Morality and Other Relative Shit

Who is more moral here? Who?

Morality. I grew up thinking I knew what it meant, only to learn in college it’s not so simple. Ironically, “morality” forced me out of school to become a fulltime prostitute. My troubles began in mid-1985 when I came out as a trans woman. My existence offended the “family values” of the world around me. So-called morality gave the vast majority of people license to ridicule and ostracize me.

Was I bitter? As an honors student who was kicking ass in my Computer Science major, did I resent being ostracized and driven into the squalid arms of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, into a life of sexwork and hard drugs? Was what happened to me moral? (Damn—still a bit steamed about it thirty-five years later.)

Anyway, morality…

Psychology 101 taught me about Dr. Kohlberg and his Stages of Moral Development. Kohlberg described three levels of morality: Pre-conventional (a child’s), Conventional (a teenager’s) and Post-conventional (an adult’s). More than a few books on behavioral psych have been penned on this topic, so let’s attempt to simplify things.

The first level is based on the threat of punishment: “What will happen to me if I do ____?” This could be anything from a spanking to the death penalty. The second level is mostly about peer regard: “What will people think of me if I do ____?” The third level is based on your own values of right and wrong in a more-or-less absolutist sense. If your role models did a good job, you’ll have solid personal values on which you base morality. Kohlberg also noted that many adults never make it to the Post-conventional level. Color me Unsurprised.

Most grownups base their moral decisions on multiple levels, so there is some overlap between them. Let’s explore this dynamic with a practical example. My immersion into the Life altered my perspective, so I shall set my hypothetical in that world of sexwork of which I am so fond and of its lovely denizens.

So here we go…

Meet John Q. Public. John is horny. He wants to get laid. So let’s posit a safe, legal environment: a licensed brothel with rigorously enforced health precautions.  Now, should he visit this cathouse to get his rocks off? Kohlberg’s level 1, “what will happen to me?”, is of minimal concern in this case. After all, it’s a legal brothel, he won’t contract an STD, and the prostitute won’t call up in a pique of jealousy when John’s wife is serving dinner. No direct consequences, right? No pre-conventional morality shit.

But what if other people learn about John’s carnal encounter with the Sisterhood of the Towel? Now it gets complex, because it deals with public-facing versus privately held values. Many if not most men will sympathize with John: the locker room will absolve him if not embrace him. But—and here’s where hypocrisy crops up—because of “morality,” society will force these men to condemn John for visiting a whorehouse.

Sadly, there is nowhere near enough feminist solidarity with sexworkers, so far more women will roundly disapprove of John as much as they do the sexworker. If our hypothetical John is married, engaged or otherwise in a Relationship, the condemnation will grow by an order of magnitude. “What will people think of me?” is of far greater concern to our dear John, because the chances are that he now faces “what will happen to me?” consequences in his marriage, his family and friends, and maybe his job.

Poor John. And all he wanted was to get laid.

Moving on to the relative aspects of morality, we find many perspectives based on location and time. The USA is hopeless in this respect. America was founded by Puritans and continues to be a religious, conservative land. At least, we’re religious in the sense that legislating “morality” is often the expedient course; they must cater to the prudes.  Ironically, radical feminists seem to shame sexual women almost as much as Christians and Muslims do. What’s up with that?

Overall, there is still a huge ambivalence about sex in the USA. What about elsewhere? People in most European countries are far less hypocritical about sex. Sadly, in lesser developed countries, “lewd” women are mutilated or even put to death. In terms of history, if we turn back the clock about 500 years to the time of Malleus Maleficarum, we note that “loose” and free-thinking women were tortured or burned as witches.

However, 6000 years ago, before patriarchal religions had stomped out Goddess worship—thanks a lot, assholes—sex and femininity were regarded differently. Back in the Neolithic Age, women were not the chattel that patriarchal religion reduced us to. Sex was considered a sacred act. Back then there were temple prostitutes—a completely different social morality.

Morality is relative according to place and time and social convention.

So what do I base my morality on? Ultimately, unless a person is harming someone else, their decisions should be their own to make without the judgment of other people’s derision, censure or exile. As a transsexual women, a subclass still largely misunderstood, hated, discriminated against and treated wrongly, I try to extend to others the same lack of judgment I wish for myself.

