ChangeMakers: Aegor Ray advocates to decriminalize sex work in Minneapolis

A man smiles in a portrait
Aegor Ray, 30, poses in Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis on June 5. Ray is an organizer with the Sex Workers Outreach Project, working on a campaign to decriminalize sex work throughout Minnesota. He has also organized with the group Relationships Evolving Possibilities (REP), which advocates for citywide abolition of the police and offers crisis intervention.
Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

In celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, throughout June MPR News is featuring stories about transgender and nonbinary Minnesotans making an impact. See more at This story comes to you from Sahan Journal through a partnership with MPR News.

Aegor Ray, 30, describes himself as a “trans man about town” — he’s involved in a little bit of everything.

Ray is an organizer with the Sex Workers Outreach Project, working on a campaign to decriminalize sex work throughout Minnesota. He has also organized with the group Relationships Evolving Possibilities (REP), which advocates for citywide abolition of the police and offers crisis intervention. 

Alongside his advocacy, Ray works as a butcher. He is also an artist and speculative fiction writer, a genre that encompasses stories outside of realism, including fantasy, science fiction and horror.

Ray, who is a Minneapolis resident and Indian American, said he finds healing through being in nature. During his conversation with Sahan Journal and MPR News, Ray pointed to a row of cottonwood trees in Powderhorn Lake in south Minneapolis. He explained that cottonwoods, while tall, have shallow root systems. Over time, the trees developed the ability to fuse their branches together in a process called inosculation.

“There are a million metaphors in nature for how we get to survive and how we get to be resilient,” Ray said. “It seems impossible to be so tall and have such shallow root systems. But there's another way — the way with these trees are about being together, fusing together. It’s like: My survival is linked up to yours, quite intimately.”

Editor’s note: Our conversation with Ray has been edited for length and clarity.

Who are your trans and nonbinary heroes?

My trans and nonbinary heroes are the seat of my activism, as well as my personhood. 

I think of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who were integral to the Stonewall uprising, but also to trans and sex worker justice in this country. I'm really compelled by Rivera's essay, “Queens In Exile, The Forgotten Ones.” It's a beautiful piece where she talks about how she was primarily a sex worker to house her friends. There's such an old-school, point-blank frankness to her writing, which makes you feel like ‘I can do that too — I should do the hard thing to protect the people I love.’ I feel very emotional and proud to be in that lineage of carrying on that activism work. 

I also have great respect for CeCe McDonald from Minneapolis, who stood up against the violence that she was experiencing — both street violence and carceral violence through the state. Otherwise, I love the artist Beverly Glenn-Copeland, a beautiful Buddhist trans man weirdo who makes beautiful ambient music. And also, Roxanne Anderson located here in Minneapolis is an amazing trans person in community.

Who is a rising trans or nonbinary leader in Minnesota?

My dear friend Marcela Michelle is a brilliant artist and artist advocate here in Minneapolis. Keila Anali-Saucedo is also a brilliant artist and arts organizer, does work with TRCSTR, which is a really cool program that connects up-and-coming artists with mentors. Baki Baki Baki is another amazing artist.

My dear friends Nailah Taman and Ben Kreibich, too. Nailah is a textile artist and organizer also with REP (Relationships Evolving Possibilities). And Ben is a filmmaker. Both have just done really meaningful work in the citywide abolitionist efforts.

What is something you want everyone to know about trans and nonbinary people?

I want people to know that our existence does not need to be legitimized.

When I say that, my heart beats really fast. So much of the mainstream conversation is about locating trans people in some sort of legible framework for the mainstream. But the reality is, whether or not we were here forever, we are here to stay. And that is something to be reckoned with.

Can you tell me what you mean by that — the need to not be legitimized?

So often, when a dominant order feels threatened, they enact violence against marginalized groups. Because of that conflict and power discrepancy, marginalized groups will sometimes take up the rhetoric of the dominant oppressor to defend ourselves. The can be the idea of homonormativity: We are just like you; we also want marriage, we also want families. 

In some ways, that is very much playing by the rules of the dominant norm.

In trans community, that can be, for example, the idea that there's a trans gene, that somewhere biologically and genetically, we were born this way. My mode of thinking and my mode of activism is: I don't care if we were born this way; we are here now. My humanity is sacred and legitimate, whether or not it falls within an argument that makes sense to somebody from a dominant order.

You’ve asked me to meet you at Powderhorn Park. What’s special about this location?

I've lived here since 2018. This park is so important to my queer sense of self in the city. I medically transitioned in 2018 as well. Though I haven't lived here for very long, I've lived my entire trans life here and I feel like this park has held the complexity of that experience so beautifully. 

I am a hairy man who is a brown person who has not had top surgery, and this is a place where I feel like being a brown man with a chest is received. There are not only so many queer and trans people, there are also a lot of immigrants, a variety of demographic experience that is often written out of stories about Minnesota. 

