Sex and gender at work, in bed, and on the street

D.C. police e-mails concerned with bad press, trans rights

March 22, 2011 - 02:30 PM
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In July of 2007, police arrested Virginia Grace Soto for missing a court date. Then, judging by what they called her "masculine features," police wrongfully determined that Soto was a post-operative trans woman, detained her in a male facility over her objections, and forced her to sleep and shower with men.

The incident inspired a media and activist outcry, forcing the D.C. government to publicly address how any woman—trans or otherwise—could come to be housed with men against her will. Since Soto's arrest, the District has taken steps to improve procedures for gender variant people entering the city's gender binary criminal justice system. In October 2007, D.C. police adopted a general order designed to eliminate discriminatory police interactions with trans people, outlawing the use of degrading language, inappropriate pronouns, and gender identity profiling in the force. And in 2009, the D.C. Department of Corrections followed suit by instituting some marginal improvements in the way it identifies, houses, and treats trans detainees.

Despite the paperwork, the city's trans activists continue to gather anecdotal evidence that police officers and corrections officials don't always conform to their progressive guidelines.

Last year, the DC Trans Coalition filed a Freedom of Information Act request to comb police e-mail correspondence for terms like "transgender," "transsexual," "trans," "gender identity," "cross dresser," "transvestite," and "impersonator" to learn more about how D.C. police treat trans citizens. The search, which covered e-mails from October of 2007 to July of last year, yielded one additional incident where police may have misclassified a trans detainee, in July of 2009. "Once within the custody of the Department of Corrections, our staff immediately discovered that this inmate was in fact a female despite receiving records and all previous processing my MPD, the Court, and U.S. Marshal Service indicating otherwise," Devon Brown, then-director of the D.C. Department of Corrections, wrote to police chief Cathy Lanier and other city officials in an e-mail chain obtained by DCTC. Only later was the inmate "identified as female and subsequently managed and housed according to her gender," Brown continued.

Brown then emphasized the need to improve the city's system for identifying, transporting, and housing trans detainees—before the media catches on. "We will need to confer on this matter due to its sensitive matter," Brown wrote, "as it holds the potential of generating a possible media event and exposing the District to liability reminiscent of that stemming from the arrest and subsequent processing of [Virginia Soto], the individual who was arrested as a male and treated as such despite being female." Brown spells out his interest in the case at hand: "In light of the highly explosive, negative media and community response that emerged from the identical circumstances surrounding the [Soto] case, I consider this matter to be of acute importance."

"It looks like MPD did mess up on this," Lanier replied. "Detective should have isolated but didn’t. No harm to def and no media as of now.”

The DC Trans Coalition's Jason Terry, who testified about the group's FOIA findings on Friday, is ambivalent about the e-mail trail's implications. "This case demonstrates an increased sensitivity to the rights and needs of trans people going through the criminal justice system," Terry told me via e-mail. "It also shows that by having policies on handling trans cases at different agencies, we diminish the likelihood of someone falling through the cracks. That said, it's disheartening that the chief and the mayor were more concerned about getting bad press than respecting someone's rights." He added: I'm sure there are plenty of cases like this that those leaders never learn about, and never do anything about."

Terry says that the two-year-old case underlines the increased need for "proper training for personnel throughout the criminal justice system"—and adequate compensation for the local LGBT advocates who perform that training. But the incident also shows that at least one aspect of DCTC's public advocacy is getting through to city officials. When trans people speak out, the criminal justice system can't help but listen up.

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  1. Sadie-Ryanne Vashti Sadie-Ryanne Vashti

    Sadie-Ryanne Vashti

    Mar 22, 2011 - 04:42:58 PM

    I guess that the only reason MPD/DOC care about protecting the safety of trans people is because they might "look bad" if they don't. This is more reason why we must hold them accountable when they mess up; if they're afraid of being embarrassed in the media, let's embarrass them and make sure this never happens again!

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