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.
The New York Police Department declined to speak with us, but Professor Maki Haberfeld, a vocal defender of the department’s policies who also leads diversity training for hundreds of NYPD officers every tear, told America Tonight the department doesn’t use profiling. “But police officers come with their own biases, their own perceptions of who is the usual suspect,” she said.
Advocacy organizations are working to change the discrimination LGBT people face. The group TransJustice, for example, trains transgender New Yorkers on their on their rights in interactions with police.
But it isn’t just the police who have attitudes that hurt the LGBT community, advocates told us. The media is guilty too. The example advocates gave again and again was the case of the New Jersey Four.
In 2006, a group of black lesbians from New Jersey were arrested for stabbing a man on Sixth Avenue in the West Village.
There are two sides to the story. The women said a man, Dwayne Buckle, made crude sexual advances that they rejected, telling him they were lesbians. In response, they said, he spat at them and tried to choke two of the women. A fight ensued, and Buckle was stabbed in self-defense, they said. Buckle contended that he made a flirtatious remark as the women walked by, and they then attacked him, without his provocation.
“The police responded to the scene and read the women not as people who were survivors of a violent attack, but as perpetrators of violence,” Ritchie told America Tonight. “This was because they were young, because they were black, because they were gender nonconforming.”
We spoke to two members of the Jersey Four, Patreese Johnson, who served almost eight years in prison, and Renata Hill, whose assault conviction was vacated. Looking at these women, it was hard to imagine the severe sentences they had received. Patreese is under five feet tall hardly seems threatening. They described a legal system stacked against them from the beginning. They said the police immediately profiled them as criminals, a newspaper called them “killer lesbians,” Fox News called them a lesbian gang,and the prosecutor called them animals.
“Now this is a group of girls who never had any criminal history,” said Hill. “Who was in school and college, working, family, with our own apartments, everything. And none of that was spoken about.”
No reporter tried to reach out to their attorneys to try to get their story, according to Johnson. “What they had was off of assumptions in the police reports,” she said. “None of our statements were considered, so we were automatically found guilty throughout the media.”