Many in the queer community are quick to remind us that Stonewall was a riot and that it was started by trans sex workers of color. Images of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera flood Instagram all year round, but especially during Pride Month. We love to cry out that Pride exists because of the activism of trans sex workers of color, and we love to romanticize Stonewall as the golden age of queer liberation.
Yet there has been a remarkable absence of sex worker visibility in our contemporary LGBTQ+ political movement, especially here in the Midwest. Queer and trans workers are still here. We’ve been here. And we’ve got something to say.
The MO Ho Justice Coalition is a sex worker advocacy effort made up of sex workers, activists and key organizational partners. We work to shape policy, amplify the voices of sex workers and advance justice for sex workers. Founded by Jay-Marie Hill, a Black and trans organizer, culture worker and musician; and Indigo Hann, a queer, neurodivergent Korean-American healer and sex worker, MO Ho is doing much more than posting photos of our movement mothers on Instagram.
Hill reflects on the tendency of the mainstream LGBTQ community to count the deaths of Black trans women each year — whether they were sex workers or not — and the posthumous heroic mythologies of their lives that proliferate on social media, including those of our movement mothers.
“Let’s not wait for people to die to appreciate them,” says Hill.
In December 2019, some friends and I bundled up and made our way downtown to the ACLU of Missouri office for a Sex Worker Allyship 101 event. The Facebook event promised an interactive workshop, as well as an abundance of typically scarce supplies with no questions asked, for free: sharps containers and syringes for people who inject drugs and/or hormones, a wide array of safer sex supplies, know-your-rights pamphlets and naloxone nasal spray, a life-saving treatment for narcotics overdose. And of course, free food.
As we approached the building, I felt electric. I couldn’t believe this event was happening in such a public way and at the ACLU’s office of all places. I could feel the change in the air.
I fall somewhere both within and outside the definition of “ally.” As a former sex worker, I hold visceral knowledge of what it means for one’s bodily autonomy to not only be questioned, but criminalized. I’m more than an ally, but at the same time, I’m removed from my sex work experiences.
I was a sex worker about ten years before the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, the 2018 federal law intended to crack down on sex trafficking. The law sent both sex trafficking and sex work further underground, making the sex trade more dangerous for everyone. Not only did I engage in sex work in a pre-SESTA/FOSTA world, but I also navigated it as a white cis(ish) woman, affording me privileges and relative safety compared to Black, brown and transgender sex workers.
Walking into the ACLU office, I knew I had found a community that aligned with my values. Within minutes, my anxiety about my own in-betweenness melted away. An appreciation for nuance, complexity, compassion and care vibrated across the room. What I didn’t know is that it was just the beginning of much more to come.
That December 2019 event, held on National Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, was planned by Hann. Leading up to that night, they had been busy reviving the defunct St. Louis chapter of the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP STL). Hann had set up a Facebook page and gotten to work, ultimately winning a microgrant from the Metro Trans Umbrella Group to provide free safer sex supplies and naloxone to sex workers.
Through the activist grapevine, Hill, who worked as the Trans Justice Project Organizer at the ACLU, reached out about hosting.
For Hill, the timing was kismet. Earlier that year, the decriminalization of both sex work and HIV had been included in the Trans Justice Project’s Ten Days of Trans Demands, an annual intensive burst of public education around ten key issues facing the transgender community.
After the event, Hill took the giant sticky notes that were covered in words and ideas from the evening’s exercises home with them. A few months later, after looking at the notes in their kitchen every day, they called up Hann with a pitch to pair Hill’s access to the ACLU’s resources and Hann’s deep roots in the sex work community to form a decriminalization coalition. In the spring of 2020, just as COVID-19 became our new reality, MO Ho Justice was launched. It became the primary focus of the ACLU of Missouri’s Trans Justice Project.
Hill and Hann quickly learned that they complement each other’s skill sets exceptionally well.
“I have ideas, but I’m very much a worker. I’m a whore’s whore. I just want to get some stuff done and take care of the community,” says Hann. “What Jay-Marie is really great at is connecting with people, networking and building relationships.”
Miyonnee Hickman joined the team as Coalition Coordinator in April of 2020. Hickman is notably multi-talented. She’s a singer, most recently featured in a collaboration with local rapper Bynk Bravado. She’s a chef, with her own line of barbeque sauce. She serves as an Intervention Specialist at the Community Wellness Project, providing HIV and STI testing and support in the community, particularly for fellow Black trans women. And she’s a sex worker.
Hickman never imagined she would be involved in advocacy in this way, much less meeting with elected officials. MO Ho is where she finally saw herself in liberation movement work. Reflecting on her childhood in Jennings, a municipality in north St. Louis County, it was hard for her to see how policy impacted her life.
“No matter who was in office, I still lived in the ghetto,” she says. “Surviving was always on my mind. Voting and who was in office never was, because it didn’t matter. If I got killed, what’s Bill Clinton gonna do for me? What’s George Bush gonna do for me if I get killed?”
Hill echoes how the white establishment in politics is out of touch with the priorities of many Black, brown, queer and trans folks.
“What does it mean to make Black Trans Lives Matter?” Hill asks. “We love to quote Marsha P. Johnson, but we don’t love to listen to what she was saying.”
