Are police in Metropolitan D.C. participating in a heavy dose of transphobia? Sure seems like it, according to a new report, Moving Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington, D.C., which suggests that transgender folks inside the Beltway face routine harassment and mistreatment by law enforcement.
The report covers the experience that sex workers -- or those who are perceived to be sex workers -- face when dealing with the police. And for transgender people, both those that are sex workers and those that are not, the findings are jarring. According to the report, when transgender folks need police assistance, the police often fall far short of being helpful. More than 50 percent of trans survey respondents said that they were dissatisfied by the assistance they got from police, and that they almost universally thought the police “discriminated against them because of their perceived sex worker status, sexual orientation, or gender identity,” and as a result were “neglected, ignored, harassed, or abused instead of helped.”
Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the story of a young transgender woman who told authors of the report that police threatened to slam her head against a wall and rip her hair out. Or a transgender sex worker who was told by police that she could be beaten down in an alley.
But the alleged transphobia described in Moving Along only scratches the surface of some messed up police work. Because it turns out that in an effort to fight prostitution, D.C. is heralding actions that threaten the public health. Look no further than a police practice under which possession of more than three condoms on your personhood can be used as evidence for an arrest for suspicion of prostitution.
Couple that with widespread transphobia, and you get a toxic mix that sends sex underground, discourages people from engaging in safe-sex practices, and causes people to avoid police altogether -- even when they need help. And the really scary part? D.C. is not alone. It seems that San Francisco and New York City preach similar policies.
According to Questioning Transphobia, NYC police and courts use possession of condoms as an indicator for prostitution. The organization Sex Workers Project points out that “Sex workers report that they are more likely to be arrested if they carry condoms, and sex work venues are more likely to be raided if there are condoms on the premises.”
Same goes for SF, too, where folks say that condoms are frequently used as probable cause for arrest. That’s pushed one infectious disease expert to say that fear prohibits sex workers from carrying condoms. And that’s led to really high rates of sexually-transmitted diseases.
Criminalizing condoms can be fatal. Add to that police forces that engage in transgender profiling -- including transgender folks who are not sex workers -- and you get an environment that fosters violence, disease, and insecurity. Time to take action.
Let the mayors of Washington, D.C., as well as NYC and SF, know that nobody should fear carrying condoms, and nobody should fear contacting the police if they need help. That goes for everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Especially in places like DC where the rate of people with HIV is so high, it's awful that police can scare people away from carrying condoms around with them, especially those who are at higher risk. And also, when police are continually transmisogynistic, it could discourage a transwoman who's been assaulted, for example, from going to the police if they'll just assume she was attacked by "clients".