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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
March 31, 2006

Amnesty International report finds wide LGBT abuse in the U.S.

London--�Beatings, sexual violence, verbal abuse, harassment and humiliation by law enforcement officials against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people take place on any given day in detention centers, prisons, in the home and on the street� in the United States, according to a two-year study by an international human rights watchdog group.

The study, released March 23 by Amnesty International of London, concludes that �persistent discriminatory attitudes have created a situation in which abuse of LGBT people is frequently dismissed as �normal.� �

The project, titled �Stonewalled--Still Demanding Respect� is based on interviews conducted between 2003 and 2005 with LGBT people at large, victims of violence, lawyers, and law enforcement officials across the U.S., with extensive looks at Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Antonio.

The cities were chosen for their geographic and population diversities, and because they are working to correct their histories of police abuse.

The U.S. �has a long history of both criminalizing homosexuality and failing to protect LGBT people against violence and discrimination,� according to the report.

The 104-page report credits the U.S. with the decriminalization of homosexuality and the enactment in many places of laws prohibiting discrimination.

However, �the bigger problem is the discriminatory way in which many laws are applied, which often results in the arrest and detention of individuals just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.�

Amnesty says that the more serious abuse amounts to torture.

�Sexual abuse is not incidental to torture,� the report says. �AI�s research over many years shows how torture often takes sexualized forms. Torturers know that an attack on someone�s sexuality is an attack on their very sense of self.�

According to the study, that torture and abuse against LGBT people often takes the form of abusive language and threats, beatings and rape, excessive force during arrest; and for victims of crime, abuse from the officers called to assist them.

Transgender people are likely to report being subject to searches that are humiliating and unnecessary, as well as being held in inappropriate gender-segregated cells where they are subject to additional abuse.

�The common factor is that the reason for the abuse is police reaction to their sexual orientation or gender identity,� the report says.

The study also says that police responses to crime against LGBT people, including domestic violence, �are often inadequate, and indeed sometimes hostile.� So much so, that �fear of reporting crimes is widespread among many sectors of the LGBT community.�

�Morals� regulations

Amnesty is particularly concerned with abuses around enforcement of �morals regulations,� where �vaguely worded regulations and laws which rely excessively on officers� judgement, can lend themselves to discriminatory application.�

�Within the LGBT community, transgender individuals, people from ethnic or racial minorities, young people, homeless people, and sex workers are at most risk of police abuse and misconduct,� says the report.

�Race is an important factor in determining the likelihood of an LGBT person being targeted for police abuse. This mirrors the systemic racism still found in many areas of policing in the USA,� says the report.

Amnesty criticizes the widespread denial of rights to LGBT people as �a human rights abuse which often leads to further abuses� and that �reinforces impunity for the abusers.�

The study points out that although there is a myth of an �affluent gay community,� LGBT people earn less than the general population, decreasing one�s ability to provide one�s own legal protection, and increasing the risk of homelessness.

The poverty and homelessness issues are particularly pervasive among transgender people, who face the most employment discrimination leading to poverty and high rates of homelessness.

Further, transgender people are often denied access to shelters, forcing them to survive on the streets, possibly through illegal activities, and almost always increasing contact with police.

Forty percent of homeless youth are believed to be LGBT.

Brutality and sexual abuse

The report details LGBT people taken into custody, often for �offenses� that turn out to be specious, then being raped, physically restrained, slapped, and assaulted--especially lesbians, who are often threatened by male officers to be taught what it is like to be with a man.

�Police officers in many parts of the USA are using their positions of power and privilege to coerce people into having sex and to evade prosecution for attacks,� the report continues.

Women perceived as �masculine� are assumed to be non-compliant and treated with greater physical harshness, the report says.

The report calls verbal abuse �widespread,� especially when a transgender person is involved.

�It is difficult to assess the true scale of the problem because there is very limited capacity to document alleged abuses, so they are likely to be under-reported.�

Fear of reporting crimes

�One of the most striking aspects of crimes against LGBT individuals is the extent to which these crimes go unreported,� the study says.

�LGBT people often do not report crimes against them because they fear a dismissive, hostile or abusive response from the police. This reluctance is particularly pronounced among transgender women.�

�LGBT people also fear that if they reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity to the police, this information could find its way to family, friends, and employers.�

When crime, particularly hate crime, is reported, there is a likelihood that the victim will be told by officers that no crime took place.

Trumped-up park busts

The report details incidents of gay men being arrested for �lewd conduct,� although they were only walking in a park. At trial, police testify that the men did things like grabbing their crotch or �making prolonged eye contact with officers,� even in cases where the men are carrying soft drinks and wearing sun glasses.

�Vague laws are one of the factors that increase the likelihood of these sorts of arrests,� says the report. �They often involve offenses such as �loitering with intent to solicit,�� �public lewdness,� or �disorderly conduct.� �

�The vagueness of morals regulations in the USA can lead to arbitrary arrest and detention because of the discretion granted to officers in determining what is considered �offensive.� �

The report details LGBT people being charged with �sodomy� long after the offending state repealed the law or a court declared it unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court declared sodomy laws unconstitutional in 2003. But judges in Virginia were still sentencing men convicted of sodomy in 2004.

In New York, 296 arrests were made for sodomy between 1981 and 2001, although the law had been declared unconstitutional in 1980.

Though not part of the Amnesty report, there are at least two known cases of Ohio men being charged with importuning--asking someone of the same sex for sex--months after the law against it was struck down by Ohio�s Supreme Court in 2002. Those incidents occurred in Bryan and in Warren--where the accused spent four months in jail.

�Arrests are frequently based on evidence from police officers who are the only witnesses to the alleged offense. The use in these reports of standardized language which does not reflect the individual circumstances of the incident raises concern about their veracity.�

�Law enforcement officials are often able to act, secure in the knowledge that their behavior will not be investigated thoroughly or indeed at all,� according to the report.

Outing threat keep cases quiet

�Many individuals charged under morals regulations do not challenge an officer�s version of events, questionable entrapment techniques or abuse. They are silenced by the fear that their sexual orientation will be revealed. Others are unable to afford the costs of mounting a defense.�

�As a result,� says Amnesty, �individuals may be wrongly convicted of a criminal offense while police misconduct and abuse go undetected.�

Amnesty is also critical of law enforcement officials who release information to the press or allow arrests to be televised.

In 2001, a questionable operation in eastern Ohio involving cameras hidden in a public restroom netted 13 arrests whose names were published in the local newspaper two days before warrants were served. Though not specifically included in Amnesty�s report, it found such abusive practices to be widespread.

Amnesty makes numerous recommendations, including more training of law enforcement officials, and making it easier for citizens to make complaints against officers. They also recommend that police departments do more outreach to recruit LGBT officers, and that independent citizens groups be formed to monitor police conduct.

The group also strongly recommends the use of lawsuits against law enforcement officers and their employers, which they say are too rare, and more use of the 1994 Police Accountability Act which allows civil actions to be brought in federal courts against police departments.


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