Now that’s a morality I can get behind.

My Hero Larry Flynt

“The reasoning man who scorns the prejudices of simpletons necessarily becomes the enemy of simpletons; he must expect as much and laugh at the inevitable.” – Marquis de Sade

This is the first of four tributes to some of my personal heroes. None are the kind that gets a statue erected or a freeway named in their honor. Quite the opposite. To be certain, I do lionize certain Good Housekeeping™ approved heroes—just as I do honor the cops, firemen and soldiers who put themselves in harm’s way—but this list  is different. I was holding this essay for a future date, but Mr. Flynt’s passing calls for it to be published.

Few extremely successful American businessmen are as polarizing as Larry Claxton Flynt. He’s a hero to millions of men and women the world over for being the first major publisher to “show pink” in an explicitly sexual (“men’s”) magazine, and for creating an adult entertainment empire that caters to sexual libertarians. He has been one of the main boogeymen of the religious and political right. Flynt became famous for his successful Supreme Court battle against televangelist Jerry Falwell that upheld vital First Amendment tenets, and his life was portrayed in the successful and critically acclaimed movie The People versus Larry Flynt. It was this film that got me interested in learning more about the man.

There is much that is fucked up in Flynt’s younger years, which he freely admits in his 1996 memoir, An Unseemly Man. Like director Milos Forman, I choose to focus on those aspects of Flynt’s career that had far-reaching impact on culture, politics and our very freedoms. While Hustler magazine has hit some very sour notes over the years, overall Flynt consistently  jabs an erect middle finger in the face of Puritanism and then stood up for the right to do so in court—at great personal and financial expense.

At this point I would ask anyone who has not seen The People versus Larry Flynt to do so before reading further—or to re-read this piece after you have done so.

Other than Flynt’s rags-to-riches history, what I love most about the man is his unapologetic assault on “family” values, good taste, parochialism, and the right wing’s insistence on trying to control what adults can see, watch, listen and do in private. Flynt hates hypocrisy and he uses his multi-billion empire to goad the purveyors of “moral” hypocrisy. It seems to me Hustler’s mission has been to eviscerate good taste as a means of rebellion against puritanical society, while at the same time pleasing a specific audience amused by “bad” taste.

To me, Flynt rose to hero status by his willingness to risk his freedom and fortune to help defend the First Amendment protections for free speech. Flynt once said, “Freedom of speech doesn’t protect speech you like; it protects speech you don’t like. No one understands that the First Amendment is only important if you are going to offend somebody. If you’re not going to offend somebody, you don’t need protection of the First Amendment.” Without that protection, any of us could be sued or criminally prosecuted merely for hurting someone’s feelings in word or print.

The climax of The People versus Larry Flynt, and my greatest admiration for Mr. Flynt, came during the reenactment of his victory over Reverend Jerry Falwell at the Supreme Court. Hustler had run a savage parody of Falwell, who sued—among other things—for “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” It was this case that made it to the highest court of the land. And because Flynt was ultimately standing up for freedom of the press, major news organizations filed briefs with the court in favor of Hustler.

What I savored most about Flynt’s victory was the blow against Jerry Falwell. As a fundamentalist preacher, he made his living—a highly paid living—scaring people, making people feel bad about themselves, and turning people against each other. Especially outrageous to me was the smug bastard saying that AIDS was “God’s judgment” against “sinners”—that they all deserved to die because they had sex or used IV drugs. It was satisfying to see that asshole taken down several notches.

To those who accuse Flynt of “exploiting” or “demeaning” women, do they also attack women who freely exploit their own bodies of the same thing? Would they deny adult women the right to make that choice of their own free will? What gives them the right to make that moral judgment against these women? In doing so, are they not behaving exactly like the same religion that insists women not have control over their own bodies or that that they should be subservient to men? I maintain that it is hypocrisy to attack Flynt and/or adult models while at the same time decrying the church for oppressing women for exercising agency.

