A sex work advocate before they called it “sex work,” Margo St. James was the namesake of the St. James Infirmary and founded the old Hooker’s Ball. She also spearheaded a movement to legalize prostitution, and very nearly won a seat on the SF Board of Supervisors in 1996.
Tuesday’s San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting concluded with a series of phrases you do not hear at other cities’ board of supervisors meetings, like “proud prostitute and pioneer,” and “how essential that clinic is for sex workers.” These were the supervisors’ words of memoriam for Margo St. James, the “Joan of Arc” of the sex worker movement who passed a week ago from Alzheimer’s complications, according to a post from the St. James Infirmary, the clinic she co-founded in 1999. St. James’ legacy was acknowledged in an SFGate obituary last week, and she was honored with a terrific New York Times write-up today. She was 83.
“Margo was far from a one-trick activist, so to speak, and she was — from many years of pro-prostitution rabblerousing in San Francisco — very connected to city politics,” Good Vibrations sexologist Dr. Carol Queen said in a statement. “Margo was an extraordinary role model not only for those of us who worked directly with the sex worker’s rights movement — she lit a match to create a flame that hasn’t burned out and has changed the way people across the country think of sex work.”
“Margo was close to about a thousand people,” said Ron Turner, publisher of Last Gasp books and comics. “She was plainspoken and welcoming but she took on extremely large adversaries, including just about every pastor in the country.” https://t.co/gqlu65Up1f— San Francisco Chronicle (@sfchronicle) January 15, 2021
St. James was first arrested for prostitution in 1962, defended herself in court, and got her charges dismissed. She would later start a Marin County support group called WHO (Whores, Housewives, and Others). “Others meant lesbian,” she told Bitch magazine in 2013. A personal essay she wrote in 2007 describes her era as a Summer of Love folk hero who hobnobbed with Ken Kesey, Dick Gregory, and Frank Zappa, and crusaded alongside Harvey Milk to co-found a legacy activist group called Citizens for Justice.
My absolute favorite photo of the icon, Margo St. James, with Jane Fonda, at the Second Annual Hookers Convention in 1975. (This is an actual print, made and stamped by UPI... I bought it last year. I don’t know anything else about its origins.) pic.twitter.com/YEhMzdFhxf— Melissa Gira Grant (@melissagira) January 13, 2021
By 1977, The Atlantic wrote that “No public relations expert could do more for prostitutes than ex-prostitute Margo St. James has done with COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics).” That organization spread nationwide, and while not successful at decriminalizing sex work, made it a fashionable cause, and the organization still has active chapters in several states. They also started up to a notorious 1970s-era Halloween weekend event called the Hooker’s Ball, which would eventually draw crowds as large as 20,000, and served as the inspiration for the Exotic Erotic Ball that would milk the concept for another 30 years.
#MargoStJames passed on January 11, 2021. Among other courageous contributions, Margo led the launch of the international #sexworkerrights movement at the European Parliament, Brussels at the World Whores Congress 1985. I love this photo by @AnnieSprinkle- Margo's piercing stare. pic.twitter.com/T2JRBVky2u— carol_leigh (@carol_leigh) January 13, 2021
In 1999, St. James co-founded her namesake St. James Infirmary, a “peer-based occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers of all genders” that continues as the nation’s only primary care clinic for sex workers. A few years before in 1996, she ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, winning the endorsements of the-mayor Willie Brown and then-DA Patrick Hallinan. She barely lost, coming in seventh in a race where only the top six would win seats. Among those who beat her was a promising young legislator named Leland Yee, who was released from prison this past June after a profound fall from grace in the Shrimp Boy scandal.
“I wonder how it would have changed SF history if she’d won,” Dr. Queen said.
SF Board of Supervisors adjourned their meeting in honor of our beloved Margo, & unanimously proclaimed February 14th as "Margo St. James Day,” in San Francisco. pic.twitter.com/kD8VUAxj25— St. James Infirmary (@comebystjames) January 20, 2021
Parenthetically, at the close of Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, they declared that February 14, 2021 would be declared “Margo St. James Day.”
Related: Appeal To Decriminalize Sex Work In California Moves To Court [SFist]
Image: St. James Infirmary