By LOUIS FLORES
A moment of tense emotion during the November 11 town hall meeting, that originally aimed to discuss the social, legal, and economic fallout of the law enforcement raid on Rentboy.com, may have inadvertently caused a seizing-up of LGBT grassroots advocacy seeking to decriminalize sex work.
During the question-and-answer portion of the Rentboy.com town hall meeting, after a wealthy gay male business-owner expressed outrage at the New York Police Department's ongoing campaign to arrest gay men for what many described as consensual sex, Monica Jones, an advocate for trans rights and a panelist at the town hall meeting, retorted that the business-owner was overlooking the routine, prostitution-related arrests faced by trans women, especially trans women of color, leading to an unpleasant exchange that acted to shut-down many gay men in the audience, especially White gay men, effectively splashing water on smoldering anger in a wide section of New York City's LGBT activist community that had been bubbling up since the government's raid on Rentboy.com.
The Rentboy.com town hall meeting had been planned by community-activist groups and was in no way connected to either of the company that formerly operated the Web site or with the Web site's seven officials, who are now facing criminal prosecution in Brooklyn federal court. Approximately three months ago, law enforcement officials seized and closed Rentboy.com on charges of operating an illegal business that promoted prostitution, amongst other charges. The criminal complained filed in the Rentboy.com case has been the subject of scorn by the LGBT community, because the complaint was filled with lurid descriptions of sex acts that even the typically patrician members of the Editorial Board of The New York Times took notice of possible prejudice in the complaint.
"The criminal complaint is so saturated with sexually explicit details, it’s hard not to interpret it as an indictment of gay men as being sexually promiscuous," wrote the members of the Editorial Board of The New York Times in an editorial published just days after the raid.
After the August 25 Rentboy.com raid, which was conducted by the NYPD and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, activists organized protests in major cities across the United States, calling for the decriminalization of sex work. Protests or rallies were held on September 5 in San Francisco, in the West Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles, and in Chicago. One rally, held outside of the Brooklyn federal courthouse on September 4, attracted over 100 protesters.
Losing sight of common ground
In the wake of the Rentboy.com raid, community groups and activists came together to plan protests and the town hall meeting. Some of the groups, which endorsed the protest outside the U.S. District Courthouse, where the case against the seven Rentboy.com officials is playing out, included the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, amongst many others. Big name human rights groups, like Amnesty International, had endorsed efforts to decriminalize sex work just days prior to the Rentboy.com raid. However, the unity and momentum going into the post-raid activism was dealt a setback as a result of the Rentboy.com town hall meeting, some activists have informed Progress Queens. For example, many issues were not raised during the public portion of the town hall meeting, such as identifying and questioning the guidelines being used by U.S. Department of Justice officials to justify what some say may be the selective prosecution of a Web site that catered to some members of the LGBT community. A closed-press discussion took place after the town hall meeting that focused on action-planning.
As a consequence of the setback caused by the town hall meeting, some leaders in the LGBT community were called upon by Progress Queens to offer suggestions on how the community response to ongoing police harassment could get back on-track.
Pauline Park, an internationally-renowned trans rights activist and chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, or NYAGRA, told Progress Queens that when activists unite around causes, they bring with them their own positions that are bourne from their life experiences. "The sad fact is that there are some people with less empathy than others," Ms. Park said of the unfortunate exchange, once described for her, that may have derailed activism following the town hall meeting. Ms. Park did not attend the town hall meeting. NYAGRA supports the decriminalisation of sex work, with the qualification of aggressively addressing human trafficking.
Ms. Park said that to the extent that gay men are being entrapped for charges of solicitation of prostitution, the gay men within the LGBT community should be invested in decriminalisation sex work out of pure self-interest and should show solidarity with trans women and trans women of color, who also face the same entrapment and harassment. In trying to bring about unity within the LGBT activist community, Ms. Park added that a refocusing on the goals at hand could come about as a result of a process of educating the community, a process of agitation, and a process of trying to change public policy. As Ms. Park noted, there is unfinished business in the area of policing that affects both gay men and trans women : the reported ending by the de Blasio administration of the NYPD's use of the possession of condoms as criminal evidence in making prostitution-related arrests, as announced in an Associated Press report published by The Huffington Post. According to Ms. Park, the sense she has received from the community is that the condom evidence-confiscation policy has not changed, as promised.
