“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.