Check Out Our Op-Ed in Metro Weekly

DCTC helped write and publish an editorial in this week’s edition of Metro Weekly. The piece is titled “Unpacking the Numbers: Racism, Poverty and the Response to Anti-LGBTQ Hate Crimes in D.C.” We really hope you’ll pick up a copy of MW, or you can read it online by clicking the link above.

In order to meet the word length requirements for publication, we had to edit a great deal of it down. So we also decided to post the full length (and slightly sloppier!) version online, complete with citations and more detailed analysis. You can read that here, below the cut!

Unpacking the Numbers: Racism, Poverty and the Response to Anti-LGBTQ Hate Crimes in DC

As a lesbian trans woman in a world that treats my identity as sick, delusional and deceptive,  I understand fear. I’ve heard the disparaging comments and I’ve been beaten to a pulp because of how others perceived my sexuality or gender expression. I know what it’s like to be afraid to leave the house.

So I also understand the growing concern about the rise in reported hate crimes in DC. Despite the Metropolitan Police Department’s failure to follow DC laws by tracking anti-trans violence specifically, I think it’s safe to say that a huge portion of these incidents target trans and gender non-conforming people. The brutal murder of Ty’lia “Na Na Boo” Mack in broad daylight last summer is only the most painful reminder that transphobic violence, and homophobic violence, is a problem here in the nation’s capitol.

The numbers upset me, and they don’t even include cases that police fail to report, or cases where the survivors are afraid to report: undocumented immigrants who fear they’ll be deported if they call the police, sex workers assaulted by clients who fear they’ll be arrested too if they ask police for help, trans people who fear what the police might do when they find out that their ID card doesn’t match the way they look.

Still, these frightening statistics can be used to educate people that a widespread problem exists, and to call them to action. However, if we fail to develop a nuanced analysis of hate violence we risk creating dangerous divisions that will undermine the very important work of saving lives from homophobic and transphobic violence. We may even inadvertently reinforce other kinds of violence like racism and poverty.

According to MPD’s (obviously limited) statistics, from 2008 to 2009 anti-LGB hate crimes rose the most in Police Districts 6 and 7 (Wards 7 and 8), encompassing some of the poorest neighborhoods in the District. Since the report was released, media have focused on the rise in reported hate crimes in these wards, and I have read and heard commentary from LGBTQ people that implicitly or explicitly blames “black churches” or “black people” for encouraging a climate of violence there.  This erases the fact that predominantly white churches (like the ones in my native West Virginia) are just as – if not more – homo/transphobic, and it ignores the wider cultural context in which hate crimes happen. It also completely erases the reality of LGBTQ communities of color, especially those who are also part of faith traditions.

Before we allow such racist nonsense to continue, we should ask ourselves a few questions.

First of all, with such a small sample size, are these numbers statistically significant? Biased crimes based on sexual orientation reported in Police Districts 6 and 7 (Ward 7 and 8) rose from seven in 2008 to ten in 2009. Is an increase of three reported crimes, comparing only two years of data, enough to warrant what the MPD calls a “marked shift”? Or could this focus on potentially inconsequential yearly variation be due more to stereotypes that neighborhoods with high concentrations of poor folks and communities of color are “more dangerous”? While surely we all agree even one hate crime is too many, we should be weary of scapegoating these neighborhoods based on the limited data available.

Second, are the figures even accurate? Wards 7 and 8 are among the most heavily policed areas of the city. With more cops on the street enforcing heavy-handed “get tough on crime” procedures in these neighborhoods (see, for example, the checkpoints in Trinidad), perhaps the higher number of reported crimes in these wards is due more to disproportionate policing than disproportionate trans/homophobia.  How and when the police record hate crimes is very subjective. For example, despite eyewitness testimony, Ty’lia Mack’s murder has yet to be classified as a hate crime.

But let’s assume for just a moment that it isn’t due to racist exaggeration of data or problems with reporting. Even if there are more incidents of anti-LGBTQ hate violence in Wards 7 and 8, is it reasonable to assume – based only on MPD data – that people in these neighborhoods are “more trans/homophobic,” or are other factors in play?

Could it be that people in Tenleytown are just as homo/transphobic as people in Anacostia, but that their prejudice remains more invisible? Many hate crimes start off as other crimes, such as muggings, which become hate crimes when the perpetrator makes bigoted comments that betray their already-existing prejudices. In a city with such an intense wealth gap (in September 2009, Ward 8/Police District 7 had an unemployment rate of 28.3 percent, versus Ward 3’s rate of 3.2 percent), the neighborhoods with the least resources and the highest incidence of homelessness, drug addiction and other poverty-related problems are also likely to have the highest rate of muggings, theft and property crimes.  Focusing on race in discussions about where trans/homophobic violence occurs in DC obscures the issue of poverty, and its role in promoting many kinds of violence.

