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AIDS: Coyote beautiful Margo St. James: prostitute, politician, and warrior
by Sarah Toce
2011-07-20

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Hookers Ball hero Margo St. James founded COYOTE ( Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics ) in 1973 following the first WHO ( Whores, Housewives and Others ) meeting in 1972. The word "Others" referred to lesbians—a term not widely spoken or accepted at the time of the group's inception.

As a self-professed tireless advocate for the prostitution community, St. James has seen it all … and then some. Her life experiences have run parallel to that of the D.C. Madam prior to her untimely death—an event that St. James shares is "not as it seemed."

The sex-positive feminist served as a confidant to Harvey Milk before his assassination in 1978 and has a few choice words for Dianne Feinstein and the police at the scene of the crime at San Francisco's City Hall—more than 30 years later.

Windy City Times spoke with Margo St. James recently for the AIDS @ 30 series.

Margo St. James: In the early 1980s when the guys [ were ] in the baths in New York ( and probably Chicago and the rest of the country ) , they were dying [ and didn't always know it ] . At that time, there was an idea to try KY with extra ingredients to see if it was going to make any difference [ on the disease ] spreading. And so we, the World Whore's Congress, helped. Luckily none of us got anything. Then, when we found out what was going on, immediately, whores were the scapegoats.

And so we [ as a collective ] started to do something internationally. I went to Europe in '83 and my colleague then was a professor of social psychology, an American, living there and teaching in the Dutch system. We went to see the doctors, and, at that time, Holland was dragging its feet and saying [ that they were not getting involved ] . They turned to us and said blatantly, "What are you all worried about? It's a gay disease." And we said, "You're wrong. "

So it took about a year, and the Dutch did the right thing right away and made a brochure that went to every household in the country.

Windy City Times: Regardless of if they were gay or not.

Margo St. James: Everyone and then they put in the safeguards [ condoms and such ] . We did the same thing in San Francisco and then we started going ( in '88 ) to Whores, Housewives and Others ( WHO ) in Geneva, Africa, Asia, India, and other places.

By that time, we had started, in '85, the WHO was held in Amsterdam and, in '86, it was in Brussels at the European Parliament and we addressed all the issues: health, safety, decriminalization, et cetera. We had about 30 countries involved by that time. So, by the late '80s, the different groups in New Zealand, Australia, and India ended up having 30 clinics run by hookers.

Windy City Times: Wow.

Margo St. James: And Christian, Hindu and Buddhist women were all working together—unlike their male counterparts.

Then along came Bush—"Dubya"—and he had a guy in charge of the U.S. AIDS fund, which made a pledge that all the clinics had to sign that they wanted to see the end of prostitution. None of the hookers that ran the clinics would sign. They said, "No, we want this discrimination to stop. These bad laws make us victims from every direction, silence women and scare straight women into not sticking up for us."

Now, there are a lot of sex workers who are brilliant—they're writing a lot, we have an international committee that's really great. But out of those 30 clinics, now there are only three, and the women are scattered. That's in India.

Gail Pheterson wrote Vindication of the Rights of Whores released by Seal Press in '89. And that was done from the '85-'86, mostly '86, transcripts from the International Whores Convention. She worked on that for a couple of years in France, where we were … Gail and I had bought a house in France at the time. Then she finished the book and didn't like living around where there weren't any libraries. Now she's teaching in the French system, and lives in Paris. She also sold her place in Amsterdam. But it was really wonderful [ to live there at the time ] because the Dutch are so organized. You have an idea and immediately they want to form a committee.

The Brits, when they found out that our meeting in '86 at the European Parliament was a meeting of whores and feminists, went crazy and tried to get it dumped, but failed—mostly because of a woman parliamentarian from Holland. They had thought it was just going to be people like them talking about whoring. Under Bush, the funding really took a nosedive because you had to sign the pledge in order to get the money. So that was a real stumbling block. And the ironic part of it is the guy's name who doled out the money was Tobias. And people always live up to their names: "To Buy Ass." He was on the D.C. Madam's "trick list," which she gave to ABC, and they never did anything with it. Fifteen thousand names of all these guys in the government … mostly in D.C.

