Survey: LGBTQ+ People Do Not Trust Criminal Legal System

By Rebecca Melnitsky

July 9, 2023

Survey: LGBTQ+ People Do Not Trust Criminal Legal System


By Rebecca Melnitsky

LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV do not trust the criminal legal system, according to a survey conducted by Lambda Legal in partnership with Black and Pink National and Strength in Numbers Consulting Group.

Richard Saenz, senior attorney at Lambda Legal and project manager for the survey, discussed the results at a continuing legal education course sponsored by the New York State Bar Association’s LGBTQ Law and Criminal Justice sections.

When the Protected & Served? community survey was first conducted in 2012, Lambda Legal was trying to determine if there is government misconduct within the criminal legal system, especially with the way LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV are treated.

“We found that while discrimination can take many forms, such as harassment or actual violence by police or government actors, this also played out in the court system with disclosure of someone’s HIV status or outing someone as trans during court hearings,” Saenz said.

The survey also found that negative experiences were compounded by factors such as race, disability and income.

According to the survey, 62.7% of respondents who were detained in prison, jails, immigration detention or juvenile facilities missed their medication for two weeks or more.

“Interruptions in your medication can have severe negative consequences,” Saenz said.

Participants said they missed HIV medications, hormone replacement therapy, heart medications and psychotropic medications. Some said they were never prescribed their medications or that it was withheld.

“So many people are missing medication for two weeks or more when they are in detention,” said Saenz. “We cannot just look at it as an LGBTQ issue or an HIV issue, but it really is a disability rights issue. It’s an issue about getting access to health care when someone is in detention.”

The survey also found that the majority of respondents had been abused by prison staff, with 53% reporting sexual harassment and 43% reporting physical assault. Alarmingly, 60% percent who had been in juvenile detention said they had been sexually abused. “These numbers are shocking in the fact that they are not zero,” said Saenz.

Sixty percent said they had been called the wrong name or pronouns by prison staff. “We at Lambda Legal have taken the position that misgendering – especially when its intentional or it’s used to harass a transgender, gender-nonconforming or nonbinary person – is a form of harassment,” said Saenz. “The departments must address this via policy or training. But it’s also about enforcement of these policies and holding the staff member… accountable for what they are doing.”

Negative Experiences Reporting Crime and in Courts

Some respondents said that when they reported a crime, the police were skeptical or dismissive. A multiracial trans nonbinary participant said in the survey, “Every time I have reported an incident to the police, it has been met with general disinterest, like it was a chore for them and blatant homophobia/transphobia. I’ve even had assault dismissed by an officer as ‘deserved.’”

Around half the respondents did not report crimes to police at all, with half of hate incidents going unreported. “How do we deal with the fact that so many of our community members do not report because of a police-related reason?” said Saenz. “And some of those reasons included that the perpetrator was a police officer and that there was fear of retaliation.”

Negative experiences extended to the court system as well. Over half of transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people said a court employee misgendered them by using the wrong name or pronoun. Others said their transgender status, HIV status, or sexual orientation was inappropriately revealed.

“We had a participant who had their gender marker updated on other identity documents, but because they were in a male prison the prosecutor was arguing that that they should be referred to as a male,” said Saenz. “Think about if you were the advocate. What would you have done in that situation? If you were the judge, what would you do in that situation? The judge is supposed to be impartial. What do you do when this is now rising to the level of possible harassment by a prosecutor?”

The survey also has recommendations for community members, advocates and policymakers, and people working in the criminal legal system to increase accountability, eliminate discrimination and support court reform efforts, among other suggestions.

“I think the language of accountability is so important here,” said Saenz. “Because we have some good policies on paper, but if they’re not being enforced, if people are not being held accountable, they’re just statements on paper.”

The CLE is available on demand. Read the full Protected & Served? survey here.

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