I am a product for the late sixties liberalism: free love, rebuking needless shame, and challenging authority that has no meaningful basis as an authority. While I have moved somewhat more toward the center as I got older, I fully support the rights of women and men to enjoy safe, sane and consensual sex, to employ their bodies in any way that doesn’t harm other people—especially the innocent—and for people to stop having their morality dictated to them by hypocrites reading from 2000 year old books. Larry Flynt has stood for all of these things, so he earns a spot on my personal Mount Rushmore that marks this website.

Selah.

The GOP & Sunk Cost Fallacy

The Party of “Law & Order”

“Sunk cost fallacy” is a form of self-justification for continuing either a behavior or endeavor. The excuses are based on previous investments of time, money, reputation, etc., and is often exacerbated by hating to lose. Or a stubborn unwillingness to try something different. In gambling it’s known as “throwing good money after bad.” It is a delusion born of having lost so much money, you can’t give up until you’ve won it all back. Casinos make a lot of money from the sunk cost fallacy.

Since the 1960s, the divisions within the USA over Vietnam turned into a crusade for “family values” during Reagan. George H.W. Bush—who looks really good in retrospect—did not seek to overly fan the flames of division. From his presidency through the end of his son’s, things remained pretty much as they had for decades. Our politics were heavily partisan but still relatively civil. We could still talk with each other, for the most part.

Barack Obama became a rallying point for the right wing. It’s no coincidence TEA Party arose within a month of President Obama being sworn in. It was a corrosive acid that widened the partisan gap even further. Conservative media, from FOX to Rush Limbaugh, enriched themselves by whipping up the right by telling them what they wanted to hear. They stoked the fires of division because it kept the audience tuning in. There’s a lot of money to be earned from Hate.

Enter Donald J. Trump, serial bankruptee, welsher, con man and “reality” TV star who employed racism to create a political name for himself. The radical right lapped it up when Trump accused President Obama of not being an American. Trump’s attack on Mexicans in 2015 whipped up the racists even more. The GOP establishment—who never believed a vulgar cretin like Trump could be a serious candidate—was shocked to see Trump win the nomination. And so the Republican good ol’ boys sold their soul and cast their lot with him.

And now, even after that turd in the mouth of democracy named Donald Trump knowingly cheered on a riot and attack on our capitol building, the GOP and its media enablers are doubling and tripling down on Trumpism. These people are now stuck in the sunk costs fallacy, thinking they have already invested so much in Trump they can’t afford to back off now. The only question is how much damage it will do to the USA, to our democracy, to ordinary people.

What I expect will happen is that the GOP’s tragic Faustian bargain will likely kill the GOP as we know it, splitting it between responsible Republicans and Trumpians. It may take a decade or longer for the GOP to recover. Those who profit from this division will tally up their winnings and retire. The remainder of what used to be the dignified and mature Grand Old Party, my dad’s GOP, will have to regroup and try to deprogram the Trumpists who helped cripple a party that goes back to Abraham Lincoln.

Hopefully the Democrats won’t allow themselves to become hijacked by similar, opposite forces.

Whining Isn’t Winning

If you we born during or after the MTV age, you may have no clue how easy we’ve had it as a country over the last seventy-five years. Those who were born between 1901 and 1928 lived through World War I, the global pandemic of the Spanish Flu,  the Great Depression, and World War II.  They experienced deprivation and sacrifice on a scale that would clog today’s Twitter feeds with tweets crying about about the “unfairness” of it all. The truly earned the moniker, the “Greatest Generation.”

I sometimes wonder if that Greatest Generation had any idea how spoiled, selfish, lazy and ill-mannered their prodigy would become: would they have thought America was worth saving from Fascism? Probably they still would have; Adolph Hitler was so crazy he makes Alex Jones seem like an actual stable genius. And some might wonder that, given the insurrection of January 6th, did we truly defeat fascism?

The generation that survived the depression and won the second world war would have done so because it was the right and honorable thing to do. Their dedication throughout those hardships made the American middle class possible and created prosperity that sailed us into the 21st Century. After all they went through, they didn’t take things for granted like we do today. And as much fun as it is to ridicule Boomers, they were the last generation to be raised by tough, courageous parents.

