Someone in what looks like one of Francois Sagat’s fractal head shirts with the sleeves cut off weaves through the crowd, their purposeful movement marking them as part of the event’s organizational team. I’m at the first town hall for sex workers, held in Queens, NY with Suraj Patel, a candidate running in the Democratic primary for Congress.
I got my period last night, which means my upper body is curled over in an attempt to protect my abdomen from jostling. No amount of PMS is going to prevent me from missing this moment, from being in this room. I’m hoping my over the counter pain medication kicks in soon, though, because I’d like to be able to follow the conversation.
Partway through the opening panel—comprised of sex workers rights activists, advocates, and community service providers—Ceyenne Doroshow reminds us to watch each other’s backs, to check in with and keep track of each other. Applause breaks out, possibly the loudest so far. In a way, we’re voting with our hands.
Suraj dives into the subject of harm reduction. Lorelei Lee, the beautiful blonde seated on the same couch as I am, leans forward. I suspect we all want to hear what the politician has to say. The PMS fog obscures memory and I haven’t started taking notes in earnest yet, but the clapping indicates that we like what we hear.
Someone asks how Suraj wants to end the stigma around sex work and the people who do it—something he’d mentioned earlier. He says he intends to continue listening to and amplifying the voices of the community. He moves into some of the intersections at play: mass incarceration, economic hardship. Ending these problems would also lessen the potential for exploitation in sex work. He points at events like this Town Hall being a display of our power to push back, be heard — and actually listened to.
Another person asks about sex work and disability. Suraj shows humility in acknowledging how he himself neglects to include that in the conversation, and moves into a call for every citizen’s basic healthcare needs to be met.
A community organizer reminds Suraj that he is the face of anti-FOSTA, whether he likes it or not. Laughter rings around the room. They ask what he’s going to do for our community if he loses the election, what he’s going to keep doing to fill the responsibility he’s taken on—championing our rights. He jokes he’ll keep fighting but will take a month off first.
He answers seriously that he’ll figure out what he did wrong, engage in self care, and points out that he’s in his early thirties and isn’t going anywhere. He says “I’ll be right here with you guys, the whole way through. That’s a promise.”
Lorelei stands up to tell Suraj she hopes he does continue to listen and to learn. She thoroughly describes how great the things he’s doing are, and then explains that it isn’t enough. Reducing the penalty for prostitution to a ticket isn’t decriminalization. It isn’t enough.
Lorelei says that protecting the rights of those of us who love our jobs is too flat, too headline-y. She points out that many of us who’ve been in sex work for a long time have worked under many different conditions, that we’ve loved and utterly hated our jobs at various times. She says she needs to hear that he’s here for those of us who don’t particularly love our jobs, or don’t love them right now, even if that’s complicated.
The furthest Suraj goes is to say that the argument for decriminalization is “very compelling,” but also promises he will continue listening to the community as he forms an opinion. Then the event is over.
On my way out Suraj thanks me for coming. I tell him I’m quite happy with what I heard.
An activist behind me says “Only quite happy?” I respond “I want a bolder response on decrim. I understand the likely political reasons he can’t give one, but I don’t have the patience for this slow and steady.” She tells me to tell him that. I smile and say “He knows.”
I’m far from all in, but if I lived in NY’s 12th congressional district I’d be voting for Suraj on June 26th.
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