SWARM and ECP are devastated by the death of Laura Lee. Laura was a major figure in the sex worker rights movement; a fearless campaigner, a loyal comrade and, to many of us, a dear friend. Our thoughts are with Laura’s family and, in particular, her daughter Cat. Laura’s loss is unspeakably sad.
A sex worker for twenty years, Laura was a long-standing activist and a member of the Sex Worker Alliance Ireland (SWAI). She became a figurehead in the global fight for decriminalisation when she launched a judicial review of the 2015 law which implemented the Nordic Model – criminalising sex workers’ clients – in Northern Ireland.
After the DUP-sponsored bill was voted in, Laura said that Stormont had “sent out a clear message to the sex work community that they don’t care about us, one of society’s most marginalised and stigmatised groups.”
“With this case, I’m sending a message right back,” she said.
Laura took up the fight, winning the right to take the challenge to Northern Ireland’s High Court. Laura claimed that provisions of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act contravened her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, including rights to privacy, health and protection from degrading treatment.
The date for Laura’s first hearing was imminent and she had planned to take the case onward, to the European court of human rights.
“A win for us in Belfast will have a knock-on effect and set a precedent across Europe,” Laura told the Guardian. “If successful up north there will be a challenge in Dublin and sex workers across Europe can use the precedent to overturn the so-called ‘Nordic model’ in their countries.”
Laura was passionate that sex workers should be able to work in safety and her fearless pursuit of this goal brought her into conflict with the establishment in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Laura endured shocking levels of harassment, scrutiny and public humiliation from politicians, pro-criminalisation feminists and religious fundamentalists.
Laura kept going despite the backlash, her good humour and dedication allowing her to rise above the hate. “I am dogged in my determination to fight this law on behalf of all sex workers, especially the ones that can’t put their heads above the parapet,” she said. “I am strong enough to do so.”
Laura’s energy and bravery were inspirational, and the sex work community will always remember her with love and gratitude.
Rest in power, Laura Lee. Thank you for everything.