NO JUSTICE, NO PIECE: Building Alliances and Organizing Across Movements

by Darby Hickey
(get the PDF)

From Vol. 3, Issue 2 of $pread, Published in August 2007

In November of last year I had the opportunity, thanks to the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, to bring together an excellent group of people for a panel on sex work at the Creating Change conference, a national gathering of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights activists. Stellar activists Carol Queen, Gennifer Hirano, and Tyrone Hanley spoke on the panel, titled “What’s $$ Got to Do With It?—Sex work, queers, and the importance of alliances between the two.” The room was full, mainly with younger activists open to hearing our panel’s perspectives on the connections between the battles for sex worker justice and LGBT equality. It was a fantastic session with a lot of excellent questions, comments, and strategizing about how to work together for comprehensive social justice.

One of the most challenging things in any social movement is to work with others to identify common cause. While there have been historic moments of success, like 1999 in Seattle, when activists from the labor, environmental, anti-capitalist, and other movements came together to protest the World Trade Organization, it remains difficult to get activists from other movements to understand sex workers’ issues as their issues. Often as not, the status quo within movements is to focus on “single issue politics,” usually focusing on the goals most important to the most privileged in a community. That kind of thinking is what leads many gay activists, for example, to not consider poverty an “LGBT issue.” But the most effective work for social change, and that which is most threatening to the institutions supporting the status quo, is when cross-movement organizing and action happens.

Over the years, the movements against sexual violence have incorporated an understanding of LGBT issues, feminist activists have incorporated anti-racism, anti-war activists have made connections to domestic policies, and so on. If the fight for sex workers’ rights is going to succeed, we need to make these linkages as well—something that many activists have worked on for decades. Of course, as a marginalized movement, and with activists in other social movements who openly oppose our organizing, we have a serious uphill battle.

Some of the most common allies of working for the rights of people who exchange sex for things they need are activists from LGBT communities. It’s no coincidence, since so many sex workers are transgender, lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer, or identify with those communities. Yet the concerns of trans sex workers, for example, are not always included as priorities in sex worker organizing. Meanwhile, those same issues of trans sex workers are often marginalized within transgender-specific organizations—which are often run by trans people without sex work experience. If we want folks from other movements to support our efforts, we have to recognize how their issues are ours just as much as our issues are theirs.

We can build alliances with folks working against police brutality—but not if we don’t broaden our own perspectives beyond just what affects sex workers, or people profiled as such. Reproductive justice is a framework that more and more sex worker rights activists are finding useful as a way to identify with others working to stop efforts to control our bodies and what we do with them, but how many of our sex worker rights groups are also taking up other issues within reproductive justice as our own?

Maybe I’m belaboring the point, but in order to gain allies you have to show how you support them as well. Our groups can begin (as many already have) by signing on to petitions, marches, and campaigns that other movements are pushing. We can go to meetings, conferences, and events held by others and share our unique perspectives while listening to theirs. When we have joined up with other movements, we can ask that our issues be put on the table.

In DC, when we were organizing against new rights-restricting legislation, we had an incredible list of co-signers on our letter to the city council. There are only a few groups working specifically on sex work issues, so we had the help of HIV/AIDS organizations, domestic violence projects, anti-prison groups, legal collectives, people of color and immigrants’ groups, and more. This alliance didn’t happen overnight, but was the result of strategically linking our issues together, communicating our commitments to their efforts, and helping them see the connections to our struggle.

This kind of cross-movement and cross-issue organizing will really help our communities in the end, since not many people exchanging sexual services for things they need identify as “sex workers,” and many of us have stronger allegiances to other identities, whether racial, sexual, political, or something else. By working on issues that have commonalities not only across diverse groups of sex workers but across other communities as well, we strengthen our own movement while working for true social justice. So many sex workers make a living by working at street corners and intersections, why shouldn’t we also achieve justice by working at figurative street corners and the intersections of movements and issues!

$pread is a quarterly print magazine by and for sex workers (escorts, strippers, fetish workers, porn actors, prostitutes, phone sex operators, etc). Founded in 2005 and published by a group of all-volunteer current and former sex workers and allies based out of New York City, $pread aims to provide a space for sex workers of all genders to speak for themselves, regardless of their perspectives. We strive to build community among sex workers and to educate the general non-sex working public about the diverse realities of the sex industry. No Justice, No Piece is a regular activism column, written by Darby Hickey, a DC-based sex worker activist. Find out more about $pread at http://www.spreadmagazine.org. Link.

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