Updated: February 4, 2021 11:02:28 am
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo Tuesday signed a bill repealing a controversial law known as the “Walking While Trans” ban, which has been widely criticised for disproportionately discriminating against transgender people of colour. The move was welcomed by LGBTQI+activists, advocates and legislators who have been pushing for the ban to be revoked for years now.
“Repealing the archaic ‘walking while trans’ ban is a critical step toward reforming our policing system and reducing the harassment and criminalization transgender people face simply for being themselves,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement, after the bill to repeal the 1976 law was passed in both houses of the New York Legislature.
What is the controversial ‘Walking While Trans’ law?
‘Walking While Trans’ ban is the colloquial name for a law, which was originally passed in 1976 with the intention of prohibiting loitering for the purpose of prostitution. The law is widely criticised for how notoriously vague it is — it allows New York police to arrest or apprehend someone walking on the street if they suspect that they are sex workers.
While the law is mostly used against women, several men, too, have been arrested or detained merely because police suspected that they were “loitering for the purpose of prostitution”. But the law is known for disproportionately impacting trans women, especially trans women of colour.
Why does the law appear to target trans women?
According to Manhattan Senator Brad Hoylman, one of the lead sponsors of the bill to revoke the archaic law, the ban “led to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement by targeting women from marginalised groups that are at high risk for sex trafficking and other exploitation and abuse”.
Between 2012 and 2015, at least 85 per cent of those arrested under the law were Black or Latinx, according to data included in the sponsor memo.
In 2019 alone, 91 per cent of people arrested under the law belonged to these two groups, and around 80 per cent identified as women, according to data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.
The law permits the police to “stop-and-frisk trans women of colour and other marginalised groups for simply walking down the street,” Hoylman said. In fact a sponsor memo, authored by Hoylman, states that police officers were known to warn transgender women that “girls like them” would be arrested if they loitered outside post midnight.
“One officer, when asked how he was trained to identify prostitutes, testified that he was trained to look for women with Adams apples, big hands and big feet,” a section of the memo reads.
Over the years, the number of arrests made under this law has increased significantly. In 2018, arrests under the statute increased by 120 per cent, with Black and Latinx women — including trans people — most affected, according to US-based LGBTQ advocacy group The Human Rights Campaign.
Protests against the ‘Walking While Trans’ ban
Several LGBTQI+ activists, advocates and legislators have been pushing for the repeal of the ‘Walking While Trans’ law. In fact, noting its discriminatory impact, many local district attorneys voluntarily stopped enforcing the law. New York Governor Cuomo has long been vocalising his commitment to revoke the law — a promise he fulfilled this week.
In 2016, the non-profit group Legal Aid Society filed a civil rights lawsuit against New York City and the New York Police Department (NYPD), on behalf of several transgender women who alleged that they had been unfairly discriminated against under the controversial law. The case was settled three years later and the NYPD revised its Patrol Guide section on the penal law code.
The updated Patrol Guide requires officers to provide more “detailed factual narratives about their observations” and specifically prohibits them from relying on “‘gender, gender identity, clothing, and location’ alone or in combination to establish probable cause”, according to a news release from the Legal Aid society.
The push to repeal the ‘Walking While Trans’ law was taken up once again in June last year, when thousands of Black Lives Matter protestors took to the streets calling for the law to be revoked, while also raising slogans to defund the police. The protests were part of a nationwide movement that broke out following the custodial killing of unarmed African American George Floyd in Minneapolis.
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