To make a great distinction between being paid for an hour’s sexual services, or an hour’s typing, or an hour’s acting on a stage is to make a distinction that is not there. – Margo St. James
Forty years ago today (on Mother’s Day of that year), Margo St. James founded COYOTE, the very first sex worker rights organization. Ironically, she was set on that path in 1962 by a cop who decided she looked like a streetwalker and a judge who convicted her of prostitution without any real evidence: “I said in court, ‘Your honor, I never turned a trick in my life!’ he responded, ‘Anyone who knows the language is obviously a professional.’ My crime was I knew too much to be nice girl.” Once she had a criminal record, she found that she could not get any other work, and so decided she might as well do what she had been accused of. And though she only worked for four years, she continued to identify with the hookers and eventually founded an organization called WHO:
…Whores, Housewives and Others. Others meant lesbian, but it wasn’t being said out loud yet, even in liberal bohemian circles. The first meeting of WHO was held on Alan Watt’s houseboat. The name COYOTE came from novelist Tom Robbins who dubbed me the COYOTE Trickster…Richard Hongisto, a liberal sheriff elected in San Francisco about that time attended my parties. He had been a cop, and had a sociology degree. I…asked him what it would take to get NOW, and Gay rights groups to support prostitutes’ rights…He said that we needed someone from the victim class to speak out…I decided to be that someone…and I hoped the hookers would join me. The PR people responsible for getting the sheriff elected volunteered to help me with COYOTE…I started organizing internationally with…Jennifer James, an anthropology professor…[who] coined the word decriminalization and was responsible for getting NOW to make it a plank in their 1973 convention. COYOTE published a newsletter from 1974-79 and the Hooker’s Ball became popular, attracting 20,000 people in 1978…
Let that sink in: the largest mainstream feminist organization actually supported sex worker rights for a short time, though the neofeminists destroyed that within just a few years. Still, it looked for a while as though there was nowhere to go but up. COYOTE chapters sprang up in Sacramento and Florida, and similar organizations were formed elsewhere; there was PONY in New York, PUMA in Massachusetts, CUPIDS and PEP in Michigan, KITTY in Kansas City, PASSION in New Orleans, OCELOT in San Diego, KAT in Los Angeles, ASP in Seattle and DOLPHIN in Hawaii. On June 2nd, 1975 French whores in Lyon held the protest which led to the formation of the French Collective of Prostitutes, and a sister organization soon formed in England; they and several others joined with COYOTE “to form the International Committee for Prostitutes’ Rights (ICPR), the organization whose work and example helped to win prostitution law reform in a number of European countries and provided an example which inspired similar campaigns in many other parts of the world.” In 1976, COYOTE filed the lawsuit which led to decriminalization in Rhode Island, and by 1977 even well-known journalists and politicians were listening.
Had HIV not arrived on the scene a few years later, criminalization might have been merely a black period of history by now. But arrive it did, swinging the balance of power to the neofeminists and their fundamentalist Christian allies. Margo moved to Europe to help sex worker rights efforts there, and COYOTE was directed by Samantha Miller and Gloria Lockett, who worked to make the organization more responsive to the concerns of minority sex workers and those who weren’t escorts (including strippers, phone sex operators, etc). During the AIDS panic of the ‘80s and the neofeminist ascendance of the ‘90s, COYOTE was too busy fighting disinformation and stigma to make any actual progress, and by the time new organizations like SWOP started to appear around the turn of the century it had run out of steam. Margo (who had returned to the US in 1993) decided to concentrate on sex worker health, and in 1999 COYOTE became the St. James Infirmary, which provides free medical care and social services for sex workers. The only other remaining chapter is the Los Angeles one, which has been inactive since about the same time. But though the mother of all sex worker organizations has ceased to exist in its original form, every current activist group owes it – and Margo – a debt of gratitude for showing that it could be done.