Legislation repeals policing tactic that targeted transgender community

Photo courtesy of Senate Media Services
Senator Brad Hoylman meets with counsel in the Senate Lobby before the start of session on Feb. 1, 2021. Hoylman was the Senate sponsor of a bill that repealed the “Walking While Trans Ban,” a policy that in his words, “led to hundreds of unnecessary arrests of transgender women color and a broader culture of fear and intimidation for transgender and gender nonconforming New Yorkers.”

On Feb. 3, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation (S.1351 / A.3355that would repeal portions of the New York law that has become known as the “Walking While Trans ban.” While the law was originally passed in 1976 to prohibit loitering for the purpose of prostitution, misusage of the law by police has led to a disproportionate number of arrests amongst the state’s transgender women and women of color.

The bill was sponsored by State Senator Brad Hoylman, and was co-sponsored by Sens. Julia Salazar, Jamaal T. Bailey, Joseph P. Addabbo Jr. and Brian A. Benjamin.

Amy Paulin

The Assembly bill was sponsored by Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale.

The repealing of this law comes as a result of a recent wave of progressive political thinking that aims to change how New York state views the crime of prostitution. Earlier this month, Sen. Liz Krueger and Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter announced they were drafting a bill meant to limit the punishment of prostitutes and expand their access to social services, while simultaneously closing loopholes that allow sex purchasers to duck punishments. 

The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York released a statement in which they supported the repeal of the Walking While Trans ban. The repeal of this law marks the first legal change in how New York treats prostitution.

The reasoning behind the new approach to prostitution comes out of lawmakers’ recognition of the fact that more punitive responses have had a negative impact on some of New York’s most disadvantaged communities. 

These communities include communities of color, the LGBTQ community and a web of vulnerable women who have often been manipulated or coerced into participating in the sex trade. 

“Repealing the archaic, ‘walking while trans’ ban is a critical step towards reforming our policing system and reducing the harassment and criminalization transgender people face simply for being themselves,” said Gov. Cuomo in a press release. “New York has always led the nation on LGBTQ rights, and we will continue that fight until we achieve true equality for all.”

While the mechanism of how a law made to crack down on prostitution has been used to target members of the LGBTQ community may not be immediately apparent, there is ample evidence to show how the law has been misused to this effect in the past. 

In January of 2019, a bill was written and introduced to the New York State Assembly that tried to repeal the Walking While Trans ban, and in the bill’s justification, it referred to the testimony of a New York police officer talking about the traits he used to identify prostitutes. 

“Officers have expressly warned transgender women that “girls like them” would be arrested if they were seen outside after midnight,” the justification for the bill reads. “One officer, when asked how he was trained to identify prostitutes, testified that he was trained to look for women with Adam’s apples, big hands and big feet.”

This testimony was revealed in 2016 after the Legal Aid Society filed a class action lawsuit on the behalf of eight women who were arrested on the basis of the now-repealed law, despite having committed no crime. Of these eight women, five were transgender women of color. 

The ambiguity of the bill’s language allowed for officers to act upon their own biases to arrest people who they believed were acting as prostitutes. Oftentimes, this led to police officers disproportionately targeting trans women, as well as women of color.

In an op-ed published by New York Daily News and written by Norma Ureiro, a transgender woman who is a prominent activist and documentarian in New York City, Ureiro recalls an instance in which she and her boyfriend were harassed by police under the protection of the Walking While Trans ban.

“One night several years ago, I was walking with my boyfriend and police officers stopped us,” said Ureiro in the op-ed. “The officers did not believe that we were a couple, even after we showed them that we had tattoos of each other’s name. They arrested me for “loitering with the intent for prostitution.”

State Senator Brad Hoylman stated in a press release that the law, “led to hundreds of unnecessary arrests of transgender women color and a broader culture of fear and intimidation for transgender and gender nonconforming New Yorkers.”