A high level official with the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division told transgender advocates on Dec. 5 that the department has and will continue to use its law enforcement powers to fight anti-transgender discrimination.
In a speech before the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 9th Anniversary Awards Reception in Washington, Roy L. Austin Jr., Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, said the DOJ has investigated and taken action against hate crimes, school bullying, and biased policing that target the transgender community.
“Now under the leadership of Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, the Civil Rights Division has never been stronger and the fight for transgender equality has never been fought more forcefully,” Austin said.
In a development not widely known, Austin said the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division has intervened in cases where local police departments have engaged in what he called “biased policing” against transgender people.
He said one such intervention took place in New Orleans in recent years, where the division obtained a consent decree requiring police officials to put in place special training on transgender related issues. The action followed a DOJ investigation into reports of improper police behavior toward transgender women in the enforcement of a controversial anti-prostitution law that has since been changed.
The Civil Rights Division is currently working on a similar effort to curtail incidents of anti-transgender bias in police departments in Puerto Rico, Austin said.
“Law enforcement is sworn to serve and protect everyone,” he told the NCTE gathering, which took place at the National Press Club. “And we will continue to teach them how to do this and hold them accountable when they don’t.”
According to Austin, the Civil Rights Division also intervened in cases of anti-transgender bullying in school districts in Minnesota and California.
“Every school year bullying touches the lives of countless kids, their families and their communities,” he said. He noted that studies show bullying can have a devastating and potentially long-term impact on young people.
“For gender non-conforming and transgender students it can be much worse,” he said.
“Often what happens in schools reflect what is happening in society as a whole,” Austin said. “Together with our federal partners at the Department of Education we’re exploring ways to hold schools accountable and to stop harassment and bullying before it starts.”
He added, “The problem goes beyond the schools. But what we do there is incredibly important because today’s bullies may well grow up to be tomorrow’s hate crime defendants.”
On the hate crimes front, Austin said President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder are committed to aggressively enforcing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which Obama signed into law in 2009.
The act, among other things, gives the Justice Department authority to prosecute hate crimes targeting people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Austin said five of the 40 people who have been prosecuted under the act so far have been convicted for physically attacking others because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.
While prosecuting perpetrators of hate crimes is important, he said he believes the most significant benefit of the Shepard-Byrd Act so far has been the impact of its education and training provisions.
“We’ve provided hate crimes training to thousands of law enforcement officers and to community activists throughout the country,” he said. “Among other things, this education spreads the message that our transgender community is a vital part of the American community and must be treated with respect.”
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told the gathering that Austin’s comments exemplify the Obama administration’s strong support for transgender rights.
She called on the LGBT community to stand with the president on the difficult economic issues he faces, including the “fiscal cliff” negotiations with his adversaries in Congress, “just as he has stood with us.”
The NCTE presented its Julie Johnson Founders’ Award to Gunner Scott, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition and one of NCTE’s founders; its Distinguished Ally Award to Andrew Barnett, Executive Director of D.C.’s Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL); and its Community Partner Award to Lauree Hayden, Deputy National Political Director of the Service Employees International Union.