Hardship either builds character or it reveals intrinsic weakness and cowardice. Those two generations who won the two world wars, overcame the Great Depression and kicked fascist ass in the 1940s did so out of necessity. No doubt they complained about the tough times, but they did so while they took real action to improve their lives. They knew that bitching about a problem isn’t the same as working to solve the problem.

This brings me to the bad joke that is hacktivism—the notion that whining about something in social media is the same thing as taking action. There’s no effort involved in Liking, Retweeting, or making an opinionated video; it’s only slightly better than a token of action. The sad thing is that so many people think that these things are activism.

They couldn’t be less active.

True activism means showing up, be it at a peaceful demonstration, a city hall meeting, a hearing, a politician’s office or, better yet, as part of a political campaign. I got involved in my first political campaign at fourteen-years-old, and though my candidate lost, it got me invested in the idea of America and later helped put me in the mindset to voluntarily enlist in the US Air Force after high school, where I at least got a taste of honor, service and dedication.

If nothing else, I learned that whining isn’t winning; it takes honor, service and dedication to even have a hope of making change. Some might suggest that by writing this blog I do not practice what I preach, but I already have decades on put-on-my-shoes activism under my belt. I have earned my place out of the sun.

It’s your turn now.

Soledad Moonlight

I’m so busy with script development and a rewrite of my new feature film, I don’t have time to write a new column. Instead I’m sharing test shots that I did with my Sony α7 and a pro-quality GM-series 400mm lens. Soledad Canyon is in the Angeles National Forest between Santa Clarita and Palmdale; not a lot of light pollution—so ideal for night sky shoots!

Full moon over the San Gabriel Mountains

Just for fun I pushed my α7’s ISO setting to 1600 to make it very sensitive. If not for the stars I’d swear this was a daylight shot!

400mm GM-series lens, wide open iris

This last one is a different night, different location and different lens. I’m at the Sepulveda Dam, shooting over the LA River toward Malibu during the massive Woolsey Fire of 2018 that caused so much destruction. Three separate smoke plumes tinged the sunset and brought a moment of beauty to an awful tragedy for so many people and so much wildlife.

Sony α7 on tripod, 1600 ISO, f2.5 at 1/15, GM-series lens

The Mountaintop

What I love most about hiking is how it mirrors life. A good hike combines long, hard slogs uphill, relatively level stretches to catch your breath, and brushes with mortal danger. Best of all is that last agonizing push to the top where blessed relief and a spectacular view is your reward for never giving up. Much like the last four years.

In 2016, right after I graduated film school, I was terribly out of shape. Between my fulltime dayjob, night school, and weekends taken with class assignments and studying, I had let myself completely go. When I made my annual May pilgrimage back to San Francisco for my mother’s birthday, she suggested we climb Mount Lassen in the summer. Like an idiot I said yes without thinking.

Mom got me into hiking when I was a teenager, but that was several decades ago. I hadn’t done any real hiking since 2002, nor meaningful exercise since 2014. I didn’t want to disappoint her, so I bought hiking boots and began to train in the Santa Monica Mountains for five weeks. Then in August of 2016, my 81-year-old mother and I drove to Mount Lassen, and I rediscovered my love of the trail and Mother Nature.

It’s only a 2000 climb over 2.2 miles, but a third of the way up I began to wonder if I could make it. I cursed how difficult and painful it was, and I barely acknowledged the natural beauty in every direction. Yet when Mom and I reached the summit, it all seemed worth it. Mostly, I loved the inner strength I found as I trudged doggedly to the top.

It didn’t take much imagination to draw parallels between that moment and President Biden’s inauguration. It was only four years but it seemed to take forever, and America’s beauty was overshadowed by much of the ugliness. I found new mountains to climb since then, and some of my trips have not gone well, but the joy and beauty of the summit abide always.

Mom at the Lassen Peak parking lot.
On our way up Mount Lassen.
A long steady climb with sharp drops.
Snow in August – that’s how high it is!
“Strike a Randolph Scott [heroic] pose, Mom!”
Mom and me and Mt. Shasta in the background.

