Three transgender women joined more than 20 heterosexual women in giving first-hand accounts of the sometimes daily humiliation and fear they experience from street harassment in the nation’s capital during a first-of-its-kind D.C. Council hearing on Dec. 3.
The women and nearly a dozen supportive men who also testified at the hearing said the perpetrators of street harassment overwhelmingly are straight men.
“Unfortunately, many residents of the District have experienced some form of street harassment, which can include vulgar remarks, heckling, insults, innuendo, stalking, leering, fondling, indecent exposure, and other forms of public humiliation,” said a statement released by D.C. Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who initiated the hearing.
Street harassment often focuses on an individual’s perceived gender, gender identity, race or ethnicity, or disability, Nadeau said in the statement. Several witnesses said LGBT people are often targets of such harassment.
At Nadeau’s request, Council member Anita Bonds (D-At-Large), who chairs the Council’s Committee on Housing and Community Development, and Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who chairs the Council Committee on the Judiciary, called a joint hearing on the subject by the two committees. Bonds chaired the hearing.
Bonds and McDuffie said their respective committees would be open to proposed legislation to address the problem of street harassment. But Nadeau and many of the witnesses called street harassment a form of cultural bias and intolerance that could best be remedied through public education.
Several young women who testified, including D.C. resident Valentine Love, said they had been victims of sexual assault in the past. Having to face verbal sexual harassment on the street by abusive men who sometimes make vulgar remarks as they cross paths with her triggers flashbacks of the sexual abuse she experienced as a child, Love told the hearing.
“Too many men feel we are objects and they have a right to us,” she said. “I would like to stop feeling like a victim every time I leave the house.”
Transgender activist Ruby Corado, founder and director of the LGBT community services center Casa Ruby, and two trans women who are Casa Ruby clients each told of their personal encounters with street harassment in testimony before the hearing.
“This is a very personal issue for me,” Corado said. “And it is one that not only affects women who are born genetically as women. It affects trans women. It affects young gay boys or feminine people who are deemed vulnerable,” she said.
“I personally feel that there should be legislation banning this type of harassment,” Corado added. “There should be legal consequences because very often I have faced people that if I had not mentioned the police and them being arrested they would continue. So a simple campaign is not going to stop this.”
Joining Corado at the witness table were 20-year-old Tanisha Phillips, a trans woman who said she has been victimized by sexual assault and street harassment since the age of 15, and trans Latina Lisa Alfaro, who testified in Spanish with Corado translating.
Also testifying was Sheila Alexander Reid, director of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs. Reid said the mayor’s office stands ready to help in any way it can to address the issue of street harassment.
Other witnesses, including Assistant D.C. Police Chief Kimberly Missouri and D.C. Office of Human Rights Director Monica Palacio, said constitutional free-speech protections may prevent legislative sanctions against verbal harassment in many instances.
Missouri said actions by perpetrators such as unwelcome fondling or touching can be prosecuted as a form of sexual assault.
“As a starting point, if individuals feel threatened or unsafe, calling 911 should be their first recourse and we are confident the Metropolitan Police Department stands ready to assist,” Palacio told the hearing.
“However, challenges to addressing street harassment exist because it occurs in public places and is most often verbal in nature. Public speech necessarily implicates First Amendment protections, making developing effective regulations or remedies sometimes difficult and complex,” she said.
Palacio outlined a number of Office of Human Rights public education programs aimed at “catalyzing change in cultural norms in public spaces.”
One example she gave is OHR’s Transgender and Gender Identity Respect campaign, which launched in 2012 as the nation’s first government-sponsored advertising campaign to focus exclusively on transgender and gender non-conforming people.
“We have received ongoing feedback from advocates and community members about the campaign’s success in raising both visibility and awareness of transgender and gender non-conforming communities,” Palacio said.
“I don’t envision and I don’t think a solution is criminal penalties for this behavior because I don’t think that’s going to solve the problem,” Nadeau told the Blade in a telephone interview.
What’s needed, Nadeau said, is to “change our culture and to break down these structures in which men are taking away power from women in public spaces and teaching respect from a very young age that women are not property and that folks in the trans community are not there for other people’s amusement – that this is really not a way that is acceptable behavior in our community.”
Added Nadeau, “I think my take on what we need most after hearing all the testimony and looking at the research is we need better training and education for government officials, for government employees, for our police force, and for kids, teachers, principals – anyone who is in a position of authority or who has opportunities to change behavior on how we diffuse these situations,” she said.