How the 'Sex Offender' Label Targets Poor and Transgender Women of Color in Louisiana
Editor's Note: With President Obama's historic statement in support of marriage equality, the national political debate over who has the right to marry has heated up. But the right to marry is not always the most pressing issue confronting queer people, especially in queer communities of color, which continue to face criminalization and police violence. In this post, New Orleans advocate Deon Haywood (pictured) discusses how Louisiana law enforcement has unfairly targeted women of color, especially transgender women of color, using the states' Solicitation of Crime Against Nature statute. The law criminalizes the selling of anal and oral sex, and until recently required people convicted of the crime to register as sex-offenders. In comparison, those convicted of prostitution using heterosexual intercourse only face a misdemeanor and need not register as sex-offenders. Haywood's group, Women with A Vision, filed suit against the state for this discriminatory law, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a public-interest law clinic at Loyola University, and attorney Andrea J. Ritchie.
In March, a federal judge ruled that it is unconstitutional to require people to register as sex-offenders under the Solicitation of Crime Against Nature law. This ruling is not retroactive, meaning hundreds of men and women in Louisiana will remain registered as sex-offenders, hurting their housing, employment, and other opportunities.
By Deon Haywood.
At 1 o'clock in the morning one night, someone was beating at my door, at my house I was like, "Who's at my house?" So I went to the door and it was NOPD. They showed me a piece of paper saying, "Do you know this person?"
Me: "No I don't. Who is she?"
Police: "She's a dangerous person. She's a prostitute. And she's a drug user."
Me: "Wait. Wait. So, she didn't murder anybody? Did she abuse her kids?"
Police: "No! But she's dangerous, and this is the address she gave."
Me: "Well I've lived here 8 years, I lived here before Katrina. She doesn't live here."
Police: "Well this is the address she gave."
Me: "Well she does not live here. But hold on, I want to give you something."
So I gave him my card, and I said, "If you find her, will you give her this?"
And so a month later they came back. They were at my front door, my side door, and my back door. And they had guns drawn. I always feel that everything happens for a reason. I think I really needed to experience that, and not just by my clients telling me how deeply and harshly they are being targeted by NOPD and the taskforce when people are looking for them.
My name is Deon Haywood and I'm the Executive Director of Women With a Vision (WWAV), which has been around for 20 years. We have a history of organizing African-American women in the greater New Orleans area around HIV and STD education and prevention. From our beginning the work was about really connecting women to all of the things that they need around policies, incarceration, and health issues. We are really challenging policies like the War on Drugs and how it affects African-American women, and puts them at risk for incarceration.
After Katrina our advocacy shifted from HIV to dealing with women who were charged with Solicitation of Crimes Against Nature. I'm going to try to give you an overview of what a lot of our clients look like, and how the media, the police department, and the criminal justice system take part in their criminalization, as what happened when the police showed up at my door that one late night.
Statute 1489 (Solicitation of Crimes Against Nature) is 208-years-old at this point. It was designed to keep gay men from having sex in the French Quarter. Women were charged with this statue for many years, but it was never enforced. You would have judges who would just let them go, never really forcing them to register as a sex offender because they thought it made no sense, and it was counter-productive -- “Why would we do this? How are they going to get a job?” You know, a "Just don't come back in my court," kind of thing.
Then the Department of Justice paid the state of Louisiana millions of dollars to target, locate, and find all of their violent offenders. Here's the ripple effect: Gov. Bobby Jindal made it retroactive for sex offenders, so now they have U.S. Marshals, along with New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) and undercover cops really going out in neighborhoods looking for women.
So what does this targeting look like? It looks like the police pounding on my door after midnight looking for a so-called "dangerous" woman.
I think it's important for you to know that my clients are mothers; they're grandmothers; they're formerly incarcerated people; they're women who have struggled with drug addiction; they're homeless women. But they're also nurses; they're social workers; they're people who have served active duty in the U.S Army, in the Air Force.
When they came home, what we had was a criminal justice system that targeted them, and made everything look pretty to those of us who are not that smart.
The state wrote back to the Department of Justice, "We’ve gathered up all of these people. And we've really got these sex offenders." But what they neglected to tell them was that they were really homeless women, or women who came back struggling with depression from being in the war.
For example, one of our clients was walking down Tulane Avenue. A car stops.
"Where you going?," the driver asks.
"I'm on my way to the VA [Veteran Affairs complex]."
"You a vet?"
"Yeah, I'm a vet."
"You a vet!? I'm a vet! Hey, what's up?! When did you serve?," he says.
"I just got back, I'm struggling with depression and everything, I'm on my way to the VA," she says.
"Here, let me give you a ride."
So our client gets in the car with this undercover cop, and then all the police jump out, guns drawn – I always have to say that, because I want you to know they always draw their guns – and they told her, "We're arresting you for Solicitation Crime Against Nature and prostitution." We have more than one client that this has happened to.
Prostitution is a misdemeanor, so it’s thrown out. They always go with the bigger charge, the harsher "crimes against nature" charge. The police mentality is, I choose to charge you, I don't have to have a reason, and I'm a part of a system that will support whatever I say.
And when you talk about the transgender community I would almost say it's worse, simply because many of them say, "We're charged with walking while trans." Just to walk down the street the police can target me because the stereotype is all transgender women are prostitutes. And finding housing is even harder for them, because who wants "that kind of person" in their house or development? Or who wants people to know that they rented to "that kind of person."
We now have a police chief and a district attorney who came up with Project HEAT to target prostitution in the French Quarter -- as if sex work is the root of violent crime in the French Quarter.
Coming next week: Part Two, On Living with a Crime Against Nature Conviction and Why the War on Drugs is a War on Women.
This article is adapted from my comments on the panel “Understanding the Nexus Between Gender, Mass Incarceration, and Housing” with Rosana Cruz of Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE), and Jacinta Gonzalez with the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, moderated by Kate Scott of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. The panel was part of the 2012 Fit for King Summit on Women and Fair Housing, hosted by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center with support from the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center, Women’s Health & Justice Initiative, and the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Race, Gender and Politics in the South at Tulane University.
Deon Haywood is the Executive Director of Women With A Vision, Inc. a community-based grassroots organization created by black women dedicated to providing HIV/AIDS, Substance Use prevention services, Harm Reduction, Health Promotion and Advocacy to address risk behaviors and social vulnerabilities. Deon is a longtime activist in the city of New Orleans with a history of organizing low-income women of color around Reproductive Justice,and Women’s Rights. Deon is on the advisory board of BreakOUT, a project of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) focused on the criminalization of LGBTQ youth. Also board member of the Louisiana AIDS Advocacy Network (LAAN). As an expert in community outreach and organizing marginalized groups. Deon was recognized in The Body.com 2010 HIV/AIDS Community Spotlight. In 2011 Forum for Equality Awarded her the Political Activism Acclaim Award. Currently, she is spearheading the No Justice Project, a campaign which addresses the criminalization of sex workers, who are largely poor women and transgender women of color, and the excessive and inequitable punitive consequences of conviction under Louisiana’s Crime Against Nature Solicitation Laws.