Why I Support Sex Worker's Rights: Part I My Introduction to "Patty"

I couldn't wait for my first case. I was a brand new "Lawyer" in Hofstra University's brand new Criminal Defense Clinic (we hadn't taken the bar yet but we worked under a student practice order while supervised by an admitted attorney). I was getting a case load, and a client or two that I could "help". I was so excited.

When the assignments were announced Doug Colbert (now a Prof at Univ. of Maryland Law but then first director of our clinic at Hofstra Law)had assigned me to a trans-gendered Prostitute!

I was stunned. I thought to myself "how am I gonna do this?" Not only was the guy gay, HE DRESSED LIKE A GIRL!! This was not what I expected. It was also going to be a great personal problem... How was I going to go home and tell my Father and Mother that the son they had spent a life savings on educating, was going to be representing "he-shes?" My Family was going to disown me. Forget my friends. They will all think I flipped! I mean I was Mr. Prosecution at school. I was so conservative, I had actually met and liked President Reagan (still do). "Oh and then what would happen to my political career if I took this case?" NO NO NO I could not represent this...GUY?!

I went to Prof. Colbert, Doug was cool, he would get it. He wouldn't put me with a client I was morally against representing! And I was right!! He wouldn't. He however pointed out a few realities to me:

1. I wanted to help people and my client needed help and a lot of it.

2. My Client needed fearless advocacy and I was fearless (I have no idea why, but this is still basically true. I rarely have ever cared what others thought of me, kind of funny now looking back and thinking I wanted to be in politics. I also always hated bullies.)

3. Morally, I needed to figure out if I could defend anyone, if my morality was more important than the "God given" rights in the US Bill of Rights.

Doug was thought provoking. I went home and spent the whole weekend thinking about what he had to say. I didn't tell the family about my new client. I did a lot of soul searching. I was the first in my Dad's family (along with my cousin Donald who is now a biglaw Corp. litigator) to go to law school. I wanted the others to think what I was doing was important. I figured if nothing else, if this got out I would get a lot of teasing. Well I could live with that. Dad on the other hand was a different story. He was CONSERVATIVE. I didn't think he would like this at all.

As luck would have it, my aunt Rosie, (who was in High School when I was born and is closer in age to me than to my mom, her sister) came over for dinner with my grandparents. She was very excited about her work. Rosie was a Medical Doctor (MD) and an Infectious Disease specialist. She was going to be a co-director of a clinic to help people who were very sick and dying from a "new plague" it was called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). She was describing some of her clients and the work. She was way ahead of the reporting on the matter. She was telling us about how it was a scourge of the Gay community. She described the suffering of these people. The fear, the ugly death. Her frustration with the lack of funding because it seemed to be a disease that homosexuals got. No one wanted to come out and help them. I asked Roe, who is very religious, about whether she had qualms about helping "that group of people." She mentioned that our religion left judgment up to God. That all of her clients were God's children. I thought about that a lot too.

When dinner was finished, I took Rosie aside, and told her about my client. She was so excited for me. She was happy that I would use my talent to help people others had abandoned. With her encouragement, I told my dad I had a client. I told him about the crime, and about the client. Then I waited. He looked at me and then he said, "Everyone deserves a defense."

Now for most people that line wouldn't have sounded too good, but dad was a man of few words, and that was a full out message of support. I promised him that he would get the best defense anyone would give him. Dad's response was perfect... "Good,sounds like he needs it. Do the best you can". I was very happy, that was a huge hurdle. He probably wasn't happy with the situation, but at least he would support me in the endeavor.

I thought a lot about this client. A lot about how I would act when I met him, a lot about what I would say in his defense. The following Monday, I told Colbert that while I was still somewhat uncomfortable, I wanted to try to represent him.

When I met Patty, I immediately became angry. She described her treatment at the hands of the Johns and the Cops. She told me about how they would abuse her. How she was often the victim of crimes from johns, gangbangers (who wanted to prove their "manhood") and how if she went to police, they would beat her up, berate her, feel up her breasts (she was pre op) and toss her out of the precinct. Her family was completely repulsed by her. Worst of all, she had a bad drug problem, yet she was not allowed into the local clinic. They were afraid she might be carrying "the virus".

This was the most marginalized person I had ever met. Black, gay, transgendered, abandoned by society, family, government. She had no one. Well she had me, and my friend Sab who was co-counsel. Neither one of us had passed the bar, neither one of us had ever been in charge of a case before, and neither one of us were ok with Patty's sexuality, but we were sure that we weren't going to let her get run over by the government again.

We went to court that week and told the judge we weren't going to accept the plea offer to the charge and his "generous offer" of 30 days in jail. We were going to call the john as a witness and we wanted motions and hearings. He thought we were nuts. We brought him a subpoena for police records and we even filed a motion to declare the law she was arrested under unconstitutional.

In the end, the District attorney's office offered to allow Patty to plead guilty to "Disorderly Conduct" and the judge agreed to a fine of Two Hundred Fifty Dollars. Sab pointed out to the court that Patty would have to give 12 blow jobs (they went for Twenty dollars each on the streets of Hempstead back then) to afford the fine. I pointed out that it might cause a lot of people to become ill. The judge thought about it, asked how much she had in her purse and accepted the forty dollars she had. She then said she wouldn't have bus fare back to Hempstead. Sab joked loud enough for the judge to hear, that she could probably make a fast buck at the bus station around the corner from the court. The judge lowered the fine to Twenty five dollars and Patty walked out thanking us and promising to tell all the "girls" on Main street about what we accomplished for her.

I went home that afternoon and waited for dad to get home from work (he owned a construction company.) I couldn't wait to tell him how I did. I told him everything. He beamed in that quiet way of his. Then he smiled, "Sounds like you guys did a great job" He got up, and walked to the dinner table, and we had dinner, and Dad encouraged me to tell mom about my day. She wasn't comfortable with my decision to go into criminal defense, and she was not into my representing poor, transgendered/transvestite, male prostitutes, but she followed dad's lead and congratulated me. She added that she hoped my next client was more "normal", and we went on to dinner conversation that was more appropriate for supper at my family's house.

As a kid growing up, I guess I would say I was mildly homophobic. I wasn't against them per se, I just wasn't comfortable around them. I had no interest in hurting them, I just wasn't interested in their problems or issues. Patty was the first step in a career where I have represented many people who work in the sex industry. My comfort level and acceptance level rose as I began to realize that I liked some of them and didn't like others. Some were good people and others were not. I learned they had dreams and hopes, same as me. I found myself mourning a lot of these men and women as AIDS decimated the community. I find that I miss many of them.

Now that my career has taken a turn toward more "normal" clients I still cannot forget the men and women who work, either by choice or happenstance, in the sex industry and who as a society we continue to marginalize. I know from dozens of first hand observations how that marginalization, makes them exceptionally vulnerable to crime, medical issues, suicide and homelessness. I also refuse to turn my back on them. I still accept their cases in court assignments and for those that are more "successful" I take them on as private clients. I have instituted office policies and trained staff not to judge their lives or choices. I want to make the experience as comfortable for every client as I can. I have learned to work in a team approach with doctors, therapists and others to handle these clients as best as I can.

To this day, I hear my dad's voice, accepting my choice to use my education on behalf of anyone who the government has targeted. I do the very best I can.

Today was the The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. There were walks and vigils attended by anywhere from a handful of people to thousands.

Next Monday would have been my dad's 76th Birthday.

Today, I honor both of these events. And Dad, I still miss you, everyday.