events are, understandably, often quite somber. Despite notable progress in the last two decades, violence against transgender people has been rising in recent years. This violence falls disproportionately on transgender women of color. “It’s my opinion that you have to create a coalition there, and people who want to help have got to also address race, sexism, sex worker rights,” Smith told Vogue in 2019. “There [are] so many other parts of the whole that need to be a part of the discussion.”

Today, Rita Hester’s case remains unsolved. Many activists are torn between celebrating progress and looking at the reality of anti-trans crimes and legislation that halts this narrative. Still, one cannot help but remember the events that followed Rita Hester’s murder with awe — a community that refused to be erased and refused to have one of their own forgotten. “It’s important that we remember these people that may have been forgotten in their lives — that we don’t let them go,” Smith says.

In celebrating TDOR, she hopes people feel how strong this community is: “A lot of us who are trans don't often have the ability to have people when we're going through our earliest times in transition, to have friends and family and people that are there to hold your hand when you're crying when you're hurt. So that's what I would want them to take away from that, is that we do have this community. We do have people that are there for you.” (Quotes from Vogue, 2019)

Smith pictured on the cover of Vanity Fair in 2015. (Twitter, 2015)

Smith pictured on the cover of Vanity Fair in 2015. (Twitter, 2015)

Smith is interviewed at the 20-year anniversary celebration of TDOR in 2017. (Vogue, 2019)

Smith is interviewed at the 20-year anniversary celebration of TDOR in 2017. (Vogue, 2019)

DSW Newsletter #30 (November 2021)

Gov. Hochul Signs START Act Into Law

November 16, 2021 In a historic and long-fought victory, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Survivors of Trafficking Attaining Relief Together (START) Act into law. The START Act (A459/S674), sponsored by Senator Jessica Ramos and Representative...
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Gov. Hochul Signs START Act Into Law

Commission Studying Sex Work Law and Policy Convenes in Rhode Island

November 16, 2021 A commission to study the health and safety impact of laws related to sex work met for its first official hearing at the Rhode Island Statehouse. Officially called the “Commission to Study Ensuring Racial...
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Commission Studying Sex Work Law and Policy Convenes in Rhode Island

Decriminalization Gaining Momentum in Oregon

November 16, 2021 Advocates in Oregon filed a petition on the Sex Worker Rights Act which would decriminalize consensual adult sex work with the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office. The petition will ideally allow voters in the...
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Decriminalization Gaining Momentum in Oregon

Conferences

October 26: APHA’s Annual Meeting DSW’s J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly, Melissa Broudo, and Frances Steele attended the American Public Health Association’s Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, and presented on the role of sex work decriminalization in promoting public...
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Conferences

Transgender Day of Remembrance

November 20, 2021 Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is observed each year to commemorate and honor lives lost to acts of anti-transgender violence. TDOR originated in 1999, following the murder of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who...
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Transgender Day of Remembrance

Hero of the Month: Gwendolyn Ann Smith

November 20, 2021 For Gwendolyn Ann Smith, the end of Rita Hester’s life was a beginning. Smith was living in San Francisco, working as a computer programmer when Hester was found, with more than twenty stab wounds...
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Hero of the Month: Gwendolyn Ann Smith

Save the Dates

December 2: Panel Discussion The Center for Public Health and Human Rights at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) is hosting a panel entitled “Beyond Sex Work Decriminalization: Possibilities and Priorities for...
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Save the Dates

DSW Newsletter Archive

Hero of the Month: Kiara St. James

October 15, 2021

“The first act of resilience is to take a breath and acknowledge that we have a right to exist,” Kiara St. James told the Human Rights Campaign in a 2019 interview. St. James has been an activist for over 20 years, promoting equity-building policies in New York and beyond. Currently, she is the co-founder and executive director of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG) and an international figurehead in the fight for transgender rights. Her work has largely focused on advocacy for the rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming (TGNC) individuals, housing, and combating the spread of HIV/AIDS. St. James is the first to say that any policy change supporting health and safety for individuals is a step in the right direction. “You don’t need to be TGNC to see these things making sense,” St. James says. “I’ve worked on TGNC issues, needle exchange programs, advocated for a 30% rent cap, and others.” Currently, she is focusing on universal basic income to give all people, no matter their background and identity, access to basic resources.

St. James is a soft-spoken visionary, full of vibrant energy. Throughout her interview, she slips easily in and out of anecdotes from her past and present, recognizing the significance of different events and relationships. She has been interviewed hundreds of times but St. James has no love of the spotlight. “I am always encouraging younger girls to step into their power, and giving a platform to other Black trans women, not just me,” she says. Activism gave St. James her community, and she has spent her whole life pouring herself back into it.

Born in Beaumont, Texas, St. James grew up surrounded by a large network of extended family. She describes her father as “intense” with a lot of “toxic masculinity.” As a result, she relied a lot on her “favorite aunt” who encouraged St. James to explore her identity. “She supported me. She was like, ‘Baby I knew what you was gonna be before you knew what you was gonna be. I see you fighting with your sisters and your female cousins to play wonder woman. …’ I was never a male character,” St. James laughs. It was her aunt who convinced St. James’ parents to put the 11-year-old into foster care abroad, giving her access to a more welcoming environment, eye-opening experiences, and freedom.

St. James moved to Heidelberg, Germany for eight years. She traveled around Europe with her foster parents, who worked for the Department of Defense, and siblings, and says this opportunity was critical to her overcoming the transphobia and racism she faced in her early years. “I was in Germany and no one talked down to me,” she laughs. “I’m not gonna let you talk down to me.” It’s funny though — for St. James — who now looks back on this experience as a blessing. At the time, she was filled with loneliness and often wanted to return home.

Upon moving back to Texas, St. James had an entirely different frame of reference for equity and justice. She got involved in activism, specifically around challenging the names of landmarks, that celebrated the legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow era. St. James then moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she became a home care worker and got involved in ACT UP, also known as AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power and other queer spaces. “Believe it or not, I was one of the few Black faces in ACT UP at that time,” says St. James. She conducted outreach work in her community around sexual health. As she reminisces on this time, her joy and passion for connecting with people bubbles to the surface. She laughs remembering that many of the married women she talked to would reject her advice to wear a condom, even though most of St. James’ sex work clients at the time were married men.

St. James moved to New York for her partner at the time, who dreamed of finding himself in the northern metropolis. “I never wanted to move to New York. … It was very different, it looked like it did in the movies and all those TV shows. It was grimy, it was dirty, and it was home. I found community here, but I also found a lot of trauma. I found a lot of anti-blackness.”

