Gay New Zealander fights for sex workers' rights
by Matthew S. Bajko
New Zealand's highest ranking out gay politician is lending support to efforts in San Francisco to decriminalize prostitution. Tim Barnett, the first out LGBT candidate to be elected to New Zealand's Parliament, and named senior government whip last November, helped his country decriminalize prostitution in 2003.
At the time, New Zealand was the first country to do so. Now he is bringing the lessons he learned during the fight to pass that legislation to America and educating sex workers and their advocates in this country on how to push for passage of similar legislation in the states. During a speech earlier this month at the LGBT Community Center, Barnett said one argument for making prostitution legal that is gaining traction is it can be a tool in the fight against AIDS and HIV.
He noted that at the recent international AIDS conference in Toronto, Canada, AIDS researchers and advocates said they increasingly see a more progressive stance toward prostitution, along with overturning anti-sodomy laws and supporting clean needle exchanges, as a tool to reduce the number of new HIV transmissions. Studies presented at the conference showed that legal recognition of sex workers would reduce their chances of contracting HIV.
"These are three fundamentals every society should be looking at," said Barnett during a forum Thursday, August 17 sponsored by the LGBT Community Center, the Sex Workers Outreach Project, and the Commonwealth Club's LGBT member-led forum.
Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, who supports decriminalizing prostitution, introduced Barnett to the more than 80 people at the forum. He said he felt the movement for sex worker rights is at a "tipping point" in this country.
"It is hard to believe it is 2006 and we are still having to do this," he said. "When you speak to a lot of people on this issue they say 'Yeah, I don't have a problem.' Victory is on the horizon. It will happen. I know it will happen."
But the push to put a referendum on decriminalizing prostitution before San Francisco voters next year is ensnared in a fight over a section of the initiative that would defund groups "profiting from the arrest of prostitutes." The full initiative can be found at espu-ca.org/initiative.html.
Maxine Dugan, whose group Erotic Service Providers Union is spearheading the signature gathering for the initiative, said she is only trying to see implemented what a city task force on prostitution recommended back in 1996.
"The goal is to get the petition on the ballot in front of San Francisco voters so they can stop the enforcement of the prostitution laws," said Dugan, who attended Barnett's talk and has worked in various brothels and massage parlors for 17 years. "Part of what is in those recommendations is that San Francisco reallocate the money being spent on enforcement – then it was $7.6 million in 1996 – and reallocate the money to sponsor a statewide initiative to decriminalize prostitution, so that is part of what the ballot initiative asks for."
While the initiative also has language that would prevent it "from supporting the First Offender Prostitution Program or similar programs that include sex-worker education programs," Dugan refuted charges that agencies such as the St. James Infirmary, a health clinic for sex workers, would lose their city funding.
"Jake McGoldrick inquired about that with the San Francisco city attorney's office and that is not true. The Board of Supervisors would still decide who is going to get what. Jake McGoldrick's office already told us when I wrote the petition they are not going to automatically lose any funding," said Dugan. "Who will lose funding is the police. They are going to take away that amount of money from the police department."
Dugan is hopeful the LGBT community will support her cause.
"It is a part of the overall sexual freedom issue. You can't leave the ghosts of the prostitutes who were at Stonewall still sitting there. We are still sitting on those bar stools waiting for our turn at justice," she said.
Neither McGoldrick nor officials at the St. James Infirmary returned calls seeking comment. District 8 Supervisor candidate Starchild, an exotic dancer and escort, is supporting the petition drive and said fears about the initiative defunding groups are overblown.
"I think that the fears are unfounded. It just defunds organizations similar to the first offender program. In other words it would defund agencies coercing prostitutes or people arrested for prostitution into the first offender program," he said. "It wouldn't defund groups offering services to sex workers if those programs are not similar to first offender programs and if they do not involve people who are forced into them by virtue of being in the criminal justice system."
Yet Robyn Few, whose Sex Workers Outreach Project hosted Barnett's talk, has yet to sign on to the petition due to the concerns that some groups could lose their funding. Instead, Few said her group is remaining neutral for now on the petition and focused more on statewide legislation.
"Our goal is to get model state legislation we can all agree on that focuses on decriminalizing sex work across the board," said Few. "We are working on an education campaign statewide to explain what decriminalization of prostitution means and what it would look like. What we are using as an example is the model legislation they passed in New Zealand."
She said she remains realistic that victory will not come easy and is ready for a long battle ahead to change the laws. Few said her goal is to introduce legislation before the Board of Supervisors sometime next year.
"It is as hard a fight as it is to legalize marijuana. We have been watching that fight for 30 years," she said. "We are in the works of introducing legislation at City Hall. Tim Barnett gave us a map that I am going to be following."
Barnett, 48, has represented Christchurch central electorate as a member of New Zealand's parliament since 1996 and pushed through legislation in 2004 to legalize civil unions. Since being elected four other LGBT politicians have joined Barnett, including two gay men, one lesbian, and one transgender member. All belong to the country's Labor Party and to the Rainbow Caucus in Parliament.
"We have a strong rainbow voice," said Barnett in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter prior to his talk. "New Zealand has a strong live and let live mentality. As long as people don't abuse the rights and privileges given them, I think New Zealanders are accepting. We have to be; we live in an isolated country in a part of the world considered by most people to be at the edge of the world."
Barnett said his country's LGBT community never felt strongly about fighting for marriage because "marriage is perceived as heterosexual. People wanted the rights without the historical baggage of marriage."
The civil union law is open to couples gay and straight, and since it went into effect in 2005, one in five civil unions have been heterosexual, Barnett said. He and his Maori partner of five and a half years, Ramon Maniapoto, plan to have their own civil union ceremony in November 2007.
"The ceremony will take place where his tribe is from on Lake Taupo in the middle of the north island. It is the site of the largest volcanic eruption in the world. The mountain disappeared and a lake formed," said Barnett.
Asked what advice he would give to the gay community in this country as it fights for marriage rights, Barnett emphasized building partnerships with heterosexual couples who are opting not to marry as well as a willingness to consider options other than marriage.
"I think it is important to look beyond just the marriage model but I accept that anything that is less than marriage won't succeed. Even if a state came up with something like marriage you still won't have access to the federal rights," he said. "My advice would be compromise in terms of outcomes, even if they are not going to be acceptable long-term. Look at heterosexual couples that have chosen not to marry to see why and if there is a partnership there. The unmarried heterosexual community is often liberal and not marrying for a reason. We need to look at those relationships for the future."
As for why Barnett decided to push for the decriminalization of prostitution, he said not only does he represent a district with a large sex industry, but also as a gay man he has "a lot of empathy with sex workers' struggles." Plus, he said that society as a whole benefits. Under the new guidelines, there is less tension between prostitutes and the police and government officials, the state collects more taxes, and there are resources allocated to help younger sex workers leave the industry.
The government also is monitoring the impacts of the new law and must report back to parliament after the first five years so lawmakers will know what changes have occurred.
As for himself, Barnett demurred when asked if he is called the Harvey Milk of New Zealand, saying, "they wouldn't dare." He joked that his legislative success "has marginalized me in the eyes of some who think I am obsessed about sex. But if politics is about a legacy, I probably have left a legacy."
And he had advice for those politicians who fear that supporting gay rights or sex worker rights will lead to their undoing at the ballot box.
"Civil unions and prostitution were seen as problems for the Labor Party but we got more MPs voted in in the last election. We are held highly by younger voters because of these issues," he said.