Greetings all! It is an honor to share my first blog on this site. I hope to continue to keep Sharmus’s presence and leadership as vibrant and inspiring as she was as we move forward in our struggle for justice and dignity while standing on her shoulders. Sharmus was a great educator- and continues to be. I had the pleasure of sharing memories of Sharmus with Alex Andrews and Jill McCracken, Co-directors of SWOP Behind Bars, where we discussed The Sharmus Outlaw Scholarship, one of 7 scholarship opportunities for incarcerated sex workers.
“Sharmus was a beacon of love and a tireless fighter,” Jill said, “and we want to remember and honor her energy, spirit, and lifeline for trans people and the sex worker rights movement.” She went on: “We all learned from Sharmus continually: her humor, insights, and lived experience. I am proud to honor her name on this scholarship. We will never forget Sharmus, and this is just one more reminder; one more way of spreading her love and passion.”
“We have very little institutional memory,” Alex told me, as we discussed the movement for sex worker rights, “and we are not very good at remembering the people that have gone before us.” Alex was inspired to name the seven scholarships offered by SWOP Behind Bars for those we have loved and lost within this movement after long-time activist Dana Hemingway took her life early this year. “We can’t forget where we came from,” Alex told me.
Alex and Jill co-founded SWOP Behind Bars in April 2016, and the growth has been spectacular. They focus primarily on three critical elements: Providing education and information through a book drive and newsletter; mentoring the community via mail; and offering basic reentry services. “Prison is a place of fear. We are trying to break down that wall,” says Alex. “We feel that offering education, information, and connection to a community is an important part of getting out. Not having such a fearful world to come back to.”
“Education takes time and money” Jill said. “And the one thing most prisoners have is time. So if we can provide the money, we can not only help provide something for them while they are in prison, but also contribute to their life beyond the prison walls. Education provides knowledge, cultural capital, and hope. And SWOP Behind Bars wants to be a part of that contribution.” SWOP Behind Bars offers scholarships for college degrees and a paralegal program, and hey include tuition and learning materials. The Sharmus Outlaw Scholarship exclusively serves black transgender women - and this is no coincidence. “Sharmus would have said ‘Give it to the person who needs it the most’,” Alex told me, “transwomen of color have less opportunity.” Indeed, while incarceration limits opportunities for all, black transgender women face disproportionate violence within the criminal justice system, as well as the lack of opportunities on the outside due to sexism, racism and transphobia.
Scholarships are awarded in June and December. Alex emphasized that all funding came from people who were not sex workers: “It is important to recognize that allies stepped up.” The application process is on the website, and the requirements includes two letters of reference, an essay detailing why they would like this educational opportunity and why it would benefit their community. All applicants must have a GED. Awardees are decided upon by the Board of Directors and Advisory Board of SWOP Behind Bars. SWOP Behind Bars also supports awardees with their college applications. “We want to teach people how to ask for help. It's okay to ask someone for assistance,” Alex told me.
There are a number of ways to support the the Sharmus Outlaw Scholarship, as well as the other work of SWOP Behind Bars. Monetary donations are important for the program and are tax deductible. SWOP Behind Bars also maintains multiple Amazon wish lists where you can purchase books for incarcerated sex workers. They also encourage anyone to sign up to be a pen pal, or mentor my mail, especially those who have higher learning in the legal field or other areas of study. Finally, they are looking for help on more GED study guides, given how important this certificate is to have for reentry. Often GED classes are full, and they want to provide self-study guides to help incarcerated individuals be prepared. “We are really excited about creating a robust reentry program,” Alex shared, “Resources are widely available but not known inside.”
“[Sharmus] spent every minute of her life educating people on how to treat each other better. I want to be like that. I want to be that person,” shared Alex. Indeed, Sharmus continues to inspire and incite learning and compassion. If you are interested in getting involved, check out www.swopbehindbars.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In order to keep Sharmus's site current and to get her legacy out there we have sought a website volunteer who will update her site with regular postings and seek other ways to ensure that Sharmus's work will not be forgotten. We very much welcome Lindsay Roth to be our new volunteer. Lindsay is a community organizer from Philadelphia, PA. She met Sharmus at a Red Umbrella Project event in 2014 and has been eternally inspired by Sharmus’s commitment to sex worker rights. Please contact her with any questions, concerns or submissions for the site at email@example.com and please also cc firstname.lastname@example.org which is the new official gmail account for this page. The "send us a memory page" will also reach Lindsay so your ideas may still be submitted there.