Sex work is what introduced St. James to the activists that ultimately shaped her career. It was early morning and she was in the Meatpacking district after a night of work. The shelter she was currently staying at didn’t open until 4 pm and she was preparing to head back to try to beg to be let in early as she was desperate for sleep. St. James remembers hearing someone call her name (at the time, she went by “Big Nasty”), and she turned to see her friend waving from a big bus. The friend encouraged St. James to travel to Washington, D.C. with them to demonstrate against the governments’ non-existent AIDS policy. St. James balked at first, having just worked a long night but eventually agreed to join them. She remembers the sheer energy and joy of the demonstration; it swept her off her feet. “People from all walks of life were there. I started meeting people, Black trans women from other states and gender-queer people.”

They lobbied and marched all day. It turns out the organization that had put together the demonstration was Housing Works, an organization fighting homelessness and HIV/AIDS in New York City. St. James worked for Housing Works for the next decade and still has a good relationship with the leadership there.

She founded NYTAG in 2014 along with four other transgender women of color, T​​anya Asapansa-Johnson Walker, Celine St. John, Armani T. Taylor, and Cheryl Clancy. The organization’s mission is to “advocate for more inclusive gender-based policies that benefit Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming/Non-Binary (TGNCNB) individuals through building community.” NYTAG builds equity for TGNCNB individuals using training and education programs designed to dismantle stigma and violence, and build bridges between communities.

When asked what inspired NYTAG, St. James sighs. “Frustration, mostly.” She recalls being in non-profit and outreach spaces designed to focus on issues impacting the TGNCNB community, but every time someone raised a concern, it would be tabled and not revisited. “This is a new way of silencing us, it’s a microaggression in a way that seems like they are still being supportive of us but they are silencing our voices.” St. James felt like many organizations, even those with good intentions, were appropriating the identities and struggles of Black and Brown trans women without really listening to what they needed.

This was a dynamic that St. James and her compatriots faced almost everywhere. By 2014, her activism ran the gambit. She had an extensive network of colleagues and elected officials and had built up a significant base of support and knowledge. St. James, along with Walker, St. John, Taylor, and Clancy, decided to take the leap. Seven years later, NYTAG is one of the most well-established and respected TGNC-rights organizations in New York.

St. James sees advocacy as a holistic act: “I don’t exclusively fight for trans issues. We have to be brave enough to go into spaces where we are not generally welcome … because that’s how you begin to build a coalition … anything that is going to improve the quality of life of vulnerable people is what we should be fighting for.”

Throughout her career, St. James has taken these principles to heart. She has always been the first to lend a hand, money, and power to stand in until they find their own. In the last few years, she has had to take a step back and evaluate her own capacity to keep giving. For someone whose work is their identity, and whose identity is their work, this can be a difficult thing to balance. Visiting her family in 2019, she was talking to her aunt about her work. “And she looked at me and asked me, ‘Who pours into you?’” This brief conversation allowed St. James to reevaluate. For the last two years, she has been focusing on spending more time with her partner of three years, her family, and friends, and has come back to advocacy refreshed, and with a full heart.

“I have learned how to do this work differently so I don’t burn out,” she says. “I look back over my life with an understanding of how many people I have lost. So much of my work is dedicated to them and I’m grateful that I didn’t give up. I still have so much love for my community and I just want the best outcome for everyone.”

St. James is proud of the national and international leader she has grown into, as she well should be, but it’s clear from the way she talks about the work that her community is her main motivation. “I have always wanted to make sure that in any NYTAG space, people leave feeling inspired,” she says of the upcoming Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR) commemoration on November 20. “TDoR events are traditionally quite sad but ​if I’m going to do a TDoR event, it has to be a celebration. We cannot leave impressionable, young folks with the narrative that they could be next. We have to do better. There are so many amazing TGNC folks who have accomplished great things and they are gonna share their knowledge — I want TDoR to be that kind of event. … Acknowledge the epidemic of murders that continue to impact our community but we also want to let people know there’s hope, and here’s how to protect yourself.”

St. James believes that we are at a time of great and historic change and that it is each and every individual’s responsibility to fight for a world in which everyone is affirmed. She would like to see more TGNCNB people in political office, shaping the world around them. “I love this new term — gender euphoria,” St. James says. “It speaks to what happens when enough of us take agency over our lives and over our narrative.”

DSW Newsletter #29 (October 2021)

Hero of the Month: Kiara St. James

October 15, 2021 “The first act of resilience is to take a breath and acknowledge that we have a right to exist,” Kiara St. James told the Human Rights Campaign in a 2019 interview. St. James has been an...
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Hero of the Month: Kiara St. James

Backpage’s Mistrial

September 14, 2021 The founders of Backpage.com, Michael Lacy and James Larkin, are being tried in federal court, along with four other employees, for knowingly selling prostitution advertisements on the website. But presiding Judge Susan Brnovich for...
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Backpage’s Mistrial

DSW’s J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly on The Frontier Psychiatrists

September 7, 2021 In the latest episode of The Frontier Psychiatrists entitled ‘OnlyBans?’, hosts Dr. Carlene MacMillan and Dr. Owen Muir explore the impact of Sex Negativity online. The episode focuses on OnlyFans’ since reversed decision to ban sexually...
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DSW’s J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly on The Frontier Psychiatrists

Mastercard Ignores Sex Worker Concerns

October 15, 2021 Despite widespread concern from adult content creators, Mastercard has proceeded with enforcing “special merchant” regulations for platforms hosting sexual content. The specific regulations have not been published by Mastercard, but the Adult Industry Free...
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Mastercard Ignores Sex Worker Concerns

Save the Date

October 23: CAER (Caught) CAER (CAUGHT), an innovative hybrid narrative-documentary about trans Latina sex workers in Queens, NY, will be featured at the 33rd Annual New York LGBTQ+ film festival. Director Nicola Mai uses sex work and...
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Save the Date

At Least 42% of U.S. Voters Want Prostitution Decriminalized

October 14, 2021 A national survey recently found that 42% of registered voters are in favor of decriminalizing prostitution, while 36% think prostitution should remain a crime and 22% remain undecided. Democrats are far more supportive of...
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At Least 42% of U.S. Voters Want Prostitution Decriminalized

DSW Newsletter Archive

Hero of the Month: Elle Stanger

August 26, 2021

Elle Stanger (she/they), or, as she is better known online, The Stripper Writer, has done it all. Sales person, customer service representative, merchandising manager, writer, stripper, cam model, media producer, lobbyist, podcast host, and an AASECT certified sexuality educator — you name it, she’s done it. Stanger has been published naked online since 2005 and when she found herself suddenly unemployed, having just moved to Portland, Oregon, in the middle of an economic recession: “I looked around and saw a bevy of strip clubs. I had serious anxiety and fear around becoming a live, in-person entertainer but it was my best option so I researched some of the clubs online, applied [to] the one that felt more small and intimate to me and ended up working there for 11 years. … I ended up falling in love with stripping.”

