The Dark Truth of Policing the LGBTQIA+ Community
Writer: Mikada Green
Editor: Alma Samocha
Graphic Designers: Marcella Diviani and Maulina Gheananta
The societal perception of the LGBTQIA+ community has gradually become more accepting in recent years, but plenty of work still needs to be done. This sentiment is especially true when evaluating the relationship between law enforcement and the LGBTQIA+ community. While it is evident that Black and brown people have experienced the most significant proportion of abuse and profiling from law enforcement, recent studies show that the LGBTQIA+ community is also vulnerable to police discrimination. In addition, the element of intersectionality between gender identity, sexual orientation, race, and class adds further complexity to the conversation. Finally, there is a sense of hegemonic masculinity that can be traced back to the inception of policing that can make it problematic in LGBTQIA+ communities. Hegemonic masculinity is a social construct that reinforces the idea that men belong in dominant positions at the expense of women and gay men who may not fit into the stereotypical masculine role. Recent police conduct has created a crisis and a need for change in this racist, homophobic, and transphobic institution.
In a recent study by the Williams Institute at UCLA investigating the mistreatment of LGBTQIA+ individuals at the hands of the police, 21% experienced hostility when interacting with the police. Meanwhile, 14% of those surveyed said they experienced verbal abuse, 3% reported sexual harassment, and 2% experienced physical assault. The reports among transgender and nonbinary individuals were even higher. Comparing transgender and white cisgender experiences, trans people's chances of being abused by police are six times more than their white cisgender counterparts. These numbers are even higher when looking at the police brutality rates among transgender people of color. The story becomes more disturbing when studying police responses to LGBTQIA+ crime victims. In a 2014 UCLA report surveying people in the LGBTQIA+ community and those diagnosed with HIV, it was discovered that one out of three victim crime complaints were not investigated by law enforcement, those with an obligation to protect the community.
Historical evidence of law enforcement mistreatment against the LGBTQIA+ community is not hard to find. For example, Henry Gerber, the founder of the first gay rights association called Society for Human Rights (1924), was one of many who experienced heightened surveillance and power abuse by police. As a result, the group petitioned for the eradication of sodomy laws. Sodomy laws criminalize consensual sexual activity between partners of the same gender. Ultimately, the group demobilized due to legal troubles following police targeting, including in-home raids without warrants. This example is significant to acknowledge as it shows that this first attempt at LGBTQIA+ liberation failed primarily due to police involvement. Though those involved in the Society for Human Rights were not imprisoned, it was still a traumatic and discouraging experience for the community as the sodomy laws remained.
One of the most prolific confrontations between the LGBTQIA+ community and law enforcement was the Stonewall riots. On June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, the NYPD stormed the building, triggering a riot. Police used unreasonable force to take people out of the gay club. Six days of protests followed. During the period, gay clubs were a refuge for those who were not allowed to openly express their sexualities in other unsafe spaces and were constantly being raided and shut down. This event was a catalyst in the agenda for gay rights: rather than a total focus on sodomy laws, the community began fighting for equal rights protected by law. From 1970 to 1980, 23 states decriminalized sodomy, a monumental event for those who had been fighting for years. The U.S. Supreme Court repealed the remaining sodomy laws between 1980 and 2003. Unfortunately, repealing these laws did not prevent social prejudice and discrimination in spaces such as the workplace.
The policing of the LGBTQIA+ community has been heavily scrutinized, as law enforcement consistently fails to meet the needs of people living under their protection. There is a troubling pattern of under-policing of LGBTQIA+ people when they are victims of a crime but over-policing in safe spaces. Many activists have shared solutions they believe could help build trust and improve relations between the LGBTQIA+ community and the police. Some departments have hired liaison officers to attempt to create positive ties, explicitly focusing on interactions with the LGBTQIA+ community. Implementing LGBT liaison officers (LLOs) may help law enforcement precincts to establish better perspectives on how to best police LGBTQIA+ communities. This implementation is crucial as the institution of policing has long been a male-dominated organization similar to the military. With a focus on outreach and training, LLOs gain the skills and resources necessary to address hate crimes and create a better cultural understanding of the community in which officers are policing. Some organizations believe this training could lower abuse rates and reduce the frequency of mistreatment by police towards LGBTQIA+ individuals. However, much more reform is needed to address the extensive systemic oppression within the institution of policing.
The mission of law enforcement is to protect and serve the community, but who will protect us when the police are the ones from whom we require protection? We need to pay attention to the mistreatment of people in these vulnerable communities and call for law enforcement to take action and fix these structural issues. The legal system has consistently failed the LGBTQIA+ community throughout history, and it is time for these injustices to stop.