Police addressed this touchy subject in early June, when Multnomah County took the nationally unprecedented move and set forth a clear policy for booking transgendered inmates. Until now, the police had "ad-hoc" ways to address transgender inmate booking; some transgendered people were put in an isolated holding cell. But this novel policy sets forth explicit guidelines as to how transgender inmates are to be booked, and overrides the discretion of the police officers.
Historically, police departments and queers have not made comfortable bedfellows. The Portland Police Bureau's decision comes in the wake of three groundbreaking federal cases. Most recently, on March 8, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed a lawsuit to go forward against a Washington State Prison Guard, in which Douglas "Crystal" Schwenk, a transsexual female, was incarcerated in an all-male facility in Walla Walla, Washington.
Schwenk sued prison guard Robert Mitchell for sexual harassment, accusing him of demanding oral sex and slamming her against the cell wall while grinding his penis into her buttocks. In the same manner that racial and gender progress began, these cases serve as the toe in the door for transgendered equality.
Given this potential liability in incarcerating transgendered people, Portland Police have made the first move towards protecting themselves from a legal disaster. Yet, regardless of their motivations for the policy, they have put themselves at the forefront of the transsexual movement by acknowledging the basic rights of a generally unrecognized sexual minority group.
The issue was initially raised 6 months ago at the Sexual Minorities Roundtable, a ten-year-old advisory group to the Portland police. Like the policy itself, experts believe that Portland is unique to have a forum that attempts to represent the rights of sexual minorities.
"In my networking at national conferences and with other groups, I always meet people who think Portland has a unique, innovative approach to the GLBT community," said Lieutenant Michelle Lish, referring to the Sexual Minorities Roundtable.
Lori Buckwalter, who is herself a transsexual female, worked with the Portland Police Bureau to see this plan become a reality. "This will benefit the whole population." said Buckwalter. "Transexuals are like canaries in the mineshaft. Everybody is made vulnerable when one population is marginalized."
According to the policy, Multnomah County now defines a transgender or transsexual person as "a person whose sense of identity as a man or a woman is inconsistent with their genitalia and other anatomical sexual characteristics." Though this may seem basic to most people, having the definition in place will, legally, allow police to simply follow the new rules. Once confirmed as having transgender status, the person arrested will be searched by deputies "of the same adopted gender."
While the number of transsexual people who are booked each year is very low (Portland police estimate it was under 5 last year), trans advocates like Buckwalter, who is the executive director of It's Time! Oregon, see this as having far-reaching implications. Buckwalter hopes this policy will guide other police departments around the entire country.
"I work with groups on a federal and national level," she explained. "We are always looking for model programs such as this one, programs that the rest of the country can look at and admire."
The decision comes at a time when government is not only recognizing the need to address the rights of transsexuals, but also to acknowledge their existence as a whole. Nyagra, a New York- based gender advocacy group, estimates that there are 50,000-100,000 transgender and "transvariant" people living in New York City alone. By those percentages, Buckwalter estimates there are over 7,000 living in Portland.
In the last five years, it is not unusual for city governments to acknowledge the population of transsexuals. Many urban governments have recognized transsexuals in symbolic initiations, such as the Portland City Council's 1998 unanimous decision to take steps toward prohibiting discrimination based on "gender identity." The truly revolutionary action lies in the police decision to govern transsexuals with significant, practical consequences.
Despite enthusiasm for the new policy and the mechanism that created it, some remain skeptical about the respect of the Portland Police for transexuals. "Frankly, I just don't trust the [Portland] police," said Dereck Travers, who represents Gender Machine Works, a Portland trans advocacy group. "Too frequently I hear of queer people being mistreated. I feel unsafe going to the police or advising anyone else in the queer community to do so."
Travers' feelings extend beyond just the new policy to the Sexual Minorities Roundtable itself. "It's unique, it's a great idea, but it's just not effective," said Travers. "In order to trust the roundtable, I need to see systemic changes. I need to see the police treating queer people with respect."
In response to complaints like Travers', Buckwalter and Lish maintain that progress may be slow, but worth the effort. "Honestly, I often share their frustration," said Buckwalter. "I personally get frustrated all the time. But what can we do? We can scream and cry, but that's not going to help anyone. If this just helps two people who are booked, it will be worth it."