Melinda Chateauvert talks Stonewall, SlutWalk, rights for sex workers and her new book
Though it's a human-rights movement with roots in gay-liberation activism, the fight for rights for sex workers is much less recognized, says Melinda Chateauvert. Her new book,Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement From Stonewall to SlutWalk aims to change that, chronicling the the movement from the struggle to end police brutality to the push to change legislation. Chateauvert will sign and read from her book at 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 7 at the Tattered Cover Colfax. We caught up with the author, activist and historian in advance of her visit to Denver to talk about the controversial movement.
Westword: What made you want to write this book?
Melinda Chateauvert: As somebody who has been a historian and an activist and a student of social justice movements for forty years -- and longer, since my mother started dragging me to anti-war demonstrations when I was eight -- I've always been very much interested in protest movement, both as a participant and a student. This book, to me, is about a human-rights movement. It's about a movement that began as a civil-rights movement, with people who identified as transgender and as women of color and as sex workers, and their efforts to challenge the stigmas that they faced because of their identity and to gain rights and freedom to be able to do a lot more than merely be identified as prostitutes.
Can you discuss the importance of the term "sex work" in talking about the issue?
The term was coined by Carol Leigh, and her performance name is Scarlot Harlot. Carol created that term in the early 1980s and it has now become common use around the world. There are several reasons why that term is so important, but one of the things that's important about it is that it's gender neutral, so that it's not automatically identified as male, female, transgender, whatever else. And because it's gender neutral, what it really emphasizes is that what people are doing is not having sex, but they are working. It puts work and labor and capitalism right in the center of that discussion, rather than talking about morality.
The title of your book mentions Stonewall, which is a cornerstone in the gay-rights movement. How did the night of action relate to the movement for sex workers' rights?
I start with Stonewall and a riot that preceded it three years earlier in San Francisco called the Compton's Cafeteria riot, and both of those nights of action were led or brought on by police brutality. This is about policing of people's bodies and their actions and their use of public space. At Stonewall and at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966, those were places where transgender women of color and hustlers and drug addicts and drug sellers and other marginalized people - people who made their living and had friends and lovers in the street trade because they could not get access to other kinds of jobs -- tended to gather and hang out and try to get away from all of that. These were their places of relaxation. Yet every place where they gathered and tried to build some sort of community among themselves was regularly raided by the police and they were regularly harassed by the police.
One night in 1966, and as we know later in 1969, people said they'd had enough and they protested. The reason why I talk about Compton's and I talk about Stonewall and I talk about these riots is because they actually set an agenda for the movement that we still observe and need to pay heed to. They were fighting against police brutality. They were fighting against the harassment that people who are different face, not just from the police, but from the general public. They were fighting because they were people who were locked out of legitimate jobs and the only jobs they could get, or the only way they could really survive, was by engaging in street trades. That was the only way that proper society allowed them to live their lives and they were tired of it. They wanted to move beyond. They wanted legitimate jobs. They wanted to work in offices and be retail clerks or to be journalists and be all these other things, which because they were transgender, because they had a history of sex work or drug use, they were unable to do.
Is that still what the movement is about?
Much of the movement is still about that. A recent movement down in Louisiana was a case in which women who were charged with felony solicitation were forced to register as sexual offenders. Sometimes for fifteen years or longer. This was not because they'd actually committed the act of oral sodomy, as Louisiana law defined, but simply because they had offered somebody a blow job for $20. But for that crime, they were charged with felony solicitation, and the way Louisiana law worked was that a felony sexual offense meant you had to register as an offender. If you're registered as a sex offender, your driver's license says in big, bold letters "Registered Sex Offender." A lot of time you're barred from jobs -- and think about how many times you show your driver's license. That criminalization of sexuality, of gender -- of talking, even, in the Louisiana case -- are still issues we're facing that people started protesting against back in the 1960s.
Do you think the stigma has changed since the 1960s?
I think some of the stigma has changed, but I question how deeply felt that cultural change, or how long-lasting that cultural change, is going to be. I think that there is an acceptance, as we talk about things like SlutWalk, there's more of an acceptance of the idea that hey, it might be groovy to be a stripper. Or wow, that's a porn star, I should get to know them. There's some sort of interest and more acceptance of some people who engage in sex work. But at the same time, we have increased our criminalization of people who engage in prostitution or in sex work who work outside of the commercial industry, outside of strip clubs, outside of places with paychecks.
In places like Washington, D.C., and Portland and Seattle, the police can declare a particular zone a prostitution-free zone and therefore push everybody out of a particular neighborhood at any time they so declare. Oftentimes these prostitution-free zones are being declared where a neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying. I think that people are fine with thinking that there are sex workers out there, but they don't want the children of sex workers to be in school with their children. They don't necessarily want a sex worker living in the same apartment building as they do, because hey, they might bring somebody home. They don't want former sex workers to be school teachers. So there is still stigma. There may be interest in the occasional cocktail party conversation or going to a burlesque show or doing something like that, but actually to say, "Hey, my neighbor's a sex worker" -- most of America is not happy to say that.