On May 13, 1973 Margo St. James founded the first prostitute’s rights organization in the United States. After her friend Tom Robbins dubbed her the Coyote Trickster, her best friend, wordsmith, musician, and Pot Opera composer, Johnny X, coined the acronym – Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics. COYOTE was born.
It had been eleven years since Margo was arrested on trumped up charges for prostitution. As she described the event years later, she was in her North Beach apartment listening to records, and there was a knock on the door. A young man had a few records of his own under his arm and convinced Margo to let him in, because he liked the sounds pouring out of her pad onto the street below. He didn’t happen to mention that he was a rookie undercover cop. As it happened, Margo had let the runaway sister of a neighborhood acquaintance stay in her flat. The girl was underage. When charges were br ought against Margo, the cops threw in “Keeping a Disorderly House.” In reality, Margo was a hip young artist, playing jazz records, all the while keeping a young girl safe from the streets in North Beach. For the honor, Margo was accused of being a madam and a whore. She told the judge, “I’ve never turned a trick in my life.” But to Judge Glickfeld, just knowing the term “trick” meant that she was a professional. He found her guilty. Margo later explained, “My crime? I knew too much to be a nice girl.” Years later, her old friend John Burton, the bartender at North Beach’s Bimbos, who went on to represent San Francisco and Marin in the state legislature and congress, would say, “She should have hired me instead of George Choppelas. I was friends with the judge.” But that’s getting ahead of things.
After her conviction, she attended law school expressly to overturn the conviction. The misdemeanor conviction prohibited her from working in bars so she lost her job as a hostess. The conviction was relayed to the phone company, who tore her phone line out. She changed her address by adding an “A,” or a “1/2” to the 1312, but the phone company got wise. The FBI remarkably, never did, documenting her address incorrectly for years in their files. Out of work, and cut off, Margo took a job serving summonses for famed defense attorney Vincent Hallinan and got to be known around the Hall of Justice (she would forever call it, the “Hall of Injustice,”) as the “the kid who got a bum rap.” Her appeal was successful, the only known misdemeanor successfully challenged in the California Court of Appeal. She dropped out of law school shortly thereafter.
Margo moved to Marin, and came to know lesbian poet Elsa Gidlow, who with Roger Sommers and Alan Watts, owned acres on top of the Marin Hills, they called Druid Heights. In later years, she explained how politicians who didn’t want San Franciscans to know about their dalliances, hung out in Roger’s hot tub overlooking the hills. One such politician was the local Sheriff, Dick Hongisto. In a hot tub o e night, Margo confronted him about the lack of support for women accused of prostitution. He told her someone from the “victim class” had to speak up. So, she became that someone; she became politicized. Her first organizing meeting of WHO (Whores Housewives and Others), the forerunner to COYOTE, was held on Watts’ houseboat, the Vallejo. Years later, COYOTE operated with the help of volunteers like Priscilla Alexander, who published COYOTE Growls, and then COYOTE Howls; Molly Rodriguez ran the office on the San Francisco Port; and Margo produced the Hooker’s Balls to pay for her rabble rousing. With the help of Jennifer James, Jean Withers, Sara Theiss, Mary Owen, National Organization for Women (NOW), and Marilyn Haft of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – who was assigned to the cause by her boss at the time, Ruth Bader Ginsburg – ‘The Politics of Prostitution’ was published. Margo and members of COYOTE went on the speaking circuit, attended conferences around the world, including presenting at UNESCO. Sister organizations popped up across the country, and by the 1980’s, with an international network built over years of giving testimony in criminal courts, at government conferences, to politicians, doctors, lawyers, and to the press, Margo and Gail Pheterson set off on the most ambitious plan of all – a <a href=”https://www.walnet.org/csis/groups/icrse/brussels-2005/SWRights-History.pdf”>World Whores Congress.</a> The first was in Amsterdam, and the second was held at the European Parliament in Brussels in 1986.
More prostitute rights activists emerged, like <a href=”https://carolleighmemorial.com/”>Carol Leigh,</a> aka Scarlot Harlot, who coined the term, ‘sex work,’ and Gloria Lockett, who later formed <a href=”https://www.calpep.org/”>CAL-PEP</a> in Oakland. Margo retired to the south of France, but she couldn’t be held back forever, and in the mid-1990’s returned to San Francisco. For a brief period, COYOTE was back in the spotlight, due in no small part to Margo’s candidacy for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She came in 7 th in a field of 28 candidates, vying for 6 open seats. When one of the victors immediately vacated his seat for a state appointment, then mayor Willie Brown tapped a complete outsider to fill the seat instead of Margo – Gavin Newsom. Margo later told her campaign manager, “I never wanted that job anyway,” but it didn’t matter. As usual, Margo succeeded in getting her message out: the word “prostitute” was the pejorative; Sex Workers were not vectors of disease; and for STI and HIV programs to succeed, they had to partner with Sex Workers, the most educated population on the subject. Through her candidacy, all the complicated and sticky issues of sex work came to the fore. She built up enough political support for the San Francisco Department of Public Health to enthusiastically partner with COYOTE and Exotic Dancers Alliance to create St. James Infirmary. The Infirmary is Margo’s final legacy, and the organization continues to provide compassionate and nonjudgmental health and social services by and for Sex Workers, uplift the Sex Worker community through advocacy and outreach efforts, and maintain a safe space for Sex Workers to be seen and heard.
On May 15, 1993, dancers from Market Street Cinema attended a meeting at a restaurant a few doors down from the club, organized by Dawn Passar and Johanna Breyer. COYOTE was invited to offer insight and support during the meeting, and Margo would later serve on the Board of Exotic Dancers Alliance, and become a long-time mentor to Dawn and Johanna. During the meeting, dancers spoke about the increase in mandated stage fees (from $10 to $15 per shift), unwelcomed behavior from managers, and improvements needed throughout the club.
Afterwards, Dawn and Johanna drafted a proposal on behalf of the dancers and sent it to management, certified mail. Unsurprisingly, management never responded. Two months later, Dawn and Johanna filed sexual harassment and discrimination complaints with the CA Department of Fair Employment & Housing and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and wage and hour claims with the CA Labor Commission against the owners of Market Street Cinema. Exotic Dancers Alliance (EDA) was officially set in motion. The filed claims would eventually progress to the San Francisco Superior Court, and take 5 years to settle, so EDA initiated community outreach efforts to gain more support. In September 1993, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted The San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution, sponsored by Supervisor Terence Hallinan, with the unofficial goal of commandeering political support for decriminalization and re-allocating “criminal justice” resources to fund health and social services for Sex Workers. COYOTE members were active participants in the Task Force and EDA was invited to meetings to highlight the working conditions for dancers in the strip clubs. The final report, which was released in 1996, included recommendations for SF adult entertainment theaters – compliance with wage and hour laws, and health and safety codes; provision for sick leave; workers’ compensation and disability insurance; access to health insurance; and other local and State labor regulations. Unfortunately, most of the final recommendations were never implemented in San Francisco, with the exception of prohibiting the San Francisco Police Department from using condoms as evidence in solicitation crimes.
EDA continued to reach out to SF City Departments for assistance, including the Commission [Department] on the Status of Women, Human Rights Commission, and the Mayor’s Office. In June of 1994, several COYOTE and EDA members established the Sex Worker’s Caucus of the Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Democratic Club. The Harvey Milk Club publicly supported the decriminalization of prostitution. This proposition was not necessarily met with elation by political candidates seeking endorsements, or general members of the club, yet, it forced the issue to remain visible in local politics, which it has to this day. During the same year, EDA collaborated with COYOTE members to start Bay Area Sex Workers Advocacy Network (BAYSWAN), to advocate on behalf of Sex Workers and improve communication between Sex Workers and government agencies, community organizations, and service providers throughout the Bay Area. Starting in 1999, BAYSWAN sponsored the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival, under the direction of Scarlot Harlot.
Over the years, EDA was awarded several grants to fund community outreach and organizing activities; workshops on topics including labor laws, career development, financial planning, and health care; and monthly support groups. EDA connected Lusty Lady workers with Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 790 and supported their unionizing campaign, and worked with SEIU Government Relations staff and the CA Department of Labor Standards and Enforcement to pass CA Assembly Bill 2509 in January 2001, making it illegal for employers to collect any portion of gratuities given to dancers from their customers (not that it permanently stopped the shakedown by management). EDA provided assistance to dancers locally and nationally until St. James Infirmary was up and running. Bay Area dancers filed more class- action lawsuits and wage and hour claims. The Lusty Lady employees took over their club and formed a co-op after unionizing, that ran successfully for a number of years before it closed in 2013. The original strip club owners and managers in San Francisco eventually died, Market Street Cinema was demolished, and the infamous Mitchell Brother’s O’Farrell Theater closed in 2020 due to COVID-19. A new generation is now active and kicking down doors in their platform stilettos, including <a href=”https://jezebel.com/after-5-months-the-nycstripperstrike-is-poised-to-go-1823835024″>NYC</a> and <a href=”https://www.stargardendancers.com/”>North Hollywood</a> strippers who are willing to strike, unionize, and buy out their bosses in order to receive fair treatment in the workplace.
We celebrate the achievements and milestones of COYOTE and EDA in the midst of bodily autonomy being threatened on a daily basis. And if Margo was still among us, what would she say today? She would be outraged that Roe v. Wade was overturned. She would be disgusted by the incessant hate-fueled attacks on the LGBTQIA+ community. She would call out the rampant sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and whore-phobia that continues to exist within our society. But with cool, razor-sharp focus, she might suggest that while control over women’s bodies, destiny, and agency is what the fight was originally about, the playing field got a little bigger. “Unite,” she would cheer us on, because, “Divided we fall.”
There are a great number of people who have not been mentioned by name, only for lack of space, all of whom are heroes in their own right, and each with a remarkable story that deserves to be told. They were a part of the evolution of a movement, its colorful, humorous, and often heart-breaking history. Omitted too are the names of the young proud activists who Margo will never know, but whose achievements may not exist, were it not for Margo’s courage in standing up, speaking truth to power, and giving face to the accused.