An organization that promotes sexual health is working with the Prince George’s County Police Department to help it rebuild trust with the county’s transgender community.
Representatives from Heart to Hand and the newly formed Prince George’s County Police Department LGBTQ Outreach Team spoke about the killings of two trans women earlier this year in Fairmount Heights during a Transgender Day of Remembrance event in Seat Pleasant.
Ashanti Carmon, 27, and Zoe Spears, 23, were killed near the firehouse where the Transgender Day of Remembrance event took place. Bailey Reeves, 17, was a trans teenager killed in September in Baltimore.
The presence of Heart to Hand, the police LGBTQ Outreach Team and Prince George’s County Council member Jolene Ivey (D-District 5), among others, underscored the continuing impact that Carmon and Spears’ murders have had in the area.
“There was mention of the murders,” recalled Capt. James Mitchell, one of seven outreach team officers who all also identify as LGBTQ. “And one of the most important issues to the trans community is their safety and for young women not to end up dead.”
Mitchell explained the LGBTQ Outreach Team had been in development for a while, but the two murders pushed the urgency of its formation.
“It was eye opening for me,” said Capt. Cindy A. Thompson, another out member of the LGBTQ Outreach Team. “One of the first events that I attended was a Fairmount Heights town hall meeting over the summer and that was mainly for the trans community to come out and talk about their safety and their fears.”
“Their fears are real,” added Mitchell, stating the LGBTQ Outreach Team has attended other trans community events that include a Prince George’s County Human Relations Committee panel discussion in October and a November event at Casa Ruby in D.C. “They want to be heard and they want to be taken seriously when they report things.”
Mitchell and his colleagues said they realize trust and safety are still two serious concerns for the county’s LGBTQ residents, so they work with Heart to Hand and other local organizations as much as possible.
Kaniya Walker, a Heart to Hand employee, is a trans woman who helped set up the Transgender Day of Remembrance event that honored Spears, Carmon and others like them. Walker also facilitates the organization’s trans support group and is working with D.C.’s HIPS to provide additional services to vulnerable trans sex workers in the area.
“One of our main focuses is working with the trans community more,” said Walker.
Walker told the Washington Blade that two “black cisgender women, best friends, started” Heart to Hand because of rising HIV/AIDS rates, particularly among black women.
HIV.gov statistics indicate 1 in 7 Americans currently living with HIV are unaware of their status.
Heart to Hand, which is based in Largo, provides free HIV testing, education and contraceptives at college campuses and various locations on both sides of the D.C.-Maryland border. Walker said she wants to do more outreach to the cisgender, heterosexual population to help reduce the spread of HIV.
“Black cisgender women are important to us because they don’t have the education and knowledge about getting tested,” she said. “They think being married or in a long-term relationship will protect them from this disease, but we have heterosexual men who are willing and open about getting tested.”
Walker said she found that strange because growing up in an African-American household her mother was more willing to go see the doctor while her “daddy would have to be down and out to go.” She added this reluctance to get tested among cisgender black women is due to a mistaken perception of HIV/AIDS as a “gay man’s disease,” and as a consequence more black cis women will become unknowingly infected and spread the disease.
College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn says stigma also keeps trans people vulnerable as well in terms of health, housing and other issues.
“Police stings on transgender sex workers in Prince George’s County have shown a lack of understanding and sensitivity toward transgender people and an inadequate response to violence against transgender people,” said Wojahn.
Mitchell agreed, stating one of the missions of the LGBTQ Outreach Team is to be an internal liaison and source of information and training for police officers as well.
“We’ve asked groups that provide services to LGBTQ people to provide us with that information so we can push that out to our officers,” he said. “So, as they encounter people at 3 a.m. who may be in crisis, instead of saying they can’t help, they can say, ‘here is Casa Ruby’s information,’ or ‘here is Whitman Walker’s information’ or, ‘here is a local clinic in the county.’”