In celebration of Gender Justice League’s 10-year anniversary, this blog post is part of a series called Ten Years of Gender Justice, a commemoration of some of the key players throughout GJL’s history. Throughout this series, we’ll highlight a few of the collaborators, organizers, and activists who have worked within or alongside GJL to make strides in advancing gender justice in Washington State and beyond.
Savannah Sly has been advocating for the rights and welfare of sex workers since 2013. Across her career as a community and coalition organizer and co-conspirator, Sly has been an instrumental force in efforts to advance the rights and safety of sex workers across the globe, organizing with Gender Justice League, SWOP Seattle & SWOP USA, ACLU of WA, #OldProProject, and numerous grassroots sex worker initiatives. In addition to her current role as Co-Executive Director for New Moon Fund, Sly presently serves as an advisor to the Woodhull Freedom Foundation and the Global Lab for Research in Action at UCLA Luskin.
Note: this interview was conducted in December 2022.
How did you begin organizing alongside GJL?
I got involved in sex worker advocacy in Seattle around 2013 in response to the Nordic model that was being campaigned, which is an anti-prostitution agenda that attempts to increase criminalization for all the clients in the sex trade and frames all providers of commercial sex services as victims. It’s a very police- and surveillance-heavy way of trying to govern and control the sex trade. There were website shutdowns and stings happening, and a lot of bad bills were coming through the legislature. So, a bunch of us started responding to that in a very instinctual, grassroots way, without much background. I was not an activist before this.
Gender Justice League made themselves visible to us, saying that this was also an issue they were concerned about. So, around 2014, we started meeting and working together to advocate for sex workers’ rights and push back against the increasing criminalization of commercial sex. GJL was one of our strongest allies while I was really active in Seattle.
What were some key events from this time that you were part of?
At the time I was organizing with SWOP Seattle, and GJL joined us as we were testifying in the legislature. For a lot of us [organizers], that was the first time we’d ever done that, and GJL provided some role-modeling and guidance because they had some more experience.
We also met with the Seattle and King County District Prosecuting Attorneys’ offices to confront them on this bullshit narrative that they were peddling. It was a very unproductive meeting because the DAs just refused to believe that sex workers could exist. GJL, SWOP Seattle, some academics, and other allies were in the room, and we made a solid case. I’m proud of that meeting because we were able to cite it and it was used in lots of journalism after that as an opportunity for the DAs office to actually work with sex-working communities on the issue of exploitation in the sex trade. [The DAs] really dropped the ball on that because, we learned, it was not about helping people at all.
Was this in response to a specific bill?
There were a bunch of bills—we really had to play a lot of defense. 2014 – 2016 were the most active years [for anti-sex worker bills], give or take a year on either side. We saw bills around increased mandatory minimum sentencing; increasing penalties from misdemeanors to gross misdemeanors; and the reintroduction of civil asset forfeiture, like these outdated drug war laws. We continue to see anti-trafficking policies proposed that don’t fully comprehend the needs of people in the sex trade. After almost 10 years of doing this, it is getting better.
It was so affirming to have GJL working with us. GJL was more experienced and also had insights that a lot of us [organizers in SWOP Seattle] didn’t. SWOP Seattle was mostly a cisgender contingency, so having some of our trans colleagues join us to broaden our perspectives was education that we all really needed at the time and didn’t have.
I had some real brainstorming meetings with leadership at GJL, talking about how to talk about issues of the sex trade. GJL was really helpful in things that I still lean on to this very day, 5+ years later—for instance, specifically with the issue of trans rights, what you do and don’t talk about to have a fruitful, productive conversation with a lawmaker who might not get it. I learned a lot of great tips for how to talk about the sex trade and sex trade activities, and what you do and don’t talk about to keep the conversation focused on the issue and not on people’s imaginations. I learned a lot there.
