I was arrested for the first time a couple of weeks ago, while participating in a direct action here in Louisville. The demonstration was peaceful but powerful, and it was an honor to a part of its execution. This historical moment is a tipping point for racial justice, and I feel lucky to be alive to witness and play a role in it. I also feel that it’s my responsibility, since white bodies are inherently less vulnerable on the front lines than Black and Brown bodies. We may get arrested, we may even get a few scratches and bruises in the process, but as white folks we are far less likely to be assaulted, shot at, charged with a felony, or killed.
That being said, transgender and gender non-conforming folks, particularly trans women and femmes, are more vulnerable than our white cis comrades. I have seen a lot of white trans and nonbinary folks showing up to protests and direct actions. This has been wonderful to see, and in order for it to continue, it’s important for us to be aware of the unique dangers we face as a community, and do what we can to protect ourselves and each other in our fight for justice.
I was arrested alongside 75 other protesters, most of them white and cisgender. Automatically this put me at an advantage. I am certain that, had I been arrested alone, or with a group that was predominantly trans and BIPOC, my experience would have been very different. Also working to my advantage was the fact that I am cis-male-passing. Unless I was completely naked, you wouldn’t know just by looking at me that I’m a trans man. And then there is my white privilege. Being arrested as a white trans person is one thing. Being arrested as a Black trans person—I can only imagine.
After I was handcuffed, an officer asked for my identification so that he could fill out my paperwork. I’d left my wallet at home, knowing that if I was arrested, I might not get all of my belongings back. Since I did not have my ID, the officer began asking me for my name, my address, etc. When he got to gender, he circled “male,” no questions asked. A lucky guess. But I knew better than to think that I was in the clear. After all, I hadn’t been searched yet.
I was loaded into the paddy wagon with the other male protesters. The rest of the males in the van were white and cis. Two of them, friends of mine, knew that I was trans. The others had no clue, as evidenced by their cisnormative dude jokes about cavity searches and a group agreement to “not jack off in the holding cell.” I played along.
When we arrived at the department of corrections, we were chained up in the garage according to sex, and taken one at a time to be searched. Because there were so many of us, this process took hours. There was one other trans man in the group of arrests, who also read as male. I wanted to ask him whether he planned on disclosing that he was trans before the search, but I didn’t want to out either of us to the other inmates. So I waited, and tried to look casual as I played out all of the possible scenarios in my head. Finally, my name was called and I was taken into the room to be searched.
The male officer told me to stand with my feet on the footprints and my hands on the wall. He told me to unbuckle my pants and said “Now heads up, this is going to be uncomfortable.” Not knowing what all he was going to be doing in my pants, or how he would react when he did not find the genitals he was expecting, I decided in that moment to disclose that I was trans. I said, “Okay, well heads up, I’m transgender.” He immediately took two steps back, and said “The fuck man? I’m gonna slap you upside the head!” I kept my feet on the footprints and hands on the wall, my heart racing. “What does that mean, ‘you’re trans?’ Are you saying you’re really a woman?” I replied, “No, I’m a trans man.” “What were you born as?” he barked. I cringed. “I was assigned female at birth.” The phrase did not register. “Don’t move,” he said. He left the room and came back a moment later with a female officer.
“So let me make sure I understand,” the female officer said to me. “You’re transgendered?” “Yes,” I responded. “I’m trasngender.” “Have you had the surgery?” she asked. “Which surgery?” I said. “Sex reassagnment surgery,” the male officer inserted, condescendingly. “Which one,” I shot back. After a beat, I continued “I’ve had multiple surgeries.” The male officer looked frustrated. The female officer pointed at my nether-regions and said “Have you had that part corrected?” I gave her a blank stare. “DO YOU HAVE A VAGINA.” she said. I raised my eyebrow and replied sarcastically, “Oh is that what you’re asking? I guess so, if we’re calling it that.” She said “Okay, then I’m going to have to search you instead of him.”
