When 22-year old black trans woman Meagan Taylor checked into the Des Moines, Iowa, Drury Inn hotel in July, she was planning to rest overnight in the room with her friend as the pair traveled from Illinois to Kansas City, Missouri for a funeral.
But Taylor never checked out.
Hotel workers allegedly harassed her, misgendered her, and called the police to say that "two men dressed as women" and were engaging in prostitution.
When police arrived, they found no evidence the women were engaged in sex work, but arrested Taylor for possessing hormone medication without carrying a prescription. She was transported to the Polk County Jail, beginning an eight-day ordeal marked by repeated strip-searches and solitary confinement.
All charges against Taylor were dropped after her release.
These are just some of the harrowing details of a hard-hitting complaint filed Tuesday against the Drury Inn by the American Civil Liberties Union and Babich Goldman, P.C., before the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. The complaint alleges persistent harassment and pronounced discrimination by hotel staff lead to Taylor's suffering while incarcerated.
An unknown employee at the Drury Inn immediately hung up the phone without comment when The Advocate called seeking a statement about the civil suit.
When Taylor initially checked into the hotel, she and her friend, also a black trans woman, were "in a hard place because we were traveling to the funeral of her [friend's] brother," Taylor noted in a post on the ACLU blog. "We were driving from Kansas City, Missouri, up to Des Moines to meet up with a friend before all going to the funeral together. I booked us a room at the Drury Inn in West Des Moines because I am a regular Drury customer and have a special Gold Key account there, so I get points each time I stay. We also wanted a place to stay that was close to the mall, so my friend could pick up some last-minute things she needed for the funeral."
In addition to the alleged transphobic harassment and unjust incarceration Taylor experienced, the ACLU notes that Taylor was also "unable to attend her best friend's brother's funeral that was so important to her," said Rita Bettis, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa, in a statement sent to The Advocate.
"Meagan's case unfortunately highlights the many forms of discrimination and harassment that transgender people -- particularly transgender women of color -- must navigate daily," Chase Strangio, an attorney for the ACLU's LGBT & AIDS Project, tells The Advocate.
Strangio went on to stress that Taylor was outed as trans when hotel staff repeatedly demanded to see her ID -- which still listed a "male" gender marker and her old name, as Taylor has not had the financial means to update her ID to reflect her preferred name and authentic gender.
"The fact of her blackness and her transness prompted hotel staff to assume she was engaging in sex work -- a common assumption made by law enforcement and private citizens that has led to the criminalization of trans women of color for simply existing," explains Strangio.
Strangio further contends that the actions of the hotel workers incited his client's unjust incarceration and mistreatment while imprisoned:
"By calling the police, hotel staff literally brought the criminal justice system to Meagan's door where she was subjected to frightening conditions in police custody, forced to undergo illegal searches and remain alone in a medical unit for eight days. The fact that hotel staff picked up the phone to report prostitution because 'two men dressed as women' checked into the hotel is a terrifying testament to the levels of discrimination that trans people of color face in this country."
But the ACLU's complaint states that hostile hotel staff did more than just call the police.
In her blog post, Taylor describes the escalating harassment in chilling terms:
"During check-in, my friend and I had a weird feeling. The woman at the front desk was giving us a hard time because my Illinois identification listed my old name and had an 'M' identifying me as 'male.' I haven't had the money to obtain a legal name change and update my identification documents with my correct name and gender.
"In the middle of checking us in, the clerk went and talked to the manager for several minutes. Then the manager came out from the back and was immediately hostile. She made it obvious that she did not want us staying there. The manager's face actually showed a look of disgust. Neither the clerk nor the manager would make eye contact with us, and they kept whispering to each other in our presence like we weren't even there.
"My friend said, 'I don't think we should stay here. The manager is giving me a bad vibe. They might be racist or against transgender people.' But we were already there and our luggage was there. I figured that was the worst of it. I was wrong."
When police entered Taylor's hotel room on July 13, they did so responding to Drury Inn staff's suspicion that the pair of black trans women were engaged in sex work. When they found no evidence of prostitution (because the women weren't sex workers) police arrested Taylor for carrying her transition-related medication spironolactone hydrochloride without a prescription.
But Taylor did in fact have a prescription for the medication, as San Francisco-based trans pastor Megan Rohrer maintained. Rohrer was instrumental in raising funds to cover Taylor's bail and fees.
Police also charged Taylor with "malicious prosecution," a misdemeanor likely brought on by her failure to pay restitution from a previous infraction in Illinois when she was a teenager. When she was 17, Taylor served a brief sentence in her hometown for a credit card fraud conviction, but was unable to pay the accompanying $500 fine. At the time of her arrest in Iowa, the fee related to her Illinois conviction had grown to $1,700.
After Taylor was taken to the Polk County Jail, she found that the facility was unprepared for housing transgender inmates, with no policy for gender-appropriate searches of Taylor's person or for trans women's internment with other women. As a result, Taylor was placed alone in a segregated medical cell.
"The jail that I was taken to did not have a policy in place for transgender people like me," Taylor wrote in her ACLU blog post. "So when they did the pat down, they had a woman pat down my top half, but a man pat down my bottom half, as if I'm not one person but two."
Taylor did emphasize in a previous conversation with The Advocate that when she first arrived at the jail on July 13, several correctional officers were especially concerned about what they considered the injustice of her arrest, and they had researched how to help her. This, in part, led to the Polk County Sheriff contacting a local newspaper in hopes that its reporters would spread the word through news coverage.
Taylor currently works at a salon and is studying cosmetology. Her rise to advocacy comes from firsthand experience of multiple layers of institutional harassment and mistreatment.
In her ACLU blog post, Taylor is forthright about the causes underlying her harrowing experience:
"When this all happened, I knew exactly what it was: the racial profiling, the transgender profiling, the harassment, the solitary confinement. I knew why it was happening, and I knew it wasn't right. I knew something had to change. To experience so many levels of discrimination makes you feel like less of a person. I want to stand up for myself and other Black and transgender people. And so I did."
Watch the ACLU's video about Taylor's fight for justice below.