DC cops scared about bad press around trans rights

The DC Trans Coalition, a fantastic local organization, filed a Freedom of Information Act request last year to look at police correspondence about the treatment of transgender folks by the DC police force. What they found suggests public pressure is having an impact on how trans folks are treated when in police custody.

There’s a history of bad press around these issues in DC. Amanda Hess lays out some of the background:

In July of 2007, police arrested Virginia Grace Soto for missing a court date. Then, judging by what they called her “masculine features,” police wrongfully determined that Soto was a post-operative trans woman, detained her in a male facility over her objections, and forced her to sleep and shower with men.

The incident inspired a media and activist outcry, forcing the D.C. government to publicly address how any woman—trans or otherwise—could come to be housed with men against her will.

What happened to Soto is disgusting, and the fact that the same thing happens to trans folks all the time is no less despicable regardless of their gender histories. Soto’s case led to policy changes within the police force and Department of Corrections, though there is still a lot of work to be done.

Hess highlights correspondence from 2009 that shows officials are scared of a repeat public embarrassment. In an email exchange about police possibly misgendering a trans detainee Devon Brown, the director of DC’s Department of Corrections at the time, wrote:

“We will need to confer on this matter due to its sensitive matter… as it holds the potential of generating a possible media event and exposing the District to liability reminiscent of that stemming from the arrest and subsequent processing of [Virginia Soto], the individual who was arrested as a male and treated as such despite being female… In light of the highly explosive, negative media and community response that emerged from the identical circumstances surrounding the [Soto] case, I consider this matter to be of acute importance.”

Now, this is not the ideal reason for police to care about actually treating trans folks with respect. As the DC Trans Coalition’s Jason Terry told Hess, “[I]t’s disheartening that the chief and the mayor were more concerned about getting bad press than respecting someone’s rights… I’m sure there are plenty of cases like this that those leaders never learn about, and never do anything about.”

But the fact that negative attention from the press and activist groups worried police enough to focus on properly identifying trans folks gives me a lot of hope. The injustice experienced by trans folks in this country is so beyond appalling that I’ve certainly had my moments of feeling helpless in the face of oppression. This case suggests that when we speak up loudly, publicly, as often and in as many spaces as we can, change really does happen. We’ve got a long way to go before my community experiences anything close to justice, but the fact the police are scared of us tells me we’re winning.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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