“Before I’m transgender, before I’m a sex worker, before I am anything, I’m human. I have rights just like anyone else.”
-Sharmus Outlaw, during a protest at the 2012 International AIDS Conference, in Washington D.C.¹
Sharmus Outlaw has been a constant inspiration to those who had the privilege to work alongside her or who somehow benefitted from her activism, as a recollection of sources mentioning her name quickly shows us. Such inspiration was made clear by Monica Jones, in the interview conducted by Che Gossett and Eva Hayward (2020; 2020), and by Cris Sardina in the article "Queering Whiteness: Unpacking privilege within the U.S. sex worker rights movement" (2015). Jones stated that the organization she founded, the Outlaw Project, was named after her to realize Outlaw's dream of creating her own organization. Similarly, Cris Sardina remarked the importance of leadership of people like Sharmus – a person of color, who has been economically disadvantaged and a victim of law enforcement practices (2015) – to deconstruct racism and classism among sex worker organizing, and to inform action and policymaking with their own perspectives and life experiences, so long invisible from mainstream discussions. One story, shared by Sharmus on PJ Starr's documentary called "Prostitution Free Zone", showcases the effects of the discretionary power of police officers, which often results in racial profiling and trans discrimination. Sharmus, responding to a man's call for spare change on the street, was stopped by police officers who alleged that she was offering him drugs, story that was also mentioned in Alison Brunn’s chapter called “Subaltern Bodies in the Digital Urban Imaginary” in the book “Architecture and Feminisms: Ecologies, Economies, Technologies” (2017).
Sharmus Outlaw was also the co-author of the report “Nothing About Us Without Us: Sex Work HIV Policy Organizing” published in 2015, which highlights issues and violations suffered by those whose lives are intersected by the discrimination against trans people and sex workers. The report is groundbreaking for being the first time in the United States that sex worker and trans leaders, in a co-jointed effort, produced and published a policy document of such depth about HIV/AIDS without the interference of any institution or third party. The motivation for the report, apart from continuous institutional and societal violence against these communities, was the fact that, since 2010, the National HIV/AIDS Strategy Plans have fallen short in investigating their situation and coming up with policies designed specifically for them. Although these communities have pointed out a series of problems in the practices of law enforcement and public health institutions, they have been excluded from public discussions and their abilities to produce knowledge remain invisible and unrecognized. For the report "Nothing About Us Without Us" (2015), Outlaw carried out surveys and interviews, wrote, and reviewed the wording of the document to make sure that it remarked how HIV policies in place and the negligence of policymaking have affected those marginalized communities. And by presenting solutions to those problems, Sharmus and others were effectively doing the work that government institutions have failed to do, and continues to, given the most recent National HIV/AIDS Strategy Plan of 2021-2025, released this year, that present the same old issues Sharmus had dedicated her life to combating.
¹ Available at: https://www.washingtonblade.com/2016/07/11/acclaimed-trans-activist-sharmus-outlaw-dies/
Best Practices Policy Project & Desiree Alliance. (2015). Nothing About Us Without Us: Sex Work HIV Policy Organizing. https://hivlawcommission.org/wp content/uploads/2017/06/NOTHINGABOUTUS_REPORT_COLOR_2015.pdf
Brunn, A. (2017). Subaltern Bodies in the Digital Urban Imaginary. In Frichot, H., Gabrielsson, C., & Runting, H. (Eds.), Architecture and Feminisms: Ecologies, Economies, Technologies (pp. 106-111). Routledge.
Gossett, C., & Hayward, E. (2020). Monica Jones: An Interview. Transgender Studies Quarterly, 7(4), 611-614.
Gossett, C., & Hayward, E. (2020). Trans in a Time of HIV/AIDS. Transgender Studies Quarterly, 7(4), 527-553.
Panichelli, M., Wahab, S., Saunders, P., & Capous-Desyllas, M. (2015). Queering Whiteness: Unpacking Privilege within the U.S. sex worker rights movement. Queer Sex Work, pp.234-244.
