Gender Policing: The Criminalization of Womanhood

In American society, due to factors such as racism, heteronormativity, and cissexism (factors often compounded by the arguably patriarchal society in which we live) women oftentimes find themselves victimized. Laws can, however, be put into place that will help to protect women from victimization, either by instituting punishments that would serve to act as a deterrent to would be perpetrators of violence, or by establishing regulatory laws that will either serve to help prevent or clearly define certain harmful acts as illegal, thereby giving them grounds by which to take cases of victimization to court. As such, developments in the policy area of criminal justice have a substantial impact on women, particularly women who are members of other marginalized groups as well, and thus more likely to have acts of violence committed against their person. Currently, transgender women, especially transgender women of color, often find themselves on the receiving end of violence not just from their fellow civilians, but from police officers. As a result, there have been calls from LGBTQIAP+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, asexual, and transgender) activists, people of color, and feminists alike to further regulate our police force, and to expand our notion of “violence against women” to include state-sponsored acts of violence such as violence at the hands of law enforcement; additionally, these calls meet the five factors of a social movement, and so hopefully will be successful.

The tension between police and transgender women dates back at least as far as the Stonewall Riots in 1969, a mobilizing event in the gay rights movement, which occurred at a time during which there was a lot of intersection between the drag and transgender communities. After a police raid on Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, a force of drag queens began rioting. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were among them, with Sylvia Rivera throwing quarters at the police.

According to Roy McCarthy,[1] who was present for the riots because he was staying with a friend whose apartment was on the street on which they took place, drag queens were responsible for spearheading the event, and other members of the LGBTQIAP+ community followed suit:

By the time we got down there, the paddy wagon had just pulled up. The queens were just starting to come out and someone had just thrown a high heel. There may have been coins or whatever, but I was there within a couple minutes after the festivities started. I did see high heels flying! The queens — the transgenders or the crossdressers — were yelling something from across the street by the paddy wagon; they were yelling at the cops. We were cheering on the transgenders — the crossdressers — it just sort of snowballed from there.

Though this is one of the first notable instances of opposition between transgender women and the police, there has been a long and troubling history of police violence toward transgender women since then, and this violence is founded in sociological and anthropological roots, since it is the result of existing social structures that work together to effectively to criminalize the trans identity.

Antidiscrimination laws rarely cover transgender women, and according to the report A Broken Bargain for Transgender Workers, transgender workers report unemployment at twice the rate of the population as a whole, and are nearly four times more likely than the population as a whole to have a household income of under $10,000.[2]

Ray Carannante,[3] associate director of the Gender Identity Project at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in New York, had this to say on the subject:

They’re often turned away from places like McDonald’s if they’re visibly trans — the most basic workplaces and most basic jobs. They’re out there and they often have to rely on sex work. Very often, trans young people have to rely on sex work, regardless of what other skills they have.

Transgender men, women, and non-binary individuals alike are all often barred from entering the workforce; as women, however, transgender women are often more heavily sexualized, and even fetishized to the point that there exists an entire genre of porn that makes novelties and commodities out of their bodies (all while portraying them in a negative light, and using offensive, transphobic language).[4] Because of this, it is most often female presenting non-binary individuals and transgender women who turn to sex work, since there is more of a market for their services.

This causes for transgender women to often be profiled and mistaken by police for sex workers, regardless of whether or not they actually are. In many states, it is even legally permissible for them to be arrested and charged with prostitution if they are so much as suspected of sex work, even in cases in which they were not clearly engaged in such an act. In certain cases, finding condoms in a woman’s purse can be all the proof officers need to jail her on prostitution charges, especially if she is also found with cash on her person, as has happened in countless cases, and sometimes corrupt police officers go so far as to plant them on women suspected of sex work. [5] This is a big problem in cities such as Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, where many people use public transportation as opposed to cars, since transgender women can be accused of soliciting sex simply for occupying public space.

Notably, this was such a big problem in New York, a city that spends more than one million dollars a year to distribute free condoms in order to promote safe sex among its constituents, that a policy change had to be implemented that served to limit the instances in which unused condoms could be seized as evidence of prostitution.[6] This policy change did not come easily, however, but was rather the result of a long and continued push from public health advocates, civil rights groups, as well as advocates for sex workers and gay, lesbian and transgender young people, and even still allows for condoms to be seized in sex trafficking and promotion of prostitution cases, despite opposition from advocates who believe that such exemptions could allow the continued harassment of transgender women for carrying condoms, as well as have other unintended negative consequences.

