The modern gay rights movement was born on June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, on Christopher Street in New York City’s West Village. Resistance broke out in response to a violent police raid against the gay community, and riots continued for several days. Many of the key leaders were transgender women, such as Sylvia Rivera, who had started her activism during the 1950s civil rights movement and continued until her death in 2002.
More than 40 years later, correspondent Christof Putzel and I returned to Christopher Streeet and found that even in a place long considered a haven for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, many LGBT individuals are still living in fear of police violence.
Mitchyll Mora, a young activist, said police had harassed him for dressing feminine, and his friends for not fitting into narrow gender roles.
“Christopher Street is a historic location, and it's always been a haven for queer folks, especially young folks of color. But with gentrification, there's been aggressive policing here, and that's a really scary thing,” Mora told us. “It's scary when safe spaces are taken away from us.”
It’s not just in New York City. A 2012 study [PDF] by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that transgender people across the U.S. experience three times as much police violence as non-transgender individuals. Those numbers are even higher for transgender people of color. Even when transgender people were the victims of hate crimes, 48 percent reported receiving mistreatment from the police when they went for help.
Andrea Ritchie, an attorney specializing in police misconduct, told us that law enforcement sees policing gender roles as part of their work.
“I think most people are familiar with racial profiling,” she told us. “But I think people are less familiar with how gender is really central to policing in the United States. That includes expectations in terms of how women are supposed to look, how men are supposed to look, how women are supposed to act and how men are supposed to act.”
When people look or act queer or gender nonconforming, she said, police “often read that as disorder and they often perceive that person as already disorderly, as already suspicious, as already prone to violence.”
Dean Spade, a lawyer and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a poverty law center that represents transgender people, agrees. “That's part of what policing is – is this kind of generalized suspicion,” he said. “Does something look out of place? And transgender people are often that thing that looks out of place.”
Transgender Americans are also more likely to be poor and homeless, because of discrimination in jobs, housing and access to social services.
“If you are poor and you can't access those things, you're more likely to be poor and on the street which puts you in the path of the police,” said Spade.
For transgender Americans, this cycle of poverty, homelessness and prison can start early, since many are rejected by their families as teenagers, and end up in foster care and the juvenile justice system. “Those systems are predictors for the adult punishment systems,” Spade said. “Let's say a young trans girl is placed in a boys' group home, and she doesn't feel safe there. She leaves, so she's possibly living on the street, doing whatever she can to get by. Then she ends up in the criminal justice system.”
More hate crime laws might seem like one way to better protect transgender Americans. But advocates point out that much of the violence trans communities face is at the hands of the police itself. “And so the notion that expanding that system’s power to punish will somehow save us is really harmful,” Spade explained.