A lot of really good ideas all happened concurrently, in multiple places and at the same time, like ‘great minds think alike.’ I remember sitting down with Tobi Hill-Meyer and thinking, ‘We should introduce a bill that allows sex workers to report crimes committed against them, or that they’re a witness to, without getting arrested or prosecuted for prostitution.’ We decided we would call it an amnesty bill. Flash forward to almost eight years later, and we’re seeing safe reporting bills propagated all over the country. We actually passed one of those in Washington State as an early incremental bill. It’s not a super effective bill, but it got the conversation started. Having those brainstorming strategy sessions early on with GJL was really, really helpful.
What is the relationship between the work that you did in the early 2010s and what’s coming up now in terms of sex work advocacy & legislation?
I think Seattle was a target: a site-specific campaign city for the End Demand narrative. There were hundreds of thousands of dollars flooded into Seattle, for what I call ‘propaganda campaigns,’ awareness raising, and straight-up pay-off salaries for the DA ‘s office to fund entire nonprofit organizations to do this work. So, we were really up against the machine. A lot of us were really, totally new to activism. We just went down and protested at the state capitol, and we were marching outside, and they’re like, ‘legislation’s not in session, guys.’ They’re like ‘Who are you here to talk to?’ and we’re like, ‘We don’t know, we’re pissed off!’ We were really flying by the seat of our pants.
Now, Seattle’s got blood on it’s hands, in my opinion, as far as national policy around the sex trade. There are congressional bills called SESTA and FOSTA, and Seattle was an early actor in shutting down escorting websites, censoring communication, and mass arrest stings with hundreds of arrests in a single weekend of alleged clients of sex workers or would-be clients—mostly people from middle and lower-incomes, sometimes from a different country. Sydney Brownstone did some great reporting on deportations linked to those kinds of mass arrests.
With allies like GJL—and they really were some of the strongest—we got to push back really hard against that. In doing so, we picked up some skills because we were responding out of necessity. We were seeing the literal immediate impact on ourselves and our colleagues, who might be our roommates, friends, or lovers. Our clients, who are part of our community and ecosystem of people who are most at risk for harm, were put at even greater risk through these hamfisted policies. So, we really pushed back, and it was really a good, consistent push. Now, a lot of people who came out of that have just snowballed with skills, stuck with it, and learned about how this issue overlaps with so many other reform issues and social justice issues. I’m really proud to have gotten to be a part of a lot of that work in Seattle with GJL.
We understood where we fit in Seattle within this national schema of reform, and now things have culminated. I feel like there was a pebble dropped in Seattle, and it rippled out into things like SESTA and FOSTA. The same response that sex workers were having in Seattle happened nationally, and sex workers have been really pushing back against SESTA and FOSTA. I personally feel that the anti-trafficking narrative has reached its apex—and I think surpassed it—because it’s a narrative that is baloney, that cannot stand up when really challenged. Seeing people like John Oliver and Susan Sarandon come out in favor of decriminalization and breaking it down is an indicator to me that we’ve been loud enough and reasonable enough to point out that this is just the war on drugs all over again. This is just anti-LGBTQ+ in a different cloak.
What was the greatest challenge you all faced in this work?
Externally, the challenges were great, but internally, the organizers I worked with were total dreamboats. [From GJL] it was mostly Danni Askini and Tobi Hill-Meyer that we were working with, and then there were different colleagues of theirs who would hop in occasionally—especially when the Coalition for Rights and Safety was launched, led by Emi Koyama, who is a tremendous advocate for these issues locally.
All the challenges were external. The greatest challenge was the frustration of feeling like you’re screaming into a void and people think that you’re a monster for suggesting that adult consenting sex workers are being steamrolled in the process of trying to ‘save the children.’ That was really frustrating, and continues to be—but it really is having camaraderie with your capable, reasonable, close colleagues who can broaden your perspective and help keep you chugging along that is so necessary for this work. I really got that out of my time with both Danni and Tobi.
What other forms did collaboration between SWOP & GJL take?
