When the Supreme Court ruled for full marriage equality Friday, the New York Police Department joined the ACLU and the throngs of other groups that turned their logos rainbow. But that support of the LGBT community does not extend to the treatment of transgender youth in New York City.
Transgender youth, particularly those of color, became targets of discriminatory arrest and displacement when former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani introduced “quality of life” policing in the early 1990s. This type of policing refers to aggressively enforcing noncriminal violations or regulatory-type infractions, such as congregating in public, panhandling, littering, unlicensed street vending in public spaces, public urination, and graffiti.
This style of policing has persisted and led to the criminalization of trans youth of color for just existing in public spaces. Transgender and gender nonconforming youth in New York City are kicked out of their homes at an average age of 13.
You read that right: 13.
Let that sink in for a moment. At 13 years old, these youth are often forced to create community on the streets because of unsafe foster homes and dangerous homeless shelters.
The fight to survive can lead to the sex and drug trades and to a young person’s first contact with law enforcement, triggering a cycle of incarceration and homelessness that can disrupt a young person’s entire life. For example, transgender youth — who have been kicked out of their home, foster home or school — might not have access to a safe bathroom, so they use an alley or discreet place in a park as their restroom or to change clothes. A youth might sell things they have made on the street without a license in order to buy food or other items to survive, such as tampons, toilet paper, and medicine. A youth with no place to keep their belongings might hide a backpack in a public park and be ticketed for “littering.” Youth trying to create community in public spaces at night to protect each other on the street might be ticketed for “congregating in public.”
This has to stop.
Resilient trans youth of color in New York are fighting back against these discriminatory police practices. FIERCE, a New York City-based queer and trans youth of color-led organizing group recently launched its “Quality of Life Bow Down Campaign.” Youth leaders spoke powerfully about the ways that they refuse to be targeted for being in public, for being themselves, and for surviving. The ACLU is proud to support FIERCE on this groundbreaking campaign for trans youth to reclaim the streets of New York City from the discriminatory policing that leads to too many young people with promise and potential being funneled into a dead end criminal justice system.
As we celebrate great victories and reflect on devastating losses, it is imperative that we think about the streets and the spaces that we occupy. It has been over four decades since our fore-queers took to the streets in the Stonewall Riots demanding liberation. Our youth are being kicked out of and criminalized on those same streets. No justice, no peace.