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PRESS RELEASE: Vital communications cut for people of color and trans led group during #COVID19


N’Jaila Rhee,

P. Saunders,

Vital communications cut for people of color and trans led group during #COVID19

Newark, NJ – April 10, 2020  – The Best Practices Policy Projects is working with a network of sex worker rights and trans led organization to get life saving support to community members in need due to COVID-19. The Twitter account of our key New Jersey partner New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance (NJRUA) has been restricted for three weeks. This restriction cut off access to hundreds of workers in the sex trades who communicate with NJRUA via Twitter direct message to receive direct services such as referrals to health care, emergency food, and time sensitive support for domestic violence that has been heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of equal importance to these messages are communications from victims of the serial rapist Joey Torres who was arrested by Federal agents in February 2020. 

“NJRUA has been unable to access messages from victims of the serial rapist Joey Torres for several weeks,” says N’Jaila Rhee one of the coordinators of the grassroots service service providers. “NJRUA has been silenced. We are very worried about the impact that this will have on women who have endured silencing for so long.”

“Our efforts to provide services to sex workers, transgender people, immigrants and low income women during COVID-19 have been eviscerated by what Twitter has done,” says Janet Duran who provides outreach services for NJRUA. “These days many people are looking to Twitter to communicate with service providers. No one can find us. The clock is ticking and people need our help.”

Penelope Saunders, PhD, the coordinator of the Best Practices Policy Project says, “As a public health professional, I am very concerned about the restriction placed on NJRUA at such a crucial time. Grassroots organizations, those led by the communities in need, are the most effective in getting resources out quickly and reducing harm. Communications companies like Twitter have a public responsibility and duty of care to ensure that recognized non-profits organizations have access to the services they provide. Otherwise COVID-19 will continue to impact the most marginalized.”

The New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance (NJRUA) is a working alliance of activists and allies who are dedicated to promoting, defending, and advocating for the human rights of sex workers in the state of New Jersey. The Best Practices Policy Project (BPPP) is dedicated to supporting organizations and advocates working with sex workers, people in the sex trade and related communities in the United States. Everything that we do is guided by principles that protect the rights of people who engage in commercial sex in all its forms.

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The arrest of Joey Torres:

Impact of cancellations due to COVID-19

In 2020, our organizations in various coalitions have been planning to host the following events and engage in the following human rights processes:

  • a sex worker led parallel session and a fundraiser at the Commission on the Status of Women,
  • the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United States including writing a collective report, advocating for key issues with permanent missions, hosting a working group on sex work at the USHRN, planning to attend pre-sessions at the UN in Geneva and the UPR itself that should be held in May 2020,
  • a sex worker rights networking session at the Allied Media Conference in June 2020,
  • AIDS2020 in San Francisco and HIV2020 in Mexico City (both planned for July 2020).

The United Nations cancellation of almost all of the Commission on the Status of Women in the afternoon/evening of March 2, 2020 dismantled the work of our sex worker and trans led organizations stretching back to October 2019. On Friday March 6, 2020 our two representatives who had been scheduled to attend vital UPR pre-meetings planned by UPR-Info in Geneva were told that they were part of a cohort that had been locked out of the UN itself while other pre-selected groups (the selected speakers from larger NGOs such as the Human Rights Campaign) will still be allowed in. Work that sex worker and trans led groups has been preparing for since March 2019 to raise key issues about sex worker rights and intersections with migration, trans justice, and economic justice is now derailed.

We have been asked to retool and reschedule by having events at other times and in other formats, and working around UN restrictions. We will do all that we can but we want to place the actions that we can and cannot take in a political context.

  1. Most of our organizations have no paid staff at all and only one of us has recently brought on a part time administrator. Re-planning events places tremendous strain on us.
  2. We have expended all of our extremely limited resources and there are no more resources to pay for events to happen at another time or to make up for changes that multi-million dollar global agencies make. Our organizations and our members live week to week and day to day.
  3. Our exclusion is systematic. The fact that our representatives had their UN accreditation cancelled is a result of being denied speaker slots and forced into the audience (while more privileged groups were given the space to speak). A public health crisis is not an excuse for cancelling the access of those who already had the least access. 
  4. Every epidemic has led to the blaming and exclusion of sex workers, drug users, LGBT communities and immigrants. The history of HIV/AIDS is so present for us. Hysteria about coronavirus makes all in our communities vulnerable and deflects from the failures of States that know full well how to address respiratory infections but have not been doing so. Our right to health includes acknowledgement that we the marginalized are not the risk but that governments should have strengthened public health systems long ago, worked with us to provide trainings for frontline health workers, provided testing to those who wish to have it for coronavirus, and making sure that senior living centers were safe and clean.
  5. As sex workers, we stand with all the cleaners who are our heroes in ensuring public health. Sex workers need rights and so should domestic workers and cleaners be uplifted and paid more. The stigma of doing societies’ “dirty work” must be challenged.