The search itself was not as invasive as I was expecting. I’m not sure if they followed standard protocol, or if they let me off easy, because of their own discomfort. But I was humiliated. There I was, a grown ass man, being searched by a woman because in their minds, I was more of a woman than a man. After this, they led me to the body scanner. The male officer, who for some reason remained present for all of this, exclaimed “Ope – there it is!” and laughed – presumably in reference to my genitals.
Inside the booking area, I waited in line to have my mugshot and fingerprints taken, and to find out where they were going to put me. When it was my turn, the male officer paused. Pointing at the computer he said, “It says here you’re female.” I could feel the blood rushing to my face. “It’s because I’m trans,” I said. “Umm, well do you have the male part?” he asked. “No,” I croaked. “Well then, you’re going to have to go with the women.” I could feel my body entering fight-or-flight mode. “That doesn’t make any sense at all,” I said. “I am a male. My driver’s license even says so.” He looked at me, surprised. “It does?” “Yes. It has for years.” He hesitated. “Stand right there. I have to go talk to my advisor.” He walked around the desk to confer with the woman who’d done my search. Reading her lips, I saw her whisper “It’s female. Transgender.” The other male protesters who had no idea I was trans were all sitting in the lobby chairs, watching this scene unfold in total confusion.
The officer came back, and said “I gotta type female.” I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. But I’m not going to the women’s holding cell.” He sighed, and told me to look straight ahead. He took my mugshot and then both of us endured the painfully awkward experience of him taking my digital fingerprints, which required him to stand close to me for several minutes, and move and press my hands at various angles against the machine. When we were done, he told me to stand by the wall. “Someone will come get you and take you to your own cell.”
I was taken into solitary confinement, “for my safety,” and was not booked for a couple of more hours, during which time they booked the rest of the inmates and began to process their releases. Also during this time, concerned parties on the outside were trying to find me on LMDC’s website, which had me listed as female. Worried for my safety, they reached out to BLM’s jail support team, who reported that “no one knew where I was.” I was held in limbo for a couple of hours while jail support communicated with LMCD, and got them to start working on my release. An officer let me out of my cell, and told me to sit on the women’s side of the lobby. I stayed there for a few more hours, dysphoric and fighting off a stress migraine, until I was released around 4am.
Later that morning, I posted on Facebook to let my people know that I’d been released and was home safe, though I’d experienced transphobia in jail. Several trans folks saw my post and reached out to share their own experiences with transphobic LMDC officers after being arrested during protests or under other circumstances. Through dialogue with these individuals it became clear that my experience was not unique, and that the policies and protocol in place at LMDC were not inclusive of trans people. At best, they did not take transgender identities into account. At worst, the policies were trans-antagonistic.
Chris Hartman from the Fairness Campaign also saw my Facebook post, and reached out to ask if I’d be willing to tell him more about my experience. He said that Fairness had led a training on trans-inclusivity for LMDC a while back, but clearly the guidelines he had trained them on were not being followed. I ended up meeting with Chris, Keturah Herron (ACLU KY Policy Strategist and author of Breonna’s Law), and another trans person who had undergone a similar experience. Chris and Keturah then met with Dwayne Clark, LMDC’s new director, to come up with a plan to address the problem. I was invited to be a part of this meeting as well, but I did not feel safe talking with Dwayne, whose intentions, like those of anyone in his position, I did not trust. I did, however, trust that Keturah and Chris would use whatever leverage they had to push for safer conditions for transgender inmates.
Unfortunately, in a system that doesn’t understand or care about trans people, we trans folks are the only ones, with the help of our allies, who can hold that system accountable. If you or someone you know are trans or gender non-conforming, and have been arrested here in Louisville, we would love it if you shared your experience in the comments. Alternatively, if you want to share your experience but would prefer to remain anonymous, reach out to me via QueerKentucky directly. There is no change without accountability, and I am committed to holding LMDC accountable.