Fighting For Justice: How the Police Perpetuate Transphobia

TW: Transphobic violence

Yesterday afternoon, a transphobic attack was committed against a trans woman in the Soho district of London, later named in the press as Ms. Dos Santos. This attack was not committed by a member of the public, as many of us may expect, but instead by the police. Her wig was torn from her head, the contents of her handbag were emptied on the floor, she was violently held to the ground and threatened with further physical violence by the officers who arrested her. All of this was apparently justified by her being sick outside of a restaurant – one might ask whether it should have been medical care that she was offered, not the humiliation she received from members of an institution that politicians insist is there ‘to protect and serve’ us.

Trans* people constantly risk attacks on their right to exist; whether it be through physical and sexual violence, political scapegoating or economic isolation. A study from the Gender Identity Research and Education Society reports that at school 40% of trans* people experienced verbal abuse, 25% physical abuse, 4% were sexually abused, and 25% report this bullying was coming from their teacher.

It also shows that as adults, trans* people will experience verbal abuse, threatening behaviour, physical and sexual abuse. The Trans Murder Montinoring (TMM) project reports an exponential increase in the murder of trans people world-wide in the last four years.

In the US there has been a militant campaign to free Cece McDonald – an African-American trans woman, who was arrested and imprisoned for defending herself when she was attacked by a group of Neo-Nazis. McDonald was subject to racist and transphobic slurs, she had a bottled smashed across her face, she was the only one arrested at the scene and she was subsequently housed in a men’s prison. She is currently serving a 41 month sentence.

Cece’s story highlights how trans* people of colour are even more at risk – crimes against them are often perpetuated by racism and fascism. Increasingly, these crimes are committed by the police force. US magazine Ebony argues:

“Every day, victims of transphobic violence are ignored by police or treated in ways that only exacerbate the situation. This is often due to the belief among law enforcement that transgendered people deserve the violent acts committed against them. As a result of this belief, police are often openly hostile to transgendered victims. According to studies, 38% of Black trans people indicate that they have been harassed by the police. Even worse, 20% state that they have been physically or sexual assaulted by police. Given this pattern of criminalization and abuse over protection, it is no surprise that most victims of transgender violence (52%) do not report the crimes to law enforcement.”

When transphobia occurs, its depiction in the media is also damaging. The recent transphobic remarks, that were published in the Guardian and the Telegraph, by Julie Burchill caused outrage and triggered a campaign of protests, while activist groups, LGBTQ groups and trades unions also issued statements against her. Burchill described trans women “bed wetters in cheap wigs” and “dicks-in-chicks clothing”. Her comments were removed from the Guardian and then disgustingly republished by the Telegraph.  This begs the question, if trans people are jumped on by the media and reduced to grotesque caricatures, what message are we sending out about the value of trans* people in our society?

One BBC report on the murder of Destiny Lauren in 2009 highlights the effects of reporting hate-crime. They omit any information about her life, instead they describe her as ‘transsexual prostitute’, disclose her gender re-assignment (GRS) status, and the name she was given at birth. In addition, the focus of articles like this is often the problem that trans people do not report their attack to the police – firmly putting the responsibility on the victim to come forward. This is purely victim-blaming. Survivors did not choose to go through a transphobic attack, and they should not be made to feel responsible for reporting their ordeal to the police, especially when they have experienced hate-crime from the police force themselves.

The attack yesterday on Ms. Dos Santos only serves to highlight the inability of the police force to put an end transphobia in our communities and deliver justice – why should we expect trans* people approach an institution who consistently commit crimes against them? It is united campaigns against transphobia and police violence that really change people’s ideas in our society, and encourage people to come forward. Its shows the police for who they are – an institutionally racist and transphobic organisation, which perpetuates the very same violence that politicians say the police force is there to prevent.

This LGBT history month people will remember the Stonewall riots which gave birth to the gay liberation movement, at the heart of which were LGBTQ people fighting against police harassment. One of the leaders of this movement, a black trans woman named Marsha P. Johnson, was found dead in the Hudson River in 1992, and although police ruled her death a suicide, it is widely believed that she was murdered. Police have recently re-opened the case due to the pressure from the public.

Stonewall embodied the frustration and anger of LGBTQ who were subject to violence harassment, by the police and the state. It gave birth to an organised liberation movement – one that needs to be re-ignited so we can end violence against trans* people. If we can unite activists involved in campaigns like the one against Julie Burchill’s comments, and the Free Cece McDonald campaign, we can begin to re-invigorate the movements against transphobia and racism, and take a stand together.

My full support and solidarity goes out to Ms. Dos Santos. We need to end transphobic violence NOW.

Maxi B