When Lillian Faderman came out as a gay woman in the 1950s, she thought of police as “the enemy.” There was good reason for that: Police enforced anti-gay laws that banned homosexual acts, cops regularly raided gay bars, and LGBTQ communities often resorted to policing and taking care of themselves because they knew a lot of society, including cops, would simply dismiss their problems or make them worse.
More than six decades later, Faderman sat at the Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast, a fundraiser for LGBTQ people in San Diego. Several police officers sat at her table. They were there to support a fellow cop — a transgender woman — who was being honored at the meeting.
“To me, that was so miraculous,” Faderman, a historian who’s written multiple books about LGBTQ people, told me. “That this has happened is such an incredible turnaround from the way things used to be.”
There’s another side to this: the stories of “walking while trans” — of police profiling trans women, particularly those of color, as sex workers and arresting them. In May 2013, Monica Jones accepted a ride from two undercover officers to a bar in her Phoenix neighborhood. She never offered any sexual acts, but her limited interaction with police and the cops’ suspicions were all they needed, under city law, to arrest her for “manifesting prostitution” — charges that would be later dropped after months of court battles.
Jones isn’t alone. A 2014 report from Columbia University found LGBTQ youth and trans women of color in particular “are endemically profiled as being engaged in sex work, public lewdness, or other sexual offenses.” In many of these cases, law enforcement will even use the possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution-related offenses.
“Surely, no heterosexual white man would be arrested on suspicion of prostitution for carrying condoms in his pocket,” the report noted. “Yet policing tactics that hyper-sexualize LGBT people, and presume guilt or dishonesty based on sexual orientation or gender identity, are deployed by law enforcement every day.”
This relationship is one of the reasons the activist group No Justice No Pride disrupted the Capital Pride march in Washington, DC, over the weekend. Protesters demanded local law enforcement participants be dropped from the event due to the tense history with people of color, particularly those who identify as LGBTQ.
The mixed stories speak to the tumultuous relationship that’s always existed between police and LGBTQ people: Although cops are supposed to protect us all, they have also often been used to enforce — and individually reflect — the prejudices of their time. There’s much less of that prejudice nowadays, but what lingers still strains police-LGBTQ relations in America.
A history of anti-LGBTQ abuse
The modern LGBTQ Pride movement first began as a result of police abuses. Through the late 1960s, it was common for police to raid gay establishments simply to destroy LGBTQ-friendly spaces. At New York’s Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, patrons were fed up. In an uprising that included everyone from gay men to trans women of color, they rioted for four nights. The next year, the first Pride march commemorated the LGBTQ activists who fought back.
In her book The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, Faderman offered an anecdote that shows just how horrible police-LGBTQ relations were at this time:
[Minister Ted MicIlvenna, an LGBTQ activist, had] been called to help two homosexual men whose genitals had been kicked in. They were writhing in pain. He telephoned the Presbyterian Hospital for an ambulance, but the dispatcher refused to send one after McIlvenna mentioned the men were homosexuals. McIlvenna wanted to call the police, but the injured men stopped him. “It was the police who did the kicking,” they said.
This was reflective of the experiences LGBTQ people had with police in general. “If you were robbed, you would be scared to call the police,” Faderman said. “They were really scary. They were as bad as whoever the perpetrator of the crime against you was.”
These kinds of abuses existed at a systemic level. For one, police were charged with enforcing anti-LGBTQ laws. In 1969, the year of the Stonewall riots, every state but Illinois had an anti-sodomy law on its books, essentially making consensual sex between people of the same gender illegal.
States repealed these laws over time, but it took a 2003 Supreme Court ruling to strike all of them down. Still, some remain on the books, although they legally and constitutionally can’t be enforced. (Though some cops have tried anyway — like in 2013, when East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, officers arrested men for “attempted crimes against nature,” citing the anti-sodomy law. The prosecutor later declined to file charges, calling the law unenforceable.)
Stories of these abuses and laws permeated LGBTQ communities, creating the perspective that police were “the enemy.”
“What we all knew [in the 1950s] is that the bars could be raided at any time. Just walking outside, if there was a police car coming by, you knew that was potential trouble,” Faderman said. “It was true in New York and everywhere else in the United States: The police were our enemies. They were out to get us. It was a fact.”
