In our grassroots work in Washington, DC, 3 years ago, we discovered a sad reality that persists. Police training and code, cultural competency training, with additional Special Orders pertaining to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) people, and the country’s most long-standing and extensive human rights protections for the LGBT community were not enough to rid the police force of homophobes and transphobes. While there are many good policemen, this substantial group cannot not be persuaded to put their personal feelings second to enforcing the law, actually doing their jobs. In fact, some are perpetrators of crimes against the communities they were assigned to protect. Only in the most egregious criminal cases is it possible to overcome police unions to get certain police officers permanently removed from the force.
The worst part of these bad practices is that they allow bigotry to cast a pall across an entire community, creating an atmosphere at odds with serving and protecting the community, the whole community. And, it is in this atmosphere, where LGBT people are not valued, that all the rest of the criminals model their behavior.
In 2011, after a rash of anti-trans violence and murders in just as many months, VenusPlusX helped organize a coalition of a dozen mostly local LGBT organizations under the banner of the DC TLGB Police Watch (T being our priority). We went to work listening to victims of police bias and anti-LGBT violence, especially anti-trans violence, as well as other concerns of the TLGB community and the community-at-large. We turned those concerns into goals and objectives and developed the city’s first-ever Transgender Day of Action with targets, written demands, and built-in accountability.
We were, at least temporarily successful, not only because the murders stopped for a almost 2 years, but because new channels of communication were opened in a way they had not been before among and between the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), the Mayor’s Office, the City Council, and, especially the US Attorney for Washington, DC. Within 48 hours, our phones were ringing, cold cases were being re-opened, and the US Attorney championed our position that the city’s feckless Prostitution Free Zones (enacted temporarily wherever there was a pocket of citizen complaints, supposedly) were unconstitutional in that they unfairly targeted people of color, the poor, and sex workers, especially trans sex workers forced to the streets when they had no other choice.
This coalition seeded the trans community with a new activists and allies and went on to bring about positive change such as a birth certificate bill, and better access to health care, employment, and housing. Police anti-trans bias was somewhat quelled a few years ago, but has gradually emerged again putting this latest spate of senseless anti-trans violence and murders in sharp relief.
Walking while trans is a real thing. It can often be a matter of life and death.
A young trans woman of color leaves here downtown office after sunset, heading for her bus stop. She spent years trying to get employment, and she was feeling good about her new job.
Her route takes her near, but not in, a city park. She sees two patrolman heading towards her and she holds steady on her path.
One of these patrolman grew up hating lesbian, gay, bisexual, and, especially, trans people. He still hates them, despite his training, the special orders re LGBT people, and the human rights laws in the city. He suspects the woman walking towards him is trans, believing she is probably a prostitute. The hairs on the back of his head stand up, his sternum stiffens. Why do these freaks think they can just walk around, these dudes in a dress, he asks his partner. By the time they are face to face with the innocent woman, they are primed to give her a hard time. They want to arrest her. They ask for ID, and then permission to dig deep through her belongings. They find 3 packaged condoms and arrest her for prostitution based on no other evidence. She will go to jail and probably stay there, losing her really nice job.
More has to be done to weed out the underlying problem of police bias and misconduct, setting the poorest examples for would-be criminals. Activists and advocates must redouble their efforts to put pressure on public officials, demanding leadership to forge better police recruitment and training standards, and helping good police officers transform their unions to have zero-tolerance for bad actors.
The Department of Justice has at last launched a program “to train local police departments to better respond to transgender individuals.” This is not a reason to go lightly. It’s all hands on deck, including yours, the more local the better.