Bianey Garcia remembers the first time she dressed up “sexy” before going out on a date with her boyfriend. It was 2008 and she was 18; the couple ended up at a gay bar in New York City’s Jackson Heights. At some point in the night, Garcia said, she grabbed a handful of free condoms to take home. Later, when they left the bar, she and her boyfriend only made it a few blocks before they realized that an undercover police van was following them.
At the next intersection, four or five officers jumped out of the van and pushed Garcia against a wall, she said. “They took my purse, they found the condoms, and they accused me of doing sex work,” Garcia continued. “My boyfriend and I, we tried to explain that me and him were partners,” but the officers told her boyfriend to leave or he’d be arrested, too, Garcia said.
Garcia had no idea what to do. As a young, transgender woman from Mexico, she was terrified of being deported. “I was remembering my trans friends that — we started our transitions together and they are no longer in this country because they were arrested and deported,” she said. “I was so scared of being deported because of expressing myself or my gender.”
Soon, Garcia would learn she wasn’t the only woman arrested for “walking while trans.” A year later, she would join Make the Road New York, the state’s largest immigrant-led grass-roots organization, where she would help found its Trans Immigrant Project. Together with other trans, immigrant and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) organizers across the state, Garcia shared her experiences being profiled by police under a section of New York state’s penal code that criminalized “loitering for the purpose of prostitution.”
After years of lobbying from advocates like Garcia, New York repealed the so-called “walking while trans” ban this week.
The code was passed in 1976 as an anti-loitering statute, but, as Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office explained in a statement on Tuesday, it was “used with an extremely broad definition of loitering that led to the arrest of law-abiding transgender and cisgender women of color.” Reform advocates nicknamed the law “stop-and-frisk 2.0,” referencing their experiences witnessing police use the law to profile primarily Black and Latina transgender women based on their appearance.
The ban “made it dangerous for Black and Brown trans women and gender-expansive people to simply hail a cab, walk down the street at night, dress how they wanted to,” said Trevon Mayers, director of policy and community outreach at New York City’s LGBT Community Center. “What’s more, those who were targeted then had criminal records that jeopardized their ability to secure safe, reliable housing or employment.”
He adds that “interactions with police are rarely safe experiences for Black, Brown, queer and low-income people — the ‘walking while trans’ ban is one example of many ways that police disproportionately target and endanger the lives of people in our communities.”
The New York Police Department has not responded to requests for comment.
When she joined Make the Road about a decade ago, Garcia said she quickly befriended other immigrant trans women who had been arrested or experienced police violence for simply existing in public spaces. Norma Ureiro shared the time she and her boyfriend were arrested for holding hands in public. Silvia Escobar talked about being afraid to leave her house late at night. Jeyssi Montiel said she worried she’d be arrested for dressing femininely. And Mayra Colon explained that she carried her marriage certificate whenever she left the house, so that she could prove to police that her partner was her husband and not a client.
As they began building momentum, Garcia and other immigrant organizers at Make the Road realized they belonged to a much larger community that had been harmed by the “walking while trans” ban. They started working with other grass-roots activists, including T.S. Candii of Black Trans Nation, and larger organizations such as Vocal NY and Lambda Legal, to gather data and strategize next steps. Together, they eventually founded the Repeal the Walking While Trans Ban coalition.
Three years ago, the coalition began reaching out to police precincts to gather arrest data for the anti-loitering charge. In 2018, they found that 91 percent of those arrested were Black or Latino. They also read police reports to find out the reasons officers decided someone was soliciting prostitution and found that they were often descriptions of their clothing. That’s how they landed on the nickname “walking while trans” — the law seemed to disproportionately punish trans women for dressing and existing as themselves.
In 2018, when Democrats regained control of the New York state Senate for the first time in a decade, advocates began pushing the legislature to decriminalize sex work — including by repealing “walking while trans” — as part of a mission for accountability. That also came after 27-year-old Layleen Polanco died on Rikers Island, where she was incarcerated after failing to make a $501 bail on a 2017 prostitution charge. Although the decriminalization bill failed, it sparked activism around issues of policing, sex work and the LGBTQ community.
The coalition’s activism, championed by Democratic state Sen. Brad Hoylman and Assembly member Amy Paulin, received renewed attention last summer, when thousands of New Yorkers turned out for Black Lives Matter protests — in particular, when 15,000 marched for Black trans lives at Brooklyn Liberation. That activism “reminded lawmakers that there is an urgency in addressing police brutality,” Mayers said. “Not only do we need funds divested from police budgets and reinvested in our communities, but we also needed outdated statutes like the Walking While Trans ban repealed.”
When the Repeal the Walking While Trans Ban coalition returned to Albany this year, T.S. Candii said she felt more support from newly elected Democratic lawmakers of color. “The new Democratic-led legislation here in 2021 is what our ancestors have been fighting for,” she said. “We’re really thankful for the Black and Brown legislators that are currently in office.”
And on Tuesday evening, when news broke that the New York State legislature had repealed the ban and Cuomo had signed the repeal into law, advocates across New York City and the country began celebrating. Many organizers invoked the memories of Black and Latinx trans women who had come before them.
Mateo Guerrero, a member of the Repeal the Walking While Trans Ban coalition, tweeted, “This win is for Marsha! This win is for Sylvia! This win is for Layleen! This win is for Lorena! This win is for Mary Jones!” — naming the Black and Latina trans women who launched the Stonewall Uprising, Polanco, an elder of the trans Latinx community who died last year of covid-19, and one of the first openly trans women in New York City.
“This is a huge win, and sets us up with great momentum early in the year, but advocates in New York aren’t just sitting on their heels now that the repeal has passed,” Mayers said.
One specific push, he said, is reexamining the state’s approach to addressing hate crimes. His team at the LGBT Community Center is leading the effort to pass the Hate Crimes Analysis and Review Act to standardize how police report hate crimes in New York.
The day after the ban was repealed, Garcia was beyond thrilled — generations of organizing had finally paid off. But she said that repealing “walking while trans” was just the first step.
For now, Garcia, T.S. Candii and dozens of other organizers will be back out in the streets — this time, leading educational programs. These activists want to make sure people in their communities can take advantage of the repeal’s promise to seal arrest records, and that they fully understand their rights to be themselves without fear of arrest.