U.S. LGBT Activists of Color Lead Push for Alternatives to Police and Prison Brutality

September 23, 2015
Patrisse Cullors has dedicated half of her 32 years to working toward the reform of the Los Angeles prison system, a quest that started with her brother Monte’s 1999 arrest and subsequent 40-month sentence, during which a confrontation with a deputy left him unconscious and with a mental illness that continued after his release.

Feeling voiceless and angry about her brother’s treatment, Cullors joined forces with others who had experienced injustice at the hands of the Sheriff’s department, which in 2012 was the subject of a damning complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union about numerous assaults on inmates.

Through the newly founded coalition Dignity and Power, Cullors, a performance artist and former fellow at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, and her partners pushed for greater accountability for the Sheriff’s department, scoring a significant victory during the second half of 2015 with the establishment of a civilian oversight board.

Stronger measures targeting police misconduct and discrimination have extended to other parts of the United States, including New York City, where condom carrying may no longer be used as grounds for suspicion of prostitution, and Atlanta and the nearby city of East Point, where police officers must follow new guidelines for respectful treatment of trans suspects.

“It was young people of color who are queer and gender nonconforming…who were leading this whole march in the South,” says activist BT (which stands for “Black Trans man”), who works with the Solutions Not Punishment (SNaP) Coalition, a project of the Racial Justice Action Center.

BT has himself been “face down, on the street, for random stops and profiling,” and took part in the widespread response to the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, in Ferguson, Missouri.

While LGBT individuals, people of color, and those with limited incomes are represented at disproportionately high levels among the U.S. prison population, some 47 percent of Black trans people have been incarcerated during their lives, compared to 16 percent of trans people overall, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality1.

A total of 73 percent of respondents to a 2013–14 national survey of LGBT people conducted by Lambda Legal had had face-to-face contact with the police in the previous five years, and many reported a high degree of hostile and abusive police behavior2.

Black and Latino/a and trans survey respondents were more than twice as likely to report being physically searched by police than the general survey pool (21 and 18 percent respectively, versus 10 percent); and were about twice as likely to report verbal, physical, or sexual harassment by police.

Lambda Legal’s data contributed to the reintroduction in Congress in April 2015 of an inclusive End Racial Profiling Act, now designed to ban profiling based on sexual orientation or gender identity as well as race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion.

Mobile Phones Spread Images of Police Violence

After images of the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, were rapidly transmitted through social media and posted online, a movement built around #BlackLivesMatter grew even stronger.

“Now we can tell our own stories,” says Cullors, who created the hashtag from the words used in an impassioned Facebook plea by her fellow activist Alicia Garza, in 2013, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. “We have our own platforms, our own bloggers.”

Black Lives Matter chapters, whose national leadership includes visible LGBT activists, work closely with the Black Youth Project 100, whose national director, Charlene Carruthers, notes that the new generation of leaders “are black, they are women, they are trans, and they are migrants.”

Carruthers’, Cullors’, and BT’s groups are seeking alternatives to prisons: “Those of us in the gender justice movement don’t think transgender cells and pods [in jails] are the new wave,” Cullors says.

“Many folks who are trans are doing survival crimes such as sex work, so we actually want to push back and challenge and decriminalize sex work so they don’t end up committing crimes.”

The SNaP Coalition, which comprises a broad cross-section of people, including Asian, Middle Eastern, and Latin American newcomers to the country, is pursuing a pre-arrest diversion program, modeled after a successful initiative in Seattle, to redirect people arrested for survival sex work into community-based programs.

SNaPco is continuing to press the Atlanta Police Department to move beyond its officer training toward more trans-sensitive policing by providing ongoing and longer-term cultural competency workshops to counter anti-LGBT prejudice.

“I know I’m just where I’m supposed to be in history,” says BT. “Things are shifting. You can’t ignore us anymore.”

1National Center for Transgender Equality (2015). A Blueprint for Equality: Reducing Incarceration and Ending Abuse in Prisons.
2Lambda Legal (2013–14). Protected and Served. Accessed 7/30/15.