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.