In interviews with three leading LGBT community activists, there was a consensus that issues about sexual freedom affect the entire LGBT community, "that we are all impacted," in the words of one activist. Indeed many early LGBT activist groups were founded on the basis of fighting for sexual liberation, many activists noted.
Whilst Ms. Park said that unity could be achieved, she spoke plainly about the real work that it would take to make it happen. "I don't think there are any easy answers," Ms. Park said of the efforts to unite around the Rentboy.com case to press for changes in government policing policies, adding that, "It requires media attention, the attention of the LGBT community-based media, and activists speaking to the community."
The war on sex
Two months after the Rentboy.com raid, the Canadian Web site Squirt.org banned its Web site users, who had profiles on Squirt.org, from placing any further online advertisements for sex work, according to a report published by Gay Network News. Some activists viewed the preëmptive move by Squirt.org as taking place in fear by Web site executives that they might be targeted next by wayward law enforcement officials.
The escalating pressures to interfere with sex workers' right to earning a living will drive sex workers underground, making them vulnerable. This observation was made at the Rentboy town hall meeting, and it was a sentiment shared by Ms. Park, who noted the abject failure of laws to end sex work.
"Criminalization of prostitutes hasn't ended prostitution," Ms. Park said, adding that, "There's a reason why it's called the world's oldest profession."
One year before Rentboy.com was seized and shut down, law enforcement officials similarly seized and shut down myRedBook.com, another Web site accused of engaging in prostitution-like crimes. The warning posted on the replacement home page for myRedBook.com indicated that the seizure and closure of the Web site was "based on probable cause to believe that this domain name was involved in money laundering derived from racketeering based on prostitution in violation of state and federal law." A look at the role that the closure of myRedBook.com has played in making it more dangerous for sex workers was published online in a report by Wired.
Some activists told Progress Queens that the organizing taking place now is different from the organizing from prior efforts by the LGBT community to keep the NYPD in check, but that there were still lessons to be learned from past activism.
The last time the LGBT community rose up to demand that the NYPD back-off from engaging in intimidation, entrapment, and false arrests of gay men on prostitution-related charges was in 2008 and 2009, when the journalist Duncan Osborne revealed that the NYPD was entrapping gay men in prostitution sting operations, principally at gay bookstores. At one rally, held at Sheridan Square on June 13, 2009, then District Leader Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) was campaigning for the New York City Council. He spoke at the rally, saying, in relevant part, of the NYPD's campaign of false arrests, "If police could get away with this type of thing, all of the other rights and all of the other things that we've supposedly won, mean nothing."
However, in the wake of the Rentboy.com raid, Mr. Dromm, now the incumbent City Councilmember from Jackson Heights, has been silent. A request made by Progress Queens to his office for the issuance of a statement about his position on the Rentboy case was not answered.
There is hope by many activists that the LGBT community's response to the Rentboy.com raid can overcome the stumbling of a poorly-run town hall meeting. During the activism of 2008-2009, one organizing meeting held by activists (at the same LGBT Community Center that was the site of the Rentboy.com town hall meeting) was infamously derailed when Robert Pinter, one of the gay men entrapped in a false arrest by the NYPD at that time then and who chaired the organizing meeting, would not allow certain topics to be discussed as possible demands to be made of elected officials. Mr. Pinter, who was the very public face of the NYPD's crackdown on gay bookstores, refused to support some demands, based on the rationale that his name would be being used to further a reform agenda that he said he could not personally support. The tangential involvement of some nonprofit groups, which were later critical of that organizing meeting, also complicated the demands that some LGBT community leaders had been seeking, including the disbandment of the NYPD's vice squad.
In spite of some setbacks from the disagreements that are sometimes typical of activist organizing, the LGBT community were able to organized a very successful protest outside of the Upper East Side mansion of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R-New York City), at which grassroots LGBT activists for the first time prominently called for "no third term" for the mayor, whom activists saw as needing to be held politically responsible for the pattern of the NYPD's misconduct. After holding rallies, drawing discussions and meetings with public officials, and attracting media attention, the LGBT community was able to trigger an Internal Affairs investigation into the entrapment and false arrests of gay men. Some reversals were had, like when the NYPD stopped reporting some statistics of vice squad arrests for consensual sex, which some activists estimate to number in the thousands at unknown costs to taxpayers. As one prominent LGBT civil rights activist told Progress Queens, the 2008-2009 response to the NYPD's misconduct was very successful, when taken as a whole, even though the advocacy was seen to be limited to a small group of mostly White gay male activists. As a result of the work of this small group of activists, and in spite of the setbacks, the NYPD brought to a halt its entrapment and false arrests of gay men at adult bookstores. If a broader coälition could be built now, then the possibility to decriminalise sex could be within reach, provided, however, that activists worked together. Also working to the advantage of activists now is that there is no one activist, who is the public face for all sex workers, who can block the community's demand for reforms.
