Recently, our networks were discussing the Women’s March and who would be taking part and whether or not to take part. A SWOP Chapter leader asked “Are red umbrella’s welcomed? If red umbrellas are not welcomed, I am not going.” A while earlier, a board member who runs a harm reduction organization shared that when she asked one of her organization’s members about SWOP, the individual replied “Oh? You mean the red umbrella people?” Around the same time, someone messaged me on a volunteer-run counseling website because of my profile photo–a red umbrella. The person recognized that red umbrella and, as a sex worker, she knew it meant that I was a safe person to talk to.
Since as far back as I can remember, red umbrellas have been inseparably connected with sex worker activism and organizations, an unquestionable symbol of commitment to sex worker rights that takes center stage in sex worker marches, publicity materials, and culture around the country and around the globe.
The red umbrella’s history as the rainbow flag of sex worker organizing dates back to 2001, when Slovenian artist Tadej Pogacar used red umbrellas in a Venice Biennale sex worker piece. “Prostitute Pavillion” and the CODE: RED art installation featured artists and sex workers walking the streets carrying red umbrellas to draw attention to precarious work conditions human rights abuses sex workers face.
Not long after, the Red Umbrella was adopted by sex worker activists and organizations as a symbol of sex workers’ beauty, vulnerability, and need for protection, first in Europe, and then overseas. By the mid 2000s, the red umbrella was being used around the globe as a unified and unmistakable symbol of the sex worker rights movement.