Pride Month 2020: Black, indigenous, people of color who are LGBTQ+ are most susceptible to police brutality
Due to systemic discrimination, the LGBTQIA+ community is more likely to interact with cops, which eventually leads to a biased criminal legal system
Pride Month is a time of celebration and remembrance for the LGBTQIA+ community. While we commemorate the groundbreaking milestones that defined the movement, the fight for equality is far from over.
The LGBTQ+ scene has changed drastically over the years and the community is, for the most part, protected by a number of laws. Yet there are severe disparities in the system that suggest there is much more to be done. While we contemplate the various issues currently plaguing the LGBTQ+ community, here is one that requires our immediate attention - the criminal justice system. The LGBTQ+ population and the US share a controversial and uncomfortable relationship with the criminal justice system in every aspect, be it interaction with the authorities or in confinement. Historically, the US has always had discriminatory laws in places that specifically targeted the LGBTQ+ people, like the 17th-century laws on antisodomy and the sartorial laws of the 19th century that required men and women to wear gender-appropriate clothing. Despite the substantial developments, LGBTQ+ Americans continue to endure many forms of oppression in the criminal justice system - from the violence that LGBTQ people face while in custody to unfair sentencing.
A study by Movement Analysis Project (MAP) found that although just 3. 4 percent of Americans identify as LGBTQ+, they account for 7.9 percent of the total population incarcerated in state and federal prisons. The queer community faces disproportionate levels of poverty and homelessness and can be criminalized for mere ordinances like sitting, eating, or begging in public places. The LGBTQ community also experiences selective enforcement of laws against them, like those that regulate homelessness. Police brutality and harassment against LGBTQ+ people, in particular, transgender individuals are common and they hence find themselves being pushed into the criminal justice system. "Due to systemic discrimination, LGBTQ people are more likely to interact with police, which can lead to involvement with the criminal legal system", says Avatara Smith-Carrington, the Tyson Garner Memorial Law Fellow at Lamba Legal. "Intersecting forms of discrimination create barriers in education, employment, and housing. The presence of these barriers due to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity can often mean that LGBTQ people are more likely to be food insecure, housing insecure, and live in poverty. Ultimately, it is because of systemic discrimination that LGBTQ people are placed in closer proximity to police, which increases the likelihood of involvement within the criminal legal system."
There are sections of the LGBTQ+ populace that are even more vulnerable to falling into the criminal justice system. Race, sexuality, gender, and poverty, coupled with stigma and biased law enforcement plays an equal hand in the injustice that the LGBTQ+ community endures in the criminal justice system. "Black, Indigenous, People Of Color (BIPOC) who are LGBTQIA+ are at an increased risk of interacting with law enforcement due to persistent and discriminatory profiling on the basis of race and immigration status," Smith- Carrington clarifies. "LGBTQ people who are disabled are impacted by discrimination in various systems and that can lead to increased interactions with police and the criminal legal system."
"Transgender people are a lot more likely to be profiled and stopped by police. They do not yet have explicit anti-profiling policies in our country," says Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, transgender policy, advocacy, and messaging expert at National Centre for Transgender Equality. "Right now we don't have something from the federal government that explicitly says that police officers can not stop people simply on the basis of their race or their sexual orientation or their gender identity. So a lot of transgender people are profiled, especially black, transgender women, specifically black transgender women are often stopped for what we call walking while just being a black, transgender woman out in the world. Police stop them oftentimes on suspicion of doing sex work. They make the assumption that if you happen to be a black transgender woman, then you're doing sex work."
The LGBTQ+ population of color, and those of low-income, pay an exorbitantly high price for the failure of the US criminal justice system and often come off as easy targets. According to Smith-Carrington, "unchecked power coupled with bias in policing often means that people who are already discriminatorily profiled, over-policed, and criminalized just for existing are more likely to be impacted by police abuse and harassment." The Center of American Progress and Columbia University highlighted in a 2014 report that 75 percent of all LGBT people had 'face-to-face' contact with law enforcement over the past five years. In 2015, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force surveyed transgender populations and found that 16 percent of trans people as well as 47 percent of black transgender people had spent time in solitary confinement. "Many of the reasons why LGBTQ people are “easy targets” are because of the fact that our community has a history of state-sanctioned violence at the hands of officers," Smith-Carrington adds.
