People come to Atlanta from all over the South, nation, and world to get free – to be able to be live full lives, to escape economic and social violence and intolerance, to have opportunities to thrive, to be unapologetic about who they are. Those born in Atlanta desire – and deserve – the same. Known as the “city too busy to hate” and the “Black and/or Gay Mecca,” the potential for Atlanta to be a beacon and a safe haven for all people, including trans people of color, is tremendous.
But, sadly, Atlanta has not yet realized that potential – and especially not for trans people, in particular people of color. In our city, trans people face intense barriers to stable housing, adequate health care, and employment with a living wage. Well-documented, widespread discrimination results in trans people of color being unemployed at four times the national average. In addition, at least 41% of Black trans people in the U.S. have been homeless at least once in their life- over five times the general U.S. population rate. HIV/AIDS also disproportionately impacts trans communities: a meta analysis released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that 28% of trans women are living with HIV. Studies also suggest that trans men and non-binary identified trans people are over twice as likely to be HIV-positive than those in the general population.
In addition to (and often because of) these social and economic realities, our community is also especially vulnerable to violence and abuse, both interpersonal and at the hands of law enforcement. Black trans people faced extraordinary levels of violence in recent years. Over 23 trans, gender non-conforming, and/or non-binary identified people were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2015. In the first 11 months of 2016, the murders of 26 trans people have been reported, making it the deadliest year on record for trans people in this country. Over both years, almost all of the victims were people of color, and the vast majority of those were Black trans women.
In Atlanta, Shaneku McCurthy, a 25-year-old queer, gender non-conforming woman was murdered by three teenage boys. In the Summer of 2015, a Black trans woman was arrested tor defending herself against her attackers at a MARTA station. Even within our own homes and relationships, between 31.1% and 50% of trans people have experienced intimate partner violence. This violence and abuse has devastating impacts on our community as a whole. Suicide attempt rates for trans people who have experienced physical violence at work or school are an astonishing 63-64%. And recent reports indicate that trans women of color have a life expectancy of only 35 years.
Given these realities, law enforcement and city leaders should be paying special attention and engaging specific policies and practices to protect and serve our communities, recognizing that we are particularly marginalized and especially vulnerable to discrimination and hate-based violence.
The grassroots researchers of this study spent the Summer and Fall of 2015 surveying 88 trans people in Atlanta about their experiences and interactions with the Atlanta Police Department (APD) to determine the current state of law enforcement-community relations and to explore whether and how trans people feel and are protected and served by the city’s police department.
The findings inside “The Most Dangerous Thing Out Here is the Police” should serve as a call to action to all of us, but especially to city leaders and law enforcement officials. This report is the first of its kind in this city and it tells us an important story with lessons that must be heeded if we believe that trans people are a part of this great community and deserve to be safe from violence and abuse. Far from feeling and being protected and served, trans people and especially trans women of color are currently being profiled, sexually abused, and physically and emotionally endangered by the actions and attitudes of APD officers. Instead of protecting the lives and rights of trans people, our police department is actively contributing to making life unsafe for us and our families. This is unacceptable and should spur us into immediate and decisive action to make significant changes in how our city polices in our communities.
The following are key findings from the research and data analysis and recommendations for city leadership and law enforcement:
Key Finding #1
APD IS SEXUALLY ASSAULTING TRANS PEOPLE OF COLOR.
It is one of the most egregious violations of trust when law enforcement representatives abuse their power to sexually exploit or assault community members.
Our research found that four respondents had been forced to engage in sexual activity or experienced various forms of unwanted sexual contact from an APD officer in the last year. Of these, three were trans women, and one was a non-binary identified, genderqueer, and/or gender non-conforming person.
Even one incident would be unacceptable. We find it especially concerning that multiple respondents experienced this abuse during interactions with the APD.
Key Finding #2
APD HAS A PATTERN AND PRACTICE OF PROFILING TRANS PEOPLE.
Atlanta Police Department’s mission is to “create a safer Atlanta…ensuring the safety of our citizens and building trust in partnership with our community.” When it comes to trans people, however, Atlanta police are much more likely to harass than to protect us. Police profiling, harassment, and violence has a devastating impact on our communities – we suffer lasting psychological harm, increased risk of suicide, and get sent to prisons and jails where so many of us are hurt and mistreated.