Progress, but much work left to be done
Things have changed. These days, police, particularly in major cities, make concerted efforts to reach out to LGBTQ people. That’s one reason they participate in Pride. But they also do all sorts of other things, such as hire LGBTQ liaisons to work closely with local LGBTQ communities. And notably, they’re now charged with enforcing hate crime laws that include at least some of the LGBTQ community in most states — an effective reversal of roles, from oppressing LGBTQ communities to protecting them.
Much of this is reflective of changing social attitudes. Back in the 1970s, Americans were evenly divided on whether gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should be legal. Today, a big majority of Americans agree they should be legal, based on Gallup’s polling. We’ve seen similar changes in attitudes about all sorts of LGBTQ issues, from marriage equality to laws that prohibit discrimination in the workplace.
This Pride Month, several marches have even involved police — not just watching the crowds, but actively participating in marches across the country.
But this isn’t without controversy. In Toronto, Canada, police won’t attend the city’s Pride march in uniform this year after facing resistance from some attendees affiliated with Black Lives Matter, who argued that police present a threat to LGBTQ people of color and especially trans women. In response, New York City Pride attendees invited Toronto police to participate in the Big Apple parade.
There have been similar divisions across the US. In Washington, DC, this year, a group known as No Justice No Pride wanted uniformed police banned from the celebrations, while Pride organizers insisted police will be included. In 2015, #BlackoutPride protesters temporarily halted the Chicago Pride parade — citing police’s historic and current abuses against LGBTQ communities — to cheers and boos from the crowd. The cops attending these marches are frequently LGBTQ, putting them in the middle of two communities.
LGBTQ people still face cascading problems all throughout the criminal justice system. According to a 2016 report from the Movement Advancement Project and the Center for American Progress, LGBTQ people — particularly those of color and trans women — are more likely to be thrown into the criminal justice system and face worse conditions once they’re in.
The report cited the experiences of trans women of color:
In Human Rights Watch's examination of policing in New Orleans, for example, transgender women were subjected to constant harassment, verbal abuse, and stops for suspicion of prostitution; these women also were sometimes asked for sex in exchange for leniency. Transgender women frequently report that police assume they are participating in sex work simply because they are "walking while transgender" or because condoms are found during a frisk.
When citing LGBTQ people for prostitution and related offenses, police also may charge them with additional crimes that bring added punishments. Until very recently, LGBTQ people in Louisiana, in particular African-American transgender women, who were arrested for prostitution-related crimes were at risk for being charged under the state’s "crimes against nature" statute. This law singled out solicitation of oral and anal sex for harsher punishment, including registration as a sex offender.
Once in the prison system, LGBTQ people are more likely to face horrible conditions. Among all inmates, the rate of sexual assault is about 2 percent, according to the report. But among non-heterosexual inmates, the rate is 12.2 percent. Among trans inmates, it’s 24.1 percent — so nearly one in four trans people report sexual assault in prison.
Last year I covered the story of Samantha Hill, a trans woman in the federal prison system. Before she was finally transferred to a minimum-security Kentucky facility where she’s finally much safer, Hill was sexually assaulted at least eight times. She complained all along the way — only for the prison system to repeatedly ignore her until she finally got the legal representation she needed to fight for her. And Hill is far from alone, with trans inmates like Passion Star in Texas and Ashley Diamond in Georgia sharing similar stories.
These are the kinds of examples that have driven some LGBTQ groups, especially in alignment with the Black Lives Matter movement, to protest uniformed police officers in Pride: For many in the community, police simply have not earned their place.
“The reality is that while the [DC Metropolitan Police Department] and the brave officers serving in the LGBT Liaison Unit strive to support and protect the LGBTQ community, there remains an understandable lack of trust in this allyship given high rates of police brutality and harassment toward Black and Brown individuals, especially transgender women,” said Guillaume Bagal, president of the DC-based GLAA. “Although GLAA does not wish to exclude the MPD from Capital Pride events, as a sign of commitment to the work that remains to be done, they should show up to this space unarmed and not in uniform.”
So despite the progress, many LGBTQ activists believe there’s still a lot of work to be done before police officers can take part in Pride and honestly say that the institutions they represent fully respect LGBTQ people.