Stanger is a force of nature — one of those people who communicates with effortless transparency, looking not for affirmation, admiration, guidance, or pity — just a mutual respect and openness. Now a long-time resident of Portland, she is a leader of the movement to decriminalize sex work in Oregon. The state recently convened the first ever Sex Worker Human Rights Commission to collate and review evidence based on studies of sex work policy models from around the world. Stanger is one the local Commissioners, also joined by DSW’s Melissa Broudo. There are 11 other members including individuals with lived experience, policy experts, service providers, lawmakers and more.

No stranger to policy work, Stanger is an active advocate in Multnomah County, holding the DA’s office accountable for their promise to stop prosecuting sex workers. In 2014, Stanger helped pass HB 1359 to create a publicly funded hotline offering resources to live entertainers. Entertainers were encouraged to call if they needed legal resources, help filing taxes, or other support. The bill passed but the hotline was only in service for a short time as the state ran out of funding for it. Though it ultimately closed, Stanger still reflects on the experience as “a very successful attempt at showing that we can create resources, not regulations,” for marginalized individuals.

When asked what drew her to this work, Stanger replied, “I have always been a very sexually aware and easily activated person. As a child I touched myself for stress all the time and didn’t understand it. That got me [in] a lot of trouble in preschool.” She describes volunteering in a skilled nursing facility in high school as one of her most formative experiences. “I witnessed people at the end of their lives who weren't receiving the care that they needed — and a lot of fear around death and dying, a lot of social isolation. That was really motivating to me, to realize I only get one life and I only get one body and I don't want to be facing the last of my days with so many regrets because I didn't do things that I wanted.”

At the beginning of Stanger’s career, she worked in an adult novelty store. “I realized that I wanted to know the most I could about sexuality. I watched all kinds of porn, even stuff I didn’t like … I was so fascinated by all the things that people can do with themselves and to each other, even if it surprises me or grosses me out, or confuses me, I just want to know about the world around me. So I read all the books and watched so much porn and tried as many toys as possible and realized I wanted to work through some of my own relational trauma and fear by having more information.”

Within the first few weeks of working at the strip club, Stanger “started to have some of these really insightful, poignant, weird inexplicable experiences with people in the workplace and I wanted to share them.” She had been working as a cam model for many years, running a blog online to publicize her work. The blog had garnered a sizable following, and Stanger began using it to share her stories.“They were there to see me naked [but] would say, ‘You know, I actually really like your stories too.’ They’re either interesting, or they’re sexy, or I’m learning something and so I thought … I guess I’ll just start applying to places and see if I’m any good.”

Thus began their career as a sexuality educator, telling stories of consent, gender identity, pleasure and boundaries. “The feedback and support has been truly immense and there is a huge need for what myself and some of my peers are trying to do,” says Stanger. “I hear from people of all genders and ages. Either I did sex work myself but I never told anyone about it because I was too ashamed; or I am a trafficking survivor or victim who now understands that what I was forced to do is not reflective of everyone’s experience; or I’m a buyer who felt shame about it and now I understand that touch is a human right and this is consensual. I hear from parents who have said that they were really upset and afraid for my child who told me they were stripping or doing webcam so thank you for this article where I can understand that they might be making the best choice for themselves under capitalism.”

Stanger’s ultimate goal is to encourage people to learn and feel good in their bodies, understanding that what people want varies for everyone. “A lot of the harm that happens from sex stems from ignorance and confusion and not from malice,” she says. Stanger helps people to explore these differences in safe and supportive ways. “I don’t strongly identify as a woman — I never have. What grounds me and what interests me is my own desires or fantasies for healthy touch. I really think of myself as a sexual person and allow myself to explore that in a lot of gigs and avenues.” This is what makes her so effective as a sexuality educator: a focus on shifting away from shame and towards openness and information.

Stanger carries this intention into her role as a parent too. “A lot of shame that people carry … is stuff that they learned in childhood, stuff they grew up with, and that can start as early as a kid puts their hands in their pants at the beach, the grocery store, or the classroom and the reaction from the embarrassed, ashamed, afraid adult is that’s bad, and they should stop it. That makes a child potentially feel ashamed of a thing that is normal, but contextually not appropriate.” When her own daughter does things she doesn't understand, Stanger is able to approach learning, not from a place of shame and fear, but information and transparency. Recently, they sat down with their daughter and explained how to have safe sex. “It doesn't shock her that mommy has phalices and models of vulvas around the house. She knows that mommy works with bodies and teaches partly about genitals, so they're just educational models for her. Even that is very outrageous for some people.”

Reflecting on her advocacy experience, Stanger isn’t sure that formal lobbying is for her, although she did train under the guidance of Pac/West Lobby Group and the National Association of Social Workers. One of her biggest takeaways from the experience was the prevalence and impact of stigma against people in live and adult entertainment. Though incredibly disheartening, Stanger was also motivated by the whorephobia she faced. “I have been an out sex worker, porn maker, entertainer, for 16 years now, and as someone who has access to more conventional spaces, I specifically try to train sex therapists and sex educators about the impact of whorephobia. It impacts everybody: people who work in the industry, buy in the industry, have family, friends and lovers in the industry, how we treat people based on where we think they fit in the class system…It’s the stigma that kills people and prevents them from getting what they need.”

Asked about the biggest barrier she has faced to her work, Stanger pauses, “infighting in marginalized communities has been a very surprising and disappointing aspect of in-person and online socialization that I am still learning how to navigate.” She thinks that a lot of this behavior stems from scarcity. “Competition over resources … motivates a lot of harmful behavior amongst people, so I understand how these things arise, but I will say that when I started doing in-person sex work, working in clubs and with other sex workers, you expect and are told that there will be creepy clients — I did not expect infighting or gossiping, or stealing so that is something that can feel very destabilizing when you want to believe in a unity.”

Regardless, Stanger has been able to find community though sex work filed with love and support, but no matter the line of work she’s not convinced any industry is really safe from people weaponizing conflicts or other things against each other, particularly when experiencing hardship. In 2020, Stanger remembers facing the incursion of COVID-19 and “felt this whirring of dread and I thought oh my god it's coming, people are struggling, we’re not going to be our best selves. And I was prepared for that and sure enough I proved myself right. Since the pandemic forced the closing of many venues and competition spiked in online work, defensiveness, fear, and infighting has spiked.” Then, six months ago, Stanger lost her long-term partner to suicide. She shares this information gently, but no less matter-of-factly. “Grief and sexuality is another interesting topic I’m learning a lot about lately.”

Though she loves her job, Stanger is under no impression that sex work is a walk in the park. “I have had to be very tenacious. I think that’s something not a lot of people understand — I was not given any of my current gigs. I worked very, very hard for them and I lost and I failed a lot. But that’s actually something I'm learning is just part of it for a lot of people. Success is to fail.” Stanger was recently diagnosed as autistic, something that makes a lot of sense to her. “I’m really embracing it. It helps me understand my strengths and then some of my weaknesses.”

