Less than a week after the ruthless videotaped beating of 22-year-old transgender woman Chrissy Lee Polis at a Baltimore-area McDonald’s, progressive and queer communities are grappling with a host of difficult questions: How do we create safer communities for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people? And for advocates who worry about overly aggressive policing and sentencing in communities of color, what’s the role of criminal justice in combatting this violence?
Transgender community advocates and service providers have been wrestling with these questions for some time. So I spoke with Reina Gossett at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a New York-based legal services organization for low-income queer and transgender people about the Baltimore attack. SRLP is one of a handful of LGBT rights organizations to have opposed both state and federal hate crime legislation. And the group works explicitly to combat the bias and violence that transgender people routinely encounter around public bathrooms; one of Polis’ attackers attempted to justify the violence by arguing that she should not have been in the women’s restroom. In SRLP’s view, crimes against marginalized communities should instead be handled with an eye toward prevention instead of punishment. To that end, they advocate for a radical redistribution of wealth, housing and health care to help foster an environment that they say would prevent violence in the first place.
Here’s Gossett’s take on some of the issues at play in the attack and ensuing public debate.
On public bathrooms:
"There’s a level of violence that trans folks have to navigate everyday, and bathrooms are one site where that violence happens. Whether it’s at the welfare office, the Social Security administration, the shelter system or McDonald’s, bathrooms are a place of violence for trans folks. One of the resources that we put together explaining and talking about bathroom violence is called ‘Toilet Training.‘ It’s not just bathrooms. Anytime that trans people are accessing our basic survival needs in New York City, we’re constantly navigating different sites of violence."
On hate crime prosecutions:
"Pooja Gehi gave this brilliant talk in which she was talking about hate crimes legislation and named–and people were really surprised to hear this–that black men are disproportionately arrested for race-based hate crimes against white people. The second largest category of hate crimes tracked by the FBI is race-based hate crimes against white people.
"In New York several years ago, there was an incident of a group of queer women [dubbed The New Jersey 4] being attacked in the West Village and harassed, and they fought back. And what happened was the hate crimes legislation was used against them so that it was considered a crime against a heterosexual person.
"And I think that should give people great pause. This thing that was set up to protect people is actually working to put more people of color, more LGBT people into the prison industrial complex."
On police presence in LGBT communities of color:
"One of the things is that it send more police into communities. In 2008, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that one third of violence that LGBT people have to face comes from law enforcement, service providers, security people, landlords and bosses.
"In 2008 and 2009, Queers for Economic Justice did a survey of 171 low-income LGBT and gender non-conforming people in New York City, primarily folks who were living in the shelter system. We published a report called ‘A Fabulous Attitude‘ … to see how people were having to navigate violence, and we overwhelmingly found that people who were trans received the most amount of sexual attention from the police, received the most amount of tickets and summons, were arrested far more frequently and physically assaulted far more frequently than people who were not trans.
"There’s no evidence at all that shows that people who are sent to prison under hate crime legislation come out of prison and are less likely to harm another marginalized person. It doesn’t rehabilitate people, it doesn’t make anyone safer."
On media coverage of transgender people:
"So often our struggles aren’t covered unless we’re attacked or harmed. So it’s also really important to highlight the ways that trans people aren’t victims. We’re also resisting and fighting back and we’re building strong communities."