Transgender woman sues N.J. police department for harassment

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday February 23, 2010

The New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a transgender woman who maintains two Newark police officers harassed her because of her gender identity and expression.

Diana Taylor of Newark said two officers steered their cruiser into her path as she walked down a street two blocks from her home on March 23, 2009. According to Taylor, the officers made fun of her wig and demanded she show them her identification. She didn't have it with her, but she gave them her legal name, Christopher Moore.

The two officers had placed a bet on Taylor's gender before they blocked her way, she said during a news conference after the ACLU-NJ filed the lawsuit in Essex County Superior Court on Wednesday, Feb. 17. One said to the other, "You're right. I owe you $10. It is a man," Taylor recalled.

She further alleged the officers began tormenting her by calling her a "chick with a dick," "faggot" and other derogatory names. Taylor added they further embarrassed her by questioning her sexuality as witnesses gathered.

She said the officers handcuffed her and took her to a police station where they searched crime databases looking for a reason to arrest her. Although they found she had no record, Taylor contends police continued to humiliate her by frisking her in a sexually intrusive manner.

A lieutenant told officers to release Taylor, but she said he discouraged her from filing a complaint because he thought they had meant no harm.

Taylor said the harassment didn't end there. She said the officers insisted on driving her home, even though she told them she preferred to walk. During the ride, she said the officers threatened to have gang members in the neighborhood confront her if she reported the abuse.

After many phone calls, Taylor was eventually able to file a complaint with the department's internal affairs division. About a month later, she was charged with littering and disorderly conduct, but a municipal court dismissed the case.

"The police did more than arrest me that day," Taylor told the media. "They took away my rights and my dignity, and made me afraid to walk down the street. I'm fighting for something that's easy to take for granted but impossible to live without--the freedom to be myself and to live my life in peace. I had always thought the police were here to protect me. I don't want to feel like I need protection from them instead."

Legal advocates with whom EDGE spoke said Taylor's case is one of many examples of the type of police harassment trans people frequently endure. Such allegations have been made around the country, but reports of anti-trans harassment at the hands of law enforcement tend to occur most frequently in cities where trans populations are larger.

Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, and Dru Levasseur, transgender rights attorney at Lambda Legal, said a major problem is what they call "walking or driving while trans," comparable to the discrimination people of color and under-represented groups sometimes experience.

"They fear simple things like driving because they are concerned about what would happen if they are pulled over," Silverman explained. "For example, their driver's license might not match how they look or the name and description don't match who they are."

Even using a public restroom can prove problematic.

Silverman's organization filed a case on behalf of Helena Stone, a trans New Yorker who was arrested in Grand Central Terminal three times in six months for lewd conduct and other charges "just for going to the bathroom." The New York Times reported one officer called Stone "a freak, a weirdo and the ugliest woman in the world."

Silverman successfully litigated the case in 2006; the charges against Stone were dropped after he pointed out the New York City Commission on Human Rights requires restrooms must be available to trans people "consistent with their gender identity."

Other examples of anti-trans harassment by law enforcement
can involve unnecessary searches of detainees, in many instances before a court has determined their guilt or innocence. Officers sometimes go beyond searching trans suspects for contraband and weapons--Levasseur said they "police someone's gender."

"Police have been known to grope parts of people's bodies and do illegal and unnecessary strip searches just to view their genitals," he said.

Above all, activists said trans people fear arrest because it might result in jail time.

Silverman explained law enforcement officers categorize and house suspects and convicted criminals in correction facilities based on their anatomy.

"If they have not undergone sex reassignment, they will be housed with the people of the sex with which they are born," he said. "That can create a dangerous situation for people."

Silverman added trans suspects often plea guilty to a lesser offense to avoid incarceration, even if they have done nothing illegal.

Both organizations receive hundreds of calls a year from trans people reporting police harassment and seeking assistance. Levasseur said the solution is better training of law enforcement officers. He has worked with other trans legal advocates to get the New York Police Department to revise its patrol guide.

"It has yet to happen," Levasseur reported.

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].