As our conversation is coming to a close, I ask Stanger if she feels like there is anything I forgot. She doesn’t skip a beat. “Something that’s really important to me is the concept of accountability. As artisan makers, many of us, myself included, have used shared ideas that are ignorant or now outdated when you revisit them 10 years later. So I want to encourage good-faith accountability practices.” For Stanger this means acknowledging mistakes and encouraging accountability without shaming or bullying people. “When I see another creator’s work and I either disagree with it or I’m like, oh we don’t use that word anymore, I look to see when did they write it? What was the context of that piece, do they know better? This is something I’m learning all the time. As someone who has been publishing online for 16 years and started as a nude model blogger, I definitely have said some cringe-worthy stuff.”

Stanger sees this practice as essential to transformative justice, as we continue to try and put our best foot forward as a society in effecting positive change. “People are less likely to learn new information when they’re being shamed. This can apply to anti-vaxxers or in racial education or disability. [With] so many uncomfortable, important topics, if you are telling your audience that they are stupid or dehumanizing them because they don't agree and understand, even if they’re wrong, they are not going to feel compelled to listen to you.” Her writing is the quintessential reflection of this mind-set: unflinchingly honest, funny, and exquisite in its encapsulation of the messiness of the human experience.

To view Stanger’s work visit her website, https://stripperwriter.com/. She can also be found on twitter (@ElleStanger), Instagram (@stripperwriter), and Patreon under the name Strange Bedfellows Podcast.

Elle Stanger

Courtesy of Elle Stanger.

DSW Newsletter #28 (August/September 2021)

Hero of the Month: Elle Stanger

August 26, 2021 Elle Stanger (she/they), or, as she is better known online, The Stripper Writer, has done it all. Sales person, customer service representative, merchandising manager, writer, stripper, cam...
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Hero of the Month: Elle Stanger

Sex Worker Human Rights Commission Formed in OR

July 15, 2021 The first ever Sex Worker Human Rights Commission convened sex workers, physicians, politicians, advocates, academics, labor rights organizers, and others in Portland, OR. The commissioners presented evidence...
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Sex Worker Human Rights Commission Formed in OR

DSW Staff Advocates at Events Around the Country

July 21: NACDL J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly and Rebecca Cleary of DSW attended the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) annual meeting. The event brings together criminal justice system advocates,...
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DSW Staff Advocates at Events Around the Country

Victory in Victoria

August 13, 2021 Victoria, one of Australia’s six states, announced that it will decriminalize prostitution by 2022. Sex work was legalized and regulated in Victoria under the 1994 Sex Work...
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Victory in Victoria

OnlyFans Reverses Course

August 25, 2021 Stunningly, OnlyFans reversed its decision to ban certain forms of explicit content on which its success was built. On August 19, OnlyFans announced it would ban “sexually...
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OnlyFans Reverses Course
Hero of the Month: Elle Stanger Hero of the Month: Elle Stanger
Sex Worker Human Rights Commission Formed in OR Sex Worker Human Rights Commission Formed...
DSW Staff Advocates at Events Around the Country DSW Staff Advocates at Events Around...
Victory in Victoria Victory in Victoria
OnlyFans Reverses Course OnlyFans Reverses Course

DSW Newsletter Archive

Hero of the Month: Elisa Crespo

June 13, 2021

Elisa Crespo is fighting for a world where all people feel “included, safe, seen, and heard.” Right now, she is focusing on the rights and dignity of Black and Brown transgender women, but her quest for tolerance and inclusivity seems boundless. Crespo took a big step this year — running for the NYC Council. Had she been elected, she would have been the first transgender woman of color to occupy a seat on the council. Though Crespo is open about her identity, she is explicit that her desire to run for political office was not about identity but policy. She remains hopeful that individuals who have not previously seen their identities represented in the spaces she occupied during her campaign will know that they matter.

Crespo is frustrated that in New York City, seemingly one of the most progressive cities in the world, Black and Brown transgender women are not represented in the social and political spaces where the decisions that significantly impact their lives are made. While many of the issues LGBTQIA individuals face are not unique to them, the solutions to these issues have to be intentional, strategic, and specific to LGBTQIA communities to have the necessary impact.  Legislation on critical issues such as housing, employment, and education still regularly obscures those who are already marginalized and fighting for access. “Those who have struggled the most often have the best solutions,” says Crespo.

Crespo will assume a new role as executive director of The New Pride Agenda, an organization whose “purpose is civic engagement and public policy advocacy on behalf of New York’s diverse LGBTQIA community.” She has laid out an ambitious agenda for the organization and the state. Crespo admits that pursuing electoral politics took some of her time and energy away from working with policymakers to make the change she is so desperate to see and is ready to hit the ground running in her new role.

Combining her lived experience, education, organizing experience, and fierce determination, she is “excited to build coalitions” and to “hold elected officials accountable.” Crespo ultimately wants to see communities thrive but recognizes how much groundwork there is to be done to create better material conditions for people, first and foremost.

Two years ago, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) became law in New York. It added gender identity and gender expression as protected classes under the state's human rights and hate crime laws and banned discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations based on gender identity and gender expression. The fact that it was legal in New York to discriminate against an individual because of their gender identity or expression up until 2019 is one of the myriad reasons that transgender individuals, especially women of color, remain so vulnerable. Crespo became a sex worker at a young age and experienced the “horror of the criminal justice system as a trans woman of color.” She credits the LGBTQIA community with helping her access feelings she had denied herself for so long in order to survive and for encouraging her to look towards her future — a challenging thought for trans women of color who are murdered at alarming rates.

Crespo is determined to fix this. Her priorities at New Pride Agenda include specific reforms that will bring immediate relief to those in need and long-term investments in future generations. She plans to seek protections for incarcerated individuals and to continue fighting to decriminalize sex work. She mentions scholarships and apprenticeship programs as examples of plans to help individuals move from simply surviving towards thriving. Crespo wants schools to adopt comprehensive, inclusive, age-appropriate sexual education curriculums that will reduce stigma at an early age and allow LGBTQIA children to feel safe and accepted, along with reducing sexual violence. DSW staffers J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly, Frances Steele, Crystal DeBoise, and Melissa Broudo have an article coming out in the Charleston law review this year detailing how essential inclusive sex education is to the fight against human trafficking.

We must “teach children at a young age that no matter who people go to bed with or who they go to bed AS … everyone deserves to be treated with dignity,” says Crespo. She laments that queer youth still feel alone and experience suicidal thoughts at much higher rates than non-queer youth but knows that this opportunity to educate people can help change that. Crespo encourages allies to speak out and take the initiative and for those feeling unseen and unheard to ask for help. “A closed mouth doesn’t get fed,” she says. Crespo has blazed a trail for many people who never thought they could aspire to a public life and have felt powerless to change the trajectory of their own lives away from the margins.

