Whore Next Door: A Streetwalker Named Desiree

Chants of “Sex worker rights are human rights!” and “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” echoed through the French Quarter on Wednesday night. Hundreds of sex workers had taken to Bourbon Street to protest the systematic murder of black, brown, and trans people — particularly sex workers — as well as to mourn the loss of a beloved member of our community: Sharmus Outlaw.

As we marched through the quarter, the drunk tourists looked puzzled. Most snapped pictures or recorded video on their phones. I saw one very confused woman mouth “What's a sex worker?” to the man accompanying her.

Last week, I attended the largest gathering of sex workers and their allies in the United States: The Desiree Alliance. Dozens of strippers, escorts, porn stars, folks who do street work, and Ph.D candidates and researchers came from all across the country to share skills and fortify our bonds as a community.

Outlaw was a sex worker and a transgender healthcare and HIV advocate for more than 25 years who lost her battle with cancer just days before the conference, which she was instrumental in organizing.

We raised our voices up to the stars to celebrate the phenomenal life of someone this world, and even our community, never did enough for. Outlaw died surrounded by friends and chosen family, but also by ignorant doctors who struggled with providing adequate care to her as a trans woman.

A crowdfunding campaign was set up to raise funds for Outlaw's funeral, which exceeded its goal within a few days of launching. But as Monica Jones, the Arizona sex worker who was arrested last year for what many refer to as “walking while trans” — as many transgender women of color are assumed to be sex workers and harassed by police for simply existing — said in her keynote speech kicking off the conference, “No one should have to beg to be buried.”

I sat and broke bread with nearly 300 of my fellow whores and the people who love us, inside a conference room in the heart of New Orleans — not far from the historic red-light district formerly known as Storyville that housed and tolerated the parish's brothels — and only an hour or so away from where Alton Sterling was murdered by police just a few days prior. Jones took the stage underscored by a triumphant Beyoncé soundtrack, but she had more than just a celebratory spirit and condolences to dole out. She had taken on the uncomfortable task of speaking out about a string of racist microaggressions from white sex workers that left her feeling unsupported, tokenized, and disrespected.

Her keynote set the tone for the entire conference, insisting that sex workers with privilege dig deeper to find better ways to dismantle the white supremacy this country was founded on, because right now, as the body count continues to rise, is it painfully clear we are not doing enough.

Some white folks were dismayed and tearful at the revelation, but it's important to remember that when someone points out that you are doing something racist, it's a tremendous blessing.

It's like if you had food in your teeth. Would you want your loved ones to ignore the monstrous piece of salad lodged in your gums forever? Of course not! You would probably want someone to inform you so you could run to the bathroom and take care of it. Especially if that food in your teeth was contributing to the deaths of people in your community.

White people need to stop living in fear of their own racism, as they are not the ones whose lives it threatens. We must battle it every day and embrace the opportunity when others jump in to help with the fight. Our white tears don't help. Our hurt feelings don't help — listening, resources, solidarity, and respect can — help.

It's uncomfortable to examine how our whiteness is hurting others, but I'm certain that it's more uncomfortable to be brown in America, so we need to put on our big-girl panties and get to work.

This community is my family, and when families get together we eat, drink, and talk about the hard stuff. As the weekend drew to a close and I boarded my plane back to the West Coast, my belly, my head, and my heart filled to the brim with beignets, love, and the desire to do more.

We have a ton of work to do, so let's get to it.

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