Margo St. James Runs for S.F. Supervisor
by Christine Beatty
Margo St. James is running for the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco.
Yeah, *that* Margo, the founder of Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (C.O.Y.O.T.E.), the prostitutes' rights organization. Margo is also the organizer of the Hooker's Ball, is an outspoken proponent of women's issue, and she is an inspiration to many people, including me.
I first heard of Margo at the tender age of 15 years old when she made headlines by organizing C.O.Y.O.T.E. in 1973. Although I had no idea that I was destined to become a prostitute, nor anything else I turned out to be, I was still impressed by this powerful woman. And my research into her public career bears out my impression.
Born in Bellingham, Washington in 1937, Ms. St. James moved to San Francisco in 1959, joining the beatnik scene in North Beach. In 1962 she was falsely arrested for prostitution, apparently set up by the police department. When she got to court, the judge was unimpressed with her protestations of innocence and convicted her. It was during this time that she began working for bail bondsman Jerry Barrish to work off her bail, and in her employment she met famed defense attorney Vincent Hallinan who persuaded her to go to law school. While she did not attain her law degree, she used her knowledge to successfully appeal her conviction, perhaps the only misdemeanor appeal on record in California. Later she became one of the first female private investigators in the state.
Strong not only in character, Margo reached another milestone in 1962. She began running in the Bay to Breakers race, six years before women were officially allowed to enter. And in 1974, she placed third overall in the National Organization of Women's Olympics. She is also an avid bicyclist, and pledges to improve conditions for other cyclists in San Francisco.
In 1973, Ms. St. James organized C.O.Y.O.T.E. to address the many issues facing prostitutes, including violence, health care, and discriminatory treatment. In spite of laws that make such organizing a felony, Margo has continued to advocate for women and all marginalized groups. She has a long history of testifying before governmental bodies, local, state and international. These include the state legislatures of California, Hawaii, Florida, Minnesota, Michigan and Washington. She has also participated in many conferences, nationally and worldwide, on the subjects of prostitution, women's and inidividual rights, and AIDS.
Her involvement in San Francisco government and politics began in the early 70's as a founding member of Citizens for Justice along with Harvey Milk, Gordon Brownell and others. From 1973 to 1974, she was a member of the North East Mental Health Board. 1974 was a banner year for Ms. St. James. Among other accomplishments, she convinced the Department of Public Health and the County Sheriff to stop quarantining and then administering penicillin injections to all women arrested for prostitution. She produced the first National Hooker's Convention and the first Hooker's Ball. The convention was repeated for the next two years and the Hooker's Ball was an annual event until 1980.
Margo became a truly international activist in 1974 when she attended the International Women's Conference in Mexico City. She has participated in many such events at venues including Amsterdam, Brussels, Strasbourg, Madrid, Copenhagen and Paris. And in 1985, Margo left the United States to live in France. There she helped organize several World Whore's Congresses, testified before several conferences, and in general studied how European societies deal with their marginalized groups, including prostitutes.
I had the extreme pleasure of talking with Margo last weekend as she prepared to go tape a C.O.Y.O.T.E.-produced television show, Streetwise, which airs on CityVisions, San Francisco cable channel 53 at 9:30PM on Tuesday evenings.
SPECTATOR: Have you ever been a prostitute?
MARGO: Following my arrest and conviction for soliciting and keeping a disorderly house in November 1962, I found my employment at local nightclubs and bars terminated because of my record and the ensuing police harrasment. They would come in and hassle the owners for hiring a whore. I was 25 at the time so by the time I reached 29 the customers were hitting on me to fix them up with younger women. I didn't want to be managment so I retired. I also was in the first wave of hookers to start having orgasms with the clients, (about a third do today) but then it was a big no-no. Pimps said it would be too enjoyable and whores would stop charging... Ha, they simply weren't susceptible to falling for the pimp's line of romantic BS -- he wasn't the only one who could give them pleasure!
S: Why did you form C.O.Y.O.T.E.?
M: It was actually the idea of the Sheriff Dick Hongisto. He was enjoying a hot tub where I lived in Muir Woods, and when I asked what N.O.W. [National Organization of Women] was doing for the hookers, he responded with "Someone from the victim class has to speak out." I thought about it, talked it over with my mother, son and friends and decided it was the right thing to do. The only problem was: what do I say? My songwriter, muscian, vagabond friend John P.Stephens said,"Just tell the truth."
It was easy. I had the support of Alan Watts (I was his housekeeper), of Tom Robbins (who recognized me as the COYOTE TRICKSTER), of Shel Silverstein who wrote us a song for the first Hookers Ball, "Everybody Needs a Hooker Once in Awhile" which was performed at the first Hookers Ball in the Longshoreman's Hall by Dr.Hook and his Medicine Band, and John X, as everyone called him, who gave me an acronym for COYOTE, Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics.