Windy City Times: I remember hearing about that.

Margo St. James: And then the D.C. Madam committed suicide. But some of the women still think she was murdered. Because a couple of days before, she had said, "I'm being followed." And then her mother finds her hung in the woodshed out back, at her home in Florida.

The D.C. Madam had a similar history to mine. Where I, in '62, was arrested for hooking—which I wasn't. I was a cocktail waitress, and a lot of friends came over to my house after work, and there was a lot of pot-smoking and sex and, you know, whatever. And this is about the time that single women were finally allowed to have inter-uterine devices or buy birth control pills. I worked for a bondsman, took a college equivalency test, went straight to law school, and won my appeal a few years later.

In the meantime, my dad decided I wasn't applying myself enough, although the dean of the law school told him I was doing fine, and he stopped paying the tuition, so I just turned tricks, you know. Everybody thought I was turning tricks, so I just said, "Okay." And a lot of guys would come up to my North Beach pad during the day from the Financial District.

Windy City Times: And that helped pay for the law school …

Margo St. James: It wasn't a lot of money—it was only like $100 or $200 per semester then. And my rent was a $125, and I had a roommate or two. And the customers paid 20 bucks. Now it's more like two or three hundred—unless you get a trick like [ Eliot ] Spitzer, who paid four grand for all night. Or L.A. and New York, they get more.

Windy City Times: Yeah, I bet—different markets.

Margo St. James: But now it's [ a different game ] with the Internet, you know, and with Craigslist. Craigslist has given the clinic now $250,000—we've never had a grant that big! It was in cash. "Do anything you want with it," they said. It was because they felt the heat.

Windy City Times: Is there another clinic being built in the U.S. right now?

Margo St. James: We've really got a great clinic going up now in San Francisco. This is the 12th year and we're in partnership with Public Health.

Windy City Times: You moved to France in '86. Can you tell us why?

Margo St. James: I moved to France in '86 so that we could deal with the Mediterranean countries—Spain, Portugal, Italy—who weren't really doing the right thing like the northern countries as far as AIDS prevention. Spain was really good, and they picked it up right away.

The women that I've known from the sex-workers groups in all of those countries—they're still there. And in '05 we had another convention in Brussels. The head of the Human Rights Commission ( HRC ) is Italian, and so we got right in, and things are beginning to shape up. But Sweden has taken the other road, and decided to criminalize just the customers, which is ridiculous. And it does nothing. It's a way of dividing women. Then you get people like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin who are against abortion rights and gay marriage. … All of these phony issues. In countries [ where abortions and gay marriages are ] legal, the divorce rate's around 20%. In countries that are illegal, it's over 50%. That goes for this country, for sure.

Windy City Times: In your opinion, how do you think President Obama is faring?

Margo St. James: You know, I think Obama's ready to go for the pot stuff. Now the pot, NORML ( National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws ) , they've really done a lot. They have a Hempfest in Seattle every year. Keith Stroup is president of NORML and he and I worked together on Citizens for Justice with Harvey Milk in '74 in San Francisco. That's when I had COYOTE ( Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics ) , and we had the Chinese gangs represented, and everything. And when I came back from living in Europe in '95, there was a task force in San Francisco, and we called for decriminalization, too.

Windy City Times: You ran for public office in San Francisco …

Margo St. James: In '96, I ran for supervisor and I actually won a seat—the extra seat, after somebody on the Board won one in Sacramento. And Willie [ Brown ] didn't want to appoint me to this seat. Any other Democrat would have been put right in there. A lot of people wrote letters. … And so I filed to run again, and then I had a friend tell Willie, the mayor, that I was going to run for assessor.

