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Tucson honors slain sex workers

A group encircled a small altar, adorned with items representing sex workers who suffered violent deaths, targeted because of their profession.

The 26 people gathered in front of El Tiradito Wishing Shrine on Dec. 17—International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

In the center, Erin Whitfield, a member of the Sex Workers Outreach Project Tucson chapter, read a statement prepared by her and other SWOP Tucson members.

"To die a violent death is the ultimate indignity, but in many ways, the indignity is magnified even more for a sex worker who has already faced a lifetime of indignities," she read. "Societal shaming, the heartbreak of rejection by loved ones unwilling to accept that whoring is our calling, imprisonment and unjust laws whose purpose it is to oppress and nothing more."

The reading of the names followed Whitfield's words. For several days, Cristine Sardina copied by hand the list compiled by SWOP of 132 sex workers killed globally in 2016. The list includes many of their names, but the identity of others remains unknown. Age and race varies, but cause of death is always brutal, including strangulation, beheading and bludgeoning.

Sardina cried for three days while making that list. She said they read the names to honor the sex workers who were murdered.

"They're a disposable population because sex work is not decriminalized," she said.

Tucson is a mecca for sex-worker rights, said Juliana Piccillo, a founding member of SWOP Tucson who was there 13 years ago when Tucson first observed End Violence Against Sex Workers Day.

"At that time, simply saying, 'I'm a sex worker,' was very radical," she said.

For several years, Piccillo directed an annual Sex Worker Art Festival in Tucson, w hich she said helped start a national conversation that emboldened sex workers across the country. The discussion around sex workers' rights and has helped erode some of the stigma around the profession.

"Because of the stigma—criminalization—sex workers have to work in the dark," she said. "Because the stigma literally does kill people, we have to remember them. They have names and they're people."

Standing there, around the altar symbolizing life taken unfairly and violently from a people marginalized by laws and stigma, the diverse group quietly listened to the names of the dead. And at the end of every page, the group said in unison, "We remember you."