Happy birthday darling Sharmus!
Today is the first year we acknowledge Sharmus' birthday since her passing in 2016. After much consideration we her friends have decided to establish an annual award in her name to honor people doing the work that Sharmus loved so much. Outreach.
In the following year we will establish an advisory in the spirit of Sharmus' work to fundraise to support the award and to seek the person who most personifies the values that Sharmus held so dear in her life. We will seek to award an outreach worker who genuinely takes the time to speak to people in need, to connect with trans communities and youth, and to treat all they meet as human beings. This kind of work is less acknowledged than you might think. Outreach workers of this kind are often almost never seen on the award stage because they are always out there in the community handing out information, condoms and making sure that people are okay.
If you are interested in supporting the Sharmus Outlaw Outreach Award, please send a message via the "send us a memory link" on her webpage expressing your interest: http://www.sharmusoutlaw.com/send-us-a-memory.html
On the day of Sharmus Outlaw's passing in July 2016, her friend and sister Tiommi Luckett penned the following to be placed on this blog. Losing Sharmus has been harder on all of us than we ever could have imagined and it is only now some months later that we return to Tiommi's words for the blog in preparation for the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). Several of Sharmus's friends from BPPP and NJRUA will be attending the TDOR event in Philadelphia this year. Please join us there, attend an event in your local area or remember those we have lost in ways that make sense to you.
I don’t really know where to begin, so I guess the best place to start is how I met my sister/friend/colleague Sharmus (Stewart) Outlaw. It was in April 2015 in Washington, D.C. I was in the nation’s capital to attend AIDS Watch, a yearly convening of advocates and stakeholders in the commitment to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America. It was my second year in attendance but the number of trans* identified women at the conference had more than quadrupled since the previous year. Sharmus actually caught up with Channing-Celeste and I on Capitol Hill in between visits with our respective legislators. Sharmus introduced herself to me and we started talking about what brought us to AIDS Watch. I learned that she had been active in the transgender community advocating for resources for our homeless trans youth, sex workers, people living with HIV and she spoke so passionately about how these intersections always involve criminalization of Black and Brown bodies because of an inaccessibility to employment due to stigma.
We talked about my work in the HIV community and how after having transitioned 17 years prior to us meeting, I had no idea that I was transgender until about 5 years ago. I disclosed that there was no one who looked like me whom I could turn to for advice or comfort, and little did I know, a sisterhood had forged. We exchanged contact information and went about our meetings. However, some time went by before I actually heard from Sharmus again. When she reached out to me again, it was due to the research she was involved in “Nothing About Us, Without Us: HIV/AIDS-Related Community and Policy Organizing by U.S. Sex Workers,” We set up a time for her to interview me and surprisingly my comments actually made it into the report. But again, some time went by before I heard from Sharmus again.
The next time we talked and every time after that, it was more personal and intimate. I didn’t know at the time how much we were actually helping each other in our times of need. Sharmus would call me at all hours and we would talk about our breakups. The conversations would get so heated and I would spend the better part of an hour trying to talk her out of doing something spiteful to her ex. I told her that I just cut off all communication with my ex after the breakup because it was the best thing for me. I am laughing now because I would talk until I was out of breath but to no avail because Sharmus did whatever she wanted to do and that was my sister because she knew that I was the same way. In the midst of us talking about ex loves who completed wasted our time and disregarded our emotions, she learned that she had lymphoma.
