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The DC Trans Coalition

By: 
Max Toth
Date Published: 
,

The DC Trans Coalition (DCTC) is a grassroots coalition of organizations and individuals that has been fighting for increased rights for trans and genderqueer people in DC since 2005. Our first campaign was to add gender identity to the nondiscrimination code of DC, which we won within the first year. We then fought to define what it meant not to discriminate against people because of their gender identity – and won some of the most progressive trans protection laws in the country. For example, an employer can’t force a worker to wear gender-specific clothing, as long as they comply with the dress code.

For single-person bathrooms, businesses must replace “men” and “women” signs with signs that say “restroom.” Gender-specific homeless shelters must accept trans people as their current gender, and job discrimination against trans applicants is illegal. (For a complete copy of the regulations, see http://www.dctranscoalition.org.) We also won a change-of-gender form for DC driver’s licenses, and it’s the easiest process for making that change in designation in the country.

But while these victories are great, we recognize that they are only steps in a long process of real justice for transgender and gender-variant people in DC and across the US.

Grassroots power

Our work is about leveraging grassroots community power to fight the discrimination and abuse that trans and genderqueer people face daily in the District. Our community in DC is mostly low-income trans people of color, who are under constant police harassment. Many trans women of color, facing massive job discrimination, become sex workers and are often in and out of an abusive DC jail system. The trans community in general is unable to safely access emergency services because of a terrible history between us and the DC Fire and Emergency Management System (EMS).

In 1995 Tyra Hunter, a trans woman, was left to die when the emergency personnel who were rescuing her from a car accident “discovered” that she was transgendered, and stopped treating her. When she was eventually taken to the hospital, staff neglected her and she died. Her mother sued the District of Columbia and won; the terms of the settlement created a new LGBT training and liaison staff position, but the Fire and EMS systems of DC have yet to implement most of the changes recommended as a result of the Tyra Hunter tragedy. Last year, DC trans activist Ruby Corado observed a “sensitivity training” being held for Fire and EMS personnel and left in disgust since none of the changes were being taken seriously.

To begin organizing around countering these conditions, the Coalition held a community forum to hear directly from people about what kind of problems they have faced. We then worked to create concrete demands that, if won, could lay the groundwork for preventing the abuses, as well as fighting back when people experience them. During the forum we heard from community members about abuses they faced in DC jails, about people getting arrested and ticketed just for living or walking in an area designated as a “prostitution zone” by DC police, and about public strip-searches and other humiliations during arrest proceedings.

We heard about emergency personnel and police who refuse to investigate or take hate crimes against trans and genderqueer people seriously, or who arrest trans women who call 911 during domestic violence situations. Our first set of demands was that the DC police stop the abuse, especially the arrest of trans women just for “walking while trans.” After just three months we won one of the first handling procedures that addresses these concerns last October.

Correcting corrections

Now we’re working on a campaign to address the abuses trans people face in DC jails. Our main demands include privacy during strip searches, the creation of trans-specific housing options, and basic respect for people’s gender identity (name, pronoun, uniform, etc.) Trans prisoners are at a high risk of sexual assault, so the Coalition is fighting for housing options in the jails, so trans inmates could determine where they would be most safe, whether that’s the general population or a housing unit with other trans inmates only.

After the Coalition presented our demands to the DC Department of Corrections (DOC), they tried to sneak through rule changes that would make conditions even worse. They also launched an attack through the DC Office of Human Rights (OHR), proposing to re-write the nondiscrimination rules to exempt law enforcement agencies from having to respect our gender identity and expression.

In response, we held our first public protest last month at the DOC offices and brought out 30 people on a beautiful summer day. We also organized a petition to pressure the Office of Human Rights to drop the attack, delivering over 200 signatures and comments from allies and community members in DC and across the country. Organizations such as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays; the Silvia Rivera Law Project; Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive; as well as individual members of the DC City Council have written formal documents opposing the OHR’s attack.

We expect there to be more actions in the future as struggle to make DC a better place for all people, regardless of gender identity or expression, so stay tuned!

To learn more or to get involved in our work, visit us online. To read an excellent report on the policing of sex workers in DC, see Different Avenues’ report online.

Max Toth got involved in social justice struggles 16 years ago as a youth activist in a campaign to add sexual orientation to the California education code, and has been involved in the fight to expand LGBT rights ever since. He’s also been engaged in anti-racist training and anti-war direct action in the Bay Area and student- and labor global justice movements across the US. He currently works as a data manager at a large labor organization by day and organizes with the DC Trans Coalition in his free time.