LGBTQ+ people also face inhumane treatment when incarcerated and don't have sufficient access to legal resources. Whilst being subjected to discrimination, they are often victim to police brutality and attacks from inmates. Jessica Hicklin, a 37-year-old transgender has been incarcerated for 21 years on charges of first-degree murder and armed criminal action data facility for male inmates. She was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole as a juvenile. Jessica has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, and despite mental health experts advising that she seek hormone therapy, permanent hair removal and access to gender-affirming canteen items with her current treatment standards, the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) officials continue to deny her of her necessary medical interventions. Lambda Legal represented Hicklin in her ongoing case and filed a federal lawsuit on her behalf against the MDOC's “freeze-frame” policy that disallows access to hormone therapy for inmates and others in custody if they were not receiving treatment prior to incarceration.
In another case, Lambda Legal filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Passion Star, a transgender, who is currently in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Ms Star has been confined in six male facilities by far, where other male inmates have identified her as feminine. She has been raped, forced to submit to undesired sexual acts, and threatened with sexual assault, and the TCDJ has responded to her indifferently. She filed dozens of grievances, complaints, and requests to be placed in safekeeping but in vain. Instead, the TDCJ specifically told her to “suck dick,” “fight” or to stop “acting gay” if she does not want to be assaulted.
It is also more common that the LGBTQ+ people face biased judges or juries amid trials and courtroom proceedings. 19 percent of the survey respondents to Lambda Legal's 'Protected and Served?' reported negative experiences such as hearing a judge, attorney, or other court employees mock a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.
At least 16 percent felt that their sexual orientation and gender identity were raised by an attorney or the judge when irrelevant to the case, and 11 percent said they had been 'outed' against their will in court. This form of bias isn't solely limited to these interactions. Smith Carrington states, "When called upon for jury duty, LGBTQ people continue to face discrimination, which denies them equal access to jury service and denies litigants a jury truly comprised of peers drawn from the entire community."
When a person is granted probation or parole, they are expected to check in with the officers and obey any conditions put forth by the court. Many LGBTQ+ people, however, face discrimination and hostility at the hands of the police when checking in, or other forms of bias that increase their chances of being incarcerated for longer. LGBTQ+ people face more hurdles even once they've served their sentences and have to go through post-release procedures like reentry programs. "LGBTQ people are more likely to be forced to stay in prison longer. LGBTQ people are not valued as equal members of society. And so that shows up in all steps of the process, including then when it's time to apply for parole or to living in probation," Heng-Lehtinen asserts.
A criminal record "compounds daily discrimination to create substantial barriers to rebuilding one's life," said the MAP study. "Having a criminal record can detrimentally impact an LGBTQ person’s health, safety, and well-being," Smith-Carrington concurs. "The collateral consequences resulting from having a criminal record can also impact one’s ability to obtain accurate identity documents, receive government assistance, and vote." Furthermore, they add, "A criminal record not only makes it harder for an LGBTQ person to regain their footing after being involved with the criminal legal system but also adds yet another reason for people to deny an LGBTQ person the resources and access they need to thrive."
There is a dire need to immediately and dramatically change the current conditions for LGBTQ+ people who are and have been impacted by their interactions with police and the criminal legal system. "First and foremost, there’s only a patchwork of protections specific to sexual orientation and gender identity. The lack of SOGI protections gives way to the discrimination faced by LGBTQ people who are simply trying to survive and thrive. More protections in areas like housing and employment lessens the likelihood of facing housing insecurity and poverty. When it comes to policing, too many barriers exist to attaining accountability for police harassment and violence," opines Smith-Carrington.
Court programs and prosecutions policies that uphold diversion and rehabilitation rather than incarceration also need to be implemented. "We must advocate for increased funding of programs that can support our community and invest in responses to crises and community needs that don’t include the police. In order to improve the lives of LGBTQ people, we need to radically shift how this nation and states invest their resources in communities," says Smith-Carrington.