Join us at the opening celebration of the Philadelphia Assembled exhibition at the Philadelphia Art Museum on September 9, 2017. A photograph of Sharmus Outlaw is featured as part of the exhibition on the organizing time line, commemorating her visit to Philly in 2015 to collect information about trans rights, sex worker rights and HIV policy that formed the basis for the Nothing About Us Without Us report. This report is the first report created by sex worker leadership to address HIV policy nationwide. The film Prostitution Free Zone, that documents the advocacy of Sharmus and many other leaders from the District of Columbia, will be shown in the Museum as well.
Please read this great new article about the July 7 event that occurred in support of sex workers lives in Philly and honored Sharmus. The event took place in an art installation, a dome, in Philly.
Sex workers and allies at the Philadelphia Assembled event also remembered the life of Sharmus Outlaw, a transgender activist from Washington D.C., who was a tireless advocate for all workers. She encouraged sex workers to speak out, people gathered in the dome recalled. “Being able to have a voice as a sex worker was Sharmus’ thing,” said transgender activist Ceyenne Doroshow. “She really loved this work. She really loved what she was doing.”
Phoebe Bachman, Philadelphia Assembled project coordinator and collaborator for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said that she was moved by hearing the women speak about their sex work. “It’s so often hidden and stigmatized, but these women are powerful,” Bachman said. The Sanctuary dome will be part of a temporary installation about Philadelphia Assembled at The Philadelphia Museum of Art beginning Sept. 9.
We are approaching July 7, the date which will mark the passing of Sharmus Outlaw, visionary leader for the rights of sex workers and transgender communities, HIV/AIDS policy and outreach expert, friend and humanist.
A July 7 celebration of the lives of sex workers for SANCTUARY IN STREET ECONOMIES in Philadelphia will be dedicated to Sharmus Outlaw. The event will be begin at 6 pm with speeches, poetry and remembrances of Sharmus beginning at around 7 pm. Food will be provided just as Sharmus would have wanted including mac 'n cheese (vegan/gluten free), greens, fried chicken (gluten free) and buttermilk biscuits. Please join us in this convening to meet, converse, eat and learn. Bring your kids (once again Sharmus would have approved). Location: Toward Sanctuary Dome, Thomas Jefferson University, Lubert Plaza, 10th and Locust Streets, Philadelphia, PA 19107
The event is also a benefit for Janet Duran, co-founder of the NJ Red Umbrella Alliance, a sex worker led organization fighting for the rights of sex workers in New Jersey. Janet was arrested in mid-May 2017 and donations from the event will help her with legal fees to end the cycle of repeated incarceration. This event is organized by Project SAFE and the Philadelphia Red Umbrella Alliance.
Can't make it to Philadelphia for July 7? Here are some ideas to inspire you to celebrate the life and legacy of Sharmus Outlaw. If you are hosting or attending a cookout or BBQ during the July 4 weekend, take a moment to honor Sharmus. Read a poem out loud for your friends (she loved Maya Angelou), say a prayer, fill your plates. Talk to the young folks hanging off to the side, the ones who don't seem to feel like they are ever included, find out what they are thinking and listen to their dreams. Encourage them. If you feel it is right, suggest that they look up the hashtags #sharmus and #sharmusoutlaw to learn more about her. Maybe it will get late at your event, everyone is still there, and the music is playing? It's time to work the impromptu runway because that would be #soSharmus (tweet pics and video). Any and all of these actions are also very appropriate for July 7 which is a Friday and a perfect night for events and actions of all kinds. Hand out condoms, give out literature, rage that there are not enough services anywhere for young trans people and that there is not enough information to address HIV in rural areas. Organize a fundraiser. Dance. Have a dinner. And if you get to the evening of July 7 and you think it is too late to organize something, here are a couple of ideas. Tweet out healing in the name of #sharmusoutlaw. End a conflict, see another's point of view. Make a call, say I love you. Call your mom. Remember that back when she was still with us, if your phone was going off after midnight it was almost certainly #Sharmus. CELEBRATE SHARMUS OUTLAW.
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 email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and please also cc email@example.com 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