The Minneapolis Police Department announced a new policy last month that will require officers to use preferred gender pronouns when interacting with individuals who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming.
“We have been working to figure out how to improve issues with the transgender community,” said Andrea Jenkins, a policy aide to City Hall and the oral historian for the University of Minnesota’s Transgender Oral History Project.
Jenkins said that focus groups identified harassment in police interactions as one of the biggest issues for people who identify as transgender.
“Denying a person’s identity is dehumanizing,” she said. “If people don’t respect my own self-determination, it’s disrespectful and harmful.”
According to the 2011 National Center for Transgender Equality Survey — which surveyed over 6,400 people who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming — 22 percent reported facing harassment by police. These rates increased for people of color.
And 46 percent of people surveyed reported feeling uncomfortable asking police for help.
“I’ve been involved in some research projects that look at police harassment,” Jenkins said, “It’s a cycle.”
Because people who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming are affected by transphobia, Jenkins said, they have trouble being employed.Often, they have to resort to sex work or drug-dealing. This leads to incidents with law enforcement, Jenkins said.
During the policy announcement, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said the city was the first to have a nondiscriminatory policy for transgender people back in 1975.
According to the National LGBTQ Task Force, Minneapolis was the only state with a statute against the discrimination of transgender people until 1990, when Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Seattle, and St. Paul adopted similar laws.
University gender, women and sexuality studies assistant professor Aren Aizura said discrimination against those who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming dates back to the 19th century.
“In the 1860s there were a lot of municipal laws that made cross-dressing illegal,” he said. “Police had an agenda to move people if they were gender nonconforming … the logic was these people were a threat to society.”
Aizura said these cross-dressing laws were used throughout history as an excuse for police to arrest transgender and gender nonconforming people — for example, the police raids that resulted in the 1969 Stonewall riots.
“There is a certain kind of status quo that people are expected to conform to,” he said. “If police find out they are not maintaining that status quo, they will find excuses to detain them.”
According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, in 2013 transgender people were seven times more likely to face violence from law enforcement than cisgender people. Specifically, transgender people of color were six times more likely to face violence.
“If police use your correct pronouns while they arrest you that’s all well and good,” Aizura said, “but what happens after you are arrested?”
Jenkins said that while this policy is a great first step, it’s still too early to say whether any change has come from it.
“When transgender people are arrested they can be put in custody with people of the opposite gender, and even incarcerated [transgender] people are harassed by guards and inmates,” she said.
Ultimately, MPD Chief Janeé Harteau said at the announcement that the guiding principle for the MPD is to evaluate their interactions and determine if their actions reflect how they’d want a family member to be treated.
She said to accomplish that goal the department must continue to understand the community itserves.
“To our trans residents and to trans people everywhere: We see you, we hear you, you are us and we are you,” Hodges said.“We are proud to stand with you. We are proud to stand for you in the work that we do.”