Civil Rights Groups Call Out 'Archaic' N.Y. Loitering Law For Targeting Trans People

In a letter shared exclusively with HuffPost, 34 organizations demand the state legislature support repealing the "walking while trans" ban.

National civil rights leaders on Wednesday urged New York lawmakers to support the repeal of an anti-loitering measure they say unfairly targets transgender and gender nonconforming people.

The anti-loitering statute, also known as the “walking while trans” ban, was created to target people who are loitering for the purpose of engaging in sex work. The statute, however, includes very vague terms that essentially allows police to stop anyone walking on a sidewalk.

“We are deeply concerned that New York State continues to enforce NYS Penal Law § 240.37, an archaic anti-loitering law that has led law enforcement to engage in widespread profiling and harassment of the transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) community across the state,” reads the letter shared exclusively with HuffPost. (Scroll down to read the letter in full.)

The letter is co-signed by 34 national and state civil rights organizations, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Women’s Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of New York.

Trans and gender nonconforming people, specifically trans women of color, are profiled, harassed and arrested under the anti-loitering statute because police assume they are selling sex due to their gender identity. Gender nonconforming people have been stopped for “wearing a skirt,” “waving at a car” and “standing somewhere other than a bus stop or taxi stand,” the letter states, citing police reports. Many of these run-ins and arrests have occurred while people were simply on their way to visit a friend or go grocery shopping.

“On the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, it is unconscionable that New York State’s Democratically-controlled legislature would continue to sanction the unconstitutional, state-sponsored harassment of TGNC people simply for ‘walking while trans,’” the letter reads.

“It criminalizes our communities for just existing in public.”

- TS Candii, former sex worker and current VOCAL-NY leader

Repealing the anti-loitering law would be “literally life-saving,” said TS Candii, a former sex worker and current leader at VOCAL-NY, a group providing support to low-income people.

“It criminalizes our communities for just existing in public,” she told HuffPost. “Just a few weeks ago, I was approached by an officer who threatened to arrest me for this charge if I didn’t give him oral sex. I did, because I had no choice. That is state-sanctioned sexual violence, but it happens every day to our trans communities.”

In addition to repealing the “walking while trans” ban, the letter asks New York lawmakers to pass a bill that would allow human trafficking survivors to expunge their criminal records for the sex work they were forced into. The letter says the bill would allow “survivors to overcome previously insurmountable barriers to securing stable housing, employment, and social services access so they can move on with their lives.”

Protesters supporting a movement to decriminalize and decarcerate the sex trades in New York.
Protesters supporting a movement to decriminalize and decarcerate the sex trades in New York.
Pacific Press via Getty Images

Decrim NY, an organization working to decriminalize sex work in New York, told HuffPost that the recent death of Layleen Cubilette Polanco ― an Afro-Latina trans woman who died in her cell at Rikers Island last week ― is yet another example of how laws like the anti-loitering one can cost trans people their lives. Polanco was in jail on prostitution and lowest-level drug possession charges stemming from a 2017 arrest.

Decrim NY and other advocacy groups supported the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, a legislative package introduced Monday that seeks to “decriminalizes and decarcerates” the sex trade in New York. The legislation was co-sponsored by Democratic state Sens. Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos, as well as Democratic state Reps. Richard Gottfried and Yuh-Line Niou.

“Sex work is work and should not be criminalized by the state,” Salazar said Monday at a news conference.

“Our current policies only empower traffickers and others who benefit from keeping sex work in the shadows,” she added. “New York state needs to listen to sex workers and make these common-sense reforms to keep sex workers safe and empower sex workers in their workplaces.”

Read the full letter from civil rights groups:

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