More than 100 members of the advocacy group Decrim NY rallied in the state’s capitol on Tuesday to call on lawmakers to pass legislation to protect sex workers in New York. One of the bills repeals a loitering law, known as “walking while trans,” which advocates say allows police to profile, harass and arrest transgender people.
Decrim NY is a coalition of more than 30 organizations working to decriminalize, decarcerate and destigmatize the sex trades in New York city and state.
The “walking while trans” law gives police the liberty to arrest anybody who might appear to be engaging in sex trade, based on what they think that person should look like. And those reasons can be “pretty ridiculous,” activist Nina Luo of VOCAL NY told the Daily News.
Luo, who’s a member of Decrim NY’s steering committee, accompanied the group to Albany. She said that people can get arrested simply for “standing on a public street somewhere that’s not a bus stop,” or for “leaning on a car.”
It’s up to law enforcement to decide if what a person looks like fits the description of a sex worker. “You don’t have to engage in any criminal behavior to be arrested for it. It’s very much up to police discretion” and their idea of what sex workers look like, she said. “Of course it ends up being generally trans women of color that get arrested for it, even if they’re not engaging in sex work.”
“The law that criminalizes loitering for the purposes of prostitution actually just criminalizes me for being a black trans woman. Police profile, harass, and arrest us for walking around, wearing a pink hoodie and black pants, just existing in public,” TS Candii, VOCAL-NY community leader and member of Decrim NY, said. “When I walk outside my home, I feel like I have a target on my back. New York, how can you be a safe place for LGBTQ communities when the Walking While Trans ban is still on the books?”
A fact noted by a 2014 Columbia University report that concluded that “LGBT people, specifically transgender women of color and LGBT youth of color, are endemically profiled as being engaged in sex work, public lewdness, or other sexual offenses.”
The report also noted that possession of condoms can be used as evidence of prostitution-related offenses. “Surely, no heterosexual white man would be arrested on suspicion of prostitution for carrying condoms in his pocket,” it read. “Yet policing tactics that hyper-sexualize LGBT people, and presume guilt or dishonesty based on sexual orientation or gender identity, are deployed by law enforcement every day.”
A different report published by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) on Monday, noted that there’s currently no legislation that explicitly prohibits the use of condoms as evidence in prostitution-related offenses.
New York Sen. Brad Hoylman, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement that he wants to”repeal the statute on loitering for the purposes of prostitution because it is used to profile, harass and arrest transgender people and people of color. It’s time for New York to take a new approach, rooted in compassion rather than criminalization. I look forward to working to pass this measure with the support of my colleagues in both houses.”
Luo wants to use the excitement surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots to get more people to involved. “Obviously that was very much led by black trans women, the same women who would be impacted by the statute today. We’re hoping to build more LGBTQ momentum around the bill. It’s one of the most high impact LGBTQ bills that could be passed this session.”
Mateo De La Torre of the National Center for Transgender Equality celebrates the effort. “Communities across New York are witnessing the power and strength of a community consistently told to live under pity and shame,” he told The News. “The decriminalization of sex work is central to the fight for transgender equality and the safety of our community’s most vulnerable members. We all owe a debt to the countless advocates in New York, DC, and across the country working to affirm their right to dignity and self-determination.”
Another bill the group supports will expand criminal record relief for sex trafficking survivors. New York only allows trafficking survivors to clear prostitution-related records, but survivors can have other charges, such as drug and trespass charges, for crimes they were forced to commit by their traffickers.
“The NYPD understands that many of the persons involved are doing so because they are being forced, coerced or otherwise made to against their will,” Detective Sophia Mason, a spokeswoman told the Associated Press.
Decrim NY’s Jessica Raven told WCNY on Tuesday that she didn’t even consider herself a sex worker. After she was sexually abused while in the foster care system, she ran away and started trading sex work for places to live. It wasn’t “sex trade,” she said. It was a “teen experiencing homelessness who was doing what I had to so to survive.”