Finally, before we allow ourselves to be frightened by these numbers enough to call for increased policing in the name of “fighting homo/transphobic hate crimes” in these economically distressed parts of the city, we should ask ourselves whether having more police on the streets is in anyone’s best interest.

The US incarcerates more people than any country in the world, and DC has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation. These high rates of incarceration are fed by draconian police programs like the “Prostitution Free Zones” and ”All Hands on Deck.” Such policies are most likely to impact marginalized communities such as LGBTQ folks, and especially poor and low income young trans women of color.  DC’s incredibly racially skewed prison population – only 2% white – underscores that point.

Due to employment discrimination, (which is illegal in DC, but often hard to prove), lack of family support, and insensitive or inadequate social services, LGBTQ people are more likely to end up poor or on the streets, where their survival may depend on criminalized activities like sex work, or the use of illegal drugs to cope with the emotional trauma of living in a hostile world. Combined with police profiling, these factors increase the likelihood that LGBTQ people will be detained, arrested or sent to jail.

Jail is a dangerous place for LGBTQ folks, particularly trans women. Even though the DC Department of Corrections is supposed to provide trans people with the option of being housed according to their gender identity, many trans women end up being placed in male facilities, where they are at incredibly high risk of rape and contracting HIV. As one recent case in Virginia illustrates, trans women are often kept against their will in punitive-style solitary confinement for ludicrously long periods of time in the name of “protection.”

Especially in these times of economic recession, policing and incarceration take up a lot of tax money. Meanwhile, organizations like HIPS and Transgender Health Empowerment, which provide crucial services to the most underserved LGBTQ communities that are also the most likely to experience violence, are losing funding. We cannot legislate away trans- or homophobia. However, as we do the difficult work of changing people’s hearts and minds, we can legislate to provide services to survivors of violence and funding for groups that help people stay out of harm’s way.

We can also fight to change the institutional policies that place people in dangerous situations. We can make sure that trans people are able to carry ID that reflects the way we live so that we don’t have to “out” ourselves every time we produce those IDs. We can make sure that homeless shelters and schools understand and respect the unique needs of LGBTQ people so that homeless folks and youth aren’t subjected to harassment and bullying. We can guarantee that trans prisoners are housed where they will be safest, and ensure that police receive proper training on how to interact with LGBTQ communities.

By cutting people off from their families and support networks (DC currently houses prisoners across 33 different states), providing inadequate counseling or re-entry programs, and making it nearly impossible for people with convictions to obtain employment, jails often end up making people even more violent and giving them even fewer options to survive. In this way, over-incarceration causes more devastation and promotes existing economic inequalities in heavily policed neighborhoods. And, of course, police and jails can only punish people after they have harmed someone. Perhaps, instead of calling for more strict policing and harsher punishments, we might ask ourselves how we could imagine a world with less violence in it to start with.

Before using MPD’s data on anti-LGBTQ hate crimes to advocate for increased policing measures in impoverished areas of the city, we ought to ask whether putting more cops on the streets in these neighborhoods is even going to reduce the amount of violence inflicted on LGBTQ people in these areas. We shouldn’t forget that police are often the ones responsible for committing violence, frequently including harassment and detention of LGBTQ people who are also homeless, users of illegal drugs, immigrants or sex workers – the same people who would benefit the most if we spent more money on education, housing, health care and other social services instead of policing and locking people up for nonviolent or economically-motivated crimes.

We should all be concerned about anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, wherever we live. But we must not jump to dangerous conclusions, like pretending that hate crimes only happen in some areas, blaming hate crimes on people of color, or using this as a reason to call for more severe police tactics in those neighborhoods. Our response to these numbers has material consequences. Racist attitudes and classist assumptions coming from white, middle class LGBTQ individuals only provides fodder for straight, cisgender (non-trans) people of color to ignore LGBTQ members of their own communities. It also makes it seem like only people of color are capable of inflicting harm on (white) LGBTQ people, covering up cases where wealthy white people cause violence toward LGBTQ people of color – particularly that which is institutionalized in our system of policing and our over-reliance on incarceration.

Pretending hate crimes only happen in certain areas, while ignoring institutional violence that happens in jails and at the hands of the police, obscures the more complex ways in which our entire culture creates an atmosphere of intolerance and hatred toward LGBTQ communities. Racism and poverty foster a world in which violence is a tragically normal part of many people’s daily lives. Rather than allowing our response to one kind of violence to contribute to other forms of violence, we must critically ask how poverty and racism fuel transphobia and homophobia, and then strive to develop creative strategies to end all of them.

Sadie Ryanne Baker lives in Northeast DC. She works with the DC Trans Coalition, an all-volunteer, grassroots community-based organization dedicated to fighting for human rights, dignity, and equal access for transsexual, transgender and gender-diverse people in the District of Columbia.


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