March 13, 2012
On February 2, Jezebel reported that on January 12, Temmie Breslauer, a transgender woman living in New York City, was arrested for illegally using a discount subway card that belonged to her father. Breslauer was taken into custody by the police, and asked “whether she had a penis or a vagina.” Despite the fact that she responded that she is trans, and produced medical documents indicating that she is in transition, she was chained to a fence with one arm raised above her head. Breslauer was left chained to the fence for twenty-eight hours.
During her detainment the police repeatedly called Breslauer derogatory names and maliciously mislabeled her gender identity: “he-she,” “faggot,” “Lady Gaga,” and “transvestite.” Police repeatedly used the pronouns “he” and “him” to refer to her. They refused her requests to be moved to a women’s or private cell or let her go to the bathroom.
The police also deliberately subjected Breslauer to sexual harassment. The fence to which she was chained was six feet away from a men’s holding pen. She was repeatedly propositioned, taunted, and hit with crumpled paper and soda cans.
Although other prisoners who had been arrested for the same behavior as Breslauer were quickly processed, she was left to wait for 28 hours. She was then taken to Central Booking, where she was informed there was not a place for her. She returned to the police station and was chained to the same wall for another eight hours. Finally, she was taken before a judge and sentenced to two days of community service for her minor crime.
Breslauer is suing the New York Police Department for her treatment, which triggered severe posttraumatic stress disorder and caused her to consider suicide. In her complaint, Breslauer notes that the New York Human Rights Law explicitly protects transgender people from such treatment.
Jezebel goes on to report that this incident was and is not isolated. Justin Adkins, the director of the Multicultural Project at Williams College, was arrested for chaining himself to the Brooklyn Bridge with Occupy Wall Street, and received nearly identical treatment. He, too, was left chained to a fence, taunted for his gender identity, and harassed. As he noted, the NYPD has no polices detailing the correct treatment of transgender people.
It is undeniably wrong that Breslauer was subjected to inhuman treatment because of her gender identity. However, it is gross simplification to think that this is the only problem with the situation. That the police chain anyone to a fence for 28 hours is unacceptable in and of itself—this is only compounded by the fact that in Breslauer’s case the brutality was bias-motivated. The discussion needs to move beyond the sole issue of treatment of trans identities, or else it will not truly question the limits of police power and violence.
Breslauer’s experience is not unique by any means. As previously reported on Broad Recognition, violence against trans people is endemic in prisons in the United States. Not only are trans people subject to violence at the hands of other prisoners as well as prison employees, gender segregation, routine denial of transition-related heath care, and lack of privacy is in and of itself transphobic. However, this police brutality runs rampant across the system: against women, people of color, disabled people, undocumented immigrants, and the poor.
Breslauer’s case serves to illustrate the flimsiness of legal protections for all oppressed minorities. As the complainants noted, the New York Human Rights Law explicitly disallows trans people to be treated in the way that Breslauer was. What would have happened, though, had she been treated “correctly” by the police? She would have been subjected to an inhumane prison system, and sentenced not just to time in prison, but to sexual violence, long-term personal, emotional, and economic harm, and the state-sanctioned violence of a bigoted prison system.
It is also unlikely that such outcry would have come were Breslauer participating in a more heavily criminalized activity. Her use of the discount card was clearly not immensely harmful to anyone. Adkins was respectfully protesting. If either, though, had been involved in the trade of sex or drugs—which, because of employment discrimination and poverty, many trans people do—then their arrests, and even the brutality, would widely be seen as warranted.
Feminist commentary has the potential to create real change in such instances of violence. First, though, feminists need to change the ways in which we talk about and represent violence against women, trans women in particular. A white woman’s feet, in sparkly high heels, wrapped in chains, precedes the Jezebel article. The image is sexually charged, kinky, and provocative. This is deeply problematic in a number of ways. Firstly, this sensationalizes the sexuality of the woman involved, which is double inappropriate as Breslauer’s arrest, though fraught with sexual violence, had nothing to do with actual sexual acts. The image also serves to sensationalize trans bodies by emphasizing their sexuality, and very possibly amplifying the femininity of Breslauer’s clothing. The chain serves to romanticize the police state and its systemic violence by conflating it with sexual imagery of both consensual sadomasochism and the fantasy of reluctance. The image incorrectly frames Jezebel’s argument, and minimizes the gravity of the experience for all involved.
Temmie Breslauer was treated brutally because she is trans. The violence that she faced, though, indicates far more than the transphobia of the NYPD. Breslauer was the victim of a criminal punishment system that further disadvantages all marginalized people. To critique her punishment only in the context of transphobia is to miss an opportunity to revise the ways in which policing happens in the United States. Feminist and other progressive news sources must engage in an ongoing process of self-reflection and improvement to ensure that their representations of these issues are clear, unsensationalized, and accurate. By reframing the discussion of Breslauer’s shocking story, activists can work towards a more just future.
Chamonix Adams Porter is a freshman in Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.