Walking While Trans: Law Enforcement & Trans Latinas

womanwalking

“They are abusive, offensive and without respect.”

“They say they are going to protect us but they don’t. They treat us differently and call us crazy and say that we all have AIDS.”

“When they see us, they abuse their power.”

“They make fun of us and discriminate against us, especially if we are illegal.”

These are the words of several Latina trans* women in Los Angeles, from the recently published report, “Interactions of Latina Transgender Women with Law Enforcement.” The report was developed by BIENESTAR—a non-profit LGBTQ social service organization—and the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, funded by The Williams Institute.

The trans* community has a long and complex history with law enforcement. In the trans* community, we teach ourselves to look out for and take care of each other, because most of the time the police is not on our side. The words of these women and the statistics in this study show what most in the Latin@ trans* community already knew: “the data reveal a history of negative interactions with law enforcement on the part of a large number of Latina transgender women.”

The numbers are initially disparaging. Two-thirds of participants reported verbal harassment by law enforcement. Twenty-one percent reported physical assault, while twenty-four percent reported sexual assault by law enforcement. When filing a report against police, two-thirds stated that their report had been handled “poorly” or “very poorly,” suggesting a lack of interest, care, and/or effort.

What is also alarming is the frequency and manner with which these women were approached by police officers. The report states: “Almost sixty percent of those stopped by law enforcement believed that this had occurred without their violating any law. Many reported being stopped while doing everyday things like ‘coming back from the grocery store’ and ‘waiting for the bus.’”

These women were approached for simply walking while trans*. The pervading transphobia within police departments puts many trans* women at risk for harassment and false accusations/suspicions. Expressed within this study is that “There was also a belief that police arrest transgender people on false charges.” The report further states that “the vast majority (71%) described the police’s interaction with the transgender community in negative terms. Typical responses included comments that police were aggressive and disrespectful and sometimes used male terms or called them ‘it’”.

Clearly, Latina trans* women have been targets of transphobia, transmisogyny, and violence in several aspects by law enforcement officials. Harassment and targeting becomes worse for those who are undocumented. As one participant states, “(They need to) learn more about us and value the way we live our lives so that we don’t have to hide. We hide because of fear of how they treat us or that they will arrest us.” Twenty-five percent of participants report “being watchful of their own behavior so that it would not serve as a reason for the police to treat them badly.” The voices of participants gives weight to the data gathered from this report. These are women who live this experience every day, most of whom must constantly adapt and be aware of the danger they could face if confronted by a police officer or jailed.

Trans* Latinas in the Prison System

The report continues to detail the experiences of these women in prison. Participants who “had been jailed reported high levels of harassment and violence from other inmates and stated that correction officers often failed to protect them or address this abuse.” Thirty percent of those jailed reported verbal assault by other inmates, while eleven percent reported physical assault and ten percent reported sexual assault. Most alarming is that across the board law enforcement officials are reported to have responded negatively (33%) or did nothing at all (37%).

It is difficult to read through the entire report. The overwhelming amount of transphobia clearly rampant in our law enforcement agencies and within our social structure is challenging and difficult to digest. None of these statistics are news, especially to trans* women of color, who remain the most often profiled and targeted in terms of discrimination, harassment, and violence. However, seeing these as numbers affirms the face that there is much work to be done and our community knows it.

A remarkable aspect of this report is that it outlines possible solutions and courses of action. It gives a few answers to the question, where do we go from here? The data presented within the report is at first discouraging; however, the second half of the report is inspiring and reminds the trans* community of its resilience and strength.
Several participants state the following:

“We should have meetings with the police so they can see that we are normal people that work and take the bus.”

“Police need to treat us with respect and ask us how we want to be treated so that we can feel comfortable.”

“(The transgender community) needs to have more information. We need to know more about laws in order to inform or protect ourselves.”

“The transgender community needs to unite and fight for their rights.”

Immensely grateful for those empowering statements, one can start to look at the courses of action outlined by the report. “There was recognition that structural changes on a societal level also need to occur, which, in turn, could improve the transgender community’s interactions with law enforcement.” The report continues to touch upon community activism and unity, stating: “It was also recommended that organizations that work for social change for transgender people should be further empowered so that they could continue to bring about more positive changes.”

Overall, change must begin with law enforcement departments and staff. The report highlights these three changes:
•    Increased training on transgender issues for all law enforcement agencies
•    Increased communication between law enforcement and transgender women
•    Increased knowledge of their legal rights by members of the transgender community

The report recognizes the need for continued involvement on the behalf of Latina trans* women “in different advocacy and educational activities that focus on improving relations with law enforcement.” The report also highlights that “Each law enforcement agency should have a liaison unit that reflects the concerns of the transgender community.” In addition, the report calls for thorough review of current policies and a demand for newer, more inclusive policies.
The issue of respect frequently comes through in this report. The lack of respect that trans* women receive from law enforcement shows how deep transphobia and transmisogyny run in our society and its institutions. The report details the amount of day-to-day harassment, discrimination, disrespect, and violation of basic human rights that Latina trans* women confront.

These women are far from discouraged. They are members of coalitions, collectives, advocacy groups—on national and local levels—dedicated to improving the lives of trans* individuals. These women are participating in research and reports aimed to statistically show how real transphobia is, how it affects the trans* community, and that it exists within institutions based on the intent to serve and protect.

The Latina trans* community continues to be resourceful and strong in the face of transphobia. As a community we must dedicate ourselves to eliminating the crime of walking while trans*. Our lives depend on it.

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About the author

Van Binfa

Van is a queer Chilean trans man who lives on the side of fabulous. He has been actively involved in trans* advocacy for two years, with his most recent endeavor being the founder and facilitator of Soy Quien Soy: Trans Empowerment Collective. SQS is a source of strength and support for trans* people of all colors, and holds its meetings in Pilsen as a way of extending trans* resources outside of the Boystown area. In addition, Van is a volunteer (and soon to be board member) of PrideCall Inc., an LGBTQ hotline based in Woodstock, IL. Drawing and doodling since the age of three, Van is first and foremost an English geek. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in English—with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies—from Roosevelt University in 2010. One of his senior projects—entitled “The Van that Came Out of Somewhere”—incorporated web comic media and trans*/queer theory to promote a new trans* narrative. This narrative supports trans* pride and confident self-image. Since beginning that project, he has continued to work on web comics centering on his experience as a Latino trans man, and he is incredibly excited to work with xQsí.

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