I have a film going into production this spring, which will sadly cut into my hiking, but even a couple hours on a local mountain keeps me happy. Happy trails for 2021, everybody!

“Gilded Cage”

Last updated on January 19th, 2021

Being in love sucks when it’s someone like you.

A fucked up poem for a fucked up woman. I realized only later what a huge favor you did, doing me like that. It did have its moments, but…

She climbs and flits and soars and glides,
the feathered beauty, so alive, so free to fly and fly
then one fine day she ‘lights upon a sill and spies
another feathered beauty, and when she met her eyes
she knew this had to be the one, she’d long been searching out
and when the other bird looked back, she knew without a doubt.

Hello perfect stranger said the bird she saw inside
why do I feel I know you, like some long lost bride?

The two birds spent hours, reacquainting in this life
somehow knowing long ago they’d been each other’s wife
The bird inside so proudly showed her lovely, gilded home,
the one outside admired it, and then went off to roam.

They visited for weeks and months, their love growing unabated,
the inside bird soon found her cage was something to be hated,
until one day the outside bird said come fly away with me,
come out and spread your wings, with me you can be free,
but the one behind the gilded bars drew away in fear,
for this lovely cage was all she knew for many, many years.

She looked around her cherished home and didn’t see a cage,
secure and warm and comfortable, a shelter from the rage,
the perils of the outside world could not reach her in here,
with all of its discomforts her cage was better than the fear
the fear she dreaded, the great unknown of soaring in the sky
not even by her new love’s side would she ever dare to try.

But your cage is open said the outside bird, just step up to the door
take your wing and join me now, and together we will soar
forever with you’s what I want, oh caged lover mine
but the one behind the gilded bars, she couldn’t help but crying
I want to be with you but I’m afraid to leave all this behind
I’ll take the devil that I know over the devil I may find.

I’m not a devil the free bird said, I want to see you free,
to join me in a life together, together you and me,
but instead the caged bird asked her, why can’t you stay right here
to keep me company and love me and dry up all my tears?
But the free bird did not want to join in her captivity,
so she bid farewell and flew away into eternity.

Remembering Margo St. James, Part 2

Margo, 1995 – Campaign bottle – Election Night, 1996

On January 12th, 2021, legendary sexworker activist Margo St. James passed away in Bellingham, WA after a stroke. She was notorious in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she founded the prostitutes’ rights organization, C.O.Y.O.T.E. in 1973. While she was famous for attention-getting pranks—one time she dressed as a nun and made out with a man on a San Francisco street—she was a civic-minded, progressive organizer who stood up for sexworkers, women and LGBT people.

After years of having politicians fail to deliver on promises to advance her causes, she ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, a campaign I threw myself into after I interviewed her for an article I wrote for the adult weekly Spectator. Here we continue to draw from that article.

From Margo St. James Runs for S.F. Supervisor by Christine Beatty, Spectator, 11/01/1996

After I asked Margo was if she had ever been a prostitute, how C.O.Y.O.T.E. came about, what difficulties she encountered repealing sexwork laws, and why she moved to Europe in 1985, the discussion then turned to the circumstances of her return to San Francisco from France in 1993.

Margo explained, “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 putting together [the book The Vindication of the Rights of Whores] 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 foresee an easier life there under Jacques Chirac.”

She went on to explain other complicating factors pushing her out of France, such as her French not being good enough, the rising unemployment, her lack of health coverage, and other factors. In addition to the factors pushing her out of Europe, there was an attractive force luring her back to the Bay Area.

“My friends had been conspiring to get me back for 8 years, and [San Francisco Examiner reporter] Paul Avery finally came up with the offer I couldn’t refuse. We were married on Valentine’s Day 1992 at Malvina’s Cafe in North Beach. I then went back [to France] to straighten out my affairs and returned November 27, 1993, just in time for my husband’s employee party (at the SF Examiner), where [executive editor] Phil Bronstein said, ‘Oh good! We can have fun again!’ And we are, aren’t we?”

[For those who don’t know, Paul Avery was one of the lead journalists on both the Zodiac Killer and Patricia Heart kidnapping cases. Margo and Avery remained married until his death from pulmonary emphysema in December of 2000.]

