Meagan Taylor, the 22-year-old black trans woman allegedly profiled by Iowa hotel staff and police as a sex worker, and then placed in a segregated jail cell last Monday, has seen hundreds come out in support of her being released over the weekend.
When local social justice organizers heard that Taylor had been arrested at the Drury Inn in West Des Moines on July 10 while visiting from Illinois with a trans friend, they sprang into action.
"I read the [The Des Moines Register op-ed] by Rekha Basu and knew that I needed to act fast," Des Moines-based Black Lives Matter activist Kaija Carter tells The Advocate. "I wanted to do all I could to make sure that Meagan got out, and also make sure that Des Moines did not sweep this under the rug. I was not willing to let people ignore the mistreatment of a black trans woman."
Carter was joined by local Occupy Wall Street veteran Tony Tyler and others, who began gathering support for a Saturday protest outside Drury Inn on social media under the hashtags #FreeMeaganTaylor and #EvenDesMoines.
By Sunday evening, The Advocate's report on the case and others had begun trending on Facebook and dozens had reached out to the Drury Inn on their social media pages to demand an apology for Taylor and sensitivity training for staff towards trans and gender-nonconforming hotel guests.
Such training is necessary, say activists, so that no one else has to go through what Taylor did: being accused, along with another trans female friend, of prostitution by hotel staff, as The Des Moines Register first reported.
Staff called police to investigate on the morning of July 13 and, when it was discovered that Taylor was not engaged in sex work, police arrested her for carrying her transition-related medication spironolactone hydrochloride without a prescription and for "malicious prosecution" — a "serious misdemeanor" defined as "a person who causes or attempts to cause another to be indicted or prosectued for any public offense." It is unclear whether this second charge is related to an outstanding probation from Illinois for credit card fraud that police informed Taylor of during her arrest.
Taylor, who works in a salon and is a cosmetology student, told the newspaper she'd served her time for the fraud conviction at age 17, but had yet been unable to pay the related $500 fee that has grown to $1,700 in the intervening years.
Rohrer also tells The Advocate that Taylor does indeed have a prescription for her medication, but had simply not been carrying it with her while traveling. Taylor explained to the Register that she felt she had been profiled as a black trans woman:
"It seemed like they were trying to find something to charge me with. I lied about my name [but] I was not doing any illegal activity. The lady called police because I was transgender and was with a transgender friend."
When The Advocate began reporting on this story on Friday, Taylor had already been held in a segregated medical cell at Polk County Jail for five days because the facility had no policy in place for how to detain trans female prisoners who have not undergone certain gender-affirming surgeries.
Polk County sheriff Bill McCarthy explained to the Register that though the jail had housed trans female inmates before, the others had paid their bail within a day, so long-term housing was not an issue. But with Taylor unable to pay her $2,000 bail and her next court date set for August 25 (now moved to August 10), the institution has kept Taylor in housing limbo.
Trans prisoners, as well as immigration detainees, are often held in isolation for their own "protection," despite the act being shown to cause psychological harm. This fact, taken with the seeming presence of the profiling Taylor referenced, has led #FreeMeaganTaylor activsts to prioritize Taylor's release from the jail as soon as possible, according to Carter, Tyler, and Des Moines police brutality activist Aaron Menick.
As word of Taylor's injustice began spreading over social media this weekend, a fundraiser to pay Taylor's $2,000 bail, set up through Rev. Rohrer's San Francisco Welcome Ministry, received nearly 100 donations, reaching its goal within 48 hours.
"One thing Welcome knows how to do is raise money," Rohrer (who uses the gender-neutral pronoun "they") explained to The Advocate of their nonprofit, which mostly addresses issues facing chronically homeless LGBT San Franciscans. "So, after our board weighed the risks of supporting someone whose background was unknown to us, we put up the fundraising site. ... As transgender artists like Laverne Cox, Julia Serano, and Sean Dorsey began sharing the information on social media, funds started rolling in."
