NEW YORK -- A crowd gathered outside the federal courthouse in Brooklyn on Thursday to protest last week's government raid on a gay escort website, a crackdown that sex workers and LGBT activists have likened to the police raids on gay bars and bathhouses of the 1970s.
Protesters demanded that prosecutors drop the charges against Jeffrey Hurant, chief executive of Rentboy.com, and six other current or former employees of the site who were arrested on Aug. 25 for allegedly promoting prostitution. Federal authorities burst into the Rentboy offices near Union Square that day, made several arrests, seized assets and took down the website.
Rentboy has racked up $10 million in revenue since 2010, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York.
The arrests sent waves of outrage and anxiety through a community of sex workers who meet clients both on the streets and online. Those gathered outside the courthouse said that a site like Rentboy can provide a sliver of security and safety in a world that offers little of either.
"Rentboy is widely known, they had a lot of resources regarding safety tips, and it's a community," explained Michael, a 22-year-old in white overall shorts and a red hat. "That's safety."
Michael, who declined to give his last name, said he panicked after learning about the raid last week. "The first thing that came into my head is, 'How am I going to pay for rent?'" he said.
For the past year, advertising on Rentboy had helped him pay the bills, and the day before the raid, he'd spent $60 on a new ad. His rent was due the day of the protest, and he still hadn't come up with it.
"Now, I don't get to choose what kind of work I do," Michael said, "and that's really risky."
As some of the other protesters were quick to point out, their objections to the crackdown on Rentboy aren't just about making a living, but about a larger movement that seeks the legalization of sex work for broader political reasons.
"We're here to say that the [charges] need to be dropped but also to broaden the conversation to the way that people in the sex trades are terrorized every day by law enforcement agencies," said Andy Medina, a 24-year-old activist with The #HookUp Collaborative, an advocacy group of people who advertise on Rentboy and their allies.
Medina, who was wearing a striped shirt and a nose ring, first got involved with the sex worker advocacy movement a few years ago when a friend went missing.
"I was just surviving as a young person, and then it began to click -- how this was all structural," he recalled. "I can't call anybody, and actually, maybe I'm putting my friend more at risk if I call the police. It was a really scary moment."
When Medina heard about the Rentboy raid, he was surprised to learn that it had been carried out by a division of the Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney's Office. The arrestees are accused of promoting prostitution across state lines. But nothing else about the event surprised him, he said.
"This is just another example of law enforcement putting people in the sex trades at more harm," he said.
Beyond the use of Rentboy, other safety measures that he and his colleagues take can also put them at risk of arrest, Medina pointed out. Carrying a condom, for example, can be used as evidence of intending to trade sex for money.
"These agencies don't work to make sex workers safe or have lives free of violence or anything like that. They just criminalize us and put us in harm's way," he said.
Medina peered over at the crowd of dozens of advocates, some of them wearing T-shirts from groups like the LGBTQ Task Force. The protesters walked in a slow circle across the street from the courthouse, chanting, "Homeland Security, get out of my bedroom."
"Unless you're paying!" a woman shouted out to peals of laughter.
Last week's raid was no isolated incident, Medina said, in law enforcement's ongoing war on sex workers. Now "if the charges were dropped as a symbol of some type of change towards recognizing the human rights of sex workers, that would be amazing," he said.
Similar protests are expected in the coming days in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. Bizzy Barefoot, a 41-year old artist who has been involved in sex worker advocacy for years, said the reaction to the Rentboy raid may be a sign that the fight for decriminalization is gaining ground. Last month, Amnesty International announced that it would be pushing for the decriminalization of consensual sex work worldwide.
"I haven't seen this happen around this subject before," Barefoot said. "I do think we're hitting a tipping point."
Penelope Saunders, a coordinator with the Best Practices Policy Project who has been advocating for sex workers since the 1980s, disagreed only with Barefoot's phrasing.
"I see it more as one part of the beautiful mosaic of changes that we've seen over the last few years," she said. "This action comes out of more than a decade of the resurgence of the sex worker movement in the United States. Rallies like this don't drop down from out of the sky."