By Shelby Chestnut
June 27, 2019
The New York police commissioner, James O’Neill, apologized this month for police harassment 50 years ago Friday at the Stonewall Inn, where trans women of color led the resistance that started the national L.G.B.T.Q.-rights movement.
But trans people don’t want empty apologies. We want to live and thrive.
That means the Police Department must stop aggressively going after members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, and transgender women in particular, for minor offenses, a practice that has persisted in the decades since Stonewall.
There are other police abuses that deserve apologies and should end as well.
The Police Department settled a lawsuit with the Legal Aid Society on June 5 for illegally profiling and arresting transgender women for loitering for the purposes of sex work. Officers made arrests based on how they dressed, whom they spoke to and where they socialized. The department will now have to change its patrol guide to prohibit officers from relying only on gender, gender identity, clothing and location to enforce the loitering law.
But this is merely the tip of the iceberg. When black transgender women call the police because of domestic violence, they are often arrested or not taken seriously, forcing them to stay in dangerous situations. A report by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 22 percent of transgender people who had interacted with the police reported being harassed; for black transgender people that figure is nearly 40 percent.
The police still arrest queer youth of color for sleeping on the streets of West Village, even though it is widely known that these children are fleeing family rejection. Meanwhile, the city refuses to address the housing crisis they face, denying them basic needs.
An apology without real change is empty ceremony. And it dishonors the trans women of color who started the Stonewall uprising, and whom we honor this year. Black trans women in particular experience multiple forms of oppression — anti-black racism, gender-based violence and high levels of poverty. New York must make a commitment to tangibly supporting transgender people — or at least stop harming us.
The police have treated us so poorly they should not have a palpable presence in or around the Pride parade. New York should create safe and affordable housing for transgender people and ensure access to affordable health care for their unique needs.
New York City sets much of the tone for the rest of the country on social issues. The commissioner is trying to cast New York as a national leader on L.G.B.T.Q. rights with his apology. But both the city and the rest of the country are failing us.
Since the beginning of May, at least nine black transgender women have died or been killed in the United States: Zoe Spears, Claire Legato, Muhlaysia Booker, Michelle Washington, Paris Cameron, Chynal Lindsey, Chanel Scurlock, Layleen Polanco and Johana Medina.
This week, my group, the Transgender Law Center, and partners organized a national day of action in El Paso, Tex. As we gathered, we learned that a transgender woman named Brooklyn Lindsay had been murdered in Missouri, underscoring the crisis that we are in.
The political backdrop for these murders has been a series of policy attacks on transgender people, from bills in the Tennessee statehouse targeting trans people that would expand public indecency laws to bathrooms, locker rooms and dressing rooms to a Department of Health and Human Services rule that could allow discrimination against transgender people in health care. The government is inciting violence against transgender people, and unless we call it out, we are complicit.
Local, state and federal officials must block legislation and regulations that discriminate against transgender people. Congress should pass the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, which would improve conditions for detained immigrants, including transgender ones.
We need to end the use of money bail and pre-trial detention in major cities and towns across the country, a practice that has a devastating impact on black transgender women. New York lawmakers should pass the bills proposed in Albany that would decriminalize sex work. If passed, this would be a major blow to Police Department practices that target transgender women of color.
The truth is Stonewall never ended. Trans women still face intense police violence. State and federal lawmakers, as well as Trump administration officials, are seeking to ramp up discrimination against us.
We need strong moral leadership from politicians to change the culture of violence against L.G.B.T.Q. people. And just as they were 50 years ago, transgender people, people of color, migrants, homeless people and those most affected by violence will be the people who create the pressure that forces lawmakers to act.