Remember Stonewall, Police Abuse, and Presumption of Guilt

NYCD Police Department Patch

NYCD Police Department Patch

In the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots, in NYC, it is commonly known that the NYC gay community stood up and said, “This is not okay.” They stood up to both the police department, who used humiliating and abusive tactics, and also against the laws of the time which were designed to punish homosexuality.

What isn’t as commonly known is that this may have been less about gay rights than about trans rights. While it was true that gay men (and sometimes women) were arrested for pursuing relationships, it was just as often – if not more often – about the gender expectations, specifically clothing, worn. It was easier to arrest someone for cross-dressing.

Lesbians and FTMs wearing “male” clothing (various ordinances required a certain number of supposedly gender-appropriate clothing) or males wearing women’s clothing were in violation of the law. Of course an officer would verify your sex matched your gender expression in exactly the way you would expect a non-enlightened officer to do so.

Stonewall was frequented by drag queens and transvestites among many others. So it isn’t surprising that when the raid began in the early morning of the June 28, 1969, with these clothing verifications taking place, people got upset. While this was hardly an unusual occurrence, people had finally had enough. And the drag queens were right out in front. As were the other groups. That’s probably one of the things that made Stonewall so significant: it wasn’t just one group of people who faced abuse (such as trans people). It was many, and involved intersectionality between gender, sexual orientation, and poverty.

So, you would think the home of Stonewall would have progressed, and that other departments would have policies and procedures that take this into account. And somewhat, they do. There are policies in most major police departments that call for the fair treatment of trans victims and suspects, albeit often not as progressive as we might want to see.

Earlier this year, the NYPD was accused of profiling trans people who happened to be carrying condoms – something perfectly legal and done by many law abiding citizens every day. Yet, this was seen as proof – because the person was trans or otherwise appeared to be a member of some group the police officer believed to be associated with prostitution (blacks, for instance) – that the person was out looking for someone to pay for sex. And when it came time to stop the city’s “Stop and Frisk” program (where people are frisked based on officer intuition and bias), which disproportionally affects innocent trans people and LGBT people of color, the mayor vetoed the change.


Of course NYC isn’t the only place that treats LGBT, and particularly T people, badly, although NYC of all places should have the resources to not only understand the profiling issues, but to go further and lead the nation in what positive policing should look like.

But let’s look at some of the other incidents in America. In California, a police officer is accused of raping a transwoman. While on duty. From the Gay Star News article,

According to the complaint, the officer pulled up to the victim and demanded to know what she was doing. He then ordered her to lean into the driver’s side window of his police car.

When she leaned forward, the officer groped her and asked if she was ‘a nasty shemale’.

After she responded that she was transsexual, the uniformed officer allegedly lead her to a secluded area and attacked her.

A condom which was reportedly used by the attacker was kept by the victim to use as evidence, and has been handed over to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

It’s not just rape (and the above case was not the only recent rape of a trans person by a police officer in the US).  It’s also how we treat people locked up.  From a story on trans immigration detainees in Women’s E-News:

“I don’t think it is difficult to gauge the level of risk for transgender detainees,” said Keren Zwick, the managing attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center’s LGBT Immigrant Rights Initiative and Adult Detention Project. “I have never met a transgender detainee who hasn’t experienced some kind of sexual harassment, at the very minimum, or being propositioned for sex or being called names. Never once.”

Now much of this is not committed by officers, although officers certainly should be watching detainees.  But the article cited above also talks about harassment and abuse by immigration officers, including threats of solitary confinement for continuing to take medication, retaliation for reporting abuse, and even being forced to drink semen by an officer.

Something’s not right here. This is happening too often.

The statistics back this up too – in the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs’ report on LGBT Hate Violence in 2012, they found that trans victims of violence were 3.32 times more likely to face violence from police than non-trans (but LGB) people.  In Injustice at Every Turn, a survey of trans people, 22% of trans people reported harassment by police – that is, nearly 1 in 4 trans people say that police have harassed them. It’s more than 1 in 3 when trans people of color are surveyed.  6% reported physical assault by police and 2% reported sexual assault.  As a result, 46% said they feel uncomfortable seeking police assistance. Imagine that.

After all, who wants to be laughed at when they report a crime? Who wants to be the subject of officer chit-chat about what weird freak the officer had to deal with that way? Even more significant, different is often seen as dangerous to an officer – and the police response may be quite disproportionate to the need – multiple officers with backup, for instance, when a victim is reporting a crime (and there is no evidence of active violence). Why do the officers need backup when they don’t for other situations? Simply because the person is trans. Thus they must be dangerous – at least in some officers’ heads.