Tobi really showed up as an artist for a lot of SWOP Seattle’s community and cultural education events. I remember Tobi submitting a film she had done. For five years, we’d had a sex worker festival in Seattle called Seattle Annual Sexwork Symposium (SASS), and we certainly had our GJL friends join us for that. Tobi submitted an awesome film about what it’s really like to make porn. That’s where I learned about fake money shots. It’s just the most hilarious film and it features Tobi and her expressions: she’s explaining how bewildered she was at the manufactured nature of porn and how she came ready to express her real pleasure, and they were like, ‘No, no, no. We’re gonna need some cartoon version of you.’ I hope that she still shows it because it’s really good.
We had worked with Elayne Wylie [from GJL] also—she joined us when we talked with the ACLU of WA on sex worker rights issues. When Elayne stepped into leadership [at GJL], we learned more about the SafeHouse project that GJL was doing. It was really inspirational to us that GJL was able to secure funding to make that [project] possible. We were like, ‘Wow, the city [of Seattle] gave money to a group like ours?’ It was great too that we could refer people [to SafeHouse], which we absolutely did. I always felt a little bad when I referred people there who had such high-capacity needs, and it was never a question, never a problem—it was always open arms and ‘please send people here and we will do our very best to accommodate them.’ I remember Tobi and especially Elayne really putting a lot of work into that project.
I also learned a lot about safety from GJL, and that we need to really take our safety seriously. I remember going to the GJL office once, and I remember that just knowing where the office was was a really big deal. That was a big deal for me because we’d always been pretty public about our sex worker stuff to an extent, but it made me realize that our trans colleagues were at risk in a way that some of us weren’t due to identity politics and privilege—so that was an eye-opener for me. Again, a lot of us came to this activism without a background in social justice or anything, and not understanding the layers of marginalization or danger that people are facing. It definitely taught me to be a little more vigilant.
How do you think GJL has made an overall positive impact for trans communities?
GJL has had a huge impact on me as an individual. I’ve carried the experiences I’ve had with GJL with me up until this very day. I think about Danni and Tobi pretty frequently, actually—just little tips, and the way that they both move through the world.
As an organization: the visibility! Trans Pride Seattle is a big deal, and I love that. It’s bold, it’s brave, it’s unabashed, and it also takes safety in mind. GJL is really good at being really bold and unapologetic, but also incredibly rational, mindful of safety and basic needs, and what we actually need to get something done.
GJL has accomplished a lot of really nuts-and-bolts practical work—like the work on healthcare inclusions and humanizing trans and gender diverse people within policy efforts—wrapped up in a proud identity. I think it’s a really well-balanced organization. I also don’t know what it’s like on the inside, so this is just [my perspective] from the outside. Every organization has its own clusterfucks inside of it, but as a colleague on the outside who’s been in coalition [with GJL], it has been a good role model—especially for SWOP Seattle. We were really radical, and we learned that we needed to find different ways to be more ‘professional,’ or at least accessible to people for whom [sex worker rights] is a new issue.
I hope that GJL has impacted lots of other people in Seattle and around the country as it’s impacted me. As an organization [based] in Washington [State], GJL has had a pretty widespread effect. People know who GJL is in different places around the country. That’s something that I notice.
What do you want other people to know about GJL?
Organizations like GJL operate with too few people and too few dollars. It might seem like a big fancy organization, but it takes a lot of heart and sweat to pull this kind of work off.
What are you working on nowadays?
I’m [still] striving to fortify the field to advance sex workers’ rights. Recently I became the new Co-Director of New Moon Fund, which is a funding and field-building entity to advance the rights and welfare of sex workers in the United States. We have a re-granting program that we’re going to be launching in the spring or summer [of 2023], and we’re also working with strategic community partners on pilot programs that can be broadly useful to individual advocates and small grassroots sex worker-led organizations. We also inform and educate the philanthropic sector on the need to support sex workers’ rights, because it aligns with a lot of their currently held values.
What advice do you have for how we take care of ourselves in our communities of sex workers and trans people while constantly being targeted?
Try and keep it sustainable and stay focused. I also hope that people can stay sweet with each other, I think that’s the hardest thing. I feel like as super progressive advocates, sometimes we are our own worst enemy or biggest hurdle in a practical way.