Hero of the Month Elisa Crespo

Courtesy of Elisa Crespo.

DSW Newsletter #27 (June 2021)

Hero of the Month: Elisa Crespo

June 13, 2021 Elisa Crespo is fighting for a world where all people feel “included, safe, seen, and heard.” Right now, she is focusing on the rights and dignity of...
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Hero of the Month: Elisa Crespo

DSW Staff Featured in Documentary on Decriminalization

June 17, 2021 DSW’s J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly, Melissa Broudo and Ceyenne Doroshow are featured in “Sex Work is Work,” a powerful short-film that explores the push for the decriminalization of...
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DSW Staff Featured in Documentary on Decriminalization

Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Is Marked With Intersectional Pride Series

June 1, 2021 Each of the panels presented as part of Tulsa 100: Remember, Activate, Heal was impactful, educational, and transformative. If you missed them or want to rewatch them,...
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Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Is Marked With Intersectional Pride Series

DSW’s Ceyenne Doroshow Is Grand Marshal of NYC Pride

June 27, 2021 The New York City Pride Parade, one of the most famous celebrations of Pride Month and historically the largest parade in the world, canceled its in-person festivities...
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DSW’s Ceyenne Doroshow Is Grand Marshal of NYC Pride

The Charge of Soliciting Prostitution

In this comprehensive guide to the charge of soliciting prostitution, DSW answers the most frequently asked questions about solicitation and other prostitution laws. Is soliciting prostitution defined differently in every...
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The Charge of Soliciting Prostitution
Hero of the Month: Elisa Crespo Hero of the Month: Elisa Crespo
DSW Staff Featured in Documentary on Decriminalization DSW Staff Featured in Documentary on...
Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Is Marked With Intersectional Pride Series Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Is Marked...
DSW’s Ceyenne Doroshow Is Grand Marshal of NYC Pride DSW’s Ceyenne Doroshow Is Grand Marshal...
The Charge of Soliciting Prostitution The Charge of Soliciting Prostitution

DSW Newsletter Archive

Hero of the Month: Norma Jean Almodovar

May 15, 2021

A relentless activist for justice, truth, marginalized groups, and simple human decency, Norma Jean Almodovar is a force of nature. With incredible courage, grace, and a great sense of humor (she made Joan Rivers laugh hysterically), Almodovar has changed laws and the public perception of sex workers — both critical in reducing exploitation in the sex industry and improving the health and safety of sex workers. Almodovar’s website, where she compiles extensive research and analysis of arrests and police corruption, is called simply, PoliceProstitutionandPolitics. Until you know her story, it might be hard to imagine that any single person could be a traffic officer, a prostitute, and a politician, but Almodovar was all three. The title of her book, “Cop to Call Girl,” also sounds more likely to be fiction than fact, but Almodovar was a cop and a call girl and has based her advocacy on one simple premise — give people the facts.

“Don’t take my word for it,” says Almodovar. “Look at the numbers.” Almodovar launched “Operation Do The Math” in 2012 and has continued to release a new report on the government’s arrest data each year since. Her meticulous analysis continues to show that abolitionist and prohibitionists feminists greatly overestimate the numbers of minors and others coerced into the sex trade to the detriment of sex workers and victims of crimes. Almodovar, along with others working to improve the rights of sex workers and to decrease the rate of exploitation and trafficking in the sex industry, knows that the way to do this is to decriminalize sex work — and the proof is in the numbers. Almodovar is outraged by the “patronizing” views of abolitionists, who assume that sex work is inherently exploitative and that sex workers can’t “think for themselves.” Aside from this assumption being incorrect, it does nothing to reduce exploitation and increase safety for sex workers.

Operation Do The Math is only the most recent iteration of Almodovar’s fierce pursuit for justice and truth. In 1982, after ten years with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), Almodovar decided to become a call girl. She “wanted to make a social statement about the moral hypocrisy of our society — a society which seemed completely untroubled by the police corruption that permeated the LAPD, and yet demanded that law enforcement spend a significant portion of its resources to set-up and arrest women whose sole ‘crime’ was to accept money from men for acts of sex in which they could otherwise legally engage, even with thousands of men - provided the sex was free. The arrest and subsequent incarceration would brand them forever as a prostitute and destroy their lives — all in the name of protecting them from exploitation.” During this time, Almodovar continued to work on her book, “Cop to Call Girl,” an act of free speech that jeopardized her freedom and nearly her life.

For exposing the corruption she witnessed while on the LAPD, Almodovar was arrested for “pandering” after a former LAPD colleague expressed a fantasy of being a call girl as well to her. She testified that she said she set up Almodovar in an attempt to stop her book from being published. Almodovar had never been arrested before. To this day, in California, pandering still carries a minimum three to six-year prison sentence. Ira Reiner, the Los Angeles District Attorney at the time of Almodovar’s arrest said what she did, which did not result in harm to any individual was "worse than rape or robbery" and even more shocking that she had compounded her "crime" by writing a book which would cause "disrespect for law and order." Almodovar feared for her safety while incarcerated and again once she was released. She felt that the only way to protect herself was to be as public and vocal as possible and so that is exactly what she did.

Almodovar appeared on numerous national television shows, including Oprah and 60 Minutes, filmed during her eighteen months in jail, no doubt influencing public perception of sex workers and prostitutes. As she says, activism runs in her blood. In addition to the work she has done to expose corruption, Almodovar has had tremendous success in her formal advocacy for sex workers’ rights. After becoming close with Margo St. James, Almodovar revived the LA Chapter of Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (C.O.Y.O.T.E.), which she continues to lead. In 1995, she traveled to the UN Fourth World Women's Conference in Beijing as a representative of C.O.Y.O.T.E and an official delegate of the US.

At the conference, Almodovar, along with colleagues from Thailand, Australia, Malaysia and England fought to add a single word to the Platform for Action. Almodovar points out that, “Every ten or so years, this document-which sets the course for legislation adopted in UN member countries- must be thoroughly discussed, every word in the document debated and finally accepted for the member nations' delegates to ratify.” Despite going up against well-funded opponents who had been afforded much more time to organize, Almodovar and her peers successfully made the change. Almodovar says, “the original text read, ‘… all prostitution and pornography are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and must be eliminated.’ The final text in the same paragraph which was ratified by the UN delegates now reads, ‘… all FORCED prostitution and pornography. … ’ The new meaning … makes a world of difference for prostitutes around the world who have chosen their work and refuse to be bullied into believing they are ‘victims’ because they engage in sex work.”

That incredible achievement was almost thirty years ago and Almodovar hasn’t stopped advocating since. She remains a constant in the movement for sex workers’ rights and dignity. She celebrated her seventieth birthday this month and has no plans to slow down. She remains encouraged by younger activists and how far the movement for sex workers’ rights has come. Almodovar has never once regretted or felt ashamed by any of her decisions. She proudly wears the label “whore” and wishes that more people knew that before modern times, whores were revered and beloved for their unique ability to comfort and care for others.

