On Jan. 11, legendary San Francisco activist Margo St. James died. She was 83 years old.
St. James was perhaps the most well-known sex worker’s rights activist in American history, founding the group COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in 1973 to advocate for the decriminalization of sex work as well as access to health care, financial security, and legal support. In 1999 she co-founded San Francisco’s St. James Infirmary Clinic, one of the first free health clinics in the world run for and by sex workers. Porn actress and artist Annie Sprinkle called St. James “a feminist whore’s super-hero,” adding that “much of today’s sex-positive culture was born of Margo’s influence.”
“If you met her, she had this unusual kind of energy — her energy was so real, so direct, and so filled with compassion,” says friend and cannabis activist Wayne Justmann. “I’m a blessed man that she was part of my life.”
Key to St. James’ legacy was her persuasive power, often using pageantry and showmanship to bring allies to her cause. From 1974 to 1978 she organized the annual Hooker’s Ball in San Francisco, a beatnik-fashioned masquerade to which St. James invited politicians, police, and celebrities to comingle with uncloseted sex workers. In 1978, with 20,000 people in attendance, she famously made a splashing entrance by riding in on an elephant.
She was also known for a sharp wit and sense of humor: when KPIX reporter Ben Williams asked her whether such celebrations “tore at the moral fabric of society,” for example, she replied that “99 percent of our customers are married,” and that “if we weren’t taking care of them and listening to their troubles, they might be beating up their wives more than they do.”
St. James was a sex worker activist before the term “sex worker” was coined by fellow activist Carol Leigh in 1978, and later helped popularize the term. St. James called herself a “sex positive feminist,” and was an ally to several other movements of the time, such as that for greater cannabis access. She was also a friend to journalists, marrying Zodiac Killer reporter Paul Avery in 1992 so that she could share in his health care benefits and care for him as he succumbed to pulmonary emphysema. It is caring for him that brought her to a family home in Washington State, where he died in 2000.
She also ran for public office several times, including running for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1996. Her slogan, “The Lady is a… Champ,” and promises to keep a red light outside her office played off her sex-positive activism. Despite endorsement from Mayor Willie Brown and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, she narrowly lost.
St. James is survived by her son Don Sobjack Jr, her siblings Claudette Sterk and George Robert St. James, half brother John Wachter, three grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren. In 2021, the St. James Infirmary Clinic enters its 22nd year.