Vigil to end violence against sex workers

Sarah Elspeth Patterson, left, and Kate D'Adamo light Sarah Elspeth Patterson, left, and Kate D'Adamo light candles to honor sex trade workers who have been killed. (Dec. 17, 2011) Photo Credit: Steven Sunshine

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News that Shannan Gilbert's remains had been identified sent a ripple through a vigil for slain sex workers in Manhattan yesterday.

About 260 names of those killed worldwide were read at the vigil, aimed at calling attention to violence against sex workers. The vigil at Trinity Lutheran Church on the Upper West Side also memorialized Gilbert and the women who worked in the sex trade whose remains have been found near Gilgo Beach.

"As human beings and taxpayers, we deserve to be protected," said Cayenne Doroshow, a sex worker who addressed the gathering held to mark International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

"Sex work is a very, very common profession, yet it's not talked about," said Bowie Snodgrass, of Manhattan, who does outreach to sex workers. "It's wonderful that people in the community can come together for a time of mourning and healing and bring what's in the shadows into the light."

About 80 people attended the event, which commemorated the anniversary of the discovery of the remains of Amber Lynn Costello, Megan Waterman, Melissa Barthelemy and Maureen Brainard-Barnes.

The women were found after Gilbert's family insisted on an investigation into her disappearance on May 1, 2010. Police have found 11 sets of remains.

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"It's terribly sad, but in some sense, her death shed light on the whole way that people who are or who are assumed to be sex workers are treated," said A. Lee, 22, a speaker at the event.

"Criminalization of sex work only further disempowered the victims," he said. "It can't be that the perpetrators know no consequences. Their violence affects us all -- the killers are still out there."

Lee said after running away from his Midwest home at 15, he roamed the country and was in "survival sex relationships" until coming to New York City, where he started working on the street at 19. He is now a college senior studying literature.

Audacia Ray, a former sex worker whose group helped organize yesterday's vigil, said of Gilbert, "Even if a hand was not put on her, she was, to me, still a victim of violence" because of her frantic 911 calls and a witness's claim that she told him her life was in danger.

"She was chased into a marsh," said Ray, 31, who directs the Red Umbrella Project, which helps sex workers speak out on public policy.

Michael Tikili, 25, of New York City, an AIDS activist, said he attended the vigil in part because he'd had a relationship with a former sex worker and had come to see that many people who are homeless rely on sex work for survival.

"We need to support them. They are humans, our loved ones," Tikili said.

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