At least three prominent local LGBT organizations have expressed support for a bill D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At-Large) was scheduled to introduce on Thursday calling for decriminalizing prostitution in the District.
Grosso’s bill, the Reducing Criminalization to Improve Community Safety and Health Act of 2017, would repeal all current D.C. laws that call for criminal penalties for commercial sex work engaged in by consenting adults. It would cover sex workers and their customers.
Grosso told the Washington Blade he began to seriously consider decriminalization legislation after several prominent human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, announced support for decriminalization of sex work as a means of protecting the human rights of sex workers.
“I feel like we’ve tried for a long time to solve the issues that come with the prohibition of sex work in the District of Columbia,” Grosso said. “We have lots of issues with our streets, with neighborhoods, with people being unhappy because of cars being parked in certain places and things like that,” he said.
“So what I’m saying is our current policy of criminalization of sex work hasn’t worked for the District of Columbia,” he continued. “It hasn’t worked for sex worker rights. It hasn’t worked for human rights. And it hasn’t worked for our neighborhoods.”
Grosso said removing criminal sanctions against sex workers would also improve public health and safety for them and put the city and police in a better position of addressing serious crimes of violence, including human trafficking.
He said his legislation “absolutely” would leave in place all laws that make it illegal to engage in human trafficking or to force or coerce someone to engage in sex work against their will.
“All we’re doing is removing the criminal penalties for consensual sex work between adults,” he said. “There are still even penalties for sex in public. You wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Ruby Corado, executive director of the D.C. LGBT community services center Casa Ruby; Guillaume Bagal, president of the D.C. Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance; and Josh Eisenstat, co-chair of the D.C. Anti-Violence Project, a program of the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community, said their respective groups strongly support Grosso’s bill.
“The criminalization of sex work disproportionately affects the LGBTQ community, specifically LGBTQ people of color,” the Anti-Violence Project told the Blade in a statement.
“When sex work is criminalized, sex workers experience high rates of violence, both from customers and from law enforcement,” the statement says. “Furthermore sex workers who experience violence are less likely to report these instances of violence and are not able to receive victim services due to D.C.’s current laws,” it says
“GLAA has opposed criminalization of sex work for many years now, with the understanding that these laws disproportionately impact groups that are already facing discrimination, especially people of color, gay and trans people, immigrants, and people with criminal convictions,” Bagal said.
“We believe that removing criminal penalties for consensual sex work between adults will improve public health and safety, protect sex workers, and enable us to better address violence and human trafficking,” he said.
“We are definitely in support of legislation that is addressing the incarceration of young people who are in a survival mode,” said Corado, who noted Casa Ruby supports the Grosso bill.
“We see the criminalization as a health issue,” she said, noting that many of the LGBT people Casa Ruby provides services for, including transgender women, who are incarcerated because of sex work end up with HIV.
“So I think for the population that Casa Ruby serves decriminalization is a positive thing,” she said.
Grosso was scheduled to announce his plans for introducing the bill at an 11:30 a.m. news conference on Thursday, Oct. 5, at the office of the sex worker advocacy group HIPS D.C., which is located at 906 H St., N.E. He was expected to officially introduce the bill later that day.
HIPS executive director Cyndee Clay said HIPS, whose clients include LGBT people, also strongly supports the legislation.
Grosso said he was in the process of reaching out to fellow Council members to seek co-sponsors of his bill. The bill will be referred to the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, which is chaired by Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).
It couldn’t immediately be determined whether D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser would support Grosso’s bill. At a news conference last year organized by groups advocating against human trafficking in the District, Bowser told the Blade she was inclined not to support decriminalization of sex work but would be open to considering decriminalization legislation.
At that time Grosso said he was considering introducing such legislation.
Grosso told the Blade he expects strong opposition to surface against his bill by members of Congress, which reviews all legislation passed by the D.C. Council and signed by the mayor under a provision of the D.C. Home Rule Act. Congress has the authority to overturn any legislation passed by the Council.
He said he was hopeful that D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) would carry out her role as a strong defender of D.C.’s right to enact local laws without congressional interference.
“We’ll have a public debate in the District of Columbia on whether or not this is the approach we want,” Grosso said. “And if the people decide that’s what they want and the Council supports and votes for it, then we’ll deal with Congress at that point and not before then,” he said.