We need to expect more from our professional police.  Does your department have good policies? Will it treat trans people with respect, and take their complaints seriously? It’s worth finding out.

Insubordination, Ministers, and the Eighty (or ninth) Commandment

A former teacher in NYC seems to have won the first round in court against her former employer, a Catholic high school that she alleges discriminated against her on the basis of gender identity, something highly protected in New York City.  See the TV station video here.

St. Francis Prepatory School in Queens.  Picture by Jim Henderson, public domain.

St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens. Picture by Jim Henderson, public domain.

From what I can tell, there are two objections – the one that everyone thinks about and the other one.  The one everyone thinks about is something called the ministerial exception – that is, a church does not need to follow non-discrimination law when it comes to their ministers and others who are key parts of their religious institution.  For instance, a church can refuse to hire blacks to work as ministers, if their religion believes only whites should be ministers.  That’s perfectly legal, even though religious employers cannot discriminate in this way.  Does this privilege apply to a school?  I’ll talk about that in a second.

First, though, the reason the Catholic high school used initially to battle it: they claim she wasn’t fired for being trans, but for being insubordinate.  Are they lying?  I’m going to give them a lot of benefit of doubt and say, “Okay, let’s take their claim at face value.  Let’s for a minute assume they didn’t fire her because of Catholic beliefs about gender.

They claim it was insubordination.  Now, this former teacher accuses the school of telling her she was worse than gay (and you know they think gay is bad).  That sounds like something different than insubordination. But the judge phrased it best when he said, according to video on the ABC website, “Insubordination after 32 years of teaching? And the insubordination seems to coincide with the expression of being transgender?” Exactly.

But let’s move onto the issue of ministerial exception.  If they did fire her because of her gender identity, they are lying.  Lying is covered by one of the commandments (I say one because it’s the ninth for many Christian faiths, but the eighth for Catholics).  Interestingly, this commandment is usually translated as something similar to “thou shall not bear false witness.”  Yes, witness.  As in someone testifying in court.  As the Catholic’s Catechism (the church’s teachings on doctrine) paragraph 2476 explains:

False witness and perjury. When it is made publicly, a statement contrary to the truth takes on a particular gravity. In court it becomes false witness. When it is under oath, it is perjury. Acts such as these contribute to condemnation of the innocent, exoneration of the guilty, or the increased punishment of the accused. They gravely compromise the exercise of justice and the fairness of judicial decisions.

Let’s ignore this seemingly problematic passage however, and say that the school also claimed ministerial exception – as they in fact did.

There’s a key test for ministerial exception: it has to be a religious position.  For instance, a mosque could absolutely refuse to hire a Christian to lead services.  But it gets more tricky when it’s things like schools and hospitals.

Now, for some places, like hospitals, it’s pretty clear.  The only hospital in your city may be owned by the Catholic Church.  Can they refuse to hire a gay doctor?  Generally, no.  The reason is simple: it’s probably not wholly religious in purpose.  They probably hire non-Catholic doctors, something you wouldn’t do for someone entrusted to teach the faith.  You don’t get to have it both ways with the ministerial exception – either religion is important to you or it’s not in a given position, but you don’t get to say, “Oh, suddenly we care about this.”  In addition, the person actually needs to be engaged in the religious element of the institution’s mission.  So it doesn’t apply to a doctor generally, who is not teaching Catholic doctrine.

In addition, the hospital’s mission is not expressly religious.  You can tell this by their sign.  For instance, a nearby hospital to me is “Exempla Lutheran Medical Center.”  Would you believe it’s owned by Catholics (it used to be Lutheran)?  How about the “Exempla Physician Network?”  Does that sound religious?  By choosing, among other things, secular or non-Catholic names, they in effect are saying, “This isn’t just for Catholics and not about teaching Catholicism.”  Or they are being at best dishonest in their naming, through neglecting to mention their real mission!

I’d add that we don’t always get the luxury of choosing where we go in a medical emergency (and many people live in places that only have a single hospital).  Medical care is pretty important and we don’t generally think discrimination there is good (that said, the Catholics can and do discriminate based on their beliefs).

But what about a Catholic school?  I admit, I’ve got mixed feelings here.  In the US, we have public schools, so it’s not like a hospital where you can end up without you or your parents actually making a conscious choice. Now, an employee doesn’t have the same choices necessarily, but it is a bit different in character than a hospital.  That said, the question comes down to: is the person employed in a religious capacity?  Or are they there to teach math?  If they teach math all day, every day, then clearly they aren’t a religious minister.  They are a math teacher.  And thus, no, the Catholics cannot fire on the basis of age, family status, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, etc.  The burden is then on the Catholic institution to prove that this person is, in fact, a minister (used as a generic term, not a specific position).

