“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Visionaries Project: Interview with Elsie B., LGBTQ+ and Sex Workers’ Rights Activist
In our second Visionaries Project installment, we talk to sex workers' rights activist and writer Elsie B.
The Visionaries Project is a new subsection of The Liberty Project dedicated to highlighting the lives, passions, and work of radical activists currently working towards social justice and liberation from oppression. We aim to uplift the perspectives of diverse voices working in media and activism today—and not just the faces who make headlines, but the real people on the ground every day, working towards their visions of a better world.
For our second installment of the Visionaries Project, we're featuring Elsie B., a writer and activist who can be found on Twitter at @NotSuperIntoIt. Elsie is an out and proud member of the bisexual community and an active participant in the fight for sex workers' rights.
Sex workers, as Elsie informs us, often face unique legal constraints and social stigma that can prevent them from accessing adequate healthcare and opportunities. As sex workers' rights have been threatened in the United States and across the world by new laws that constrain their ability to work and share online under legal protections, the need for information and action has grown.
As Amnesty International implies, criminalization of sex workers' rights almost always puts them at a disadvantage. "We have chosen to advocate for the decriminalization of all aspects of consensual adult sex - sex work that does not involve coercion, exploitation or abuse," reads the organization's statement on the matter. "This is based on evidence and the real-life experience of sex workers themselves that criminalization makes them less safe."
Or as Elsie writes, "It's long past time to demand fair and equal treatment for sex workers, and the consequences of delayed action by civilians and lawmakers will be lethal."
We spoke to Elsie about how she became involved in the fight for sex workers' and LGBTQ+ rights, what kind of activism work she does, and how she unwinds after a long day of fighting oppression and injustice.
LIBERTY PROJECT: Can you tell me a bit about your background? How did you get interested in activism?
ELSIE B: I'm fortunate to have grown up in a family that values social justice. I was raised as an ethical vegetarian and attended circus protests as a child. In middle school, I printed animal rights literature and ordered a pack of stickers from Peta2 that said "cut class, not frogs," which I slapped on every table in the science room when the dissection unit began approaching. As I got older, my dad and I would attend political rallies for Democratic candidates. During college, my politics became more radical than those I was raised with, thanks to some incredible professors. I was involved in social justice clubs, including the campus LGBTQ+ outreach program and an animal rights group of which I became VP.
In graduate school, I met a group of activists who shared my radical political beliefs and were doing meaningful, grassroots work for social justice and to end animal suffering. As I befriended these folks, I began to widen my interests in regard to my activism. I met my friend Emily during this time who is a stripper. Her influence changed my understanding of feminism and women's rights.
After graduate school, I started a small organization that helped connect feminist women and worked for the Sanders 2016 campaign.
How did you first start getting interested in sex workers' and LGBTQ+ rights?
A: From the time I realized LGBTQ+ folks were treated differently, I've been interested in the rights of non-hetero folks. I grew up with gay and lesbian culture as a constant in my life. And, at about the age of eight, I realized I myself am interested in more than only the opposite sex.
My official foray into LGBTQ+ activism started in college, but I saw myself as an ally at that time. However, after the Pulse shooting, I began to see my role in the LGBTQ+ community not as an ally but as a member of the community. I had quietly come out as bisexual many years before but had never felt comfortable identifying as someone in the LGBTQ+ community. However, after the gut-wrenching experience of watching what I realized was my community face such horrific violence, I decided it was my responsibility as an out bisexual to fight for destigmatization, especially of bisexuals who are at the highest risk for suicidal ideation and attempts.
Around the same time, sex workers started to experience attacks on their primary methods of advertisements, especially on Backpage. As so many of my friends are sex workers, I saw the panic these workers experienced. This is when I began to incorporate sex workers' rights into my activism platform. Then, in 2018, FOSTA/SESTA was introduced and passed. During this time, I dedicated all of my activism to fighting FOSTA/SESTA. During that year, I marched, helped plan harm reduction meetings, petitioned, and contacted government officials. The energy during 2018 was one of terror and excitement as sex workers rallied to fight against these new laws. It was electrifying to be a part of the first International Wh*re's March, but that euphoric buzz of being with other activists was quelled as the reality of a changing internet landscape for sex workers sunk in.