In solidarity,

The Best Practices Policy Project, Desiree Alliance, New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, Moral High Ground Productions, the Outlaw Project and the Black Sex Worker Collective

Not your grandmother’s fringe movement: Decoding WaPo’s “An effort to decriminalize prostitution in D.C. faces unlikely opposition”

It is exciting to see that campaigns to end the criminalization of sex workers’ lives organized and sustained by those directly affected by the laws–that is trans people, people of color, immigrants and youth–are being recognized in major news outlets such as the Washington Post. The coverage of a statement released by D.C.’s Sex Worker Advocates Coalition (SWAC) and DecrimNow DC is needed and brings further national attention to one of the most important movements for change about these issues.

However, WaPo’s article is drenched in language that diminishes the importance of D.C.’s movement and the critical issues regarding race, class, gender, and immigrant status. The authors Narappil and Schmidt write that the “grass-roots effort to decriminalize D.C. sex work hit a major hurdle last fall, when the city council declined to vote on a bill that would make Washington the first U.S. city to eliminate penalties for prostitution” and state that the concerns raised by SWAC and DecrimNow DC “illustrate rifts in the nascent sex-work movement as it tries to move from the fringe to the mainstream.” WaPo must surely know after more than 140 years experience observing and publishing about social movements, that overturning unjust, racist, stigmatizing laws takes time. The debates in 2019 around the bill mark an uptick in interest in this change, a marker along the way in a long campaign, and not a “major hurdle.” If we observe global trends on this issue, change will come. Sex work will be recognized as work. There is nothing “nascent” about sex worker rights. In D.C. the current organizing stretches back directly more than 15 years to coalitions and actions addressing the D.C. Council in regards to the now repealed (due to activism) “prostitution free zone” legislation. The roots of activism in D.C. go much deeper than this with histories of activism that deserve more coverage and celebration in the mainstream press.

The term sex work was coined by California activist Carol Leigh in the 1970s and her work itself is predated by grassroots organizing by people of the stature of Miss Major Griffin-Gracey and many others. Internationally the current phase of sex worker rights organizing has been well respected for 40 years, with sex workers being at the forefront of intersectional struggles for change and working directly with multi-lateral agencies such as UNAIDS and the World Health Organization to develop global policy. Observing the development of a deeply rooted movement in D.C. and describing it as moving “from the fringe to the mainstream” relies on the outdated tropes of respectability politics and racism as to who gets to speak and be taken seriously. This is a sleight of hand to diminish what this movement actually is and the profound changes it is bringing.

The main issue of concern raised by SWAC and DecrimNow DC is in regards to the group Decriminalize Sex Work disrupting local long term organizing and plans. Narappil and Schmidt write that, “Decriminalize Sex Work is facing intense opposition from an unlikely source — the local sex-worker activists who were pushing for the bill in the first place.” There is nothing “unlikely” about SWAC’s and DecrimNow DC’s opposition to an attempted action that was not welcome or appropriate if led by a highly privileged out of town group. Once again, in the 140 years that WaPo has been around, it should be clear by now that people of power and privilege often attempt to hijack long term work done by local activists. And this hijacking results in out of towners reaping the benefits of further funding, recognition, awards and accolades, entrenching the disparities already wrought by criminalization. The years of work that community members have done to celebrate (and prevent the erasure/co-option of) the legacy of trailblazing transwomen at Stonewall should be instructive. Today, activists of color, transgender people and other groups of people who face the devastating impact of criminalization are fully aware of what can happen to a movement and leadership should they not proactively defend their organizing space and legacy.

It should come as no surprise at all that the strategies of SWAC and DecrimNow DC differ from groups such as Decriminalize Sex Work. The SWAC and DecrimNow DC statement is a carefully developed response. Erasing the history of this organizing and pigeonholing activists of color and trans experience as “fringe” is out of touch with how organizing is happening in 2020.

HIV2020: why? how? scholarship applications and expressions of interest due Jan 31

HIV2020 is a conference event scheduled to take place in Mexico City, July 5-7, 2020, and will run concurrently with the first half of the international AIDS conference. The organizers are aiming to provide a safe alternative for people who cannot or will not enter the United States in 2020. HIV2020 will also offer new opportunities to reaffirm the leading role communities play in the global HIV response. HIV2020 is supported by global sex worker networks.

How to apply? AIDS Action Europe has put together a useful guide on how to apply for scholarships and to express interest to speak. We also learned from Triple-X in Canada that the steps for scholarships are to 1) Register as participant for free and 2) apply for scholarship link. Scholarship applications and proposals are due NO LATER THAN January 31, 2020.

More information about HIV2020 and AIDS2020 from BPPP and partner groups. As we have noted in another post about navigating the International AIDS Conferences this year, the International AIDS Society has made the incorrect decision to host AIDS2020 in San Francisco further marginalizes our communities and places global attendees at risk should they attempt to enter the United States at a time of oppression at US borders. BPPP supports the alternate/protest/#move conference site Mexico called HIV2020 and we will be fundraising for people to go to these alternate conferences just as we did for AIDS2012. However, since relatively few members of our community can travel due to restrictions on travel documents placed on our US based members because of the prison industrial complex and other oppression. We support actions inside and outside of the US to hold AIDS2020, the US and the IAS accountable. Read more about actions inside the US here.

Organizing in Washington DC during AIDS2012 (photo by PJ Starr)