Photo left: Rev. Megan Rohrer speaks to Meagan Taylor in Polk County Jail via video chat
But, Rohrer says, a new hurdle arose: when Rohrer spoke with Taylor over video chat and conferred with Polk County Jail officials, they informed Rohrer that Taylor would still be held until her August 10 court date, if her outstanding $1,700 fee from her prior Illinois probation violation was not paid. Rohrer issued a new call on social media for donations, and they tell The Advocate now that nearly $4,200 has been raised. The money will be given to Taylor's aunt to use in freeing Taylor, and any leftover funds will be used by the Welcome Ministry to aid other low-income LGBT people.
However, Rohrer cautions, the ultimate amount needed to free Taylor still remains unclear. Rohrer and Taylor's family will be speaking with the jail today to ascertain next steps, and remain concerned that the prison may still try to hold her until her August 10 hearing or move her to an Illinois jail.
Meanwhile, Des Moines activists have been hard at work putting pressure on the West Des Moines Drury Inn to do better by their trans and gender-nonconforming clients. Tony Tyler tells The Advocate that he and Kaija Carter, who are both cisgender (nontrans) allies to trans communities, delivered a letter to the Drury Inn on Saturday demanding a formal apology; reimbursements for Taylor's bail, arrest fees, and hotel costs, as well as those of her friend; that the hotel's general manager Kim Gettler participate in a restorative justice roundtable discussion; and that all Drury Inn locations commit to training hotel staff in positive interactions with members of LGBTQ communities and communities of color.
At press time, no one from the Drury Inn has responded to the letter.
Tyler and Carter also organized a protest on Saturday night outside of the hotel, with 20 attendees shouting and carrying banners that read "Black Trans Lives Matter" and "Free Meagan Taylor."
"We got a lot of interaction with the public driving by the busy intersection," Tyler shares, happily. "Some were hostile and shouted 'All Lives Matter.' However, many were supportive: giving thumbs up, waving, and honking." Carter explains the hostility, saying, "We were in a predominantly white space and West Des Moines is known for being a lot more hostile and racist [than other areas]." She recalls how several passersby gave "nasty looks," while others "flipped us off and became very defensive."
But the activists remained undeterred, and are now working on their main goal: Taylor's release. The next priority after this happens is to "get her to a sound place and make sure basic care needs are taken care of," Carter tells The Advocate. Then local activists will continue working with Taylor's family to obtain a lawyer, in hopes that all charges related to the Drury Inn arrest and her outstanding warrant are dropped. Carter says she also hopes to speak with the West Des Moines police to ensure they never treat another trans person they way they treated Taylor:
"They misgendered her, wrongfully arrested her for having the hormones that are a necessity, and treated her with disrespect and degraded her. So a group of activists will get together to find next steps concerning the police."
Both Carter and Rohrer assure The Advocate that Taylor will be cared for even after she is released from Polk County Jail: they will maintain in communication with her and take steps to make sure she's safe, according to her expressed needs. Rohrer points out that even after she is free, there may be financial issues associated with Taylor missing time from her college cosmetology program while she was incarcerated. Rohrer also cautions other trans people to be vigilant while traveling.
"Most people don't know that trans people worry about our safety when we travel. Meagan's case is a story I've heard from countless trans women. I hope my trans siblings will travel with their prescriptions, have a safety plan when they travel, and always have a community willing to bail them out of jail when they are unjustly arrested."
"This incident could have been avoided if it was easier for Meagan to obtain an ID in her preferred name and sex, if we stopped oversexualizing trans people, and if trans women of color weren't stereotyped," they added. "Paying attention to what happened to Meagan at the Drury Inn is an opportunity for us to educate ourselves, hospitality workers, and those keeping us safe."
Taylor herself says through Rohrer that she's "deeply touched" by all of the continuing support from #FreeMeaganTaylor followers and intends to publicly address her case with the media after she is released. She hopes to speak out about her experiences so that she may help the countless other trans women of color who face similar racial and gender identity-based profiling nationwide.
"I will be this way [as a trans woman] for the rest of my life," she declared through Carter. "They won't be able to change me."
This story is developing. Check back for updates.