As thousands protest in the streets against the police killing of George Floyd, sex workers in New York rose in solidarity during a livestream to mark International Whores’ Day. The virtual rally came this afternoon, hours before they were to head to Stonewall Inn to speak out against police violence against black transgender people.
International Whores’ Day originated in 1975 when over 100 sex workers occupied the Saint-Nizier church in Lyon, France to bring attention to inhumane working conditions. Much of what they were protesting back then– the criminalization of sex work, a brutal police crackdown, the forced closing of businesses– still afflict many sex workers today worldwide.
“It’s a very hard time to be on the streets right now, as our health is threatened, our bodies surveilled,” remarked Yin Q, one of the event organizers. “And yet we must take to the street in solidarity to protest the black lives that are murdered again and again.”
With New York City set to begin phase one of its reopening June 8, the state of sex work remains in flux. In Flushing, some massage parlors have tiptoed back to business, sources in the Chinese sex community told Bedford + Bowery. And online sex ads started making a comeback in May. But with the shutdown of essential businesses still in effect, massage providers are still suffering from a lack of business, and at-home providers are grappling with concerns about infection. In a WeChat group consisted of just over 100 members, most of whom do sex work from their homes, there have been posts about fellow sex workers in both New York and other states dying at home from coronavirus. The founder of the group, anorganizer of a Chinese website that posts sex ads in New York, advised group members to not rush back to work, and make sure to wear masks and sanitize regularly if they do.
It’s been two months since Yanyan, a sex worker who asked that her last name not be used, last invited a customer into her Flushing home. Before the pandemic, her clients were mostly Chinese. Now, however, many Chinese people have been extra cautious about going outside, let alone seeking sexual services. After a friend of Yanyan’s told her that there were more foreign clients in New Jersey, she decided to spend 20 days in a suburban motel to try her luck. She packed a 20-day supply of sanitizers, masks, and alcohol wipes, as well as some eggs, noodles, and a small rice cooker. Of the $160 she charged clients, $60 was used to pay an English-speaking phone receptionist, who screened for potential law enforcement and robbers, and her behind-the-scenes “boss,” who posted an ad for her services and arranged for her motel stay.
Having little food to eat and limited freedom to go outside, Yanyan lost almost nine pounds over two weeks. Day and night, she was also plagued by the thought of police or robbers knocking on her door. Finally, on the 15th day, exhausted and sleep-deprived, she couldn’t take it anymore and returned to Flushing.
Such ordeals are why International Whores’ Day was founded. This year, of course, the day has taken on new meaning amidst a global pandemic and nationwide protests against the brutal police killings of black Americans. While continuing to advocate for the decriminalization of sex work, it also calls for uniting marginalized groups, speaking out, and pushing back against a political system that perpetrates discrimination, stigma, and oppression.
One of the livestream’s 20 speakers, writer and sex-work activist Lorelei Lee, recalled the oppressive history of non-white sex workers dating back to the 1830s and argued that sex work was originally criminalized and stigmatized to uphold the very same racism that is at the source of modern policing. “The same white supremacy this month killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahumaud Arbery, and Tony McDade.”
“Race is at the center of anti-sex-work law and policy,” Lee told around 400 people watching the livestream. “And our movement is built on a legacy of black and brown and migrant and indigenous resistance and it is our responsibility to honor [it].”
During the course of the two-plus-hour stream, black transgender sex workers delivered particularly honest and direct speeches. “[Since the pandemic started] a lot of women are homeless, sleeping on the streets, living in shelters,” said Gizelle Maria, founder and organizer of #NYC Stripper Strike, choking back tears. “I have lost so many people because of the stigma that we face. We are tired.”
Despite frustration and rage, organizers also reported positive news about new initiatives that were launched after the pandemic started. Molly Simmons and Fera Lorde from SWOP Brooklyn said that since March, the Sex Workers Outreach Project had raised $64,000 from around the world and helped 370 individuals across New York State.
A month ago, Yanyan received a bag of groceries, homemade masks, and an envelope of cash from one of SWOP Brooklyn’s partners, Red Canary Song, an organization that advocates for migrant sex workers. She told Bedford + Bowery what it was like when she arrived at the rendezvous with a friend. “The sister was wearing red. I saw her slim body carrying so much food for us. Her eyes told me that she expected nothing in return,” her text read in Mandarin. “I gave her a hug. I cried. My friend also cried.”