Citing the discriminatory application of prostitution laws, the ACLU filed a class action suit to repeal the prohibition against prostitution but lost on the Apellate level in 1974. The California Democratic Council passed a resolution for decrim following the Consenual Adults Sex Bill passed in 1972, but cut the whores out of it. N.O.W. passed a decrim resolution in 1973 but failed to act on it until we pushed, then they formed a national committee which did nothing [They were] too confused by the divisive tactics of the Fundamentalist feminsts like Kitty McKinnon, Andrea Dworkin and Cathy Barry.The divisions exist today,even deeper and more painful. Although women having sex is perfectly legal, accepting money is not. Women are still mandated by the state to give it away!
S: Why go to Europe?
M: A global vision is essential. Women are oppressed worldwide in a myraid of ways.Their social control by men is effected through the whore stigma, however; it is the bottom line. Europeans are generally more respectful of a person's liberty, having suffered through two World Wars, and the Northern countries in particular are more egalitarian, at least on the surface, not putting criminal sanctions on sex or drug use. I felt after the International Womens' Conference in Copenhagen in 1980 that I needed to do some followup in those countries before the Fundamentalists arrived and poisoned their minds. A confrontation with Cathy Barry in Rotterdam in '83 sparked a discussion amoung the feminsts of Europe, and they came down on the side of the whores -- mainly due to my partner's brillance, Gail Pheterson, who organized the two World Whores Congresses, Amsterdam in '85 and Brussels in '86, and the book of those transcripts, "The Vindication of the Rights of Whores" (Seal Press 1989).
Many hookers rights organizations sprung up around the globe during the '70s and 80's and they are still going strong. Being on-line, having web pages and an uplifting dialogue prevails today. COYOTE started the first peer counseling AIDS prevention group in 1984, and Priscilla Alexander, co-editor of "Sex Work," employee of COYOTE from '77 to '84, took the idea to the WHO [World Health Organization] in Geneva in '88 and made it a world model. I suggested needle exchange, or unrestricted sale of needles, in the early '80s but was called an enabler in the States. However, living in France for 8 years I failed to see a preponderance of drug use caused by the sale of outfits...alone.
S: What made you come back?
M: My partner Gail Pheterson wanted to sell our house that I lived in and had restored in a small village in the South. She had moved to Paris following our two years of puttting together and wanted to buy a studio there. I was getting too involved in the dysfunctional families in the neighborhood, ending up in bar fights, and drinking and smoking like the rest of the construction workers I chummed with. I had developed a clientele among the English doing repairs and management of their summer homes, but my crew of drunken Frenchmen and Polish refugees were getting a bit hard to manage. I also didn't forsee an easier life there under Jacqac Cherac. It was impossible for me to get totally legal, as far as getting driving license, (my French wasn't good enough to take the test) and I had been an undocumented worker. Their unemployment was getting around 12%, and the government was starting to poke around even in the sticks where I was. Also I didn't have a health plan and couldn't afford theirs. My friends had been conspiring to get me back for 8 years, and Paul Avery finally came up with the offer I couldn't refuse. We were married on Valentines Day 1992 at Malvina's Cafe in North Beach. I then went back to straighten out my affairs and returned November 27, 1993, just in time for my husband's employee party (at the SF Examiner). Phil Bronstein said,"Oh good! We can have fun again!" And we are, aren't we?
S: What do you think of the SFPD?
M: "I'm just doing my job" has always struck me as a cop out, like war criminals who say they were just following orders. I'm convinced the prohibition of prostitution and its discrimatory enforcement promotes violence against women. It is, in fact, state-mandated violence against women. So on one hand I despise vice cops and consider their relationship to women as sexual assailants, while on the other hand, most cops don't want to work vice or drugs. According to former Chief Joe McNamara of San Jose, 90% of today's cops feel that sex work should be decriminalized and regulated, which I think should be by the health department and a commission made up of ex-sex workers. Also there has always been a love-hate thing with whores and cops. Some cops feel whores make good wives because they understand the work...and vice versa.
S: Why run for supervisor?
M: See this water bottle? It's because all my old buddies like Burton and Brown have given me lip service for 30 years that they would carry legislation (my water) to decriminalize and they haven't. So I'm carrying it myself. No other candidate is giving out water, and I must say they are sort of miffed when they follow me in for interviews and everyone is drinking my water! My candidacy is keeping the other candidates honest! They have to answer the questionaires of the clubs and my 20 years of organizing is paying off; if they don't say "decrim," they fall through the cracks. This is true only because we formed a sex workers caucus in the Harvey Milk Lesbian/Gay/Bi-sexual/Transgender Democratic Club 2 years ago and we control who gets on the slate cards! That's how I got the Supes to appoint me to the Drug Advisory Board last year.
