Over one hundred people gathered in Manhattan's Foley Square Monday afternoon to celebrate the launch of a new coalition of activists and lawmakers working toward making New York the first state to decriminalize sex work.
Demonstrators began converging on the square around 11:45 AM for the rally, the location of which had been kept secret—barring an RSVP—for security concerns. Some came with signs, while others quickly scrawled on poster board just before the event got started, or held up signs distributed by members of the coalition, called Decrim NY. "Arrests only save police budgets," one Decrim NY sign read. Another: "Sex work is a regular ass job. Period."
So far, Decrim NY is made up of over a dozen New York-based activist and legal aid groups— including Brooklyn Defenders Services, the New York Transgender Advocacy Group, Housing Works, and Make the Road NY—as well as groups fighting for LGBTQ, housing, and immigration rights, which advocates for decriminalizing sex work see as critical to furthering their cause. Equally critical—and, some demonstrators said Monday, unprecedented—were the state legislators who have joined the effort: New York State Senators Julia Salazar, Jessica Ramos, and Brad Hoylman, as well as State Assembly Members Richard Gottfried, Dan Quart, and Catalina Cruz.
"It feels so surreal to be here with elected officials talking about this," Cecilia Gentili, a member of Decrim NY's steering committee, told the crowd after Quart spoke, breaking into tears. "It feels incredibly, incredibly surreal to have the support of our elected officials."
Sex workers' rights have been steadily gaining a foothold in mainstream political discourse in the wake of FOSTA/SESTA, a package of anti-sex trafficking federal legislation that President Donald Trump signed into law in April. The twin bills won the overwhelming support of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle—including all of the current 2020 Democratic frontrunners—who argued it would curb sex-trafficking and end its propagation online. But it was sex workers, and particularly trans sex workers, who felt the immediate effects of the law, which they said had shut down forums where they could find safe and reliable work and instead put them at greater risk for violence, homelessness, and arrest.
“I tried to go back to clients that had sexually abused me or crossed my boundaries out of desperation for money,” a 27-year-old trans woman named Sonja told Broadly just four months after FOSTA/SESTA's passage. “Including one who had directly sexually assaulted me.”
As the 2018 midterms approached, the mounting calls for action from sex workers pushed some candidates to take a stance on the law, and make decriminalization a prominent part of their campaigns. In June, Suraj Patel, the candidate who challenged Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, held a sex workers town hall thought to be the first of its kind for a congressional candidate. Across the city, sex workers also rallied behind Julia Salazar, a 27-year democratic socialist who was running to defeat incumbent state Senator Martin Dilan, canvassing and hosting events to build support for her insurgent campaign. Sex workers' rights organizers called her November upset a "game changer" for their movement.
"The biggest accomplishment of this movement has been changing culture, breaking down stigma, and laying the groundwork so now we can actually change the law to codify people's rights and empower them."
In supporting Decrim NY, Salazar intends not to let them down: Together with Ramos, Hoylman, and Gottfried, she's introducing legislation to change a state penal code that targets sex workers by criminalizing "loitering for the purpose of engaging in prostitution."
"There's been this movement for a long time that's been trying to fight the criminalization and general harm that's done to sex workers, but without laws to actually implement that and protect workers, it can only be so effective," Salazar told Broadly on Monday. "I think that the biggest accomplishment of this movement has been changing culture, breaking down stigma, and laying the groundwork so now we can actually change the law to codify people's rights and empower them."
The presence of state lawmakers contributed to the flurry of excitement surrounding Decrim NY's launch, but demonstrators made sure to emphasize—as Salazar did, too—that it's to the credit of sex workers themselves that such a coalition now exists.
"Sex workers did it," a woman who asked to go by Emmy, her first name, told Broadly when asked about the momentum that led to Monday's rally. "Sex workers organized. Sex workers found community in coalition and activism."
Multiple current and former sex workers spoke at the event, many of them trans women and women of color, discussing why they'd chosen sex work, or turned to it in a time of need, and why they believed law enforcement had no right to dictate what they did with their bodies.
"I started my journey in New York City as a sex worker," Kiara St. James, the cofounder and executive director of New York Transgender Advocacy Group, said. "Sex work saved my life. Sex work provided opportunities for me to keep a roof over my head. What decriminalization is about is transformative social justice being called into action."
A transgender sex worker named Jennifer based in Queens talked about how anti-trans discrimination at previous jobs made her take up sex work. In Spanish, she said multiple police officers arrested her at her apartment in June, a few months after FOSTA/SESTA. "Este cuerpo es mío," she asserted, as the crowd joined her in a chant: "Mío, mío, mío!"
And later, Julie Xu, an organizer with Red Canary Song, an advocacy group for Chinese migrant massage workers, spoke for someone who couldn't attend the rally: Yang Song, a 38-year-old woman who fell to her death in November after police attempted to arrest her for engaging in sex work.
There was pain in recounting the violence and trauma that sex workers say results from criminalizing their work, but Monday's rally was still buoyed by the hope that Decrim NY could make significant strides toward preventing further harm.
"Thanks so much to all of you for being here," Gentili told the crowd at the end of the rally, as demonstrators continued to clutch their signs amid unforgiving winds. "I know it was cold—but this feels like the warmest place in the world right now."