Trans women and police brutality through history

By Princess Harmony
April 15, 2021

The “protect and serve” motto emblazoned on police vehicles acts as cover for their aggressive and oppressive activities against people of color and working and poor people in general. Among groups most impacted are trans women, who have been oppressed and maligned openly for centuries. Throughout the 20th century, trans women and our self-expression were repressed legally and violently.

Possibly the most blatant example of state-sanctioned violence against trans women was in Nazi Germany. During their rise to power, the Nazis launched attacks against the Institute for Sexual Science that researched the trans phenomenon and helped trans women transition. The Nazi regime treated trans women as homosexual men, twisting the knife.

Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler gave speeches targeting gay people, essentially saying that sexuality is not a private affair but a key problem in their racist, sexist, and queerphobic ideology. Being queer was harmful to the “Master Race.” While the main targets of the Holocaust were Jewish and Slavic people, the Holocaust remains one of the largest state-organized assaults on queer people – who were made to wear the pink triangle.

In the U.S., it was once illegal in many localities to “dress as the opposite sex.” In fact, some towns still have rules like that today, though they may not be enforced. These repressions forced trans women, cross-dressers, and other gender nonconforming people to go underground, or to hide who they were.

In response to both police and community mistreatment, they rebelled!

From Cooper’s Donuts to Stonewall

One of the very first recorded instances of trans and gender nonconforming people rebelling against police and social tyranny was the Cooper’s Donuts “riot” in May 1959 in Los Angeles. Little information is kept on this uprising because it was a revolt by trans people. They threw everything that wasn’t nailed down at police and burnt police cars to a crisp. They forced the cops to flee, though they returned with more force and the revolt was defeated.

History is hidden by the victors – the Los Angeles Police Department successfully hid that aspect of our history.

The next trans and gender nonconforming rebellion in the U.S. was the rebellion at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin in 1966. It was illegal to “impersonate a female,” so trans women, drag queens, and cross-dressers went underground. Due to the fact that they were so oppressed, they had to turn to underground economies, such as sex work or drug dealing. This was a fact of life and still is.

In this environment, dirty cops took advantage of their situation by shaking down queer people for sex or money acquired from selling drugs. This mistreatment set the stage for a queer organization – Vanguard – to come on the scene.

Vanguard demanded equal rights and protections for the trans and gender nonconforming community. In August 1966, the management of Compton’s Cafeteria called the police to arrest people for violating the “female impersonation”  law. Someone spilled coffee on the management, sparking a rebellion. When the rebellion started, it was 60 trans people fighting for their rights, lighting fires and battling the police.

The biggest and most well-known queer uprising is the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York City. This was not an exclusively trans event, but many trans women and other trans feminine people were present and fought hard for trans people.

Sylvia Rivers (left) and Marsha P. Johnson

Sylvia Rivera was chief among them. About Stonewall, she said, “Once the tactical police force showed up, I think that really incited us a little bit more. Here this queen is going completely bananas, you know,  jumping on, hitting the windshield. The next thing you know, the taxicab was being turned over. The cars were being turned over, windows were shattering all over the place, fires were burning around the place. It was beautiful, it really was. It was really beautiful. I wanted to do every destructive thing that I could think of at that time to hurt anyone that had hurt us through the years.”

Another elder there was Marsha P. Johnson. Like Rivera, she was a founder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. In an interview that was reprinted in a book about STAR, she talks about being arrested for “prostitution” simply because she was a Black gender nonconforming person. This sort of thing continues to this day.

In 1992 Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River, cause of death officially “undetermined,” but there is strong evidence she was murdered.

Police still target trans women of color

In the 21st century, abuses of trans women by police continue. In 2006, a trans woman in New York City, Mariah Lopez, was arrested for walking while transgender unofficially and “loitering with the intent to solicit” officially. When she was in police custody in the Sixth Precinct, she was called “he/she,” “it” and “f*ggot.” Police beat her and refused to take her to the hospital, acting like it was no big deal to beat up a trans woman just because she was trans.

When Lopez was transferred to the Department of Corrections, she was abused by guards who didn’t believe her story about being abused by the police while in NYPD custody. On top of that, they called her a “f*ing f*ggot.” On July 18, 2006, she was additionally charged with “assaulting officers.” Because she couldn’t afford bail and couldn’t stand the living conditions of prison, she took a plea deal to get out.

According to “Injustice at Every Turn: National Transgender Discrimination Survey,” 25 percent of trans women have been disrespected by the police. It’s also stated that trans people of all genders are treated with extreme disrespect based on their economic status. People of color (Indigenous, Asian, Black, Latinx, and multiracial) all reported that they had been abused by the police. Responders across the board – from trans feminine to trans masculine people – reported discomfort with police interactions.

Transgender women are often harassed and abused by cis police but escape with their lives. This is not always the case. In 2002, Black trans woman Nizah Morris was murdered by Philadelphia police  officers while being escorted home after she got drunk in an integrated queer bar. In 2020, Roxanne Moore was shot to death by police in Reading, Pa. She was in the middle of a mental health crisis and wielded a gun that couldn’t actually fire. Protesters in Reading came out with Black Lives Matter signs and the queer and trans people of color flag.

Fortunately, alongside the tireless work of activists in many locales, trans women are fighting for their dignity. In February 2021, the State of New York finally repealed its “walking while trans” law. Trans women can no longer be arrested on suspicion of being sex workers, at least not officially.

But the white supremacist heterosexist bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie will never entirely make us equal to cis people. Only a revolution can do that and we need to remember that.

For all the trans people afraid of police, we can join revolutionary organizations that fight for the memory of our elders.

Martha Grevatt contributed to this article.