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.