The LGBTQ community and police brutality

Photo by Kelly Burkhardt

A young trans woman, ReeAnna Segin, 18, was arrested at Philadelphia’s 2018 Pride march for attempting to burn a Blue Lives Matter flag. She was booked on arson and catastrophe charges — both felonies — among other lesser charges. Police documents referred to her by her dead name, and she was sent to a men’s jail while awaiting arraignment.

Amber Hikes, Philadelphia’s former Office of LGBT Affairs director, helped post Segin’s bail the following day.

Outrage over the arrest rippled through social media, with Philly Socialists noting on Twitter, “The police have no place at Pride. Police represent an affront to LGBTQ people and people of color, many of whom have died at the hands of police.”

The movement to get police out of Pride surged in 2019 in advance of Stonewall 50. Malkia Devich Cyril, a Black queer activist and leader in the group Movement for Black Lives, said then, “Police have often been a force of terror for queer and trans communities.”

Cyril said, “The efforts to remove policing from Pride are really efforts to ensure safety for the communities that are there. It’s a protective act. It’s an act of resistance.”

Pride is virtual this year, but the sentiment against having a police presence of any kind — including having LGBTQ cops being featured in virtual events — is stronger than ever.

For Segin, and those who witnessed her arrest, that sentiment is strong. The District Attorney’s office dropped the arson and catastrophe charges against her. But the violent arrest — Segin was pushed to the ground, her face on the pavement — was documented by a photographer at the scene, and no charges were brought against the police involved.

The incident highlighted ongoing problems between the LGBTQ community and police that have only intensified in the intervening time.

*Tania James attended a recent protest with thousands of others against police violence. The Germantown native says she is “not an activist,” but “my experience with police [as a trans woman of color] has been challenging to put it mildly. I have been harassed — sexually, verbally — you name it. And I just had to come out, to be present [at the protest]. Too many of us are dying, and the police don’t give a f–k about what happens to us.”

Naiymah Sanchez, the transgender justice coordinator for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, underscored James’s assertion. Sanchez said, “Transgender and nonbinary people have a lot of mistrust of police, especially among Black and Brown communities. We’ve been historically mistreated, harassed, and abused by officers, so of course, we don’t trust them.”

That lack of trust has had a chilling effect on reporting crimes against LGBTQ people. Violent crimes and other hate incidents against LGBTQ Americans are consistently not reported and prosecuted because of chronic distrust between the LGBTQ community and police.

Nearly 300,000 crimes may have been committed against people across the U.S. because of their sexual orientation from 2012 to 2016, according to the federal National Crime Victimization Survey.

The data are disturbing: 48% of survey respondents reported experiencing police misconduct, with 58% of transgender survey respondents reporting mistreatment by police.

The FBI Hate Crimes Statistics report released in November 2019 highlighted the rise in hate crimes against LGBT people. According to the report, of the 7,120 hate crime incidents reported in 2018, more than 1,300 — or nearly 1 in 5 — stemmed from anti-LGBTQ bias. 

“The fact that we fear going to police when we are assaulted speaks to how hard it is for us to believe the police will really help us,” said *Tony Russo, a gay man living in South Philadelphia and teaching at a local private school. “How many of our cases ever actually get prosecuted? I got verbally harassed and then punched three years ago a block from my house. The officers who took the report said I was lucky I didn’t have to go to the hospital. That was it.”

Russo said he didn’t go to the media because of his job. “I’m out, but I didn’t want to be a headline. The fact is, we really just have so little recourse. I only reported at all because I was afraid that guy was going to hurt someone else.”

Tania James said when she was younger, she did survival sex for a couple of years. During that time she was beaten by clients on several occasions. “What can you do about that? Call the police and have them arrest you instead?”

James said she thought the fear of police could be a contributing factor in the escalating incidence of murders of trans women of color, particularly for those who are survival sex workers or even simply perceived as such. “Everybody knows that no one calls police, that we are out here on our own.”

Sanchez said, “The criminalization of sex work adds another layer of fear and mistrust. Trans and nonbinary folks who engage in sex work can’t go to the police when they’re being abused. The reality for trans and nonbinary people is that, by just being perceived as a person engaging in sex work, you will not be provided with fair treatment by the police when you need help.”

The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that nearly 9 out of 10 respondents who interacted with the police while engaging in sex work or while the police thought they were doing sex work reported being harassed, attacked, sexually assaulted or mistreated in some other way by police. The survey also looked into how many arrests came from interactions with police while engaging in sex work or when police thought they were engaging in sex work. Almost one-third of transgender folks reported being arrested during an interaction. Fifty percent of Black respondents and 40% of transgender women reported being arrested during an interaction.

Sanchez said more must be done to create trust and achieve some rapprochement between police and the community so that queer people feel protected. 

“Officers also need more equity training so that they understand the issues that impact trans, nonbinary, and LGBQ people,” Sanchez said. “And they need to be evaluated on how they work with our communities. A one-day training with no follow up has no impact.”

* Some names have been changed to protect the safety of the interviewees.

If you feel you have been a victim of police misconduct, contact the ACLU at 215-592-1513 or Lambda Legal 212-809-8585.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.