While it might be easy to dismiss this profiling as justified due to the rate at which transgender turn to sex work in order to get by financially and pay for their transitions, it has consequences too damaging for it to be given a pass. Transgender people are 3.32 times as likely to experience police violence compared to non- transgender people, transgender people of color are 2.46 times as likely to experience physical violence by the police compared to white non-transgender people, and transgender women are 2.90 times as likely to experience police violence compared to overall people reporting violence, according to the 2012 National Report on Hate Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and HIV-Affected Communities. [7] This report makes it clear that intersecting forms of oppression directed at these three groups serves to make transgender women, particularly transgender women of color, the most vulnerable group within the LGBTQIAP+ community.

Because the transgender individuals of the LGBTQIAP+ community are hit so hard, it is crucial that the rest of the LGBTQIAP+ community support their transgender compatriots. While transgender members of the LGBTQIAP+ community often find themselves at the fringes of their community, there has been some progress in regards to the rest of the LGBTQIAP+ community stepping up to support them, especially now that the United States is closer than ever to achieving marriage equality, which means that other issues affecting the LGBTQIAP+ community can finally be given priority.

Even the HRC (Human Rights Campaign), which made marriage equality its main priority and has been condemned for being trans exclusory in the past,[8] has begun to advocate for transgender issues, and has posts on its website now that talk about issues faced by the transgender community. One, in particular, calls for more protections specifically for transgender women, [9] though it does not address violence carried out by the police, likely because doing so would be politically controversial, and this organization has a history of trying to make the LGBTQIAP+ movement more palatable to a mainstream audience, and so would be hesitant to take a stance that might be seen as radical. As the HRC accomplishes more and more of its goals, and so further broadens the issues it takes on, however, it is possible that at some point it will choose to address police violence towards transgender women, meaning that activists already addressing this issue will find themselves a new ally in this pre-existing group.

Already, transgender women, especially transgender women of color, fighting to be treated fairly by the police have allies in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which was co-created first as an online hashtag (and, thus, a communications network, of sorts) by three queer women, Alizia Garza (an experienced organizer who has tackled other crisis events, in the past), Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi after the death of Trayvvon Martin. This movement soon expanded from a social media hashtag and was taken to the streets through a Black Live Matter ride, led by Cullors and Darnell L. Moore to support the movement that began to grow after Michael Brown was killed in St. Louis.[10]

According to Garza,[11] it is important to her and the movement’s co-founders that the movement be intersectional and open to all members of the Black community, who are often unfairly targeted by the police:

It felt really important that the narrative out there about black men being the only ones to be impacted by state violence isn’t true. Black trans folks are also black folks, and they are disproportionately targeted. When we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, we’re talking about all black lives.

Perhaps most notably, there also exists INCITE!, another activist organization that offers another coordinated effort toward combatting this problem, as well, and this one is more directly tied to the transgender community, as opposed to just being welcoming to transgender women, or offering them limited support, like in the case of the HRC.

On the organization’s website, INCITE! is described as:

a national activist organization of radical feminists of color advancing a movement to end violence against women of color and our communities through direct action, critical dialogue and grassroots organizing.[12]

One of INCITE!’s projects, on which they have partnered with other national and local groups, specifically targets police violence.[13] The end goal of this project is multifaceted and the aim, they say, is to:

call attention to the urgent (though often invisible) problem to law enforcement violence against women of color and trans people of color, collect stories from women of color and transgender people of color about their experiences with law enforcement violence to use as further evidence of how gender- and race-based oppression are used to target us, build strong national networks among women of color and trans people of color organizers to strengthen our ongoing work addressing violence, advocate for and develop community-based alternative responses to addressing domestic and sexual violence so that survivors are not forced to rely on police and prisons, make critical partnerships with groups organizing against police brutality and prisons to support a critical gender analysis when considering what police and prison violence looks like and how to end it; and with groups addressing “violence against women,” such as anti-domestic violence and anti-rape organizations, to use a critical race analysis and expand our notion of “violence against women” to include state-sponsored violence such as law enforcement violence, make connections between all kinds of law enforcement (including local and state police; immigration enforcement such as ICE, Border Patrol, and Customs; Drug Enforcement Agents; the FBI; private security agents; and military forces) so that we better understand how local police collaborate with immigration police, how local police are often trained by military forces, how U.S. neighborhoods are actually occupied by military forces (such as in post-Katrina New Orleans), how military violence abroad is connected to police and military violence in the U.S., how private security contractors play a critical role in the function and violence of law enforcement, and make connections between gender-policing and gender violence targeting transgender people of color and non-trans women of color.