Speaking of organizing meetings and town halls, generally, one activist said that how meetings are conducted is important to keep the attendees' focus on achieving shared goals. In respect of the Rentboy.com raid, the activist said that the shared goals should be used to unite activists.
"How do we get out of this room and organize against the law enforcement system that is discriminating against us ?" asked one veteran LGBT activist, adding that, "Facilitation of meetings is crucial."
Historically, the LGBT community, in particular gay men and trans women, have been subjected to over-policing, something that has been gaining public attention since at least the 1960's under former Mayor Robert Wagner (D-New York City), who ordered a campaign to cleanse the city of gay bars in the lead-up to the 1964 World's Fair. It was against the backdrop of the NYPD's systemic harassment, entrapment, and false arrests that fostered a sense of discrimination, tension, and resentment that the outbreak of the Stonewall riots took place. As reported by Progress Queens, some in the LGBT community, such as Allen Roskoff, view the current police crackdown on Web sites, such as Rentboy.com, as an extension of that same pattern of discrimination and harassment.
More generally, activists further point to the never-ending war by right-wing conservatives to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made abortions legal in accordance with a right to privacy ; the effort by conservatives to close Planned Parenthood ; and, more locally, the NYPD's policing tactic to use the possession of condoms as criminal evidence of sex work, in spite of another U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in Griswold v. Connecticut, where justices ruled that the use of contraception was subject to individuals' right to privacy.
As the LGBT community and sex workers move away from cruising for sex partners in public locations -- voluntarily using technology to accomplish that which former Mayor Wagner and the NYPD could not -- and search for each other from the privacy of their own computers or smartphones, concerns about privacy matter even more. All the more worrisome, some LGBT activists told Progress Queens, is that the shift to using Web sites and apps, such as Grindr and Scruff, to hook-up for consensual sex, is happening as the government is watering down privacy rights around sexuality and increasing electronic surveillance under an intrusive national security police state apparatus. That the U.S. Department of Homeland Security played a central role in the Rentboy.com raid has sounded alarum bells for many civil libertarians, but this issue, too, was not publicly discussed during the Rentboy.com town hall meeting, in spite of it being mentioned on the town hall's flyer.
Rethinking the role of nonprofit groups in coälitions
Although the Rentboy.com town hall meeting had been planned by a coälition of groups in support of the group The Hookup Collaborative, two primary town hall panelists were staff members of the nonprofit group Streetwise and Safe SAS, Inc. The New York City Council, which has oversight over the NYPD and fully funds, without question, all of the NYPD's policing tactics, including its most controversial, provided $165,000 in funding to Streetwise and Safe from the city budget for Fiscal Year 2016, according to City Council discretionary fund records reviewed by Progress Queens. In addition to Mitchyll Mora, the town hall panel's facilitator, Brendan Conner, an attorney on the town hall panel, is a staff member of Streetwise and Safe.
It's not known if funding sensitivities by Streetwise and Safe dictated that no public comments could be made to roll up accountability for the NYPD's participation in the Rentboy.com raid to public officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) or City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Spanish Harlem), since it was not possible for Progress Queens to schedule an interview with Mr. Conner prior to the publication of this report. Of the total amount of discretionary funding allocated to Streetwise and Safe, $150,000 came from the Council Speaker Mark-Viverito's large pot of discretionary funding. Some LGBT grassroots activists have questioned how a nonprofit group advocating against over-policing can broker a large six-figure discretionary budget allocation from the very public official, who has sought to fund a radical expansion of policing in New York City.
In this year's city budget, it was Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, who championed the effort to hire an additional 1,300 new NYPD officers. The only City Councilmember to not vote to approve the city budget was Councilmember Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica), who is facing corruption charges and, thus, abstained from voting on the city budget, according to a report published by The New York Daily News, meaning that Councilmember Dromm, a former critic of the NYPD, voted to increase the size of a city agency that is never held accountable for misconduct against the LGBT community. In spite of taking place during the #BlackLivesMatter movement and in the wake of the Rentboy.com raid, the hiring spree of new NYPD officers by Council Speaker Mark-Viverito was inexplicably never mentioned by the panelists during the Rentboy town hall meeting.