S: What are your thoughts on health issues, particularly HIV?
M: Only people (hundreds of women and just 6 men) convicted of prostitution are mandatorily tested for HIV. Consequently, because arrested clients get diversion or go to John School they are not tested...a poor health policy. WHO recommends voluntary testing only, but the U.S. is one of several countries who tests all immigrants and refuses entry to homosexuals and prostitutes from other nations. Illogical. Now it's asked that we test prison inmates for drugs. Why not start with the guards? These foolish practices are the wrong kind of prevention and intervention – costly and resulting in less money for actual treatment. We continue to regard drug use as a crime when in fact it is medical problem. 30 years of our War on Drugs policy has bankrupted us finacially and morally. We have to find the moral fortitude to make changes, to instill a sense of decency in our society. The reduction of harm is way to go, not making abstinence a first step for being allowed into treatment. In fact, I recommend pot be used to diminish the cravings for speed and heroin, to wean people away from the more violence-producing and harmful drugs.
S: How about our environment?
M: We need more walking streets, more bike paths, and more gardens all over the city to grow our own food in order to sustain our city in the future. Because 10% of the water Valley agribusiness consumes is ours, comes from Hetch-Hetchy, I think we have a right to demand they install drip irrigation to prevent evaporation and runoff which is putting toxins into our streams and lakes, killing our fish and birds. We have to be willing to turn off the turbines in our dams so the fingerlings can swim down the rivers, and we need fish ladders so they can return to spawn. We need to recyle more and pay attention to the destruction of the ozone layer.
S: In view of the Medical Marijauna question, where do you stand?
M: I inhale. Although I didn't smoke tobacco until I lived in Europe, I only allowed pot smoking in my homes over the last 40 years. Only my friends who smoked tobacco have serious health problems connected to smoking, so I fail to see the public health compulsion of prohibiting pot. In fact, it seems to make life easier for a myraid of disabilities. Criminalizing our youth has been a huge mistake, resulting in our spending more money to build jails than schools. Prohibitions beget violence and crime; it's the nature of the beast.
S: How about the Housing problem?
M: Not having a place to be dry and warm is a drag. One of the main reasons to have government in the first place is to have a mechanism to take care of those who can't care for themselves. So why have we allowed single room occupancy to be destroyed and not replaced? Why haven't we instituted programs that result in ownership for residents of housing projects? Why do we build such ugly housing for the poor? Why don't they have space for small businesses, occupant-owned? These are tough questions that need to be answered.
S: What are some of the things that can be done for San Francisco's economic development?
M: Our port has sunk to desparate depths.We need to include Hunter's Point in its redevelopment. China and Indian Basin have natural harbors that need little dredging, but they have been allowed to fall into disrepair, all for the benefit of speculators and gentrification. We need to turn things around and let our people work.
S: Who do you admire and respect?
M: My sheros are Dr. Margaret Sanger, Margaret Mead, Victoria Woodhull, Florynce Kennedy and Pat Schroeder. Of course Ghandi, Bucky Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Kennedy brothers, Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, Arthur Ashe are right up there too. And I can't forget Josephine Baker,
Isadora Duncan, and Emma Goldman. I could go on...
S: What issues are closest to your heart?
M: The repeal of all prohibitions of consensual activities, world peace, and saving the planet.
The installation of filters on our water taps to prevent crypto[sporidium], maybe with an incentive for landlords to install them. Sex education in the primary grades, abortion rights even for teenagers. Childcare in every neighborhood for every working or student mother. I'd also like to demand TCI install cable at Laguna Honda, and Pac Bell install handicap accessible phones on every floor and issue free phone cards to all the residents. And I want a Police Commission that enforces the mandated psych test for hiring cops. Currently it is used when they feel like it, resulting in rogue cops costing the city big bucks.
There is no doubt that Margo continues to be an outspoken woman who is not afraid to take on sensitive issues with a no-nonsense approach that has hallmarked her career as an activist. Margo invites all who are interested in supporting her to write her and send money to Margo St. James for Supervisor, 1835 Stockton St, San Francisco, CA 94133. You can also visit her at the C.O.Y.O.T.E. Website at www.creative.net/~penet/.
Christine Beatty is a California Girl, born and raised... a boy. She is a freelance writer and lead singer for the San Francisco rock group Glamazon, which just produced a CD. Her writing has been seen in Spectator, TransSisters, Anything That Moves and Herotica 4, among other books and periodicals. Being one of the few transsexual computer programmers in corporate America, she hopes soon to quit her day job for music and writing.