Are LGBTQ people being protected & served by the criminal justice system?

Are LGBTQ people being protected & served by the criminal justice system?
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More than a half century ago, the modern LGBTQ equality movement was born as a protest and a fight against police violence following illegal NYPD raids of the Stonewall Inn, a gay club located in Greenwich Village in New York City. As a community, we have made significant strides in the years since then in our fight for equality under the law and for our own liberation, but there is much more work left to be done.

Even today, LGBTQ people and people living with HIV in the United States are subject to unlawful discrimination and abuse – in many cases from government institutions that are supposed to serve their interests and the interests of our entire society.

Related: GOP Senator may block school lunch funding unless staff can discriminate against trans kids

During the heart of Pride month, we can honor the members of the LGBTQ community that came before us by continuing our fight for legal justice. We’ve done it before raising awareness around abuse and neglect of transgender people in prisons and jails and outlining why Ketanji Brown Jackson’s work history matters to LGBTQ people, and we’re continuing today with a survey, “Protected & Served?”, on government misconduct in the criminal legal system against LGBTQ people and people living with HIV that will serve as a powerful tool in advocating for change.

Criminal law and the legal system have, throughout history, oppressed the LGBTQ community. Before 2003 when Lambda Legal won a historic victory in the Lawrence v Texas Supreme Court ruling, members of the LGBTQ community were arrested because of moral disapproval of who we are, our sexuality, and our relationships. Today, nearly two decades later, an avalanche of recent laws is stripping LGBTQ people of their right to access basic healthcare, and HIV and sex work continue to be criminalized.

Should the leaked draft of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision hold true, there would be a direct impact on LGBTQ people who rely on reproductive care and inclusive healthcare providers. And whether the Court will extend its willingness to overturn precedent to the ruling that codified same-sex marriage also remains a fear for the community. The first Pride was a fight against state violence and that is the legacy we as a movement must uphold today. “Protected & Served?” is a tool for our communities to help us fight back.

As an attorney who advocates on behalf of these groups, I’ve seen this discrimination, bias, and injustice firsthand.

Following the murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Tony McDade in Tallahassee, all three people of color and one, Tony McDade, a transgender man in 2020, Lambda Legal, notwithstanding our concerns about the Commission, submitted written testimony to the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice highlighting the disproportionate levels of violence and abuse that LGBTQ people, especially LGBTQ people of color, experience in the U.S. criminal legal system.

In Lambda Legal’s 2012 “Protected & Served?” survey, which helped quantify the scope of these problems, more than half of all respondents reported being verbally harassed while in custody. 27% reported being sexually harassed by jail or prison staff.

With a deck stacked against them, LGBTQ adults and young people are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate in comparison to non-LGBTQ people. In fact, LGBTQ youth alone represent 20% of people in the juvenile justice system. We know all too well that LGBTQ people endure some of the worst discrimination and biases that exist within the criminal system.

But the problem of discrimination begins long before someone is incarcerated. When LGBTQ people seek help and safety from law enforcement officers, they are often ignored or dismissed. We found that 41% of respondents who have been victims of intimate partner violence report that police failed to fully address their complaints and more than a third said police failed to fully address sexual assault complaints.

With anti-LGBTQ discrimination on the rise in cities and towns across our country, it’s more important than ever that we build on the work of this last survey and capture the state of discrimination in our criminal legal system in 2022.

Last month, Lambda Legal, in collaboration with Black & Pink National, launched a new “Protected & Served?” community survey, which will provide greater insight on discrimination and bias against LGBTQ people and people living with HIV in the criminal legal system. This updated report will build on the first by expanding the survey to include questions about the experiences of more marginalized populations and will ask questions about interactions with the U.S. immigration system as well as experiences of sex workers.

To ensure that LGBTQ people and everyone living with HIV are truly “protected and served” by the government institutions that take an oath to do so, we need to better understand those experiences. The “Protected & Served?” survey seeks to shine a light on what many fail to see, or worse yet, ignore. With the data we collect, Lambda Legal, Black & Pink, and anyone who advocates for the rights of our communities in the criminal legal system will have a powerful tool to bring necessary, and long overdue, change.

Richard Saenz is a Senior Attorney and the Criminal Justice and Police Misconduct Strategist at Lambda Legal. He focuses his work on the criminal legal system, coordinating litigation and policy advocacy on behalf of incarcerated people. He is the Project Manager for Protected & Served? The “Protected & Served?” survey, which is anonymous and confidential, will remain open until July 8, 2022.

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