Police violence toward transgender women oftentimes veers into the category of sexual assault, with forcible groping or nudity imposed on women encountering the police, and sometimes even rape. This is so significant a problem, in fact, that it is not in accordance with the United Nations’ Humans Rights Committee, and could be argued to violate the Convention against Torture, something that could turn into a real problem for the United States, since the United Nations already made suggestions for Myanmar on how to address its problem of police violence against transgender women.[14] So far, the United Nations’ suggestions have gone largely ignored, meaning that this issue does not have much in the way of internal government support, at least not support that translates into action. In his state of the Union Address, Obama mentioned the transgender community, a historic precedent that, though largely symbolic, marks the first time they have been mentioned in a State of the Union address, as well as the need for reform of our criminal justice system, though the stance he took on Ferguson was a weak, conciliatory one, which indicates a lasting deference to police.

Police violence toward transgender women tends not to get a lot of mainstream attention, or at least not historically, though instances of it do tend to get publicized at least within the community, and act mobilizing events. One such instance was the suspected killing Nizah Morris, a black transgender woman in Philadelphia, by police on December 22nd, 2002, after friends called police and asked them to escort her home, since they feared that she was too drunk to drive. Officers Elizabeth Skala-DiDonato, Thomas Berry, and the third officer Kenneth Novak, who never accounted for his whereabouts between 3:13 and 3:25 AM, were there for Morris’s final moments, and are thought by the transgender community to have been involved in her death.[15] Police say that she sobered up and left their vehicle, and that Berry was later dispatched again later that morning when she was found unconscious and bleeding in the street. When Berry found Morris he ruled that a crime had not taken place, and covered her face while she was still alive. She was left on scene for 40 minutes before being taken to a hospital, and it is believed that if she had received immediate medical attention, she would have recovered from her injuries.

In another instance, Islan Nettles, a transgender woman in New York, was brutally beaten and murdered just across the street from a police precinct. Though police took a suspect into custody and investigated the incident as a hate crime, handling it more appropriately than the incident above, news reports left many people wondering how such a violent crime could have gone unnoticed when it took place so near to a police station.[16]

Advocates for police reform want policies put in place that would protect not just transgender women, but anyone who might come into contact with police, making this a feminist issue, but also a public good, should reform be instituted.

A successful deterrent to police misconduct has been put into effect in Rialto, CA, where police officers have been mounted with body cameras, which are attached to collars, glasses, or caps, and turned on to record their interactions with the public. The program has been effective in reducing complaints against officers by 88 percent and could serve as a solution to the problems nationwide.[17] In fact, advocates have noted how successful the program has been in Rialto, and so are calling for it to be put into place in police departments across the nation.

Additionally, advocates have proposed for the guidelines for what constitutes acceptable use of force to be re-written,[18] so that they are expanded to:

include the circumstances leading up to the use of force, so that the inquiry into the misconduct sweeps in whatever the officer did prior to the decision to  use force, along with the conduct of the victim.

As also pointed out by writer, LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, who also made the above suggestion, civilian oversight agencies are also considered a priority among many advocates for police reform who argue that it holds officers:

accountable to the public by providing independent review of complaints of police misconduct, instead of relying solely upon internal investigations in which the police investigate themselves.

Great gains have been made in that society is more aware of acts of violence perpetuated by police, if not the specific rate at which they are faced by transgender women, and while action has not been taken yet on a federal level, individual states have been taking action to combat this problem. Many cities and counties do, for example, have their own civilian review process for their police departments.[19]

Barriers still exist, however, in that Society has vested police officers with power, turning them into agents of authority. As a result, citizens are taught from an early age to trust police officers and to go to them for help if in need of protection. Children as young as five are taught to memorize the number 911, so that they can call for help in case of an emergency. While the parents and teachers who impart this message have good intentions, they also cause the idea of police credibility to be planted into the minds of United States citizens from an early age, which means that their word tends to be valued above that of the people they harm or kill, sometimes to the point where complaints lodged against them are not investigated or taken seriously, especially if they act violently toward a member of an already stigmatized group, such as transgender women.

All in all, a movement to combat police violence and protect transgender women is in progress, since these issues are intertwined, if not one in the same. There is a long fight to be fought, however, before this movement reaches its conclusion.