Now back in the early '60s, Willie and I were on the board of the Henry George School of Economics. Which, he knew if I got the assessor job, things were going to turn upside down. Because the bottom line of the George School of Economics was "tax land, not capital, and labor." Now, [ Henry George ] died in 1897, and his original book is hard to read, because it's full of God-this and God-that. But I thought he had a good idea. And Teddy Roosevelt had liked that. But anyway … .

The brothels in New Orleans closed in 1908 so that the sailors wouldn't get venereal disease ( VD ) . As if they didn't have a boatload of condoms. The same man who pushed that initiative outlawed marijuana in '37, the year I was born, because he wanted the ships to stop using hemp and go for nylon, because he was in league with DuPont. Basically, I mean, I'm giving you a thumbnail sketch, but the same damn man outlawed those two prohibitions [ and they ] are still around. And people just ignore it.

Windy City Times: How did COYOTE start?

Margo St. James: When I started COYOTE, I was living next door to a lesbian poet from Canada, her name was Elsa Gidlow, she died in '86, a number of years ago, but she was wonderful. And she kept shoving feminist stuff under my door. I lived next door to her in Muir Woods, in Marin. Then in '72, the guy I lived with was the best friend of Alan Watts, and so Alan let us use his ferryboat, where he lived, down in Sausalito, to have the first WHO because "lesbian" wasn't said out loud yet. And so we did that, and even one housewife traded places with a callgirl for a day. So that's how COYOTE began.

Then the next year I took COYOTE to San Francisco and started doing … I had connections with University of California ( UC ) and stuff like that. There was a law school there, but they've [ since ] closed it down because it was too liberal.

Windy City Times: Right.

Margo St. James: Yeah, right. Those things happen. Anyway, we got it rolling. Then I started producing the Hookers Balls in '74. Glide Church let us have our first Whores Convention there in '73, and again in '74. And then in '75, we had it at the Hyatt Regency. Jane Fonda came, Jennifer James from Seattle who had done a lot of National Institute of Mental Health ( NIMH ) research on prostitution came as well. I'd seen her on TV and said, "I've gotta find this person," and so I went hitch-hiking around the mountain, I mean, hiking around the mountain, and I bumped into a couple at the top of Watcombe Pass and they knew Jennifer and they gave me her phone number.

Windy City Times: Wow. Isn't that weird?

Margo St. James: Yes. And so we got together and we started COYOTE groups all over the country. And the one in Seattle was called ASP: Association of Seattle Prostitutes. And then there was San Francisco, L.A., San Diego, Fort Lauderdale, Kansas City …

Windy City Times: Kansas City?

Margo St. James: Yeah. Chicago, New York, Boston—PUMA is still around, and so is New York, PONY. There are a lot of working callgirls out there now, but they don't use the press like I did. Because … why? And we have this international committee where all this research by different people is coming in. But we don't allow it to be published or quoted unless it has specific permission.

Windy City Times: Right.

Margo St. James: And they've just been doing a yeoman's job of giving back at the Swedes who are … they always were reactionary. And the Swedish women that came to the Hookers Convention in '85 and '86 and again in '05, they went in disguise. Even though they're not criminalized anymore. … If you've read Stieg Larsson's books, you know what I mean. And even some people think he was bumped off after the trilogy came out. I love those books. And especially that Lis had Asperger's Syndrome. Because I have a friend who has that and it's difficult. They're stubborn. They get a grudge going and it lasts years, you know.

Windy City Times: How did you eventually decide to plant your roots in Washington State?

