Wednesday, February 10, 2021

New York moves closer to decriminalizing sex workers

 Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that repeals a decades-old statute that advocates say disproportionately targeted trans people who are simply walking or standing on the street. The legislation also automatically seals any previous arrest records under the statute, reported The Appeal. 

“It’s a beginning of a new era,” said TS Candii, executive director of Black Trans Nation and a Black trans woman who has likened the statute—often called the “walking while trans” ban—to stop and frisk, the NYPD tactic of randomly stopping pedestrians to look for guns that disproportionately targeted Black and Latinx people. 

The repeal of the 1976 law, which was ostensibly meant to target those “loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense,” comes at a time when similar laws are being rolled back across the country. The Seattle City Council unanimously repealed a similar “prostitution loitering” law in June, and California lawmakers are considering pushing for a similar repeal this year. Activists have also started organizing against similar statutes in Atlanta, Chicago, and New Orleans.

Next, advocates in New York plan to move forward on efforts to make it the first state to decriminalize sex work. (A bill introduced in 2019 never advanced.) They’ll also advocate for a bill that would vacate sex trafficking-related convictions from people’s records, and push to defund the NYPD’s vice unit. And they’ll have to compete with a bill in the state legislature that decriminalizes sex work while still cracking down on sex workers’ clients, a model that advocates argue won’t protect them.

“We know we’re going to win because we have a majority” of the public’s support, Candii said. A 2019 national poll of registered voters shows a majority of voters support decriminalizing sex work.

The “walking while trans” statute repeal and sex work decriminalization legislation both stem from a growing movement for sex workers’ rights across the U.S. The same year the decriminalization bill was introduced in New York, another was introduced in Washington, D.C. In the recent election, a number of Democratic presidential candidates embraced the idea of decriminalizing sex work.

Although the “walking while trans” statute was intended to target sex workers, its vagueness allowed police to harass trans people of color, advocates say. A 2016 civil rights class-action lawsuit brought by the Legal Aid Society alleged that 85 percent of people arrested under the statute were Black or Latinx, and that women had been arrested for “wearing a ‘short dress,’ ‘a skirt and high heels,’ ‘tight black pants,’ or ‘a black dress.’” 

Those arrests and charges can make it more difficult to get government benefits or even employment, Candii said. “It leaves them more vulnerable.”

A surge of protests in New York after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, including a 15,000-person rally for Black trans lives last summer, helped bolster the movement to repeal the law. But reform has been a long time coming, the result of years of organizing and activism by Candii and others. 

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