- D.C. police questioned on prostitution arrest (file photo).
On Friday, Sept. 24, D.C. police conducted an undercover sting operation inside Woodley Park's Marriott Wardman Park hotel. Police arrested six people on charges of solicitation of prostitution that night—one of them a transgender woman.
Following the arrest, local trans advocate Ruby Corado says she received reports that the woman had been unfairly targeted based on her gender identity, and that she was later placed in a cell with men. Both allegations are violations of the police department's regulations on interacting with trans citizens. "Similar to most weeks, the DCTC received complaints involving police harassment and profiling related to this sting," Corado's advocacy group, the DC Trans Coalition, announced in a press release following the arrests. "Many of these reports come from transgender, transsexual or gender-non-conforming individuals, especially trans women of color, who were involved in, or believed to be involved in, sex work."
D.C. has some of the most progressive police protections for gender identity in the country—when officers follow them. According to D.C. police regulations, officers are barred from using "demeaning" language about a person's gender identity. They're required to "treat transgender persons in a manner appropriate to the individual's gender presentation," including referring to them by their preferred names and gender pronouns, and housing them in cells according to their gender identity and expression, regardless of their physical status. And they're prohibited from using a person's gender identity as "reasonable suspicion or prima facie evidence that an individual is or has engaged in prostitution or any other crime."
According to assistant chief Diane Groomes, members of D.C.'s Prostitution Enforcement Unit followed those regulations to the letter last month. "At this time MPD personnel involved followed the appropriate protocol in regards to the processing of said defendant," Groomes wrote on a department listserv, before urging any recipient of police harassment to file an official complaint. Corado disagrees with that assessment, and an incident report reveals one detail of the trans woman's arrest that was against regulation—the report codes her sex as "male" instead of "female."
But concerns about police arrests of trans women go beyond the question of respect. To DCTC's Sadie-Ryanne Baker, simply enforcing solicitation laws has a disproportionate affect on trans women. "The criminalization of sex work and the police's individualized bias against trans people feed each other," Baker says. Due to widespread discrimination against trans people, some trans women seek out sex work as a means of survival. A solicitation arrest further complicates future legal job searches. And trans women who aren't sex workers are oftentimes assumed to be soliciting anyway. Criminalizing sex work places police and trans people—sex worker or no—in conflict, where discrimination against sex workers and trans women compound on each other.
As a trans advocate, Baker says she receives regular updates on that conflict, from the "assumption that everyone is a sex worker" for simply being outside or possessing condoms, to police making demeaning comments related to a person's gender identity. ("Those are nice boobs—where did you get those?" is a recent police comment reported to Baker.) The general order meant to eliminate that sort of treatment went into effect nearly three years ago. "We've been fighting this for so long," Corado says. "What is it going to take for them to eventually follow their own policies?"