Here is a vignette from March 2013: A 24-year-old gay man named Yhatzine Lafontain is leaving a restaurant late at night with a friend on Roosevelt Avenue and 95th Street in Queens. Both are dressed as women, Mr. Lafontain in a jacket, short dress and heels. Exchanging goodbyes outside, they are approached by a man who tells them they look good.
In Mr. Lafontain’s account, they chatted briefly to avoid seeming rude and the man departed. Within a few minutes, an undercover police officer approached Mr. Lafontain and his friend and arrested them, suspecting them of prostitution. “We were surprised,” Mr. Lafontain told me, “because we had never talked to anyone about sex or money.”
I met Mr. Lafontain last week in Jackson Heights, not far from where his arrest had taken place, at the offices of Make the Road New York, a community-organizing group that works primarily with Latino immigrants. It has tried, along with various anti-violence projects in the city, to call attention to the perverse specifics of stop-and-frisk policing — a practice currently on trial in federal court in Lower Manhattan — as it applies to gay, lesbian and transgender New Yorkers who are black and Latino. Last fall, the group issued a report on policing in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood with a vibrant gay and transgender community and attendant club scene (and also a prostitution problem), and found in its survey of more than 300 residents that while 28 percent of straight respondents reported having been stopped by the police, 54 percent of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender respondents reported this kind of treatment.
Stories like Mr. Lafontain’s are told with stunning regularity in Jackson Heights, though the problem is not contained to that neighborhood and has, in fact, been documented in cities across the country.
Last week, Mitchyll Mora, a youth leader at a group called Streetwise and Safe told me about an experience he had last spring, on his way to a poetry reading on the Lower East Side. Dressed in a style he called non-gender-conforming — makeup, boots, long earrings — he was stopped and searched by the police for no reason he could understand. The police made him throw his hands up against the wall, invoked a gay slur and grabbed his buttocks, he said. “I should have tried to file a report, but it’s hard to feel empowered in this kind of situation,” he said.
Mr. Mora did recount this story in testimony to the City Council last October in support of the Community Safety Act, proposed legislation that would, among other things, require police officers to explain themselves to those they have stopped and provide them with a document, including the officer’s name and information on how to file a complaint, if necessary, at the conclusion of a police encounter.
The elasticity that officers in New York and elsewhere have been given to police quality-of-life violations has had the unfortunate effect of leaving transgender women, especially, susceptible to the charge that they must be engaged in sex work. What we have now, in some sense, is an actual fashion police — an attitude among some law enforcers that attaches criminality to sartorial choice. If you are a 35-year-old biological woman wearing the $715 metallic platform peep-toe pumps you just bought at Barneys to lunch at Café Boulud, you are well-dressed; if you were born Joaquin, have changed your name to Marisol and put yourself together with a similar verve, you are a prostitute.
Another component of this is the much-denounced use of condoms as evidence. “It can depend on which side of Sixth Avenue you’re standing on in the Village,” Andrea Ritchie, a lawyer with Streetwise and Safe, told me. “If you’re a student carrying condoms, you’re practicing good public health; if you’re a transgendered person of color, you’re a prostitute.”
Two years ago, Ms. Ritchie settled a lawsuit against the Police Department for a transgender client, Ryhannah Combs, who was arrested on suspicion of prostitution while making her way to a McDonald’s in the Village. The complaint said the police had listed nine condoms among her possessions even though Ms. Combs was not carrying any at the time of her arrest.
Ms. Ritchie’s client had moved to New York from California envisioning New York as the most enlightened place on earth. So had Johanna Vasquez, who at age 16 came from El Salvador, where, born male, she always felt the instinct to be female and suffered terrible abuse and prejudice because of it, she told me. Two years ago, she said, she was stopped by police officers at 2 a.m. outside a nightclub on Roosevelt Avenue, waiting for a taxi. She pleaded guilty to charges that she was loitering with intent to sell herself, feeling that she had no other choice, she said, but she denies having any involvement in prostitution. She had been similarly accused in Texas, she told me, a matter that resulted in her deportation years earlier.
Last year, the Police Department responded positively to requests from advocates that itrevise its Patrol Guide to ensure that transgender men and women receive more sensitive treatment. But Ms. Vasquez continues to feel constrained. She told me tearfully, “I don’t go out at night, and I fear that even if I go to the pharmacy I’ll get arrested.”
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