Sharmus Outlaw, a D.C.-based advocate for transgender and sex worker rights and people with HIV/AIDS in the United States and internationally for more than 25 years, died July 7 at a hospice in Arlington, Va., from complications associated with lymphoma. She was 50.
Outlaw most recently served as a national policy advocate focusing on transgender rights and health care access for the Best Practices Policy Project, an organization that provides technical, public policy, and logistical support for other organizations advocating for sex workers.
She also served as the U.S. representative for the Program Advisory Committee of the Red Umbrella Fund, an Amsterdam-based international fund that assists sex worker rights organizations.
“An internationally known activist, she spoke out against injustice in all settings, from interactions with police in the streets to meetings with the U.S. government to high-level U.N. gatherings,” a statement released by the Best Practices Policy Project says.
“Sharmus has left us much too soon but she has achieved so much,” the statement says. “In 2001 she was a founding member of Different Avenues, a grassroots organization working with people in the street and other informational economies in the District of Columbia,” according to the BPPP statement.
She also worked or volunteered for a number of other D.C.-area organizations, including the sex worker advocacy group HIPS, the LGBT youth advocacy group SMYAL, Casa Ruby and Us Helping Us.
The BPPP statement says Outlaw was an “integral part of the community-based research team that collected data on police interactions with people profiled as sex workers in the District of Columbia, which was published as the seminal report, ‘Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington, D.C.’”
The group says she was co-author of another first-of-its-kind report that addressed the issue of public policy related to HIV/AIDS and sex workers.
D.C. transgender activist Darby Hickey said Outlaw spoke at the International AIDS Conference in 2002 in Barcelona, Spain, and again in 2012 in D.C.
During the 2012 International AIDS Conference, held the Walter Washington Convention Center, Outlaw was among the leaders of a protest that disrupted a panel of U.S. public officials discussing HIV policy. The protesters said their aim was to highlight what they believed was the U.S. government’s harmful position against sex workers’ rights.
Outlaw, telling the press that she, too, had been a sex worker as a means of survival, told reporters covering the protest, “Before I’m transgender, before I’m a sex worker, before I am anything, I’m human. I have rights just like anyone else.”
Hickey created an online appeal for funds for a memorial and funeral arrangements for Outlaw on the site generosity.com. She said funeral arrangements were being made in Outlaw’s home state of North Carolina but plans for a separate memorial gathering in D.C. would be announced soon.
“Sharmus achieved so much but there was still more she wanted to do,” Hickey said in a message on the generosity.com site.
“She always had her eyes ahead looking out to that horizon of a better day when we will all be enlightened with the idea that together we are human,” Hickey said.
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