Almodovar continues to research, advocate, appear publicly, and to lead the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture and Education (ISWFACE), which she launched in 1997. Through ISWFACE, Almodovar continues to make her research available to anyone interested in joining the movement. ISWFACE is completely volunteer led. Since COVID began, it has been just Almodovar along with her computers, printers, and servers working to ensure the public has access to the critical information she collects. Please visit ISWFACE to learn more and support Norma Jean’s incredible work.

Hero of the Month: Norma Jean Almodovar

Norma Jean Almodovar on the cover of her book. Courtesy of Norma Jean Almodovar.

DSW Newsletter #26 (May 2021)

Hero of the Month: Norma Jean Almodovar

May 15, 2021 A relentless activist for justice, truth, marginalized groups, and simple human decency, Norma Jean Almodovar is a force of nature. With incredible courage, grace, and a great...
Read More
Hero of the Month: Norma Jean Almodovar

NY Senate Passes the START Act

May 24, 2021 The New York State Senate passed the Survivors of Trafficking Attaining Relief Together (START) Act (S.674/‍A.459), which would provide greater protections for survivors of human trafficking by allowing them...
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NY Senate Passes the START Act

DSW Staff Share Their Expertise

April 28, 2021 New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG) hosted their annual advocacy day on April 28. The full day of programming included appearances from elected officials, a conversation with former...
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DSW Staff Share Their Expertise

Remembering Margo St. James

May 1, 2021 DSW was thrilled to sponsor the online international memorial for legendary sex worker rights activist, Margo St. James. In addition to sponsoring the event, DSW’s Melissa Broudo...
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Remembering Margo St. James

Mark Your Calendars

June 1-3, 2021 New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG) and many other advocacy partners from across the country are gathering in Tulsa, OK, for Tulsa 100, An Intersectional Pride Series....
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Mark Your Calendars
Hero of the Month: Norma Jean Almodovar Hero of the Month: Norma Jean...
NY Senate Passes the START Act NY Senate Passes the START Act
DSW Staff Share Their Expertise DSW Staff Share Their Expertise
Remembering Margo St. James Remembering Margo St. James
Mark Your Calendars Mark Your Calendars

DSW Newsletter Archive

Hero of the Month: Gizelle Marie

April 6, 2021

Gizelle Marie loves her job as a stripper. She loves it so much, in fact, that she has become a leading voice for progressive reforms within the industry — for herself, for other dancers, and for the generations that will follow her. Racism, colorism, misogyny, and wage theft are all issues Gizelle Marie is fighting head-on. Sticking one’s neck out to challenge the status quo is risky in any industry, let alone one as stigmatized and marginalized as stripping, but Gizelle Marie is a risk-taker. Despite being banned from working at a number of clubs, likely due to her advocacy for the rights of individual dancers, Gizelle Marie is undeterred. She is aware of her relative privilege as a cis-gendered, lighter-skinned woman and is dedicated to using this privilege to ensure that all of her colleagues have access to safe and fair working conditions.

“Gizelle Marie always puts others before herself. She’ll go without something to be able to give it to someone else. I’ve seen her do it over and over again,” says DSW’s Melissa Sontag Broudo. Gizelle’s devotion to her colleagues and improving the way society views and treats sex workers is evidenced regularly through big actions and small gestures. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and many sex workers lost their ability to earn an income, Gizelle Marie launched a mutual aid fund that raised nearly $60,000.00 to support them. She has taken club promoters who fail to pay dancers what they should to court, co-organized the largest demonstration for sex worker rights ever to take place in the U.S., and recently handed over her pair of brand new shoes to another dancer who didn’t have any.

Gizelle Marie credits her grandmother, who raised her, for instilling a deep respect for others and their struggles. She says, “my grandmother made so many sacrifices to be able to take care of me. I’m inspired by her. It’s because of her that I want to help people as much as I can.” It angers Gizelle Marie that because of the way most clubs are structured, dancers are pitted against each other, and it can feel like a competition to earn a living. She wants to change this. Gizelle Marie wants sex workers to feel that they’re “all one” so that they can support each other and find power in numbers.

Gizelle Marie’s ultimate goal is the decriminalization of all forms of consensual adult sex work. She explains that though her work as a stripper is legal, all sex workers face unnecessary risks until all forms of consensual adult sex work are decriminalized. Criminalization increases stigmatization, violence, and other factors that put her community in jeopardy.

Hero of the Month: Gizelle Marie

Courtesy of Gizelle Marie.

DSW Newsletter #25 (April 2021)

Hero of the Month: Gizelle Marie

April 6, 2021 Gizelle Marie loves her job as a stripper. She loves it so much, in fact, that she has become a leading voice for progressive reforms within the...
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Hero of the Month: Gizelle Marie

Decriminalize Sex Work’s Statement on Manhattan DA’s Announcement

April 21, 2021 Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R. Vance, following in the footsteps of other New York City boroughs, announced that his office would no longer prosecute individuals for prostitution...
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April 20, 2021 Some are now calling the Nordic Model of Prostitution the Equality Model Attaching the term “Equality” to the legal framework more commonly known as the Nordic Model...
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April 6: DSW’s Melissa Sontag Broudo and J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly joined other advocates for a panel on decriminalizing sex work organized by Equality New York for their 2021 Advocacy Day. Some...
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DSW Newsletter Archive

Heroes of the Month: Scientists for Sex Worker Rights

March 3, 2021

Since 2001, sex workers, allies, and advocates have commemorated International Sex Worker Rights Day on March 3 in an effort to raise awareness of the human rights abuses faced by sex workers worldwide. On this day, citing empirical evidence, researchers and scientists from around the world called on President Biden and Vice President Harris to support the decriminalization of sex work as part of their broader efforts toward legal justice reform. In an open letter, 250+ scholars and scientists called upon the Biden administration and all U.S. governors and legislators to reevaluate U.S. policies on sex work in their efforts toward legal justice reform.

Scientific evidence shows that decriminalizing consensual adult sex work reduces individual and social harms and increases safety, especially for marginalized populations. Four scientists kicked off the new campaign, Scientists for Sex Worker Rights (SFSWR), calling for fact-based policy-making, the decriminalization of consensual adult sex work, and the repeal of policies such as SESTA/FOSTA. The four organizers have Ph.D.s in sociology and hold academic posts at universities across the U.S. They are some of the nation's leading scholars of research on sexual commerce, and they have published numerous books and peer-reviewed articles on various aspects of the field.

