Five prominent national LGBT rights organizations issued a joint statement in August expressing support for a controversial declaration by the international human rights group Amnesty International calling for the decriminalization of prostitution.
The National LGBTQ Task Force issued a separate statement in December announcing its support for decriminalizing sex work but went a step further by urging law enforcement agencies to immediately “deprioritize” efforts to enforce anti-prostitution laws.
Lesbian activist Maxine Doogan of San Francisco who heads an organization that advocates for the rights of sex workers said her group welcomes the national LGBT groups’ decision to come out for decriminalization of sex work. But she told the Washington Blade the groups don’t appear to be taking concrete action to strike down anti-prostitution laws.
Doogan, who serves as president of the Erotic Service Providers Legal Education and Research Project, said the national LGBT groups have turned down her organization’s request for financial support for a potentially groundbreaking lawsuit seeking to overturn California’s anti-prostitution laws on federal constitutional grounds.
The group filed the lawsuit in March 2015 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. It is likely to advance to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, with the potential of overturning anti-prostitution laws in California and several neighboring states within the Ninth Circuit, according to attorneys representing Doogan’s group.
“There’s no traction at all for repealing these laws legislatively,” Doogan said. “We believe litigation is the best way to go.”
In a development that has surprised some legal observers, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White, who’s presiding over the case, has postponed issuing a ruling on a motion by California Attorney General Kamala Harris calling for dismissing the case. White instead has called on the opposing sides to submit new briefs taking into consideration the U.S. Supreme Court decision last June legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.
Although it doesn’t say so explicitly, the National LGBTQ Task Force’s call for “deprioritizing” anti-prostitution laws suggests that it, too, doesn’t expect lawmakers to repeal such laws any time soon.
“Police departments and prosecutors must stop enforcing these laws, which have negative consequences for people engaged in the sex trade,” the Task Force says in a document called Sex Work Policy Recommendations. It notes in the document that LGBT people involved in sex work out of financial necessity are “marginalized by the constant threat and risk of arrest and criminal charges.”
Amnesty International announced in August that its declaration seeking decriminalization of sex work was adopted with the full support of its members throughout the world. The declaration says criminalization of prostitution violates the human rights of sex workers and hinders efforts to protect them from exploitation.
The five LGBT groups that issued the joint statement in August backing Amnesty International’s action were Lambda Legal, the Transgender Law Center, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the National Center for Transgender Equality.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT rights group, didn’t sign on to the statement. HRC spokesperson Liz Halloran said she would make inquiries to find out where HRC stands on the issue but didn’t get back as of late Tuesday.
“As LGBT rights organizations in the United States, we join to applaud and support Amnesty International’s recent resolution to protect the human rights of sex workers by calling for decriminalization of sex work, while simultaneously holding states accountable in preventing and combating sex trafficking, ensuring that sex workers are protected from exploitation, and enforcing laws against the sexual exploitation of children,” the joint statement says.
“For many LGBT people, participation in street economies is often critical to survival, particularly for LGBT youth and transgender women of color who face all-too-common family rejection and vastly disproportionate rates of violence, homelessness, and discrimination in employment, housing, and education,” the statement says.
The joint statement points to Amnesty’s strong condemnation of human trafficking of sex workers and the belief by those calling for decriminalization of prostitution that the existing anti-prostitution laws make it more difficult to stop human trafficking.
“As Amnesty International has clearly set forth, its resolution takes into account the negative impact of criminalization on the safety of sex workers, and furthermore, states remain obligated to protect the human rights of victims of trafficking and can use criminal law to address exploitation,” the LGBT groups’ statement says.
In D.C., the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance has been calling for decriminalization of sex work since 2008. D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At-Large), a longtime supporter of LGBT rights, said at the time of the Amnesty International declaration last August that he was considering introducing legislation to decriminalize prostitution in D.C.
But Grosso has since said he’s uncertain about whether such a bill would have any chance of passing at this time and he was reconsidering his plans for the legislation.
At a news conference on Monday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and an official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced plans for a cooperative D.C.-federal government effort to crack down on human trafficking, including trafficking of sex workers.
When asked by a Blade reporter what they thought about calls by some LGBT organizations to decriminalize prostitution, Bowser and Maria Odom, the head of a Department of Homeland Security project to combat trafficking stopped short of backing decriminalization.
“You’ve hit one of the two biggest issues for us to grapple with,” Odom said. “…The question of decriminalization of sex work along with the demand side is two issues we’re learning about from our stakeholders and from service providers,” she said. “And I’m not sure we’re ready to give you an answer on that.”
Bowser said she has challenged her administration to make sure there are opportunities for productive work for all residents.
“That’s what people ask me about,” she said. “They don’t say hey, I want to do more sex work. They say I don’t want to be discriminated against in the workplace.”
Added Bowser: “And also what I hear in communities is they don’t want people in some neighborhoods seeing people being exploited day in and day out in neighborhoods across the District of Columbia.”
When asked by a citizen attending the news conference whether she believes anyone involved in sex work does so willingly, Bowser said “no.”
GLAA President Rick Rosendall said Tony Perkins, who heads the anti-LGBT Family Research Council, accused GLAA of condoning human trafficking by calling for decriminalizing sex work.
“But the crucial difference, which people like Perkins pretend not to understand, is consent,” said Rosendall. “Human trafficking is a form of slavery. No one seriously thinks we condone that…We are talking about decriminalizing consensual commercial exchanges of sex between adults in private,” he said.
D.C. police spokesperson Lt. Sean Conboy said D.C. police made more than 700 arrests for prostitution in 2015, with a focus on targeting customers or “Johns.”
When asked whether D.C. police would consider calls for “deprioritizing” the enforcement of the city’s anti-prostitution laws, Conboy said the department would be unlikely to do that.
“Officers on the street are continually prioritizing their response to crime or disorder in order to best serve the city,” he said. “However, that is very different from a police department deciding not to enforce an existing law.”
He said calls to decriminalize sex work “merits a robust citywide discussion between community members and policy makers about its potential merits and risks.” Added Conboy: “This decision should not be made by a police department choosing not to enforce the law.”
In their joint statement supporting decriminalization, the LGBT groups said LGBT people, especially transgender people, involved in sex work are especially vulnerable to the adverse impact of criminalization.
“When LGBT people are prosecuted for sex work, they face alarmingly high rates of harassment and physical and sexual abuse behind bars,” the statement says. “Laws criminalizing sexual exchange – whether by the seller or the buyer – impede sex workers’ ability to negotiate condom use and other boundaries, and force many to work in hidden or remote places where they are more vulnerable to violence.”
A number of feminist activists, including Gloria Steinem and actress Meryl Streep, urged Amnesty International not to come out in favor of decriminalizing prostitution.
“[T]his policy would in effect advocate the legalization of pimping, brothel owning and sex buying – the pillars of a $99 billion global sex industry,” a statement by a coalition of feminist groups says.