Described by many as a sheroe, a warrior, a fierce defender of human rights; Laura Lee passed away in February of this year. Missed by friends, comrades and family members alike, Danielle Roberts gives us an insight into who Laura was, and what she fought for.
I first met Laura in person at an event on the 22nd March 2014. We’d had a few twitter exchanges before that and she invited me to attend the conference she was speaking at. This year on the 22nd March, I will be at an event paying tribute to Laura after her sudden death. Laura was involved in the early stages of planning what was to be a panel discussion on the decriminalisation of sex work. We will still be having that discussion, as well as taking some time to remember Laura as not only a sex worker’s rights advocate but also as an amazing person and friend.
Over several cups of tea four years ago Laura patiently explained to me the different models of legislation, and why decriminalisation was the model favoured by sex workers. We talked about how important it is not to conflate human trafficking and consensual sex work, the flaws in othering and infantilising sex workers, and about how choosing to do a job out of economic necessity doesn’t negate your right to be safe at work.
The debates around sex work had already been happening in feminist circles due to the proposed criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services. Belfast Feminist Network responded to the consultation in October 2013 opposing criminalisation and calling for more evidence. There was a lot of debate internally and I’m pleased to say that over time, and with massive credit to Laura, we became stronger and more vocal in our support for decriminalisation. In February 2014 Laura appeared before the Justice Committee to give evidence against Lord Morrow’s proposal. She was treated horrendously by that committee, they demanded she gave her real name, accused her of exploiting disabled people, and finished with the chair Paul Givan saying ‘some of us don’t need any evidence’. Of course Laura didn’t let him away with that and filed a complaint! Once the law came into force, Laura began a legal challenge. A good way into proceedings the Attorney General decided to intervene, and an abolitionist group were also given permission to take part. The case has regrettably now been withdrawn, as it was not possible to find someone else to take it on. This is completely understandable and gives some insight into how brave Laura was in being a very public face of sex work in Northern Ireland.
Reclaim the Night was reincarnated in 2014. In the early stages of planning we agreed that the event must be inclusive of sex workers, and trans women. Laura graciously agreed to speak at the march and advised us on how to make the event more inclusive. So at our first Reclaim the Night, we listened to Laura call out our politicians for putting sex workers in danger and she marched right at the front with a banner reading ‘Stigma Kills’ accompanied by a few friends with red umbrellas, the symbol for sex workers rights. Laura spoke at every Reclaim the Night since, and was right at the front with us last November.
The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers falls on December 17th. We have held a vigil to commemorate it every year since 2014, jointly organised by Laura and BFN. The vigil in December 2017 was the last time I saw Laura in person. I say the last time I saw her in person as we chatted a few times a week, in a group that was initially formed as a space to support Laura through the Judicial Review but over time gained cat memes, updates on our families, and the occasional urgent response to sex workers who needed practical help. Anytime a sex worker was in distress (more often because of vigilantes who wanted to out them or prying landlords, rather than clients) Laura was there to make sure they were safe, remind them of their rights, and help them access support. She helped so many people that no one will ever even know about.
I’ve already mentioned a lot of Laura’s activism and unseen work. As well as this she was so smart, a perpetual student she was planning on embarking on a PhD next and had people interested in supervising the research. She was so funny, with one liners and innuendos to raise a wry smile in most circumstances. She was tenacious, maybe best evidenced by attending Glastonbury in a full leg cast rather than missing out! She was kind.
I have a recording of Laura’s speech to Reclaim the Night Belfast in 2017. In it she thanked Reclaim the Night for being supportive of sex workers. The last message I received from her also thanked me for my support; I had asked her to proof read a policy for NUS-USI women’s conference on decriminalisation which passed not long after she died. She was constantly thanking us, when really listening to sex workers and amplifying their voices is the bare minimum feminists should be doing.
Laura changed the conversation about sex work in Northern Ireland, where criminalisation and the associated risk to sex worker’s safety are a reality not an abstract theoretical debate. There are still a few very prominent women’s sector organisations who support criminalisation here. It is our duty as feminists to continue having these conversations, to continue raising sex worker’s voices, and to continue Laura’s fight. So come to Framewerk at 7pm on Thursday 22nd March to listen to a panel of academics, sex workers, and support workers set out why decriminalisation is the only way, and to take some time to remember Laura Lee. Some woman for one woman.