Bathroom Battles: Scaremongering Abounds About Transgender Public Restroom Usage
Rape is one of the catalysts behind the Harris County Sheriff's Office instituting one of the most progressive transgender policies in the United States. Lou Weaver helped Sheriff Adrian Garcia write those policies.
Photo by Ashli Hill Lou Weaver worked with Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia to craft one of the most progressive transgender prisoner policies in the country and now seeks to do the same with HPD.
It started in 2012 with two arrests in Houston. Those arrested usually spend 24 hours or less locked up before they are either released or sent to a Harris County facility. Houston has the third-largest county jail in the United States, with 125,000 inmates annually. It's a big system.
The first arrest involved Nikki Araguz, the locally famous transgender widow of fireman Captain Thomas Araguz who has been fighting for the right to her late husband's pension after Thomas Araguz was killed while battling a blaze in Boling. Because of Texas's ban on two men marrying, Thomas's family claims that Nikki's marriage is null and void. The issue has been tied up in court since 2010.
Two years later, Araguz was arrested for stealing a Rolex from a friend and found herself a guest of the county. Unfortunately, Araguz had been arrested before when she was still going by her birth name of Justin Graham Purdue.
"Because the system here is an archive system, when you come in contact with us for the first time, you're that way for life," says Garcia. "Even though she had had a legal name change and had transitioned, the file still showed her as a male. I thought it was appropriate after all the legal proceedings Araguz had gone through to see what we could do for her."
The full legal process of going from one gender to another can be arduous and haphazard. For instance, Texas recognizes Alexis Hollada as female in all respects. However, her birth state, Ohio, does not amend birth certificates, so no matter how many times Texas says she's female, any transaction that calls for a birth certificate will identify her as male. This can leave transgender folks like Araguz open to discrimination.
Another incident in 2012, this one involving an unnamed inmate, caused more concern. According to Weaver (and as confirmed by the sheriff), a transman arrested on a DUI charge was found to be biologically female. Arresting officers, upon discovering this, performed an excessive and invasive strip search, then placed the man in a general holding area with other males after informing them that the man had female genitalia. This action put the man in considerable danger.
"Luckily, the man's wife managed to get in touch with me, and I got in touch with Sheriff Garcia," says Weaver. "The sheriff was super pissed. He made the call and told the officers to get the man down to medical right this instant until they could determine a better and safer environment for him."
In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act. It was a revolutionary bill aiming at tackling the very real problem of rape and sexual assault in American prisons, and passed with the unanimous consent of both houses of Congress.
The act made it easier to gather data on the number of rapes in prison (some estimates put it at as high as 23 percent), offered grant money to prisons to address the problem, and made institutions more accountable for the rapes and assaults that take place within their walls.
Among the specific guidelines in the Harris County policy is the recognition that the arrestee or inmate may not identify as the name or the gender that he may have been born with or had previously run into problems with the law under. Officers are to both respect whatever identity the person now goes by and refer to them using the appropriate pronoun in both conversation and legal documentation.
The transgender status of an individual is determined by a "gender classification specialist," who will advise personnel on the proper gender category for dealing with the case. Because of the greater vulnerability of transgender people, their arrests and detainments are expedited. Pat-downs and strip searches are performed by an officer of the gender the individual feels most comfortable with performing the act, and the entire process is to be documented.
Once the safest housing is determined, the inmate is to be reassessed in 72 hours as to his or her safety from sexual assault to decide if the right call has been made. Another assessment is made at 30 days, or sooner if the inmate reports assault or fear of assault.
"Other agencies had bits and pieces, but there wasn't really anything all-inclusive like we have now," Garcia says. "Even after all the work crafting it we went through with Lou, we went over it again page by page to make sure we got it right. Now it's being highlighted by the National Institute of Corrections, and my staff is being invited to speak on expert panels. And we're following the federal law and trying to make it even more global. If we don't, people get hurt and the taxpayers lose money."
Weaver has been working with the Houston Police Department to enact similar reforms, as well as with Constable Alan Rosen of Harris County Precinct 1. How exactly HERO will affect HPD is still undetermined, but the department's legal staff is researching the issue. HPD already has a history of supporting its transgender officers, with Julia Oliver becoming a national figure when she transitioned with the full support and backing of her employer.
But what of the people on the other side of the law?
Jodi Silva of the HPD Media Relations Office said the transgender status of arrested individuals is determined by the medical staff, and transgender arrestees are not placed in general population.
However, despite the department's laudable concerns for the physical well-being of transgender people, HPD's policies lack the more progressive touches shown by the sheriff. Individuals are booked by their birth gender, even if they are not held with others of that gender.
"We operate where safety is the first concern and personal concerns are secondary," says Silva.
It's these last small bastions of misunderstanding regarding transgender people that Weaver is working to fix.
"I think that sometimes we have problems because people don't like change, and it's a little weird for people to go out and ask about," he says. "We're dealing with a hypermasculine work force, but in the end they want to keep people safe. If there's a fight, they have to fill out paperwork."