Police and Trans Women of Color

March 25, 2009

Lisa wrote this at Questioning Transphobia; I’m cross-posting it here because I think it’s an important topic that deserves to be heard about by as many people as possible. The comments thread over at QT is essential reading, too, and I’d ask that anyone who wishes to comment adds their voices to the discussion over there…

A few days ago, a friend of mine pointed to this post on The Bilerico Project, where Bil Browning took an admittedly inflammatory comment from Lyssa / Voz about the Human Rights Campaign out of context and said

While we keep Projector’s information private, this would be a case where I would gladly hand over any identifying information to the authorities.

Lyssa tried to explain the threat that invoking the police brings to trans women in general, people of color in general, and specifically trans women of color. As Donna Johnson puts it,

Many privileged people will not see a problem with this post, but I do. And I’m not trans, I know this because I am a woman of color. I know that the state will believe a white person over me, and that the threatening to call the police on me by a white person could very well result in beating, rape, and even death. I do not expect the police or justice system to treat me fairly.

Let’s put it this way, if two cis, heterosexual, white, able bodied, middle class, typical men get into an argument and one says he’s going to call the cops because the other said some mean and nasty things, the other would laugh it off. The police are there to protect these normative people, not harass them or arrest them for no reason. The justice system works the way it should and the way it is expected for these people. The most likely scenario, is that the police will break it up and tell the parties to go home. But the further you get into the margins the more likely the state and it’s systems are there to keep a watchful eye on you and take you out if you cause trouble.

But you should read her full post. Or read about Duanna Johnson. Or read about little light’s jail experience. Read a few more. Especially that second one about Christine Sforza – her friend called the police because a man was beating her with a pipe, but she was the one who was arrested.

When you threaten a trans woman of color with police involvement when she’s committed no crime at all, you are threatening her with violence. Not just the violence of police abuse – the potential for humiliation and beatings from police officers notwithstanding, but also the danger that the police will lock her up with cis male inmates, who themselves can and frequently will commit further violence against trans women.

There was no reason for this grandstanding, Bil. You invoked the possibility of police violence against Lyssa for a more verbose version of “die in a fire,” something that people frequently say on the internet. While I completely appreciate that you do not want such comments on The Bilerico Project, the way you handled it in a way that’s racist and transphobic – and you, as a cis white man, do not get to elide the context of your statements, to pretend that there is no history of police violence against trans women or women of color.

The cis LGB movement has to realize that trans anger at HRC is justified.

Also, what I said on the post at Bilerico:

Bil, the violence Lyssa is talking about is real – the police historically treat trans women of color extremely harshly – and threats (implied or otherwise) of police involvement are a pretty standard way to invoke white privilege against people of color.

It’s also something HRC has used to silence “dissent” from trans people on at least one occasion.

It’s definitely a way to invoke fear in trans women and people of color both, as the law is typically favorable to cis people and white people and not very friendly to trans people or people of color.

Quoting her post while indicating that in her case, you would cooperate to the full extent the law would request does read as a threat in that sense, and triply so because of the previous paragraph. I think of the case of Duanna Johnson in particular.

Of course, you didn’t threaten to call the police yourself, but you made it clear that you would cooperate with the police – make it easier for them to put Lyssa into that situation – even though she’s not going to go out and kill anyone from HRC.

I’ll also point out that when oppressed people find their voice, the first thing they express tends to be anger. A lot of trans people are finding our voices right now…and a lot of us are angry. Esp angry with HRC. Some are going to say some pretty harsh things about HRC, but I think, in general, harsh words – and more – are deserved. Not murder or any other criminal act, obviously. But I understand Lyssa’s anger, because I feel it too.

And now I wonder just how safe it is to express that anger in certain places.

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