Beyond directly policing the lines of gender by enforcing compliance with norms of attire and bathroom use, police enforce racialized gender conformity in myriad ways on a daily basis, in virtually every interaction with women and gender-nonconforming people of color. This includes demanding identification as proof of gender authenticity and imposing genders on individuals taken into police custody, often based on violative and unlawful searches.
When officers experience “classification anxiety” in routine daily police interactions, they treat transgender and gender-nonconforming people as threatening because they place in question “identities previously conceived as stable, unchallengeable, grounded and ‘known,’” which serve as critical tools of heterosexist culture. As a result, failure to meet individual police officers’ subjective expectations of gender appropriate behavior is read as embodying “disorder,” giving rise at a minimum to intensified scrutiny that often escalates to verbal and sexual harassment, detention, and citation or arrest.
Ultimately, law enforcement officers imagine and enforce highly racialized and deeply classed social constructions and relations of gender in daily interactions with women and gender-nonconforming people of color. They project narratives rooted in white supremacist heteropatriarchy onto our racially gendered bodies, then act on and enforce them through surveillance and suspicion, violence and violation.
By providing officers with a plethora of both vague and specific laws and almost unlimited discretion in enforcing them, broken windows policing facilitates the process of racialized gender policing. Take the case of Allen Galbreath, a Black gender-nonconforming former ballet dancer who one day in July of 2010 went to a park in Oklahoma City to perform morning exercises wearing high heels, carrying a red purse and a cane, and wearing lipstick. After receiving a 911 call describing Allen, a police officer accosted, questioned, and arrested Allen for “disorderly conduct,” despite the absence of any evidence that Allen was disturbing anyone’s peace. Allen vigorously protested the stop and arrest as motivated by race and by gender nonconformity. The criminal charges were dismissed, and Allen fi led a civil lawsuit challenging the officer’s actions as unconstitutional. Unfortunately, Allen’s claims were ultimately dismissed after a jury trial endorsing officers’ use of vague “quality of life” offenses to police gender expression in public spaces.
In the context of broken windows policing, responses to police demands for identification during stops motivated by racial and other forms of profiling become sites of gender policing, such as when officers demand to see individuals’ “real” IDs or know their “real” names when the gender markers on ID don’t match the gender individuals are expressing, or what an officer thinks they should be expressing. Trans people face significant barriers to accessing IDs that accurately reflect their gender, facing a web of complex and often conflicting rules that vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and agency to agency. This is further complicated by increasingly restrictive rules for obtaining any identification, primarily motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment and post-9/11 fear mongering.
Consequently, many trans people have IDs that inaccurately list their gender, or have different gender markers on different pieces of ID. As in Bianca’s case, an officer’s request for identification can quickly escalate to verbal abuse, physical violence, and arrest. Additionally, failure to produce ID can, in and of itself, serve as a basis for arrest, regardless of whether an individual has committed a crime. Even in states that do not require individuals to produce identification on demand, other offenses, such as “disorderly conduct,” are deployed to the same end.
Trans people also face criminalization for carrying syringes to administer hormones, whether prescribed or obtained by other means. This can lead to arrest on the presumption that the presence of syringes signals intravenous drug use, and to physical violence based on perceptions that syringes endanger officers during searches. Additionally, lack of coverage for gender-affirming health care in many states leaves many trans people without health-care options. As a result, some trans people have formed informal networks of support, which can include giving, taking, buying, selling, and sharing information about hormones, silicone, and other forms of treatment without the intervention of medical authorities. This renders them more vulnerable to criminalization.
HARASSMENT AND PHYSICAL AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE
Police often respond to gender nonconformity with “street justice,” administered through verbal harassment and abuse, including slurs such as “faggot,” “dyke,” “tranny,” “he/she,” “freak,” and “bitch,” and often accompanied by physical violence.
Black lesbians frequently report being punched in the chest by officers saying something like, “You want to act like a man, I’ll treat you like a man.” One woman fi led a complaint with the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board because an officer grabbed her as she was arguing with her girlfriend. When she protested, the officer replied, “I don’t give a fuck if you’re female, you gay bitch. I will arrest you right now if you think you’re a man.”
More than half of transgender participants in the 2015 US Transgender Survey who interacted with officers who knew the participants were transgender reported some form of violence or abuse by police. Native trans women were most likely to report police violence, followed by Black trans women and multiracial trans women. Organizations around the country have documented high levels of harassment and violence against trans women by police. In studies conducted in New York and Los Angeles, more than half to two-thirds of respondents reported verbal or physical abuse. Studies consistently find that Black, Native, and Latinx trans people are at greatest risk of harassment, physical assault, and sexual violence. The community-based organization Make the Road New York reports Elena’s experience: “The cops stopped her and asked her what she was doing. She replied she was getting coffee. The cops proceeded to take the coffee from her, throw it on the ground and on her feet and told her to ‘get on your knees, you fucking faggot.’ She was kept on her knees for over thirty minutes until she was finally put in a police van and taken to the local precinct.” Another trans woman told Human Rights Watch, “They pat-frisk you, they ask if you have fake boobs, take them off right there, if you have a wig, take it off. It’s humiliating.
Such acts of violence are part of the daily policing of gender taking place in communities across the country. Often acts of police violence are informed by racialized and gendered narratives framing women of color and transgender people of color as inherently devious, mercurially violent, superhumanly strong, and, most of all, deserving of annihilation or disappearance, to be literally stamped out or locked away.
Law enforcement agents frequently conduct “gender checks”: searches aimed solely or primarily at determining an individual’s physical characteristics for the purposes of assigning a gender, to punish and humiliate trans people, to satisfy their curiosity, or for sexual gratification. From police officers calling out to transgender women on the streets saying, “Show me your tits,” to groping chests and groins during routine searches, police gender checks are a daily reality for gender-nonconforming women and transgender people of color nationwide.59 One trans client of mine was ordered to drop her pants and bend over to expose her genital area in a New York City precinct so that an officer could “determine” her gender. Once brought to a booking facility, although she had already been held with women without incident, an officer groped her genitals during a pat search and placed her with men. When she questioned the searching officer about why she was being subjected to a search no other women transported with her experienced, the officer told her that another officer said she was “a guy.” Hers is just one in a series of cases I have litigated or become aware of over the past decade.
While there are variations on this theme—from demands that people raise their shirts or drop their pants to often painful and assaultive groping, to invasive and completely unnecessary and unauthorized questioning about anatomical features, surgeries, and medical treatment, to strip searches and visual cavity searches and other forms of discriminatory treatment in police custody—experiences such as this are as common as they are unconstitutional.
Excerpted from Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea J. Ritchie (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.
ANDREA J. RITCHIE is a black lesbian immigrant and police-misconduct attorney, and a 2014 Senior Soros Justice Fellow, with more than two decades of experience advocating against police violence and the criminalization of women and LGBTQ people of color. She is currently Researcher-in-Residence on Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Criminalization at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and the co-author of Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women (AAPF, 2015) and Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Beacon, 2011). She lives in Brooklyn and Chicago.