Activist for rights of sex workers buried among luminaries
Wednesday, Mar 11, 2009, Page 6
A well-known one-time prostitute who campaigned for the rights and dignity of sex workers was given an honored place of rest on Monday in the same cemetery where Protestantism’s John Calvin is buried, drawing criticism from some.
Griselidis Real, who died in 2005, was buried in the presence of 200 people at the Cemetery of the Kings, which is reserved for individuals who profoundly marked Swiss or international history. Argentine writer Jose Luis Borges and child psychologist Jean Piaget are interred there.
The body of Real, who was 76 when she died — only 10 years after she is said to have given up prostitution — was exhumed from another cemetery in Geneva for the ceremony that some — particularly women — have called offensive.
“If every woman that had children to raise alone turned to prostitution, the city of Geneva would be a bordello,” said Amelia Christinat, a feminist and former member of the Swiss parliament who opposed Real’s reburial.
Jacqueline Berenstein-Wavre, the first woman to head Geneva’s parliament, also objected.
“No woman should rejoice at this transfer, which is nothing but the elevation of a prostitute and of prostitution in general by its male protectors,” she told the daily Tribune de Geneve, which noted the scarcity of women buried in the honored ground, less than a quarter of the 350 graves.
Prostitution is generally legal in Switzerland, with red light districts in some cities. But Real worked for years to improve working conditions.
She helped found Aspasie, an association which describes itself as promoting solidarity with sex workers. Aspasie says she compiled a massive collection of newspaper clippings, films and other documentation about prostitution over 30 years and that her four children donated the database to the association on her death.
Geneva’s Protestant Church has been reserved in its criticism about the reburial, even though the former fighter for prostitutes’ rights now rests near Calvin.
The cemetery is “not a sacred place,” Roland Benz, moderator of Geneva’s association of pastors, was quoted by the Ecumenical News International as saying.
Real was born in 1929 in Lausanne. A divorced mother of four children, she began working as a prostitute in Germany in the 1960s and later moved to Geneva, becoming a leading campaigner for prostitutes’ rights.
In her autobiographical books Black is a Color and Dance Card of a Courtesan, Real denounced the hypocrisy of a society that condemns prostitutes while using their services.
Patrice Mugny, a local politician who championed the transfer, said the city was “in no case apologizing for prostitution, but honoring an individual who distinguished herself by battling for human dignity.”
“This shows that human dignity is not a question of social status, that it is not limited by moral prescriptions,” he said at the ceremony.
Ruth Morgan Thomas, a leading campaigner for prostitutes, said the burial was a recognition for sex workers “who demand simply to be treated without discrimination and valued as an integral part of society.”
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