Margo St. James, who founded the prostitutes’ rights organization COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and later the St. James Infirmary, passed away on January 11, 2021. As a tribute to Margo, we have the great pleasure of speaking with living legends of the early sex worker rights movement.
The death of sex workers’ rights activist Margo St. James on January 11, 2021 has ignited a spark in the international movement she helped to build. As individuals and groups prepared for her memorial that was held on May Day May 1, 2021, support for sex workers’ rights as human rights and the decriminalization of prostitution is stronger than ever.
Thanks to the organizing efforts of Margo St. James in the early 1970s when she created COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in San Francisco and later the St. James Infirmary, ten states in the U.S. now have significant proposals in place related to decriminalization and sex workers’ rights. These are Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New York, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and Louisiana. Activists in many more cities and states have formed alliances and relationships with legislators to put forward laws to advance sex worker justice. Margo St. James also joined forces with international sex workers’ rights groups. She was at the forefront of organizing conferences in the 1980s in Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels. Today, on every continent except Antarctica, sex workers and allies have organized to protect the lives and liberty of sex workers.
The death of Margo St. James only strengthens her legacy and public awareness of her goals — destigmatization and decriminalization of sex work — as members of the world’s “oldest profession,” activists and social justice allies alike unite from around the world to honor a foremother, and to forge an even stronger network for mutual aide and to ingite meaningful, lasting change.
Valentines Day, February 14th, 2021, was officially named “Margo St. James Day” by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The plan for this online memorial was announced on that day by a group of activists, many of whom knew and worked with Margo, calling themselves The Margo St. James Tribute Collective. All are invited to bear witness to this historic occasion. Collective member Carol Stuart, the group’s historian, added, “as Margo would say, ‘We want everyone to come.’”