According to Hill, the mainstream LGBTQ movement would “rather talk about marriage, kids, and sports,” alluding to the movement’s prioritization of marriage rights and the recent wave of legislation filed across the country (including Missouri) that targeted transgender youth’s participation in sports.
Hill doesn’t dismiss the threats posed by conservative lawmakers but also isn’t interested in bending to their agenda. “They’re gonna attack all the places they’re gonna attack. But we also have the agency to talk about what we want to discuss.”
Hill, Hann and Hickman all affirm what virtually every queer and trans sex worker already knows: Sex work decriminalization, queer liberation and liberation for Black and brown folks are inextricably linked.
“Sex work is the intersection of so many things,” says Hill. “Sex work is trans justice. It’s economic justice. It’s racial justice. It’s dealing with the police. It’s housing. It’s HIV.” Hill thinks that St. Louis is an ideal place to be doing this work. “St. Louis is already one of the Blackest places in the country and, I’m pretty sure, one of the queerest, because if there are Black people, there are queer people,” they say with a laugh. “So I wanna see Black trans people and all the deviance that queerness brings be celebrated.”
Hann agrees. “The gay agenda has made a fatal mistake of proving how much we’re like the straights. As if straightness, heteronormativity or the nuclear family was something to aspire to. We’re here, we’re queer, but we’re not going to talk about the queer ways of making a living,” says Hann. “It really seems like internalized queerphobia.”
Hickman wants to see queer and trans sex workers feel safe to come out of the shadows. “We’ve got to hide every single thing we do in this community, because everything is shunned. I don’t want to hide anymore” she says. “Five years ago, I never would have been comfortable publicly saying ‘I’m a sex worker.’”
She describes what it was like to find community. “MO Ho embraced all of me. It was like, ‘I don’t care if you’re a ho. I don’t care if you’re transgender. I love you. I want you.’ That right there, that’s the icing on the cake.”
Loud and unapologetic public outreach has been a primary activity of the coalition. Throughout 2020, we held monthly online public education events. Deeply nuanced and rich topics were covered, including the differences between legalization and decriminalization, the important distinctions between sex work, survival sex and sex trafficking, and how SESTA/FOSTA has impacted not only sex workers, but also artists, educators and LGBTQ people everywhere.
One especially innovative online event was titled “Sex Work in the Time of COVID-19,” where small breakout groups were tasked with navigating a digital choose your own adventure, prompting attendees to grapple with the impossible decisions faced by the sex workers grappling with not only COVID-19, but also the criminalization of sex work and HIV.
In 2021, the momentum continued. We held a six week Sex Work Advocacy Bootcamp, an intensive training and skillbuilding series for twelve emerging activists, artists and sex workers, complete with one-on-one coaching and mentoring. Bootcampers applied their skills to produce two key capstone events: Heaux Tells, a sex worker open mic night event, and MO Ho U: Where Do We Go From Here?, featuring a primer of MO Ho’s work, and an overview of Mayor Tishaura Jones’ administration’s commitment to decriminalizing and destigmatizing sex work.
Now, MO Ho faces a crossroads. It has always been known that the funding and resources provided by the ACLU of Missouri would end in July of 2021, and that MO Ho would spin off to become its own independent entity.
Hill asserts that the foundation is already laid to support a continuation of the work, including a website, robust presence on Facebook and Instagram, and The State of the Hustle, a detailed report informed by survey responses from more than 150 sex workers in Missouri.
Hill is unphased and unbothered that the ACLU’s resources will no longer be in the picture. “Sex workers are not a non-profit. The group will decide what it wants. The blueprint is still there,” they say.
A number of new funding sources are in various stages of development, but one revenue stream is confirmed to support drop-in wellness and community support for sex workers, hosted by The T, a health education and resource center founded by Dr. LJ Punch.
Hann has both the lived and professional experiences needed to secure the funding for this new program: They are a sex worker with a long history working in health care, including currently working at The T as the Clinic Coordinator for Bullet Recovery Injury Clinic.
Hann explains that sex workers and the trans community have a rich shared history of creating care networks, “but have not always been recognized for the ways that sex work and mutual aid overlap. Our whole communities are built on helping each other out and helping each other survive because no one else will.” The new sex worker-specific services at the T will help provide a safe space for sex workers to gather and share beauty tips, safety strategies, and material supplies.
In my own involvement with the MO Ho Justice Coalition, I’ve witnessed the unveiling of surveys, reports, public education events, memos to the Mayor and long lists justifying why sex workers deserve decriminalization and destigmatization of their bodies and line of work.
Yet, the heartbeat of it all is simple. Says Hickman, “Sex work is work. I just don’t get it. If you out here having sex for free, it’s OK, but since you put a price tag on, it’s a whole different ballgame.”
She sums up the game that folks who have criminalized, stigmatized, regulated, fetishized and pathologized bodies must play under capitalism: “Y’all just want me out here havin’ sex for free? Just sexin’! Just sexin’ for free! I’m not like that! If I’m gonna get a profit from it, I’m gonna get it.”
Part of the work of MO Ho is to open doors for others to speak just as freely. “Being ashamed to be Black and trans? We don’t have to have that future if we don’t want to,” says Hill. “There are so many things that are available to us if we say some of the quiet, hidden parts out loud.”
Hill, Hann and Hickman are ready to welcome more unheard voices into the fold of MO Ho. Says Hickman, “If you wit’ it, let’s get it.”