The research found that:
An overwhelming 80% of the trans women of color reported having been approached or stopped by the APD within the last year, and of these, nearly half (46%) said that police assumed they were sex workers. Many felt they had been profiled based on their gender identity.
The majority of other respondents also reported being approached or stopped by the APD within the last year. Our research found that race and gender expression based profiling impacts trans men and genderqueer, gender non-conforming, and/or non-binary respondents in unique and distinct ways.
Key Findings #3
ENCOUNTERS WITH APD MAKE TRANS PEOPLE LESS SAFE.
Research confirms that encounters with APD leave trans people less safe than they were before the encounter. This is true even when we have called the police ourselves for help because we were in danger or to report a crime.
A stunning 2 out of 5 trans women of color respondents (38%) reported having called the APD for help – but ended up getting arrested instead.
In addition (and perhaps as a result), the vast majority of respondents clearly stated that they do not have trust in the Atlanta Police Department. Many respondents felt, at some time, that their life was in danger because of an APD officer, including 35% of trans women of color, 23% of all trans women, 20% of all trans men, and 33% of all genderqueer or non-binary identified respondents.
Encounters with Atlanta Police that result in detention make trans people even less safe by exposing them to humiliating and often violent conditions that exist in our jails and prisons. At the Atlanta City Detention Center, an overwhelming 83% of trans women were housed in men’s population, while 17% were put into isolation. And appallingly, though not surprisingly, it was reported that officers or other prison staff had sexually assaulted respondents, including one trans women and one non-binary, genderqueer, and/or gender non-conforming person who’d been detained in the city jail.
A Call to Action
The following recommendations are based on these findings:
Eliminate ordinances that encourage police officers to target, harass & sexually assault trans people
Decriminalize sex work & provide employment & social service opportunities to trans residents
Adopt community drafted & supported Standard Operating Procedures & implement improved policies & protocols that ensure trans equity
Conduct an investigation into abuses by the Atlanta Police against trans individuals & develop a clear plan to address harm done
Note on Language
Throughout our report, we use “we,” “our,” and “us” as we describe our methods, results, and experiences, rather than using distant or passive language. We do this because trans and/or gender non-conforming people are the experts on our own experiences and needs. Most of the people who developed the survey, conducted outreach, and contributed to this report are Black trans Atlanta residents. In other words, we did this research within our own local trans communities. Many of us have similar experiences, perspectives, and identities to our respondents. We are proud to raise up our communities’ voices, document our communities’ struggles, and to identify as part of our communities.
We also use words that may not be familiar to some readers. Below, please find definitions of commonly used terms in our report, and explanations for choosing some words over others.
Trans: An inclusive term for people whose gender identity or expression is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. SNaP Co uses the term “trans,” because we consider this more inclusive and expansive than other terms. It is not a shortcut for “transgender,” a term our collaborative does not use. When we refer to trans people we include (among others): trans women and men, cross-dressers, and genderqueer, non-binary identified, genderfluid, gender non-conforming, and/or agender people.
Gender Non-Conforming: Those whose gender expression does not conform to gendered expectations (e.g. masculine women, feminine men). Not all trans people are gender non-conforming.
Non-Binary: A person whose gender identity is neither man/boy nor woman/girl.
Genderqueer: Individuals whose gender identity or expression transcends categories of man/boy or woman/girl. May be used as an adjective (“a genderqueer woman”) or as a separate gender identity.
TLGBQ: An acronym for “trans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and questioning.” While we put the “T” first, we otherwise agree with Black and Pink’s explanation: “Even though we know that sexuality and gender are much bigger than these letters, we nevertheless use this limited acronym to include people who claim LGBTQ identities as well as many others, including but not limited to: same gender-loving . . . transsexual, transvestite, nelly, asexual, Two-Spirit . . . sissy, dyke. We continue to seek better words for people who identify outside of heteronormative and white supremacist categories . . .”
LGBQ: An acronym for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and questioning.” We use this term to describe researchers’ results when respondents were LGBQ but not explicitly trans or gender non-conforming.
Trans Man: Generally, a man who was assigned female at birth.
Trans Woman: Generally, a woman who was assigned male at birth.