Works Cited

“About INCITE!” INCITE!, 2014. Web. Apr. 2015.

Brathwaite, Les F. “Trans Woman Dead After Being Viciously Beaten Outside NYC Police Station.” Queerty, Inc., 23 Aug. 2013. Web. Apr. 2015.

Brighe, Mari. ““Transsexual” Pornography and The Allure of the “Shemale,” or “How I Stopped Being Angry at TG Porn Stars and Wanted to Hug Bailey Jay.”.” Mari Brighe, 27 May 2013. Web. Apr. 2015.

Cordell, LaDoris Hazzard. “We Actually Know Exactly How to Stop Police From Using Excessive Force. Why Don’t We Do It?” Slate. The Slate Group LLC, 15 Aug. 2014. Web. Apr. 2015.

Garza, Alicia. “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement by Alicia Garza – The Feminist Wire.” The Feminist Wire, 07 Oct. 2014. Web. Apr. 2015.

Goldman, Russell. “Making Change: The Cost of Being Transgender.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 10 May 2007. Web. Apr. 2015.

HRC Staff. “HRC Calls for Stronger Laws and Increased Protection of Transgender Women.” The Human Rights Campaign, 21 July 2014. Web. Apr. 2015.

Lovett, Ian. “In California, a Champion for Police Cameras.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Aug. 2013. Web. Apr. 2015.

Movement Advancement Project, Center for American Progress, Human Rights Campaign, and National Center for Transgender Equality. A Broken Bargain for Transgender Workers (n.d.): n. pag. Sept. 2013. Web. Apr. 2015.

THE NATIONAL COALITION OF ANTI-VIOLENCE PROGRAMS. “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and HIV-Affected Hate Violence in 2013. 2014 Release Edition.” (n.d.): n. pag. Equality Michigan, 29 May 2014. Web. Apr. 2015.

Oh, Inae. “NYPD To Stop Seizing Condoms As Evidence Of Prostitution.” The Huffington Post., 12 July 2014. Web. Apr. 2015.

Roberts, Monica. “TransGriot.” TransGriot. Monica Roberts, 8 Oct. 2007. Web. Apr. 2015.

Rodriguez, Princess H. “Whose Lives Matter?: Trans Women of Color and Police Violence.” Home, 09 Dec. 2014. Web. Apr. 2015.

Sauers, Jenna. “Carrying Condoms Can Get You Arrested For Prostitution.” Jezebel. Gawker Media, 5 Mar. 2013. Web. Apr. 2015.

Smith, Heather. “Meet the BART-stopping Woman behind “Black Lives Matter”” Grist Magazine, Inc., 04 Dec. 2014. Web. Apr. 2015.

“Stop Law Enforcement Violence.” INCITE!, 2014. Web. Apr. 2015.

The Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois. “Police in the United States Harassing, Assaulting and Unlawfully Arresting Transgender Women Based On Their Gender Identity.” (n.d.): n. pag. Endorsed by The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, Josephine Hutchins, Susan Elizabeth Shepard, Caty Simon; Editors; T&S, a Sex Worker Run Policy and Media Website, and Jodie M. Dewey, PhD; Chicago, Illinois. Web. Apr. 2015.

“U.S. Oversight Agency Websites – NACOLE.” NACOLE. National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, 2013. Web. Apr. 2015.

Williams, Cristan. “Interview With an Actual Stonewall Riot Veteran: The Ciswashing of Stonewall Must End!” The Transadvocate and Its Individual Contributors., 18 Feb. 2013. Web. Apr. 2015.

[1] Accessed from on April, 2015.

[2] Accessed from on April, 2015.

[3] Accessed from on April, 2015.

[4] Accessed from on April, 2015.

[5] Accessed from on April, 2015.

[6] Accessed from on April, 2015.

[7] Accessed from and on April, 2015.

[8] Accessed from on April, 2015.            9 Accessed from on April, 2015.8

[ 9] Accessed from on April, 2015.8

[10] Accessed from on April, 2015.

[11] Accessed from on April, 2015.

[12] Accessed from on April, 2015.

[13] Accessed from on April, 2015.

[14] Accessed from on April, 2015.

[15] Accessed from on April, 2015.

[16] Accessed from on April, 2015.

[17] Accessed from on April, 2015.

[18] Accessed from on April, 2015.

[19] Accessed from on April, 2015.


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