Changing the rules
LBGT advocates want police policy on dealing with transgender people changed
06/20/2012 10:00 PM
Two years ago, when word spread that a transgender person had been unfairly treated by officers of the Chicago Police Department, the response was swift and critical.
“People were up in arms,” said Jennifer Ritter, executive director of the community organization Lakeview Action Coalition.
The incident — involving a trans woman who was allegedly stopped by officers while she was walking home from the grocery store and subsequently accused of soliciting as a prostitute — prompted Ritter and members of Lakeview Action Coalition to look into what rules the police department had on the books regarding how officers were expected to interact with transgender people.
What they found was a training video which laid out an “archaic policy … based strictly on genitalia,” said Ritter.
“[It] stated that if you have a penis, you are a man, and if not, you are a woman,” she said. “People agreed that this was something we could impact.”
With help from a number of trans advocacy and homelessness outreach organizations, the group began working with CPD and the city to establish a general order dictating transgender policy within the department.
That agreement has yet to be codified today, as the measure has faced several hold ups, but stakeholders in the trans community believe that the introduction of an order within the police department is not far off.
The impetus behind such an order would be to safeguard against situations where a trans person’s physical appearance becomes the subject of harassment and profiling by police.
According to a 2010 study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, about a fifth of transgender people who were interviewed reported that they had been harassed by police officers. Over half of that group stated that they had been abused.
Discriminatory treatments of trans people can include “gender checks,” in which an officer may grope a person’s genitalia to determine their sex, or circumstances in which police refuse to acknowledge a person’s self-identified gender as it is stated on their ID or driver’s license.
Instances of unlawful gender checks haven’t yet been recorded in Chicago (though cases have surfaced in New York and San Francisco).
In Cicero, a trans teen recently filed a lawsuit stating that two officers accused her of prostitution and questioned her gender as it appeared on her state-issued ID during a stop in February.
“Nobody else has to deal with that kind of thing, and nobody should,” said LGBT activist Christina Kahrl.
Kahrl, who serves as a board member and volunteer with the LBGT advocacy group Equality Illinois, said that trans people are often pigeon-holed as criminals, in part because a person’s gender preference can be interpreted by police as a form of disguise.
A noted sportswriter by day, Kahrl has been at the fore of the discussion between the trans community and CPD regarding the general order for the past few years.
Though the department has been open to discussing the implementation of a transgender policy, Kahrl said that negotiations have stalled due partly to personnel changes in the force.
CPD did not respond to numerous emails requesting comment for this story.
While Kahrl and representatives from the Howard Brown Health Center, Lakeview Action Coalition and the Illinois Gender Advocates have continued to pursue the order, a separate effort, led by Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st), has been underway to ratify a similar police transgender policy by way of a city ordinance.
Drafted earlier this year with support from the city’s two openly gay council members, Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) and Ald. James Cappleman (46th), the ordinance — which called for a prohibition of gender checks, among other measures — garnered initial approval from Kahrl’s group and others within the city’s trans sphere.
But upon seeing the final draft, Equality Illinois pulled its support, stating that “all major enforcement and accountability components that we had previously discussed” had been removed from the document, included language regarding “training, enforcement, and oversight” that the group believed was central to the success of the legislation.
“The proposed ordinance as it currently exists has no real teeth to it,” wrote Bernard Cherkasov, the group’s CEO, in an April release. Several groups followed suit, while LGBT advocates such as the Civil Rights Agenda maintained their backing for the initiative.
The ordinance is currently awaiting a hearing before the city’s joint committee on human relations and public safety.
Moreno’s communications and legal director Matthew Bailey said that the two years of deliberations over the general order was “too long in our opinion,” he said, “which is why we introduced the ordinance.”
Kahrl said that her group was not currently focused on the ordinance’s passage, as renewed discussions with the police department have indicated that a general order could be on the horizon.
“The police are looking at this … as a thing they must achieve, and that’s positive,” she said.
If it instated, the order isn’t expected to change the culture of the police department overnight, she said.
But it would be a start.
“This is more than just achieving one piece of legislation or one piece of policy for the police department,” said Kahrl. “This really about making sure that trans people get treated as human beings … in both the legal and the policing system.”