5 Stories Of LGBT People Being Unfairly Treated By The Criminal Justice System


A new report released Wednesday offers a comprehensive list of recommendations for reforming the criminal justice system to protect the LGBT people and people living with HIV who are disproportionately impacted by it. Woven into the report are many personal stories that demonstrate how those disparities play out. Here are five of them:

Policing Gender

Rev. Jason Lydon, who writes at Black and Pink, explains how he saw a court officer profile a transgender woman:

In October 2014, I was accompanying a transgender woman to a court date for a default warrant in New Bedford, Massachusetts. When her name was called and she was brought before the judge they placed her in cuffs and sent her into the holding area before they could go forward with the probation violation hearing. When the court officer brought her into the holding area he asked her, “are you a man or a woman?” When she responded that she was a woman he grabbed her genitals and said, “women don’t have dicks.”


While she was crying he called her names and continued to make comments about her breasts and genitals. All of this was reported to me after the incident as she was allowed to return home because she was already on a GPS unit. There was no one else around watching the court officer. The individual who was assaulted did not want any reports filed or comments made to the court because she was fearful that it would result in her getting in more trouble, possibly getting locked up in jail again, or having another incident of being alone with another court officer.

Criminalizing Condoms

Streetwise and Safe is an organization in New York Cityt hat helps LGBT youth of color know how best to interact with the police. Trina, a youth leader for the organization, shares a story about how she was profiled as a sex worker simply for being transgender and carrying condoms:

The practice of using condoms in prostitution related offenses affects my community, LGBT young people, because we are often profiled as being engaged in the sex trades. One time, I was going to a kiki ball on a Saturday night in the West Village. I was standing on the street talking with some friends and an officer approached me. She asked me for my ID. I gave it to her. At that time I didn’t have my name legally changed. She not only would not call me by my real name, but she kept calling me a man and a faggot. She took a picture of my ID and sent it to the 6th precinct. The dispatcher told her that my record was clear but instead of letting me go, she said she wanted to see in my purse. I didn’t know my rights then or I would have not consented to the search. I thought I had to show her the contents of my purse.

When she looked inside, she saw two condoms. She called the precinct back and asked for a police car to come. I asked her, “Why are you locking me up? I can’t carry condoms?” She replied, “You are getting locked up for prostitution.” I was taken to the precinct and put in with the men. I was 17 years old. This is my story but this is also the story of many of my friends who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, young, and of color. When the police take our condoms or lock us up for carrying condoms, they are putting our lives at risk. How am I supposed to protect myself from HIV and STIs when I am scared to leave my house with condoms in my purse? For my community, it is not only being put at risk for HIV, STIs, and unwanted pregnancies, but having to be harassed and assaulted by police officers for being transgender or queer.

Transgender Discrimination In Prisons

Janetta Johnson now serves as Program Coordinator for the Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project, but she once spent some time in federal prison on a drug charge. She explains how unsafe she felt as a black trans woman in a men’s prison:

I spent three and a half years in federal prison on a drug charge. As a black trans woman, I experienced sexual violence while in prison. I was put in blatantly dangerous housing situations where officials knew I would be taken advantage of. When I went to tell the prison staff that the guy that I was in the cell with had several times fondled my breast when I tried to sleep, I was told that if I reported the assault the only place he could house me was in the SHU, which is isolation. I knew that being housed in the SHU would prevent me from participating in the drug program that was allowing me to qualify for early release and I would not be able to attend school programs that I was involved in.

I chose to keep quiet about what was happening to me so that I could be part of the program and be released from prison 18 months early. No one should have to make the choice between enduring a longer prison sentence or being sexually assaulted. It was one of those things that I felt caused me so much pain and helplessness — a hard decision to make but I learned to shut my mouth and do the best I could just to stay strong. I was even afraid to talk about it via mail or phone where I was housed because they listened to your phone calls closely.

Distrusting Youth

A 2009 report called Hidden Injustice examined the way LGBT youths are treated in the juvenile justice system. Here’s an excerpt about how young transgender people experienced identity policing:

[A]n attorney from the South represented a male-to-female (MTF) transgender youth who was detained in a boys’ facility. The youth’s “treatment plan” stated that she was to receive “help with gender confusion and appropriate gender identity,” which included staff prohibiting her from growing her hair out or having any feminine accessories.

The same attorney reported that another client — a gender non-conforming lesbian — had a similar treatment plan “even though she fully accept[ed] that she [wa]s a female, fe[lt] that she [wa]s a female, and seemed to have no confusion about her gender.” In another case, a mental health evaluator encouraged the court and facility staff to help a transgender youth, who had been diagnosed with GID, to understand that it was not appropriate to “act like a girl” while incarcerated in a boy’s facility.

Criminalizing HIV

Despite great advances in research about HIV, myths abound about how the virus can be transmitted. David Plunkett describes how his life fell apart after he was convicted for aggravated assault for attacking a police officer with “HIV infected saliva”:

On September 18, 2006 I was jailed and eventually sentenced to a ten-year state prison term for aggravated assault on a police officer with a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument. According to the county Supreme Court the deadly weapon was my “HIV infected saliva”. After a six year fight through the court system the charge was vacated by the New York State Court of Appeals, and I was released. After my arrest I lost many things I had worked hard for: I lost my business, my home, and most importantly my reputation. I have had to start my life all over, and finding employment has been impossible with the nature of the alleged crime. This has followed me right up to today: I have found myself having to explain my criminal history over and over again, from applying for housing to registering for classes at my local college.

I remain on parole until this coming September, this has created an even bigger burden finding employment — I am not allowed to leave my small county without my parole officer’s permission, I cannot drive, and I am under a 9:00 pm curfew. I lost my private insurance while incarcerated. This has forced me to rely on Medicare and Medicaid — finding physicians now that can care for my health needs and obtain the medications I need is a continuing battle. All these things are a consequence of being charged with an HIV related crime. At 43 years old I never imagined how different my life would be because of my arrest and incarceration. I also never realized the stigma attached to those with HIV and especially those who also have a criminal record. From then until now I should have been able to focus on my health and career, not battling a system that incarcerates those who live with a chronic illness, and remain uninformed about the nature and transmission of the HIV virus.

These stories join CeCe McDonald, Monica Jones, and the countless others whose identities have made them vulnerable to mistreatment by the criminal justice system. Read the full report here.