Margo St. James: Well, I was from Washington originally. I was born there. But what happened is, in '92, my old friend Paul Avery, who wrote Voices of Guns and was a journalist for 40 years—he wrote various papers, but mostly the San Francisco Chronicle, the Examiner—came to France and proposed. And a couple of my friends from San Francisco were there, and they said, "Margo, it's a deal. I mean, a health plan, you know. … " And Paul was saying, "Well, you know … ." He'd turn blue if he had to walk a block, he had COPD, little skinny lungs, you know, from sitting at a desk all his life. But he was a ferret as far as getting news, and he was a crime reporter, so he knew everything. And I'd met him in like '61 or '62, when he was still married, and he had a couple of daughters. And then he started a news service in Vietnam, so he was over there, with his kids going to Catholic school over there, French school, I mean. And then he came back, and went back to work for the papers in San Francisco, and got a divorce. I had moved out of the city after '79, I was living in Marin, and had a housekeeping service, Margo's Miracle Maids. Of course everyone thought I was … you know, it was a front …

Windy City Times: But it wasn't.

Margo St. James: But it wasn't. Yeah. So, he ends up living in Sausalito with another photographer and another guy who worked at the Chronicle and I became their housekeeper. That was early'70s like '71 or '72.

I had a lot of encouragement. I was trying to get a job in Washington in '71 or '72 and I'd written letters to the state senators to tell them that I was organizing callgirls around the country—and had about 500. That was a big fib. Anyway, they gave me the job as a fire lookout on Copper Mountain. I would have been the first woman hired in North Cascade Park. Then Paul comes out to the house in the woods where I'm living, with an old reporter, and he says that he wants to do a story about COYOTE. The Associated Press ( AP ) picked it up and it went everywhere around the world.

The Whole Earth Catalog had given me a $5,000 grant to get the whole thing started. So, I had a fleabag hotel room in San Francisco on the waterfront. This is before the earthquake and the thing [ bridge ] came down.

So anyway, Paul and I were best friends and we were private eye partners. When I won my case in court, I quit law school and kept hooking for a while. Then I came back to the city after retirement, and got a state license for private eye. At that time, I was one of three women in the whole state. Most of the people that had P.I. licenses were bad cops that had gotten fired. But I found that the prohibitions really corrupted police terribly, and it gave them an informal network of informants that they didn't want to let go of for any reason.

One chief from San Jose did a survey of cops, and like 85% are for legalization [ of marijuana ] . Now, we want decrim. …

Now, Harvey [ Milk ] was part of the Citizens for Justice that we started in '74, and he exhibited some signs of wanting to run for office, and I said, "With a name like Milk?" I'm a farm girl. I'm a dairyman's daughter. I mean, this is ridiculous I thought, but I said, "Go ahead, I'll support you."

Windy City Times: Small world.

Margo St. James: But he was running against Terence Hallinan and I said, "I don't know if you'll beat Terence." His dad was a famous lawyer who I served summons for back in the day. That was the office of some really great lawyers, and they're the ones that said, "You can take a state exam, a college equivalency test—you don't have to go to school to get into law school. Then you can come to Lincoln Law School." Now the D.C. Madam did almost the same thing. She fought back when she'd been busted. I'm really sorry I never got to meet her personally.

Windy City Times: Do you recall where you were when Harvey was assassinated?

Margo St. James: Where was I then? Oh, I was … somewhere. I was always out of town when these bad things happened. Oh, I was in Hawaii, running a marathon. And I had friends in Maui, so I was staying on Maui and jogging around the pineapple fields, so I go in and meet a cab driver that's a pal. We all had dinner and stuff. The next day he calls and says, "Turn on the TV." I turn on the TV and here's the cops carrying the bodies [ Mayor Moscone and Milk ] out of City Hall, smirking. I get back to San Francisco and that was when [ Dan ] White was brought up on prelim and stuff like that. I'd go down to City Hall and see the truth about what was going on. Paul Krassner was living in San Francisco by then, I think, and he wrote a column called The Realist for years. He was one of the only columnists that wrote the truth. … And they let Dan White's wife, who was a witness, stay in the courtroom the whole time. The cops were wearing t-shirts that were printed downstairs from where I lived in North Beach that said, "Free Dan White" under their uniforms. But then he gets convicted of, what? It wasn't murder.

