Wedding or Prison? and the Privatization of Queer and Trans Sex

One of the major problems with the push for same-sex marriage, as I wrote about in somewhat more detail before, is the complicity with the privatization of sex, which has been at the core of most of the so-called major gay “civil rights” advances since 2003 when the US Supreme Court overturned anti-sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas.

Queer and trans sex, at least since the late-1800s, has been routinely conflated or associated with sex work both culturally and legally, and anti-sex work laws have in many places been used to target and criminalize queer and trans sex, both public and private. Toronto’s 1981 police bathhouse raids are a great example, where almost 300 gay men were arrested by police and charged with either operating or being “found in” a “bawdy house,” the Canadian legal term for “brothel.” Today, trans women, especially trans women of color, are still routinely harassed and arrested by police for “looking like” a sex worker, simply for existing-while-trans.

Bathhouse raids protests, Toronto, February 1981.
Bathhouse raids protests, Toronto, February 1981.

Now, almost exactly two months after the supposed monumental “victory” of US Supreme Court decisions that legalized same-sex marriage, the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies raided a gay online escort agency (, arrested the owner and seven employees, and seized records and accounts of untold numbers of users.

These two events are not unrelated. One of the ways in which the legalization of same-sex marriage causes significant harm is through the consolidation and normalization of sex as that which only occurs legitimately between couples, in private. In other words, where once gay sex was well-known as public sex (sex in public spaces like parks, cruising, bathhouses, sex clubs, sex work), the legitimization of gay sex as coupled, married sex actually, in many ways, further stigmatizes those queers, trans, and other folks who engage in public sex, whether it be for fun or work. It is thus no accident, or coincidence, that the governments of the US and Canada are increasingly criminalizing and marginalizing of sex workers, as well as other sites that might fall under the rubric of public sex (i.e. cruising, porn actors, and HIV positive folks, the latter of whom are routinely targeted in Canada, which has the some of the most egregious HIV criminalization laws in the world).

The same-sex marriage debacle, however, is only the latest campaign on the part of LGBT folks to distance themselves from associations with perversion, deviance, and sex work. Through this and other legal recent legal challenges in the pursuit of LGBT “civil rights,” proponents of marriage and the overturning of anti-sodomy laws have been not only complicit with state investments in the privatization of sex, they have been willingly leading the cause in their quest for assimilation. Not to be left out, anti-sex work “feminists” have also been joining in on the crusade for the privatization of sex by promoting the criminalization of sex work through fear mongering around “trafficking.” These campaigns led by mainstream LGBT and feminist organizations have taken an approach that makes many people’s lives more dangerous and leads to real harms, including imprisonment, deportation, and death.

The arrests, and the seizures of money and information about people who use, are the direct result of the “success” of the same-sex marriage campaign and the overturning of anti-sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, which legitimizes gay sex only in the privacy of one’s home with a single partner in a “committed relationship,” leaving all the rest of us queer and trans folks who don’t fit into that model to the continued criminalization and/or dehumanization of the state and society.

There are many ways to challenge the deadly assimilationist politics that mainstream LGBT and feminist organization promote. One key response should be to reclaim and re-affirm the field of public sex. Rather than trying to re-inscribe gay sex as a private affair or as a consensual activity that is outside the field of sex work, thus effectively ceding the field of public sex to the state and outraged moralists, the best practice would be an unwavering assertion that everyone has the right to do whatever they like with their bodies, such as having any sex they desire and/or consent to, including sex that involves the exchange of money.

But where are all the LGBT organizations that should be standing against these “anti-trafficking” laws and the criminalization of HIV and public sex? Oh right, I remember: their “leaders” are sipping cocktails at the White House and booing and hissing at those who bring up these other issues that are hurting and killing so many queer and trans people, especially poor people and people of color.