Sex workers are being locked out of their accounts en masse. This is terrifying for sex workers who have already be… https://t.co/8d7TYSFL7A— Elsie (@Elsie) 1568936565.0
From 2018 to present, most of my activism has been based online, since sex workers work mostly in isolation. Through online communities, I have been able to continue my work in harm reduction, petitioning, and community organizing. I've also written under various pseudonyms (since even working as an activist carries stigma). I've had viral writing, which has given me some hope that sex workers' rights are beginning to creep into the consciousness of civilians, the term for non-sex workers.
Are there any challenges you've faced in activism work? Any particular successes, favorite moments, or pieces you've written?
A: Activism is draining, but there is no better feeling to me than having someone reach out to let me know how I've helped them. This has been especially true of my work as an activist for bisexual individuals. The number of messages I've received from people telling me I gave them the courage to come out or that reaching out to me is the first time they've admitted their attraction to more than one gender has been simultaneously heartbreaking and the most rewarding feeling.
Working as an activist for sex workers has unique challenges in that even associating with sex work as a topic comes with stigma. I usually work under pseudonyms, as I don't want my work in sex work to affect my other activism (I've worked in activism for education orgs which serve younger students).
Activism as a bisexual cis-woman has also been challenging, as biphobia and stigma are often just as hostile, if not more, in the community. Bisexuals have a unique fight, in that they are shunned from straight and gay communities for not being straight or gay enough. It can be painful to watch people choose to repress their complex sexual orientation in order to feel accepted by one group.
Coming out very publicly was one of the best feelings as an activist. It was such a personal act, and the number of friends and acquaintances who reached out to me during that time to tell me their stories was so touching.
Seattle Police shockingly claim sex workers need to be arrested "to disrupt the cycle of violence and abuse". Thi… https://t.co/WocSniI500— Kshama Sawant (@Kshama Sawant) 1570115501.0
What would you suggest people do if they want to start to get involved in the fight for LGBTQ+ and sex workers' rights?
A: For most people, the most effective activism they can do is within their own communities. Talking about sex workers and LGBTQ+ rights with family and friends may seem menial, but it is some of the most important work we can all do.
To talk to folks in your circles though, you need to be armed with correct information about those you are hoping to help. It is important to avoid savior complexes. Listen to people in the communities you want to fight for. Trusted sources are SWOP chapters, the ACLU, the LGBT Center in Los Angeles (or local chapters to you), and actual LGBTQ+ folks and sex workers.
Of course, you can volunteer and leaflet with local chapters and organizations, but it is also important to support community members directly. You can do this by supporting a business owned by LGTBQ+ folks and sex workers or by tipping them directly!
You do a lot of challenging work. What do you do to take care of yourself and have fun?
A: What's been so great about my current work is the wonderful people I have met. I have never had more fun with a group of people than my sex worker comrades. We take trips, drink wine in the backyard, and gas each other up constantly.
Personally, I go to the gym almost every day and try to spend some time there with my phone off. Turning your phone off is very important for activists (and all workers at this point). In 2019 we can be constantly reached, and it's hard not to engage when you are so passionate about your work helping others.
I also got a fully functional TV for the first time in my adult life this year and now understand the benefits of winding down watching TV (even if I mostly watch The Office).
- Understanding Sex Work in an Open Society - Open Society ... ›
- How the Fight for Sex Workers' Rights Can Put Sex Workers First ... ›
- Sex Workers' Rights Are Workers' Rights ›
- Protecting the Health and Rights of Sex Workers in the US and ... ›
- Sex Workers' Rights are Human Rights | Amnesty International ›
- A Historic Breakthrough for Sex Workers' Rights | The New Republic ›