“We decided to launch this campaign because, for too long, policies regarding sex work have been largely evidence-free, and we saw an urgent need to intervene in the debate by re-linking scientific research with public policy. And 250 researchers agreed and signed on to our letter,” said Ronald Weitzer, Ph.D., George Washington University, one of the four organizers of the Scientists for Sex Worker Rights campaign.

The majority of individuals involved in the sex trades are consenting adults. “The data clearly shows that criminalizing consensual adult sexual services causes severe harms, which fall mainly on the most marginalized groups — women, people of color, transgender and non-binary workers, workers with disabilities, and economically marginalized workers, and does not prevent or minimize violence or abuse ostensibly identified with human trafficking,” said Angela Jones, Ph.D., Farmingdale State College, State University of New York.

“The evidence now shows that the war on prostitution, even if intended to protect people, is backfiring. Study after study documents the negative impact criminalizing sex workers, their clients, and those who support them has had on the most marginalized communities. We can change that with science-based policies. Science should determine every single policy in this country, whether local, state or federal, intended to affect or protect anyone selling sex, whether by choice, circumstance or coercion,” noted Barb Brents, Ph.D., University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Signatories represent some of the most published scholars and respected researchers in the field. They come from the U.S. and across the globe. Their research unequivocally shows that decriminalization has enormous benefits for public health and the safety of workers. Where sex work has been decriminalized, such as in New Zealand, there has been no increase in the prevalence of prostitution or trafficking since 2003, neither in the number of those providing commercial sex nor in those purchasing it; fewer reports of street-based sex workers, as many had moved indoors; increased reporting to the police of violence against sex workers; improved relations between police and sex workers; enhanced economic stability and labor conditions; better health outcomes for workers; and improved overall public health.

The letter applauds the administration’s “public commitment to science-driven policy” and implores the president, vice president, their administration, and congressional leaders to take immediate, specific actions such as “Support and advocate for Congressional bill S.3165 SESTA/FOSTA Examination of Secondary Effects for Sex Workers Study Act. … Given that a similar House bill, H.R.5448 SAFE SEX Workers Study Act, has been buried in committee since 12/18/2019, we are calling for serious action on the Senate study bill” because policies such as SESTA/FOSTA has had deleterious transnational effects on sex workers. The four organizers hope that governors and state legislators as well will heed the science on similar state-level bills. “President Biden and his administration have a historic opportunity to create a commission comprised of leading social scientists, NGOs, and grass-roots sex worker-led organizations to partner with Congressional leaders and advance new science-informed policies that empower and support all individuals engaged in sex work,” said Kate Korgan, Ph.D., University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Campaign Organizers

Dr. Barbara (Barb) G. Brents has spent more than 25 years using a political economy lens to study politics, sex, and gender in market culture. She is considered one of the world’s leading academic experts on the sex industry and Nevada’s legal brothels. Her work applies research on sexual commerce to understand the politics of sexuality, the intersections of culture and economics; sexual markets and consumption; and the emotional and bodily labor of selling sex.

As a professor in the sociology department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, since 1988, she has served as the department’s Graduate Coordinator for several years. She works with faculty in the Sexuality and Gender Studies Department, the Boyd School of Law, and various other departments in the College of Liberal Arts.

Brents’ research and teaching interests include political sociology, gender and sexuality, urban sociology, and public sociology. She teaches undergraduate classes on “Principles of Sociology” (online on WebCampus), “Sociology of Gender,” “Sex and Social Arrangements,” and graduate-level seminars, in “Political Sociology” and ”The Sociology of Sexuality.”

Barb Brents holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Missouri Journalism School. Barb Brents focuses on the sexual economy: the politics, culture, organization, markets, consumption and labor practices, surrounding various forms of sexual commerce. With a broader theoretical interest in the intersections of culture and economics, her publications, blogs and editorials include: the politics of sexuality, consumption, tourism and sexuality; and the emotional and bodily labor of selling sex, on topics, including Nevada’s legal brothel industry, the pornography industry and kink organizations.

Past research has also explored intersections of politics, culture, economics, and gender, looking at topics, such as the politics of terrorism and violence, business and social policies, and social sustainability in Las Vegas.

Most recently, Barb Brents has been the author and/or co-author of books and publications, including “Are Men Who Pay for Sex Sexist? Comparing Client Attitudes on Gender Role Equality, in Different Prostitution Markets,” in Men and Masculinities, “Violence and Legalized Brothel Prostitution in Nevada,” in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, “The Mainstreaming of the Sex Industry: Economic Inclusion and Social Ambivalence,” in the Journal of Law & Society, and “EXPOsing Men’s Gender-Role Attitudes, as Porn Superfans,” in Sociological Forum.

She is involved in a number of collaborative projects with colleagues at UNLV, in the United Kingdom, Europe, Canada and Australia, exploring sexual commerce and consumption, and the politics and regulation of sexuality.

Her research has been published in scholarly peer-reviewed journals, including the American Sociological Review, Men and Masculinities, Sexualities, Sociological Perspectives, the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Sexuality Research and Social Policy, the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, and Social Science and Medicine.

She has, furthermore, worked with undergraduate and graduate students, on causes as diverse as sex worker rights, peace and justice, civil liberties, the environment, and a variety of women’s issues.

Dr. Angela Jones is associate professor of sociology at Farmingdale State College, State University of New York. Jones's research interests include African American political thought and protest, race, gender, sexuality, sex work, technology studies, feminist theory, and queer methodologies and theory. Jones is the author of Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Industry (NYU Press, 2020) and African American Civil Rights: Early Activism and the Niagara Movement (Praeger, 2011). She is a co-editor of the three-volume After Marriage Equality book series (Routledge, 2018). Jones has also edited two other anthologies: The Modern African American Political Thought Reader: From David Walker to Barack Obama (Routledge, 2012) and A Critical Inquiry into Queer Utopias (Palgrave, 2013). She is also the author of numerous scholarly articles, which have been published in peer-reviewed journals.

Dr. Kate Hausbeck Korgan earned her Sociology Ph.D. in 1997 at the State University of New York at Buffalo, was tenured and promoted in the UNLV Department of Sociology in 2002, and served as associate dean of the graduate college from 2006 until 2007 when she was appointed senior associate dean. In 2013, Dr. Korgan was asked to serve as interim dean when the graduate college was moved to a stand-alone college reporting to the executive vice president & provost, after which she became dean of the graduate college in 2019.

A champion of diversity and equity, excellence and opportunity, and the powerful impact of innovative and interdisciplinary research, scholarship and creative activity, Dr. Korgan is deeply committed to creative problem-solving, collaboration, and servant leadership. Her mission is to provide outstanding service and support to students and faculty, and promote transformative educational experiences. Kate exemplifies these values in her graduate leadership through a sustained commitment to student-centered and data-driven decision making; encouraging participatory governance; building strong infrastructure to support graduate faculty; stimulating strategic growth and overall program excellence; implementing electronic/online systems to increase efficacy, efficiency, access to data, streamlined communications, and student success throughout the lifecycle; establishing a Dean’s Leadership Council and multiple advisory boards to ensure strong ties to the community; leading efforts to advocate for excellence in graduate education regionally and nationally; cultivating a strong graduate community of faculty, staff, and students on campus; founding the The Graduate Academy to provide comprehensive leadership, professional, and career development throughout the student lifecycle; and increasing financial resources to better support graduate student success.