And it should have been a federal case. And I tried, we—Harvey Milk's lawyer and I—tried to get the state, but the state attorney general was a former San Francisco D.A., and he was not a good guy. Then we tried to go through the White House and the Feds but we could never tell who we were really talking to and if they were going to be with us or not. So I went to see the D.A. and I said, "You can't have 'What's His Name' do the case, he's an old drunk, and White has a young lawyer who burns the midnight oil. Dianne Feinstein even stuck up for Dan White. I mean, I couldn't believe that. And so, of course, she gets the mayor job because she was the president of the Board.

Windy City Times: Interesting.

Margo St. James: And she and I have never been really close. Because even in '72, she had been on a task force on prostitution, and she wrote a minority opinion for decrim. But when I came along and doing this and that, she didn't want to be seen with me. At the Hookers Ball I produced in '77 at the Civic Auditorium, I went as her, with a bow and a suit, and my mother went as me, with a wig, and mom comes up to me and says, "People are telling me all kinds of things." She loved it, being in theater all her life. And then … what's his name, the football player that [ allegedly ] murdered his wife …

Windy City Times: Oh, OJ?

Margo St. James: OJ. Yeah. He was from San Francisco. He was there with his 17-year-old soon-to be bride and her mother. We were all at a VIP party on one of the floors up above the main. The chief came, Charlie Cain, was there and suddenly we see these young guys run down the hall. They were going to bust up the thing. And one of my other cop informants had told me, "Be careful, because they're going to try to start trouble." So that's why the chief came, I think, because at first he said in public he wasn't going to show up this time.

And so anyway … we head for the phone, the Chief and I—this is before cell phones—and I told him, I said, "Ask for Garcia, he's the only one that's going to be truthful." And he looks at me and says, "Yeah, uh-huh. I ain't gonna let this fly." And then a friend of mine gets a picture of us, me and Super Whore on either side of him, and he's holding a bottle of champagne. And of course the paper prints it. And Feinstein was going to fire him right away, but she waited six months. But she couldn't fire him, it had to be the Commission, the Police Commission is in charge of who's the chief. But he had done wonderful things, because women sued to be on the police force in '78, they won a case. It was one of the last major cities to not have women.

And so … the cops were very macho. They liked having their own games. And so when Charlie came in as an out-of-town chief, he moved everybody around. He also appointed a Women's Advisory, to give some support to the new women cops … .

So it was… it was all these little struggles going on behind the scenes. And then Feinstein decided to go be a senator, which is fine with me. Except Barbara Boxer is my favorite.

Windy City Times: Yeah?

Margo St. James: And good-time pal!

Windy City Times: Do you attend all of the Hookers Balls?

Margo St. James: I have not been able to travel as much as I would like to lately, but usually I get my way paid. The hookers pay my way to the conferences. It's great. I ended up going back to France in '05. I was over there for three weeks. And they paid me back for my plane fare in Euros, so I didn't suffer, and I spent a week or so down in the south where I lived and saw everybody, then came back up to Paris.

Windy City Times: Talk to me about abortion.

Margo St. James: I did abortions in the '60s.

Windy City Times: You performed them?

Margo St. James: I did. I had a male nurse friend who taught me how. I even did one on myself and almost died. Infection, you know. But everybody else came out okay. Can I say that out loud now? You think the Feds would start coming after me? Yeah. I did them in my nun's habit. Dick Gregory got me a nun's habit in '68. I did a lot of photos in it—sitting with the girls who were topless was just happening then. I've got [ the photos ] stacked in places now, not exactly easy to get. I have an intern coming in tonight from Minneapolis who's going to hang around and help me with my memoirs.

St. James ran for office on the Republican Party ticket for President of the United States in 1980 and, in 1998, founded the St. James Infirmary in San Francisco to help provide healthcare to the sex-worker community. She is currently working on her memoirs at her home in Bellingham, Wash.


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