Three years ago, Bianey Garcia was on 86th Street in Jackson Heights with her boyfriend. It was late at night, and they were holding hands and kissing. A van slowly pulled up next to them, and they quickly realized it wasn’t any regular van: Garcia says that eight police officers got out and pushed her to the ground, and one of them snatched her purse. “Some condoms spilled out,” she says, adding that the police officer told her, “You’re a fucking prostitute. You’re doing sex work.” She was not, but was arrested anyway.
Read More: New York’s Condom Bait-and-Switch
Garcia, 23, who has long dark hair and a hesitant smile, is a transgender woman. And her story is hardly unique among transgender people in New York City, who are routinely profiled and wrongfully arrested for prostitution or loitering for the purposes of prostitution, and often plead guilty out of fear of abuse in jail while awaiting their court date. “Even if you don’t work in prostitution, they think you are one,” says Garcia, now an organizer at Make the Road New York, a community support and outreach non-profit based in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn. “I felt so very scared. I pleaded guilty so I could go home.”
This climate of fear has led to many transgender people being afraid to carry condoms at all. Johanna, 36, a transgender woman from El Salvador who was arrested in Jackson Heights in May, 2011, when she waiting for a taxi on Roosevelt Avenue and found carrying condoms, says, “We feel very afraid to carry them.” I met Johanna on a recent Monday evening at a neighborhood LGTBQ support group in the Queens led by Garcia, just a few blocks from where both women were arrested. Like Garcia, Johanna is not a prostitute, but still pleaded guilty after her arrest. “Being transgender is hard enough,” she says. “It is very hard getting arrested for nothing. Now I am scared when I carry condoms. I am afraid to walk outside, because they will think I am a prostitute and arrest me.”
As discussed in my article, New York’s Condom Bait-and-Switch, which investigates the practice of condoms being used as evidence in prostitution-related cases in New York City, the public-health effects of the policy are grave. Those who have been targeted by the police, or who know people who have, are so afraid of carrying condoms that they often don’t. In a 2012 study by the Sex Workers Project and the PROS Network, a New York City coalition of sex workers, organizers, and service providers, close to half of the participants reported not carrying condoms at some point out of fear of police repercussions. Among participants who identified as either transgender female or another gender identity besides male or female, the rate was a staggering 75 percent.
If they carry condoms at all, it is common for transgender people to only carry a certain number of them, in the belief that this will protect them from arrest. “When we do Know Your Rights trainings,” says Andrea Ritchie, a co-organizer for Streetwise and Safe, a New York City advocacy group for LGTBQ youth of color, “LGTBQ youth often affirmatively state that you cannot carry more than three condoms. I’m an attorney, and these young people are telling me, ‘With all due respect, lady, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Because we know that there’s a number. We think it’s three. But we know there’s a number.'”
But, of course, there is no number. The possession of any number of condoms is perfectly legal, and the fact that people are not carrying them out of fear of arrest is a civil-rights calamity and a slap in the face to the New York City Department of Health’s very own public-health policy.