As a scholar, Kate is a sociologist and social theorist with diverse methodological skills and expertise in the study of sex, gender, culture and sexual commerce. Together with Dr. Barb Brents and Dr. Crystal Jackson, Dr. Korgan co-authored The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex, and Sin in the New American Heartland (Routledge, 2010), an examination of America's only system of legalized prostitution: the Nevada brothels. With Dr. Alex Nelson and Antoinette Izzo, M.A., Dr. Korgan is currently studying business strategies and entrepreneurial practices of female online escorts in the United States, and the nexus between neoliberalism and sexualized culture. The research team’s website is EroticEntrepreneurs.com. Dr. Korgan has won multiple teaching awards and loves teaching undergraduate and graduate sociology classes and mentoring her students.

Dr. Ronald Weitzer received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley in 1985 and has been at George Washington University since 1988. He is a criminologist, and much of his research has investigated police-minority relations in the United States and in other nations (including Northern Ireland and South Africa). He is also an expert on the sex industry, with particular expertise on American policies and law enforcement on prostitution and sex trafficking. A recently completed project involved extensive field research on legal prostitution systems in Europe. For additional information, go to Ronald Weitzer’s Wikipedia page.

Continue to follow and help amplify the Scientists for Sex Worker Rights Campaign for Evidence-Based Policy (@SFSWR1) on Twitter!

Courtesy of Scientists for Sex Worker Rights.

DSW Newsletter #24 (March 2021)

Heroes of the Month: Scientists for Sex Worker Rights

March 3, 2021 Since 2001, sex workers, allies, and advocates have commemorated International Sex Worker Rights Day on March 3 in an effort to raise awareness of the human rights abuses...
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Rhode Island Introduces Legislation Aimed at Protecting Sex Workers

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Decriminalization News From Oregon and Louisiana

March 3, 2021: New Orleans District 91 State Representative Mandie Landry proposed a new bill decriminalizing prostitution in Louisiana on International Sex Workers’ Rights Day. Landry partnered with local sex worker rights...
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DSW Newsletter Archive

Hero of the Month: Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

February 16, 2021

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, known as Miss Major, and most affectionately as “Mama” to many is the personification of perseverance; but Miss Major did more than just endure, she worked her hardest to ensure that others would not suffer the injustices that she had. Miss Major is still advocating for the rights of the transgender community, especially for women of color. Her courageous efforts have also led her to become a leader in the fight against the prison industrial complex.

All who know Miss Major agree she is a force of nature. She served as the original executive director for the Transgender Gender-variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), helping to found the organization in 2004. The organization assists transgender women, particularly women of color, who have been incarcerated. Outside of her professional efforts, she has mentored and cared for generations of individuals who looked up to her.

Born in Chicago, Miss Major was disowned by her family at the age of 13 when she came out as transgender. She points out that for a number of years — until her mid 20s or so — the words for her gender identity did not exist. Homeless at 13, but determined to take care of herself, Miss Major turned to sex work. Incredibly, as a homeless teenager, she enrolled in college, where she was subsequently expelled for presenting as a woman by wearing dresses. She hoped she might find acceptance in New York City.

The OUTWORDS Archive reports, that after arriving in New York, Miss Major was, “… frequently fired from jobs because of her gender presentation, [she] performed in various drag revues, relying on sex work and petty crime to cover her bills. A rough trade gay club called the Stonewall Inn was one of the few places where she felt welcome. On the night of June 28, 1969, when the Stonewall was raided for the umpteenth time by the police, Miss Major and a group of fellow transgender women were on the front lines of the crowd that finally fought back. A cop knocked Miss Major out, but the revolution had begun. The four nights of rioting that followed became known as the launch point of the modern gay rights movement.”

Her experiences in New York intimately familiarized Miss Major with the grip of the prison industrial complex on marginalized communities. Excluded from traditional job and educational opportunities because of her identity, she relied on petty crime and sex work to survive and served five years in prison. While she was incarcerated at a men’s maximum security prison in New York, she met Frank Smith, and together, they played a large role in the Attica Prison Riot. Smith was one of the greatest influences in her politicization and readiness to take a stand. She not only talked the talk, she walked the walk. After release, she advocated for incarcerated individuals on a large scale and met with women who were incarcerated. She was a constant source of inspiration and support for many and helped individuals to access employment and education upon release from incarceration.

Miss Major is a self-proclaimed feminist. She prides herself on her ability to be steadfast in her endeavors and pursuits and to do so with sensitivity, grace, and a sense of pride that no one can take from her. “Mama” to many, Miss Major raised one biological son of her own and just last month welcomed a new baby! She has a number of chosen children who love her dearly. Ceyenne Doroshow, executive director of G.L.I.T.S. (Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society), says “She’ll always be ‘mama.’ She has raised her children with a firm hand … also meeting all of us wherever we are.”

A true champion of human rights, Miss Major’s advocacy is tireless and her generosity endless. Throughout her lifetime, she has been at the forefront of fighting for the rights of incarcerated individuals, the transgender community, and people living with HIV/AIDS, always recognizing that socio-economic status, gender, race, and mental and physical health all impact the way one sees the world and the way the world sees them.

A documentary titled Major! was released in 2015 and details Miss Major’s incredible achievements as an activist and mentor over the course of 60 years! She describes the film as a tool to educate young trans women on their history, and a reminder that there are still so many who need her help. She says, “I'd like for the girls to get a chance to be who they are. For young transgender people to go to school, [to] learn like everyone else does, and then get out there and live their lives, not afraid or thinking that the only solution for them is death.”

Courtesy of Miss Major.

DSW Newsletter #23 (February 2021)

Hero of the Month: Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

February 16, 2021 Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, known as Miss Major, and most affectionately as “Mama” to many is the personification of perseverance; but Miss Major did more than just endure,...
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Hero of the Month: Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

A Victory Decades in the Making: New York Repeals the Walking While Trans Ban

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The Truth About the Equality Model

February 20, 2021 Sex workers in countries where the Equality Model1 has been implemented are frequently harassed and threatened by law enforcement. Execution of the policy often involves police raids...
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February 5, 2021 Charleston Law School invited DSW’s legal director, Melissa Broudo, to join their 13th Annual Law Symposium - SEXUAL ABUSE AND SEX TRAFFICKING: PROTECTING CHILDREN, SUPPORTING VICTIMS, AND...
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DSW Newsletter Archive