Upon hearing the news from Sharmus herself, my first reaction was to cry uncontrollably and unapologetically. We declared our love for each other and how much we would be there for each other and wholeheartedly, I did my best to be there for my sister at whatever hour it was she needed me. In the following months, there were more nights than not that I talked to Sharmus while she was in the hospital, and my sister would go to sleep with me on the phone and then apologize a couple of days later for having done so. I saw my sister again at AIDS Watch in February of this year and much like the fierce, determined and passionate person she was, she only talked about the work that needs to be done in the community. I just sat there in awe as she remained engaged in conversation and my every instinct was to wrap her in love and support. We caught up on much needed girl time and saw each other again some months later inside the Atlanta airport awaiting our connecting flight to Huntsville, Alabama for the HIV is Not a Crime Training Academy II.
As much as I talked to Sharmus, when I looked in her direction inside the airport, I did not recognize her because the tumor in her lymph node had metastasized to the point where she was unrecognizable. I questioned myself as to whether or not it was really Sharmus I was looking at and her eyes told me yes. You see, Sharmus was so weak from the first flight that she could not catch her breath to call my name. I was talking to Derek of NJRUA when I recognized Sharmus and he got her onto the plane safely. When we landed in Hunstville, I kept my sister at my side and made sure the next morning she went to the hospital. I have said that Sharmus was fierce, but she was also super feisty, so she had her way through the night in not going to the hospital in Hunstville. Having watched over my sister and cared for her as best I could, Octavia and I made sure she went to the hospital. Sharmus remained in the hospital for the duration of the conference and told me after we left the conference that Octavia and I saved her life. Sharmus was proud, confident and unapologetically Sharmus and would not allow for anyone to strip her of her dignity. She let me care for her and be her sister and I told her that from our first conversation, I saw her as my sister because she accepted me as I was and helped me to accept myself as a transgender woman living with HIV.
Sharmus knew that I had only been advocating for people living with HIV for a year when we met, and she always told me how proud she was of me and that she saw me doing great things because of my identities and intersections. Even in the midst of fighting cancer, she spoke empowerment over my life and my advocacy. She continued to encourage me to work with what I have been given and that I am enough as I am. My mind is racing and my heart is feeling weak because those calls meant everything to me and I’m already missing them. Because of those phone calls and the fact that they weren’t happening, I didn’t stop until I knew what had happened to her. It was when I reached Penelope Saunders and she heard the urgency in my voice that she investigated into Sharmus’ whereabouts. She informed me that Sharmus had to be admitted to the hospital before reaching her mother in North Carolina and was without her phone so she didn’t know I had been trying to contact her. I talked to Sharmus as much as she could manage and today I am talking about my memories of her. I know the fight continues and she wants me to stay grounded in my truth and be unapologetically me. In the time we had together, it was one of the strongest bonds I’ve had with chosen family and biological family. I’ve never trusted anyone as much as I trusted Sharmus and I know my sister took our conversations with her. I miss her already and have been a wreck a good part of the day. Still, I’m doing what I must so that my sister’s legacy lives on and her vision is a reality. I LOVE YOU SIS!!
Tiommi Luckett is a nationally recognized advocate for the rights of people living with HIV and for trans* rights, focusing on the issues particular to transgender women of color. Tiommi is a member of the US PLHIV Caucus Steering Committee, and Positively Trans. She blogs at A Girl Like Me and is a vibrant public speaker representing at conferences such as the US Conference on AIDS and the Speak Up Conference. In the Summer of 2016 Tiommi worked with the Best Practices Policy Project to plan to keep Sharmus' vision alive through the Nothing About Us Without Us Project.
Sharmus Outlaw's work has long had a global component ranging from her presentations on HIV and harm reduction to her more behind the scenes commitment to rights. Currently she is a member of the programme advisory committee of the Red Umbrella Fund, a source of financial support for sex worker rights organizations globally. Her colleague Minerva Valenzuela sent her a message from her friends on the committee.
I’m happy to leave this message for you, sending big hugs.
I know it’s hard, but, girl, you are full of love and you will do a great job with your mind and body.
I love this picture, in which we are sitting together.
My best thoughts are with you. <3
Minerva. (Yeap. That Mexican, from the RUF PAC.)
Cabaretera fina y burlesquera graduada