Why Stop and Frisk Is a Queer Issue

Robert Pinter was 52 when an attractive man in his late 20s approached him in an adult video store, saying he wanted to perform oral sex on him. The two agreed to leave the store together and have sex elsewhere. As they approached the door, the younger man told Pinter he would pay him $50, a comment that raised a red flag, convincing Pinter he should extract himself from what was turning into an odd encounter. As they arrived outside, Pinter was thrown up against a wall and arrested on prostitution charges. The younger man was an undercover cop.

Chris Bilal, a young African-American man, was dancing with two gay friends in a park when police arrived and stopped and frisked them. The cops, he said, apparently felt the dancing gave them “probable cause to suspect we were engaged in unlawful sexual conduct.”

Pinter and Bilal didn’t run into trouble in the bad old days. Pinter was arrested in 2008. Bilal and his friends were dancing to Beyoncé, not Judy Garland.

At some point in their lives, many LGBT people have been subjected to arbitrary judgments. It can merely be a matter of somebody betraying a stereotype or prejudice that, while painful, may not have serious ramifications. When law enforcement is involved, however, the consequences can be significant, even life-altering. Arbitrary law enforcement –– based on profiling, usually racial or ethnic, but in many cases also on sexual orientation or gender identity –– is at the heart of the stop and frisk crisis in New York City.

At the June 5 press conference in which LGBT leaders spoke up in support of a Father’s Day march against stop and frisk, Melissa Sklarz, a longtime trans activist who is president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, said, “Transgender people know about being profiled.” Police too often assume that any transgender woman they see is a sex worker. Joo-Hyun Kang, the coordinator of Communities United for Police Reform, said trans women, often fearful when approached by police, are “tricked” into agreeing to a search that stems from their gender nonconformity. Things can turn ugly fast if the woman is carrying condoms.

In 2010, in a decision dripping with outrage, US District Judge Shira Scheindlin held New York City in contempt for failing to end enforcement of loitering laws held unconstitutional decades before. One of the laws at issue was the “loitering for sex” statute that Lambda Legal had succeeded in getting struck down in 1983 by New York’s highest court, shortly after it threw out the state’s sodomy law.

“The human toll, of course, has been borne by the tens of thousands of individuals who have, at once, had their constitutional rights violated and been swept into the penal system,” Scheindlin wrote. “More disturbing still, it appears that the laws — which target panhandling, remaining in a bus or train station, and ‘cruising’ for sex — have been enforced particularly against the poor and gay men.”

When a group of fed-up and brave patrons of the Stonewall Inn decided to fight back in June 1969, nearly any queer person alive would have acknowledged what arbitrary police interference in their lives was all about. Today, too many of us pretend such concerns are from a bygone era.

They are not. They have not gone away for New York’s young people of color, straight, gay, transgender, or questioning. They have not gone away for any person whose appearance transgresses gender norms embraced by mainstream society. They have not gone away for gay men who think they have the right to go to an adult video store. And they have not gone away for black and brown men of all ages in this city.

Our measure as people is based on our willingness to expand our understanding of our common humanity. The NAACP’s recent endorsement of marriage equality is but the latest example of people of color communities coming to embrace LGBT rights as their cause, too. The queer community, in turn, must be rigorously honest in acknowledging the common cause we have with all New Yorkers of color in the demand that justice be applied with an even and temperate hand. On Father’s Day, June 17, join the End Stop and Frisk Silent March Against Racial Profiling (silentmarchnyc.org) at 3 p.m. at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue.