LGBTQ+ rights

LGBTQ+ Rights & Sex Worker History

LGBTQ+ people and sex workers have a shared history, and our ongoing fight for dignity and basic human rights is interconnected. 

Ancient fertility temples all over the world, often presided over by priestess prostitutes, show evidence of celebrating diverse sexualities and gender expressions. However, the rise of Abrahamic religions marked a pivotal shift that ushered in an era of homophobia and rigid gender norms that demonized LGBTQ+ and sex workers alike. Gender fluidity and sexual expression was replaced by a rigid gender binary that emphasized chastity and led to literal witch hunts. These campaigns of terror impacted queer people, sex workers, and people who held both of these identities.

The early Christian leaders of the Roman Empire capitalized on Roman conceptions of masculinity and justified their growing power by criminalizing gay sex and stripping women of property rights. The Bible, often misinterpreted, has been used to enforce gender binaries and promote discrimination for many generations. Core messages of forgiveness and charity have been overshadowed by an institution, the Catholic Church, that was more interested in asserting dominance than spreading goodwill. Translation issues surrounding the term “sodomite” underscores the historical connection between sacred prostitutes of ancient temples and the modern struggles of sex workers.

Colonial powers, particularly the British Empire, exported their homophobia and criminalization of homosexuality to colonized territories, perpetuating discrimination and inequality. The deep-seated obsession with gender differences and categorization, rooted in the Roman Empire’s domination and hierarchy, has influenced the trajectory of LGBTQ+ rights and sex worker history.

The 20th century witnessed the emergence of LGBTQ+ and sex worker liberation movements, interconnected with feminism and other social justice initiatives. The Stonewall riot of 1969 marked the beginning of a new era challenging discrimination against LGBTQ+ folks and sex workers. The movement was started by trans women of color who unapologetically engaged in survival sex work. Homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1974, and the World Health Organization stopped recognizing homosexuality as a disease in 1990. The United States finally decriminalized homosexuality in 2003 with the Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas.

In the United States, many laws that were originally designed to target gay men were later applied to sex workers, exemplified by the “Crimes Against Nature” or CANS laws in Louisiana. The criminalization of HIV/AIDS and the denial of services to those in need illustrate common challenges faced by both communities. The shared history of LGBTQ+ rights and sex worker history underscores the enduring partnership between these communities in the fight against discrimination, stigma, and criminalization. 

From ancient fertility temples to modern-day advocacy, sex workers and LGBTQ+ individuals have always been allies in resisting societal constraints around gender expression and consensual sex between adults. Recognizing this shared journey is crucial for fostering understanding, solidarity, and meaningful change in our society. As we continue to challenge outdated beliefs and embrace inclusivity, the narratives of these intertwined communities serve as a testament to the power of unity and collective action.

Learn More: Old Pros Resource Guide on LGBTQ+ History & Sex Worker Rights

2023 - The Oldest Profession Podcast - Kaytlin Bailey - Old ProsThe Oldest Profession Podcast reminds listeners that sex workers have always been part of the story. Each episode focuses on an “old pro” from history, contextualizing that figure in their own time and connecting their story to the ongoing struggle for sex worker rights. Kaytlin Bailey created The Oldest Profession Podcast to be an accessible and entertaining resource for anyone who wants to learn more about sex workers and our place in history.

Buckle, Leah. “African sexuality and the legacy of imported homophobia.”, published October 1, 2020. Access link.

This article by Leah Buckle traces the history of homophobia in African nations, highlighting a connection between colonized nations and anti-gay attitudes which suggests that homophobia was a Western import. She supports this point with historical evidence from non-Western nations featuring intersex paintings and openly gay monarchs in present-day Uganda. This is a great beginner resource for listeners wanting to unpack the homophobic legacy of colonization.

Shah, Svati P. “Sex Work and Queer Politics in Three Acts.” The Scholar and the Feminist Online 10.1-10.2, (Fall 2011/Spring 2012). Access link.

This article in The Scholar and Feminist Online features interviews with three NYC-based activists: Amber Hollibaugh, Ignacio Rivera, and Felix Gardon, conducted in March 2008. The three interviews cover gay bar culture, sex work, AIDS, and class struggle — topics which interviewer Svati P. Shah masterfully synthesizes into an argument for political solidarity between sex workers and the LGBTQ+ community. 

Beloso, Brooke M., “Queer Theory, Sex Work, and Foucault’s Unreason” Foucault Studies 23 (2017): 141-166. Access link.

In this article, Brooke M. Beloso explores the intersection of queer theory, sex work, and Michel Foucault’s concept of “unreason.” The author delves into the complexities of how queer theory and Foucault’s ideas on power, discourse, and sexuality can shed light on the experiences and representations of sex workers. By engaging with Foucault’s theories, Beloso critically examines the societal constructions and stigmatization of sex work, offering a nuanced perspective on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and labor. This article contributes to the ongoing discourse on sex work, queer theory, and Foucauldian analysis, deepening our understanding of the socio-cultural dynamics surrounding these subjects.

Morris, Bonnie J. “A brief history of gay, bisexual, and transgender social movements.” American Psychological Association, last updated March 16, 2023. Access link.

This source from the American Psychological Association provides a thorough history of the criminalization of LGBTQ identities. The author, Bonnie J. Morris, discusses European crossdressing, pre-colonial acceptance of gay and trans identities, the medicalization of homosexuality, Ellen DeGeneres’ coming-out, and more. Morris draws from a range of respected authors and histories, including Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and Randy Shilts’s, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. With its breadth of topics and sources, Morris’s 2023 article is another excellent primer on the history of LGBTQ rights. 

“The Imperfect Plaintiffs.” More Perfect Season 4. WNYC Studios, published June 28, 2016. Access link.

For listeners interested in Lawrence v. Texas, the SCOTUS case that legalized homosexuality nationwide, this episode of Radiolab’s Supreme Court podcast delves into the people and legal strategies that enabled that progressive victory. Host Jad Abumrad and reporter Katherine Wells tell the story of John Lawrence and Tyron Garner, the imperfect plaintiffs who put themselves on a national stage to end the criminalization of homosexuality. In this episode, Abumrad explains the complex legal strategies on this front of LGBTQ history, and directly links them to discrimination battles in the modern day.