Over a hundred sex workers, activists, and allies converged on Albany yesterday to call for the passage of two bills aimed at protecting sex workers from police harassment and clearing their records of crimes traffickers forced them to commit. The trip, part of a recently-announced push to decriminalize sex work in New York State, highlighted the newfound willingness of a precarious community to publicly campaign for their rights.
The day began with a rally on the elaborately carved stone steps of the state capitol’s Million Dollar Staircase, where speakers detailed the experiences of sex workers and trafficking survivors.
“People steal from us and commit violence against us because our criminal status makes it hard to pursue justice,” said Kate Zen, an organizer with the Flushing-based migrant sex workers' coalition Red Canary Song, While studying at Columbia, Zen chose to enter the sex trade, but was later tricked by an online advertiser into being trafficked out of state, where she was beaten and forced to perform sex work without a condom. “A police officer told me that I would not be sympathetic as a victim, even though I had been assaulted, robbed, and raped by someone who could be legally defined as my trafficker.”
Zen spoke in support of a bill, co-sponsored by State Senators Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar, that would allow sex trafficking victims to have convictions for trespassing, larceny, and other offenses vacated if they can show they were coerced by traffickers. Currently, only prostitution charges can be vacated, leaving trafficked sex workers with criminal records that can bar them from employment and housing. The bill would also remove a requirement that victims complete a rehabilitation program to clear their records.
On Monday, just a few days after being introduced, the bill cleared the Senate Codes Committee, the first step to a floor vote.
“Generational leadership has changed, and we’re more willing to have conversations that we haven’t had before about sex work,” Senator Ramos told Gothamist. In addition to the vacature bill, Salazar and Ramos are at work on a package of bills to decriminalize sex work altogether. “We’re still figuring out language and should be introducing it soon,” Ramos added.
A second bill, sponsored by Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Amy Paulin and currently awaiting a vote in the senate's Codes Committee, would end a statute criminalizing loitering for the purpose of prostitution. Advocates refer to the current statute as the “walking while trans ban,” pointing to numerous instances of police profiling trans women for standing for too long in a particular place on the sidewalk, wearing a short skirt, or waving at a car.
According to the Legal Aid Society, 85 percent of people charged under the statute between 2012 and 2015 were black or Latinx. “Black trans women like me should not be criminalized for survival work,” said TS Candii, a member of the low-income organizing group Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY). “We should not be criminalized for being trans, for our existence.”
Numerous speakers criticized the NYPD Vice Squad and its connection to the death of Yang Song, a Flushing massage parlor worker who fell off a second-floor balcony during a police raid in November 2017. Assemblymember Dan Quart called for an investigation of the task force, whose misconduct he and several other lawmakers have highlighted recently. When asked how likely he considered such an investigation, he told Gothamist that “it’s really up to this mayor and the police commissioner to own this issue and take responsibility for the failures of the Vice Squad.”
Following the rally, eighteen small teams of advocates took fifty closed-door meetings with legislators to push for passage of the bills and discuss the upcoming decriminalization package. Many, like Audrey Melendez, an outreach specialist at Housing Works, were in Albany for the first time. “I’m here to start the process of getting my trans sisters more freedom and legal rights,” Melendez told Gothamist. “As a visibly trans woman of color I’ve experienced many of these traumas myself and had to resort to sex work in the past because I could not find employment, and being able to discuss these things today, I’m feeling empowered.”
The Harm Reduction Coalition’s Kacey Byczek, whose lobbying group included representatives from Callen-Lorde Community Health Center and Gay Men’s Health Crisis, told Gothamist that all three of her meetings produced pledges to vote for at least one of the bills: “The legislators were receptive, and they all seemed aware of decriminalization as a racial, economic, and gender justice issue.”
Despite the activists’ positive outlook, neither bill appears to be a top priority for the legislature, which has just seven weeks left this session and is gearing up for a struggle over the June 15 expiration of the state’s rent laws.
The activists, though, say they are in it for the long haul. Earlier in the day, during her rally address, Decrim NY’s Audacia Ray turned her back on the press gaggle to face the staircase full of sex workers, telling them to dig in. “This fight is going to be hard,” she said. “People are going to say awful things about us. But our experiences as hustlers and survivors are going to get us through.”