Queen Elizabeth II this week honored an activist and former sex worker by awarding her the title of “dame.” Catherine Healy, 62, a founder of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, was instrumental in helping her country become the first to decriminalize prostitution in 2003. After 30 years of activism, the queen recognized her on Monday with a New Zealand Order of Merit “for services to the rights of sex workers.”

When Healy received the letter in the mail, she was astonished.”I’m very touched,” she told The Washington Post. “

Healy became a sex worker in the 1980s while working as a teacher. She was at first just looking to top off her income with an extra job as a receptionist at a massage parlor.

Lisa Fitzgerald, a senior public health lecturer at the University of Queensland, said that Healy played a pivotal role in convincing lawmakers to agree to the vast reforms.

“I’m so happy to hear she was made a dame,” she said. “Her whole life has been about rights of sex workers. It’s an example of how societies can change their understanding of social issues. The reality is the sex industry is just like any other. It needs human rights. It needs to work in partnerships with government. And the evidence shows it.”

Going forward, Healy said discrimination against sex workers is a primary focus of her organization’s activism. Many workers, she said, are still afraid to apply for jobs out of fear that employers will find their names on the old police database and refuse them the position. The stigma is perhaps the hardest thing to change, she said.

But, she said, it can’t hurt to have the support from the queen.

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