The Rentboy.com town hall meeting received financial assistance from a cornerstone group of activism, ACT UP New York. Requests for comment about various issues about the town hall were posed to the group as a whole by Progress Queens ; however, no response was received from activists on behalf of the group.
In 2013, Eric Sawyer, a co-founder of ACT UP New York, bragged in a report published by South Florida Gay News that the HIV/AIDS advocacy group could "speak truth to power without any filters or muzzles," precisely because the group does not depend on government contracts or funding. According to information received by Progress Queens, Mr. Sawyer pushed ACT UP New York to help fund the Rentboy.com town hall meeting that, during the public portion of the meeting, failed to call out elected officials that needed to be held accountable for the policies that led to each of the Rentboy.com raid and the prosecution of individuals for engaging in sex work. Mr. Sawyer has run afoul of activists before. Last July, Mr. Sawyer was the target of criticism over his opposition to a boycott of the Fire Island businesses of two gay men, who had hosted a fundraiser for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the homophobic G.O.P. presidential candidate. Page Six published an item charging that Mr. Sawyer had put his own personal, financial interests over the interests of LGBT civil rights activists. A request made by Progress Queens to Mr. Sawyer for an interview for this article was never answered.
Michael Petrelis, a prolific activist, who formerly lived in New York City now living in San Francisco, described how in his own activism he has observed how some nonprofit groups have subverted grassroots activists in order to placate elected officials. He said he saw it in the failed effort by a San Francisco-based affordable housing advocacy coälition, Plaza 16, to pass a referendum calling for a type of a construction moratorium. Instead of pressing elected officials to do something about the affordable housing crisis in San Francisco, the coälition, backed by nonprofit groups which have received city funding, instead sought endorsements from political clubs for their referendum. Rather than hold the political system accountable, Plaza 16 unbelievably sought permission from political groups for the coälition's activism.
Mr. Petrelis also said that when grassroots activists have been critical of nonprofit group leaders, the critics have been accused of racism, in one instance he observed where the nonprofit group leader being criticized was Latino. In New York City, grassroots critics of nonprofit group leaders and elected officials have been similarly and cynically trashed after airing criticisms of leaders in New York.
Grassroots activists have said that models of activism must be made more autonomous from elected officials worried about reëlection, from nonprofit groups wary of offending their donors, and from business magnates concerned with exerting influence over elected officials and nonprofit groups. How nonprofit groups, which receive money from the state and/or business magnates, are allowed to subvert grassroots activism and get away with it need to be addressed, grassroots activists told Progress Queens. Under governments with low rates of voter participation and high rates of political corruption, group machinations that would act to supplant dissent would normally be viewed as Kremlinesque.
Speaking generally of the need of a few activists to help a group stay on focus, Mr. Petrelis said, "There are times that require individuals to suit up in thick skin in order to deliver some accountability and better organizing." Of possibilities to circumvent nonprofit groups in coälitions, Mr. Petrelis recommended the formation of autonomous affinity groups.
Speaking generally about how the LGBT community rises up in activism, Ms. Park said that people usually reacted in moments of crisis, emergency, scandal, or during election season. Of efforts to possibly use discord between trans and cis activists to divide the community, Ms. Park said that it would be immoral to seek to ignore the most oppressed within the LGBT community. Such a strategy would be a losing strategy, allowing the religious right to pit members of the LGBT community against each other. That energy of division "will pass," Ms. Park said, predicting that "more principled, cooler heads will prevail."
One win, not celebrated at the Rentboy.com town hall meeting, was the removal of Acting U.S. Attorney Kelly Curie, who was the top Brooklyn federal prosecutor at the time the federal criminal charges were brought against the Rentboy.com officials. He was replaced when U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch appointed Robert Capers, marking a third change in leadership in the U.S. Attorney's Office for New York's eastern district since the start of the year. The same federal prosecutors' office is leading the U.S. Department of Justice's troubled investigation into the NYPD's homicide of Eric Garner and is defending the U.S. Department of Justice against a lawsuit filed by the publisher of Progress Queen under the Freedom of Information Act.