When Margo discussed her attitudes toward police she noted, “I’m convinced the prohibition of prostitution and its discriminatory enforcement promotes 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.”

Then it came to address the elephant in the living room: her candidacy for the Board of Supervisors. At the LGBT Pride parade that year it was unseasonably warm. Whether or not this was a coincidence, but when Margo’s entry in the parade went by they handed out thousands of water bottles: “Margo St. James for Supervisor – Refreshing Change”

Said Margo, “See this water bottle? It’s because all my old buddies like [U.S. Representative John] Burton and [Willie] 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 questionnaires of the clubs and my 20 years of organizing is paying off; if they don’t say “[decriminization]” 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.”

On HIV/AIDS she noted, “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 financially 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.”

While I have skipped Ms. St. James’ answers to questions specific to San Francisco issues in 1996, she stated the following as being nearest to her heart: “The repeal of all prohibitions of consensual activities, world peace, and saving the planet. The installation of filters on our water taps to prevent cryptosporidium [a serious risk to people with HIV], 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.

[This is where the 1996 article ended.]

I could go on and on with Margo anecdotes and my history with C.O.Y.O.T.E. in the 1990s, but suffice it to say this woman made a major impact on me as a feminist, as a sexworker, and as a sexwork activist. Ours is a better world because of her.

In Memoriam: Margo St. James

Margo St. James, 1997 by John O’Hara

Remembering the “Coyote Trickster” Margo St. James

Last night I got word that one of my childhood heroines, sexworker activist Margo St. James, was no longer with us. I wrote of Ms. St. James more than once when I contributed regularly to Spectator, an adult weekly newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1991, I joined the sexworkers organization she formed, in 1994 I briefly served with her on a high profile San Francisco task force on sexwork, and in 1996 I worked on her campaign to become a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Here is an excerpted and condensed version of the 1996 Spectator article I wrote on Margo and her campaign.

Margo St. James Runs for S.F. Supervisor
by Christine Beatty, Spectator, 11/01/1996

Margo St. James is running for the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. Yes, that very same woman who founded Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (C.O.Y.O.T.E.), the prostitutes’ rights organization and the Hooker’s Ball. An outspoken proponent of women’s issue, Ms. St, James is an inspiration to many people, including me.

I first heard of Margo in 1973 when she made headlines by organizing C.O.Y.O.T.E.. Back then, at the tender age of 15 years old, I had no idea that I’d one day become a prostitute—or a transgender woman—yet I was highly impressed by and identified with this powerful woman. My research into her past career bears out my impression.

Born in Bellingham, Washington in 1937, Ms. St. James moved to San Francisco in 1959 and joined the beatnik scene in North Beach. In 1962 she was falsely arrested for prostitution, allegedly set up by the police. When she got to court, the judge was unimpressed with her protestations of innocence and convicted her.

Not long after her conviction, she began working for bail bondsman Jerry Barrish to work off her bail. During the course of 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 successfully appealed her conviction, perhaps the only misdemeanor appeal on record in California. Later she became one of the first female private investigators in the state.

In addition to her strength of character and intellect, Margo set another milestone in 1962 when began running in the famous “Bay to Breakers” race, six years before women were officially allowed to enter. In 1974, she placed third overall in the National Organization of Women’s Olympics. She is also an avid bicyclist and an advocate for cyclists in San Francisco.

In 1973, in spite of laws that make organizing “criminals” (prostitutes) a felony, Ms. St. James created C.O.Y.O.T.E. to address the many issues facing prostitutes, including violence, health care, and discriminatory treatment. For decades Margo continued to advocate for women and all marginalized groups, testifying before local, state and international governmental bodies. She participated in many conferences, nationally and worldwide, on the subjects of prostitution, women’s and individual rights, and AIDS.

Her involvement in San Francisco politics began as a founding member of Citizens for Justice along with Harvey Milk. 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’s bold step into international activism came in 1974 at the International Women’s Conference in Mexico City. Over the years she participated in similar events at venues including Amsterdam, Brussels, Strasbourg, Madrid, Copenhagen and Paris. In 1985, Margo left the United States to live in France. There she helped organize several World Whore’s Congresses and testified before several conferences. In general she studied how European societies deal with their marginalized groups, including prostitutes.