This park, for many reasons, is a space of healing — May Day is a beautiful celebration here, I’ve done so many poetry gatherings in this park, I’ve cried just about everywhere, and this is the place where I came to after George Floyd was murdered. Being able to access this very buried green space in the middle of south Minneapolis is really meaningful for the communities that live around here. 

What is the work you’re doing around decriminalizing sex work?

I have been organizing with the Sex Workers Outreach Project since 2017. It's been a little bit on and off. I have some lived experience as a sex worker, which is how I got connected. 

The decriminalization campaign here in Minneapolis is very close to my heart, and I feel very grateful to be a part of crafting this. We are broadly trying to decriminalize commercial sex in the city of Minneapolis and in the state at large. And we're following a lot of moves that people have done across the country. 

There's a wave of sex worker activism that has really been building for decades, but we're seeing a lot of real change because of the hard work of specifically brown and Black organizers. We have built a broad coalition of partners and we're mobilizing towards repealing the loitering ordinance in the city of Minneapolis, and then using that as a stepping stone towards the decriminalization of commercial sex broadly.

Can you explain what that loitering ordinance is and how that plays into your advocacy?

Locally, in 2015 the city of Minneapolis repealed what was known as the lurking and spitting ordinance. This is part of a series of what are called “lifestyle ordinances” that really govern how we are in public space. So many of these ordinances are so vaguely written that they're really left to the bias of the officer. 

At the time that it was repealed, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) of Minnesota found that Black people were targeted by the lurking and spitting ordinance 8.7 times more than white people, and Native people are targeted 8.6 times more than white people. It was such a clear-cut racial justice issue. 

Now we're trying to do the same thing for loitering. As it currently exists in municipal codes, loitering is defined as two things based around intent — I'm making air quotes, as I'm saying that, because I'm very skeptical of the idea of intent. So, there's loitering with intent to sell narcotics and loitering with intent to commit prostitution. That notion of intent is left up to officer bias. 

As we're building our case here in the city of Minneapolis, we're seeing nationally that there are these huge moves being made to repeal the loitering ordinances. Loitering is often colloquially known as the “walking while trans” law, because it was used to target trans women, specifically trans women of color, for activities that were assumed by law enforcement to be acts of participating in prostitution. That could be like waving at a car wearing high heels.

These kinds of laws say that the public is not meant for our most marginalized community members. In New York, the walking while trans law was repealed in 2021. And similarly, California has also repealed the loitering ordinance on similar grounds. Here in Minneapolis, we're building a very similar case.

What are things you do to unwind along with the hard work you’re a part of?

I love to work out. I will bike to work. I bike by Bde Maka Ska, and that brings me so much joy. I work as a meat cutter. I really enjoy working with my body and my hands. 

Food is such a big part of my life and a huge way that I connect with my community and my culture. Often, I'll be at work dreaming up what I'm gonna eat later. I bike home, and then probably cook a big meal for me and my housemates and whoever wants to come over. 

I read a lot, speculative fiction mainly. I’ll make some time for writing or meditation. That is kind of my ideal day. 

What is your favorite thing to cook?

I grew up eating a lot of fish, because my dad was from Bengal, which is on a delta. One of my favorite things to make is called pathuri maach, which essentially means fish in a parcel. You coat the fish with a mixture of mustard seeds, coconut, and other spices. Then you wrap the fish in a parcel of banana leaves. Then you can bake it or throw it on the grill. 

It steams in that parcel and the banana leaf imparts this really specific flavor that's just really beautiful. 

Otherwise, I would describe myself as a rice daddy. I’m really obsessive about my rice. I have a donabe which is a Japanese double-wooded clay pot that I make my rice in with seasoning like nutmeg, or carrots, raisins — anything to make it look special.

What are some things you do to take care of yourself?

My spiritual practice is very important to me. I practice a type of tantric Buddhism. So much of it is about honoring the divine and the everydayness of the world. 

I love my friends dearly and my chosen family. Just being able to cook and eat together, spending time by water, and feeling really connected to an ecosystem is really important to me.

We're sitting in front of a row of cottonwood trees right on Powderhorn pond. Cottonwoods have really shallow root systems and sometimes cities will limit their growth because their root systems can get into city water lines. They have the ability to transfer water to other trees through their root systems, but they have really shallow root systems and grow very tall. 

So because of this, the trees developed a strategy to weather storms in which tall cottonwood trees will fuse their branches at the top over time. And there's evidence of one right behind us.

It just really reminds me that there are a million metaphors in nature for how we get to survive and how we get to be resilient. I do root a lot of transness in this. 

It seems impossible to be so tall and have such shallow root systems. But there's another way — the way with these trees are about being together, fusing together. It’s like: My survival is linked up to yours, quite intimately.

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