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Fresh Face: An Interview with Derek Demeri

New Jersey activist talks Dec 17 and sexwork outside the cities.

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On December 17th, 2014, from 6-830pm,  an event recognizing the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers (ISW) will be held in New Brunswick, NJ. The event starts with a candlelit vigil to honor men, women and transgender sex workers that have been killed by violence around the world and includes workshops for individuals in the sex industry on violence, rights and community.

Derek Demeri, 21, in cooperation with co-founders Janet Duran and PJ, organized the event. Male masseur and escort Bryan Knight spoke with him about Demeri’s inspiration for the event and his plans for the future of human rights activism in New Jersey and beyond.

NJ Rua LogoBryan Knight: What is your current title and position?

Derek Demeri: I am the Co-Founder and Community Organizer for the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance. I also work as a leader and associate for the Sexual and Gender Minorities Project under the Center for the Studey of Genocide and Human Rights. I look forward to graduating in 2015 from Rutgers University with a degree in in Global Politics.

Bryan: What got you into activism?

Derek: I’ve been interested in activism since I was 7 years old. I started the Gay-Straight Alliance in high school when I was the only one out. From there I met people who got me interested and involved with HIV activism and then sex worker rights.

I published one of my first articles on how HIV affected marginalized communities.* Because of this article and supportive activist friends, I went to conference on human rights in Atlanta. There I met Janet and PJ and we started a conversation about making human rights for sex workers an active, strong presence in New Jersey.

Bryan: What would you advise to people wanting to promote human rights for sex workers in remote areas?

Derek: While a majority of New Jersey residents live in either sub-urban or urban areas, being an advocate in a non-major city has it’s challenges. We are often off the radar for funding or policy discussions. When it comes to actually defending rights, it means standing up to the same people who we see when buying groceries or enjoying a night out.

What many professionals from the major cities often fail to realize is that working in rural areas is much different than the city. The sex industry is much smaller. Getting outed has very real consequences. These non-urban communities, which are more likely to be controlled by conservative forces, prevents people from recognizing sex work as legitimate and drive participants into more dangerous situations.

Bryan: What do you hope that professionals and the public will take away from the ISW event?

Derek: We will have three workshops available during the event. Two are available for the public, one is directed for professionals. The first workshop is about the experiences of sex workers through poetry, music and story-telling. Participants are encouraged to share their good, bad and funny experiences of sex workers as human beings. The second workshop is about how criminalization of sex work promotes violence. Race and gender differences in violent crimes are included in the workshop.

Bryan: What is your expected turn out and how did you get the word out?

Derek: We are expecting 50 people based on attendance commitments on FaceBook and an additional 15 to 20 people through direct word of mouth. We hope more will attend.

Bryan: What is the demographic of your group like?

Derek: We are still determining what demographic we are attracting and representing.

NJrua Table

NJRUA sharing resources with the community. Photo by PJ Starr.

Bryan: What are the goals of this new organization?

Derek: Our goals are to be recognized as a non profit and focus on local social justice issues in New Jersey.

In New Jersey, there really isn’t any organization to help sex workers. We are organizing our mission statement and structure while providing support as an alliance of activists.

Our first goal is just to let people know we exist. We want sex workers to know someone cares about their health, safety and respects their choice to end the profession, whatever their reasons. Social media allows us to spread the word rapidly and control the story.

Our second goal is to create and spread education about sex workers and human rights issues to the public. We want the public to acknowledge that sex workers exist, that they are people and that they deserve to protected from violence. We do this by creating educational events like ISW for the public and professionals to attend. We also support other established organizations as well.

The third goal is documenting violence against sex workers and collecting evidence for protection reforms. Sex workers often experience violence and harassment that goes unreported due to fear of retribution or lack of support from the authorities. Sex workers also experience targeted, unconstitutional harassment from police authorities that needs documentation. If people do not see, people do not care.

Bryan: What else would you like visitors to know about your event?

Derek: The event is being held at Christ Church at 5 Paterson Street in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Friends and allies are welcome to attend. Hardcopy information for the workshops and sex worker human rights will be available at the education table. Refreshments, snacks, printing materials and additional promotion are provided through the generous support of our co-sponsors: the Center for the Study of Genocide & Human Rights, Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA, the Rutgers Centers for Global Advancement and International Affairs & the Institute for Women’s Leadership (a Rutgers based organization).

To learn more about this event and other future events, please visit their FaceBook page or follow them on Twitter at @njrua. Donate to us here.

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