Trigger Warning for discussions of police harassment and violence against trans* people.
The New Jersey police department is being sued after two Newark officers allegedly harassed a trans woman on the basis of her gender identity.
Diana Taylor of Newark said two officers steered their cruiser into her path as she walked down a street two blocks from her home on March 23, 2009. According to Taylor, the officers made fun of her wig and demanded she show them her identification. She didn’t have it with her, but she gave them her legal name, [redacted].
The two officers had placed a bet on Taylor’s gender before they blocked her way, she said during a news conference after the ACLU-NJ filed the lawsuit in Essex County Superior Court on Wednesday, Feb. 17. One said to the other, “You’re right. I owe you $10. It is a man,” Taylor recalled.
She further alleged the officers began tormenting her by calling her a “chick with a dick,” “faggot” and other derogatory names. Taylor added they further embarrassed her by questioning her sexuality as witnesses gathered.
She said the officers handcuffed her and took her to a police station where they searched crime databases looking for a reason to arrest her. Although they found she had no record, Taylor contends police continued to humiliate her by frisking her in a sexually intrusive manner.
What these officers have allegedly done is not in the least bit unusual in terms of interactions between police and trans* people. For many trans* people of all identities (binary, non-binary, agendered/non-gendered, etc.), but particularly trans women, and particularly trans women of color, law enforcement is entirely synonymous with violence.
Threats from police range from “only” misgendering and other verbal harassment, to the denial of medical treatment and other basic necessities in prison, to beatings, other physical assault, and sexual assault by police and/or while in police custody.
Indeed, just last week, a San Antonio police officer allegedly handcuffed and raped a trans woman while on duty.
And so, while I’m sure that someone is aching to tell me that “not all police officers are like that,” it doesn’t change the fact that there is a problem of violence on a systematic level. It doesn’t change the fact that for those living with marginalized identities, the police are not seen as protectors are good people doing their jobs, but as very real threats, and as downright terrifying. It doesn’t change the fact that we live in a culture that sanctions and encourages police violence, and perpetually excuses it with the rationalization that “they must have had a good reason.” It doesn’t change the fact that we live in a culture where trans* people are perceived as “deviant,” where supposedly “deviant” people are perceived as less human, and where bodies perceived as less human are perceived as bodies deserving of violence.
And the fact that all of this is true also doesn’t change the fact that our world should never, ever have to be a place where one can look at what was done to Diana Taylor and rationally think to themselves “thank god they only harassed her,” where one can be logically grateful that the sexual assault — and do not kid yourself that “frisking in a sexually intrusive manner” is not sexual assault — did not turn into an even more violent rape, where one can understandably breathe even the tiniest sigh of relief, because it could have been so, so much worse. That the world is that place right now is a complete and utter horror.
I wish Ms. Taylor the best of luck with her case. I hope she receives justice for what was done to her, and I praise ACLU-NJ for fighting on her behalf.
But history shows us that police brutality and other misconduct is rarely punished, especially when the victim is a person of color or trans* (and Ms. Taylor is both). And it shows us further that even when punished, won cases rarely result in substantial and sustainable change, because the small fear of an outside possibility rarely negates one’s overwhelming sense of superiority, power, and invincibility — and because even if it did, fear does not breed real respect. And as hard as winning a case against a police officer or force is, getting people to view other people not like themselves as real, live human beings is even harder.