New Criminal Justice Report Reminds Us That Transgender Discrimination Goes Beyond Bathrooms

Since North Carolina's anti-transgender HB 2 law passed in March, arguments about where transgender people can use the bathroom have been at the forefront of national debate. Several other states have followed North Carolina's lead and are attempting to restrict access to bathrooms for transgender people, and North Carolina's law is now at the center of a legal battle between the state and federal government.

Access to public facilities like bathrooms is important for transgender people. But the fight for transgender rights does not begin and end at the bathroom door.

Transgender people, especially transgender women of color, face pervasive discrimination throughout life, including by those sworn to protect us. As a new report by the Center for American Progress and the Movement Advancement Project reveals, the criminal justice system disproportionally harms and targets transgender people, tipping the scales against transgender people before, during, and after incarceration. Specifically, legal targeting and social stigma work together to funnel transgender people into the criminal justice system, and create huge obstacles when they try to get out of it.

For example, laws such as outdated HIV criminalization statutes or punitive bans on sex work disproportionally force transgender people into the criminal justice system. Such targeting of transgender people often result in heartbreaking consequences.

Take Bianca Feliciano, an 18-year-old transgender woman who was targeted in 2011 by Chicago police on suspicions she was engaging in prostitution. The police refused to accept her ID, which had her legal name and gender marker, and began to harass Bianca, threatening violence and telling her that she could be accused of fraud because she is a transgender woman. Or another transgender woman, Antonia, who was profiled in New York City. She was stopped, frisked, and arrested multiple times on suspicion of engaging in sex work. In one particular incident, while no evidence was found to suggest Antonia was engaging in prostitution, she was still arrested, taken to the detention center, strip searched, and laughed at by arresting officers.

This type of abuse does not end once in the system, where transgender people continue to face unacceptable rates of stigma and abuse. Transgender people frequently face bias in court and are assigned unsupportive public defenders, factors which lead to more extreme sentences and longer incarcerations. Transgender inmates in criminal justice facilities are often assigned to facilities that don't match their gender identity, forcing them into unsafe environments where they report shockingly high levels of harassment and sexual violence, both from fellow inmates and from facility staff. When transgender inmates seek a safer environment, they are often ignored or pushed into solitary confinement.

Destiny, a 16-year-old transgender girl, reported being sexually assaulted in juvenile facilities. Her court appointed attorney told the judge, "I think this young man has a lot of things -- and I use the word man -- to think about" and continued to argue in favor of commitment in the facility where Destiny was clearly unsafe. Destiny's experience is a startling example of how an unsupportive counsel, an apathetic judge, and unsafe conditions can foster and exacerbate abuse within the criminal justice system.

Upon leaving criminal justice facilities, transgender people continue to face heightened obstacles to reentry. Restrictive parole and probation policies can make it harder for them to move past their record and having a criminal record can make it more difficult for transgender people to change their name or gender marker on official documents, which can intensify the discrimination they already face in employment and housing.

To be sure, these problems existed well before passage of North Carolina's HB 2. But anti-transgender bathroom bills will likely only increase harassment of transgender people by both law enforcement and a deputized public emboldened to play bathroom police.

Transgender people are under attack in many parts of this country, and the justice system too often fails many of our nation's most vulnerable. Discriminatory targeting and continued abuse by our criminal justice system remain an everyday reality for transgender people like Destiny, Antonia, and Bianca. As our nation's elected official discuss and debate reforming our broken criminal justice system, they should take note of the situation in North Carolina and seek to end state-sanctioned discrimination against transgender people, not foster it.

Sarah McBride is the Campaigns and Communications Manager for LGBT Progress at the Center for American Progress.