It’s Time to End Profiling of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People of Color

Your Take: The U.S. Justice Department must act to stem law-enforcement profiling of LGBT Americans of color.

People gather with then-New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio (back, left) before a vigil Aug. 27, 2013, for Islan Nettles, a transgender woman who was slain in Harlem after being approached on the street and beaten by a group of men.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

A few years ago in New York City, a 17-year-old black transgender girl named Trina was walking down the street when she was stopped by police officers and frisked. When a warrant check came up clean, the officer looked in her purse, found condoms and then arrested her for loitering with the purposes of prostitution—the type of arrest that would be unthinkable had she been a cisgender, heterosexual boy.

Yet it’s the type of arrest that happens to gay men and women of color—as well as transgender women of color and homeless LGBT youths of color—on an all-too-frequent basis during encounters with police, and it represents a hidden but devastating form of profiling.

The fight against profiling by law enforcement is at a critical moment. Last week U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced plans to collect hard data on stops, searches and arrests by federal law-enforcement officials, just weeks after proposing a new ban on profiling—one that includes profiling based on sexual orientation and gender identity. These are important steps toward a fairer criminal-justice system. Still, there is more to be done to make sure that the national conversation around profiling deals with the crisis of profiling against LGBT people and LGBT people of color, specifically.

Last week a diverse group led by the Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, the Center for American Progress, the Center for HIV Law and Policy and Streetwise and Safe released a federal-policy road map to address the continuing and pervasive profiling, policing and punishment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans—many of whom are young men and women of color and young transgender people of color. This road map offers critical guidance to the federal government in its efforts to stamp out injustice in the legal system.

Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are significantly overrepresented in all aspects of the penal system. In one national survey, 73 percent of LGBT individuals reported an encounter with a law-enforcement officer over the preceding year. According to data collected by anti-violence programs (pdf), 48 percent of LGBT people seeking protection from police reported instances of police misconduct. Researchers have also documented higher levels of verbal, physical and sexual abuse from law enforcement against LGBT youths. 

The problems are compounded for LGBT people of color, who deal with discrimination on multiple fronts, including homophobia and transphobia, in addition to racial bias. More than a third of LGBT people of color reported experiencing verbal or physical abuse in encounters with law enforcement.

Combating this pattern are a number of grassroots organizations working in their communities at the intersections of racial justice, criminal justice and LGBT rights. In New Orleans, BreakOUT! played a pivotal role in securing comprehensive protections for LGBT people after the New Orleans Police Department came under fire. In New York City, Streetwise and Safe helped pass the stop-and-frisk bill that outlawed profiling against LGBT people as well as people of color. The crisis, however, demands a response from the highest levels of government.

With his recent announcements, Holder began to address a number of concerns raised in the road map. Here are some next steps that he and President Barack Obama can take:

* Ensure that protections against all forms of profiling—including profiling based on sexual orientation and gender identity—extend across the country by making federal funding to local law-enforcement agencies conditional on their adoption of strong and enforceable bans on profiling.

* Encourage prosecutors and police to stop confiscating and citing possession of condoms as evidence.