Is it right for the government to tell a private employer what to do?  That’s a whole different discussion. But I do know that if we didn’t do that, it would be a lot harder for women, muslims, disabled people, gay people, etc, to get work.  And I personally don’t think we’d be better for it.

Another Bad Month

candleAugust was another bad month for trans people.

When I recount the violence I know about, remember that many crimes against trans people go unreported, don’t get media attention, or are treated as ordinary violence in media reports.  Sadly, the majority of crime against trans people falls into this unreported and ignored category.

Even so, what is reported is horrifying and shows us, again, that we need to continue to fight for trans people.  Not for marriage.  Not for employment.  Not for bathroom access.  Just for the right for trans people to exist.  Just to exist.

As always, I strive to respect who people are.  Unfortunately, the preferred gender identities, names, and pronouns of victims are not always evident from reports.  In addition, some cultures have different views among trans people of who they are – all the world doesn’t view gender as western society does.  I’ve tried to be respectful of people, and am sorry that not everything linked here goes to that same trouble.  I also know I may get it wrong, as I am forced in most cases to rely on media reports.  I welcome correction and will update this post accordingly.  I’ve also tried to be respectful in what I link, but at the same time, some of the only reporting is often horrifying or degrading.  Please keep this in mind when clicking links.

During the beginning of the month, a trans woman was brutally attacked by a group of thugs in Russia.  The attackers even video taped themselves brutally attacking the woman.  Unfortunately, we don’t know if the woman’s physical wounds have healed or not, but it is clear that the attack will have lifelong consequences.  It’s hard to imagine that not only could someone do this to someone else, but they could actually make a graphic video about it.

On Aug 18, 2013, in Ankara, Turkey, a crowd violently attacked a group of trans people, beating them with bats, gassing them, and destroying their automobiles.  When the crime was reported to police, with license plate information, the police claimed that the license plates were false.  However, the victims report that they are concerned that the apathy of police will cause these attacks to continue.

In Dhobi Ghat, India, on Aug 19, a trans person was raped.  The rapist went on to rape severely ill person (who died, in large part due to the attack according to relatives) only a few hours later, followed by participating in a gang rape against a photojournalist two days later.

One day later, on Aug 20, in Fontana, CA, USA, Dominique Newburn was murdered in a violent struggle with her attacker.  Some of her belongings were stolen, and a manhunt continues for the suspected killer.

On August 22, in New York City, a Islan Nettles was brutally attacked, dying several days later having never regained consciousness from her injuries.  The murderer was a student at a local university who was apparently so enraged upon finding out that the woman he was hitting on (and who turned him down) and her friends were trans brutally attacked Islan in front of a New York City police station, leaving her unconscious.  Islan’s friends were also attacked, although with less significant injuries.  Meanwhile, the suspected killer’s mother, seems to have found another man to try to take the blame for the murder, to spare her son jail time.  Fortunately, police are still investigating Paris Wilson, the originally suspected killer.  It should be noted that others were also likely involved in attacking the trans women.

Of course, even in all of this, several of the victims of the crimes described above faced additional injustice when they reported the crimes to apathetic police, endured misgendering, were referred to as “drunk” or “prostitutes” by police and/or media, and even when their families used the wrong pronouns or names in talking about the victims.  The attack rarely stops when the physical violence ends.

This article puts it in perspective, speaking about July:

These findings were based on statistics released by the Organization of American States and included incidents from Canada, the United States, Central America and South America. The report found that in the month of July alone, 39 people were murdered: 23 transgender people and 16 gays and lesbians.

The article goes on to talk about that, while gays face more risk of violence than straight people, trans people, particularly trans women and non-white trans people, face violence at an incredibly increased rate compared to even gay people.

This has to stop.  When you see people devaluing the humanity of another, whether it’s a crass joke, intentional misgendering, laughing at someone’s gender presentation, or gossiping behind their back, you need to speak up.  These things are not violent attacks, but they lower the social status of trans people and make them less than fully human in some people’s eyes.  And they’re asshole things to do besides.

On Pronouns

The actress Laverne Cox said, in response to misgendering of a trans murder victim during a vigil remembering her life, “I know as a trans woman, and I think so many trans women in the audience understand, that when we’re misgendered, that is an act of violence for us,” she said. “It’s a part of the violence that lead to Islan’s death.”

It’s a part of the violence that lead to Islan’s death.


It’s a part of the violence that lead to Islan’s death.