The following is a condensed version of my interview with Margo in the autumn of 1996. Right afterward, I joined her campaign for the Board of Supervisors.

I first asked Margo if she had ever been a prostitute. She replied, “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 harassment. 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 management 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!”

On forming C.O.Y.O.T.E. she stated, “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, musician, vagabond friend John P. Stephens said, ‘Just tell the truth.’”

She recounted the difficulties in repealing laws against sexwork: “Citing the discriminatory application of prostitution laws, the ACLU filed a class action suit to repeal the prohibition against prostitution but lost on the Appellate level in 1974. The California Democratic Council passed a resolution for [decriminalization of prostitution] following the Consensual 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 feminists like [Catharine] MacKinnon, 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!”

With regard to leaving the United States for Europe: “…I felt after the International Women’s Conference in Copenhagen in 1980 that I needed to do some follow-up in those countries before the Fundamentalists arrived and poisoned their minds. A confrontation with Cathy Barry in Rotterdam in ‘83 sparked a discussion among the feminists of Europe, and they came down on the side of the whores—mainly due to my partner Gail Pheterson’s brilliance. She 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).”

The emergence of AIDS made sexworker organization more important than ever. Said Margo, “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.”

The next installment will discuss Margo St. James’ return to the United States, the resumption of her local work and her candidacy for the Board of Supervisors.

Lord of the Flaws

What’s the difference between unruly boys following a power-mad adolescent and this below?
The boys were shipwrecked and didn’t have social media at their disposal.

I recently re-watched the movie version of William Golding’s classic story Lord of the Flies. It chilled me in high school. What’s most disturbing is to see the story’s dynamic play out over and over again all of these decades. This is especially true in politics and cultural evolution. If you’ve never read Lord of the Flies or at least watched the 1963 film, you really should.

The lesson of Golding’s story is that in time of crisis, people often abandon logic and reason in favor of perceived strength. I emphasize “perceived” because all too often, the person exhibiting strength is often much weaker than the façade he puts out there. More importantly, they are more likely to be weak in character and ethics. And those two qualities are strengths absolutely essential to leadership. Leaders who make a huge show of “strength” often have little or no sense of moral obligation to those the purport to lead.

Those “leaders” who appeal to fears, who abandon reason and common sense, they are also likely to be make crucial mistakes. It Golding’s story, the boys become so caught up in the savage games of their “strong” leader, that they neglect their signal fire. They allow their rescue beacon to go out right before a search plane passes overhead. The boys were so distracted by “strength” that they lost a chance to be rescued.

Since Vietnam, America hasn’t faced a political schism like today’s. What makes this worse is that so many people have abandoned common sense and common decency. It’s a mystery why 74,000,000 people perceived a crude, cruel, schoolyard bully of a septuagenarian “reality” TV star as a good leader, but here we are.

Perhaps the extreme partisan divide that grew out of Obama’s election made so many forget that—while there was no shortage of political disagreement before the 2008 election—at least we had a sense of decorum and manners, even among rivals. No candidate made penis references on the stage during a presidential primary debate before 2016. We acted more like grownups before that.

For those who wonder what’s so great about maturity, recall the reason why we don’t punish teenage criminals like we do adults. It’s the reason we don’t let teenagers vote until 18: they aren’t emotionally mature or experienced enough to sort out all the conflicting choices that a voter is presented with. Considering how many American voters have devolved into—pardon me—fucking children devoid of couth and class, perhaps we should raise the voting age. I know that will never happen, just the same way I know that we will always have grown-ups who act like children.

The real tragedy of the last five years is how many people were seduced by the headiness of acting immature, of abandoning good manners and common sense in favor of “strength.” Trump is nearly gone, but Trumpism still runs strong. That spray-tanned reality TV star is no better than Golding’s savage character Jack, who gains the allegiance of the other boys with promises of adventure, and whose only solution to deal with the monster on the island is to slaughter a pig and mount its head on a stake.

Aren’t we better than that?