No Shelter for Transsexuals

Case of Preoperative Woman Raped at Men's Homeless Facility Exemplifies City's Dilemma

When preoperative transsexual Josephine Perez, 21, exited her homeless shelter on Wards Island on the evening of Friday, May 11, she was wearing a short skirt that fluttered around her knees and a shimmery silver-colored blouse. Fuchsia lipstick freshly applied, Perez says she was feeling good, happy to be going to Manhattan to hang out with friends. In hindsight she admits that perhaps wearing a skirt wasn't the best idea—but even though Perez was staying in a men-only homeless shelter, she couldn't have known she was about to be raped.

Perez, who's been in and out of homeless shelters since she was 15, was sent to an all-male facility by the city's Human Resources Administration (HRA) because even though she dresses and identifies as a woman, she was born Joseph Perez, a biological male, and her official identification lists her as male. Perez can't afford the surgery that would bring her sex into alignment with her gender identity, nor can she afford the hormone treatments that would give her breasts and slow the growth of facial hair. To most people, Perez is a five-foot-eight, 140-pound feminine-looking man who likes to wear women's clothing. But to Perez, she's a woman trapped in a man's body.

On the night of the attack, Perez says, she left the Charles H. Gay Shelter around 10, heading for the nearest bus stop. As soon as she walked out the front door, she sensed someone following her. It was a man she knew by sight, a fellow shelter resident who'd been pestering her since her arrival two days earlier. "He was always staring at me, making me uncomfortable," she recalls. "We have to share showers, and I didn't like how he looked at me."

Achilles "Cookie" Capasso: Suing Bayley Seton Hospital for gender discrimination
photo: Cary Conover
Achilles "Cookie" Capasso: Suing Bayley Seton Hospital for gender discrimination

Perez picked up her pace, not wanting to miss the Manhattan-bound bus she could see idling at the curb a few yards down the road. Then, she says, "He came up behind me real fast, and shoved me to the ground. When I tried to get up, he grabbed my hair, yanked my head back, and said, `I want a piece of you."' As her bus pulled away, Perez struggled to her feet and ran wildly after it. She says her attacker was hard on her heels, jabbing her in the back every few feet and driving her to her knees again and again. Realizing escape was impossible, she turned to fight. And then, says Perez, he grabbed her hair, wrestled her into a secluded area, and "he raped me. He pulled up my skirt and he raped me."

The entire incident took less than 10 minutes, but there was more humiliation to come. When her attacker released her—after threatening to "get you again tomorrow" if she complained—Perez wandered around in a daze, sobbing and bleeding until another bus arrived. She took it into the city and went directly to Harlem Hospital Center. Hospital records show she was treated for cuts and bruises, but that a full rectal exam couldn't be performed because the patient was "too tense." The attending doctor noted no "visible tears" to the anus.

Meanwhile, the police had been notified. Perez says that from the minute the cops showed up—first a group of uniformed men and later two detectives—they began belittling her version of the attack. "They kept saying, `Come on, admit it, you weren't raped. Someone just roughed you up."' Faced with a room full of doubting officers, Perez says she broke down. "I started crying. I was hysterical and could barely talk." One of the detectives asked her for identification, at which point Perez handed over two ID cards issued by Street Works, a nonprofit for homeless kids. One identifies her as Joey Perez and the other as Josephine Perez.

"The detective looked at both of them, and then stared at me like he was confused. I said, `I'm a transgender woman,' and he made a face like he didn't know what that was." Then, according to Perez, the detective—who, she says, gave her his name and badge number—bent over and took a long look up her skirt. As he straightened, she claims, he mumbled that "anyone with a penis can't be raped."

Perez turned her information over to the Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, which is following up on her claims. Before she was released from the hospital, detectives informed Perez that the case would be listed as a sexual assault rather than a rape, despite her insistence that her attacker penetrated her.

The Voice made numerous attempts to verify her allegations with the New York Police Department, but could not contact any of the officers related to the case. Asked about the name and badge number Perez had been given, a spokesperson for NYPD Public Affairs responded, "I'm not here to verify employment for you."

The attitudes of the NYPD and the HRA don't surprise members of Manhattan's transgender/transsexual community—especially those who have been guests of the city. They maintain that discrimination against gender benders is commonplace among city workers. Antidiscrimination activists agree. "I've heard caseworkers refer to transgenders as `it' to their faces," says Jennifer Flynn, executive director of NYC AIDS Housing Network. "Transgenders are last in the pecking order; they have more trouble finding jobs, getting housing, getting health benefits than any other group." It's ironic, she adds, that agencies created to help people get back on their feet repeatedly knock down one of society's most vulnerable groups.

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