This is not rocket science.  It’s not hard to refer to a woman as a woman.  And before you object that “well, you can’t always tell,” (hint: that’s a pretty horrible thing to say to a trans person) or “it takes me a while to get used to someone’s new gender” (another hint: it’s not their new gender, it’s their gender period), let me say I’m not talking about a one-time slip that you learn about.  And before you say that was the problem at Islan Nettle’s vigil, let me mention that someone speaking at the funeral of a trans person, particularly someone representing an LGBT group, is expected to at least read some random Trans 101 – I even have one targeted towards people who want to be allies on this site.

Islan NettlesToo often, it’s that people simply can’t be bothered (or don’t want) to recognize someone’s gender.  I’ve seen parents 15 years after their child disclosed their gender who still use the wrong pronouns and names for their child.  Are you really telling me that you can’t love someone enough to change after 15 years?  Now, I’m talking about supposedly supportive parents – that is, people who consider themselves supportive of their child’s identity.  I’m not talking about the other group of parents, the group that refuses to recognize their child’s gender out of some sort of misguided idea that this was a bad ethical choice.

I’ve seen other people who don’t change and say, “I’ve known him for a long time, so it’s hard to see him as a girl” or similar nonsense.  No, it’s not.  It might be some work on your part, but if you truly care you’ll do it.  If you say a person is your friend, that you would go out of your way for this person, then fricking go out of your way and respect them.  It’s a lot easier than helping them move to a new apartment, after all (something you probably wouldn’t hesitate to do for a friend).

I truly think part of this is how wonderfully willing most trans people are to give people who seem even slightly supportive some space and time when they first come out.  They know there are patterns of speech that might take a bit.  But sometimes people take advantage of this, and just use it as an excuse not to change.  And it’s hard to tighten the reigns.  That’s why so many parents of trans people refer to their son or daughter with the wrong pronouns, while their child is right next to them!  The (likely adult) child doesn’t want to lose the relationship completely over this, but at the same time, the parents are doing this incredibly hurtful – even violent – thing.

I’ll tell you a secret about most of the trans people I know: most don’t want to live their whole life as a “trans” person.  They want to be respected and accepted in their gender.  They don’t want to be different.  They want to be the same as all of us.

So it is an act of violence.  It reinforces the idea that trans people aren’t really the gender they say they are, that there is something weird going on, that the person isn’t quite who they identify as.  And that’s the excuse people who use physical violence do.

Now, I can hear the objection: using the wrong pronoun isn’t like a physical attack.  No, it’s different.  That doesn’t mean it’s more or less violent though.  You can be emotionally or psychologically violent – not just physically violent.

And for the next objection, heard from the person using the wrong pronouns: “I wasn’t intending to hurt.”  Maybe, maybe not (someone who was trying to reinforce the idea that someone’s gender wasn’t as they said would likely say this very same thing).  But even if you weren’t, you did.  And if you did so after correction (yes, a mistake here or there is okay), and it’s not intentional, it’s just not caring.  There’s this thing that is really, deeply important: who the person is, and the wrong pronouns deny that person’s existence, erase it, trample on it.  You don’t need to mean to do it – you can do great harm by just not caring.

And, finally, the last objection: you might have a friend/brother/sister/parent/etc that doesn’t mind when you use pronouns that don’t match their identity.  Let me let you in on a secret: most trans people who identify as a man want to be identified as a man.  And most trans people who identify as a woman want to be identified as a man.  A failure to lash out at someone who is inconsiderate and hurtful is not the same as being happy about it – nor is it proof it isn’t hurtful.  Too many trans people have few relationships with others, so the ones they have, even if they are hurtful, may be better than absolute loneliness.  It’s better than the alternative.  That said, it’s a sick person who doesn’t care enough about their friend to worry about whether “well, this relationship is better than suicide or loneliness.”  We should be better than that.  We should be someone who affirms our friends and family members, who affirm the core of their being.  So even if your friend/brother/sister/parent/etc doesn’t seem to mind when you use the wrong pronouns, you’re an ass if you don’t find a way to use the right ones.

And you know what?  You already know this.  Want me to prove it?  Quick: What do you think the reaction would be if you told the jock in High School that he “looked like a girl out there on the athletic field?”  Depending on how much the jock liked peace, you might end up with a black eye or bloody nose.  So you already know this.  What is the insult hurled after women who succeed in their career?  “She’s more of a man than most men!”  So you already know this.  Yes, these examples are also very misogynistic (and I’m certainly not defending them), which is equally bad, but it is clear that most people want to be referred to as they are.  You know that.

In summary, what pronouns should you use?  The non-violent ones.  That is, the ones that the person themself would have you use of them, whether that’s pronouns like “he” or pronouns like “she” or pronouns like “ze.”  Once you know, you have a choice to make: take the little bit of effort to use the right words *or* be an ass.  The choice is yours.