A draconian piece of legislation that has for decades been wielded to harm trans and gender nonconforming communities has finally been repealed. Since the 1970s, New York State has enabled policing of trans and gender non-conforming people based on a discriminatory and highly variable set of standards relating to “loitering for the purpose of prostitution,” whose enforcement was entirely up to the discretion of police officers. TGNC people have been stereotyped, picked up, and arrested, too often facing violence from police and fellow detainees, for over four decades under this law.
In June 2019, Layleen Polanco died while in custody at Riker’s Island, incarcerated due to an open warrant for charges related to sex work. In seeking accountability and justice for Layleen, AVP included in our demands the repeal of this loitering for the purpose of prostitution law, more commonly known as Walking While Trans ban, which has been broadly used to target, harass, and discriminate against trans and gender non conforming people and profile them as sex workers—trans women of color like Layleen.
“I’m grateful the walking while trans ban has been repealed so that trans women of color like my sister won’t be as easily profiled,” Melania Brown, Layleen Polanco’s sister said. “However, this doesn’t ease my pain. My sister should have been with us here today. I hope and pray that New York City and State elected officials do not wait for another death and another family to be destroyed like mine to put legislation that protects trans and gender nonconforming people. I’ll continue to fight to make sure Layleen didn’t die in vain and that her platform can be used to help other trans women like her.”
The work to decriminalize and decarcerate must continue to prioritize and center the experiences of trans and gender nonconforming people of color, in order for it to be truly inclusive and effective for all. Repealing this legislation is an important step, but the work continues. LGBTQ people experience economic disenfranchisement and discrimination at high levels, and as a result, make up a significant portion of people who trade sex to support their survival needs. The criminalized status of sex work combined with the discrimination that LGBTQ people experience makes LGBTQ sex workers more vulnerable to violence.
Decriminalizing sex work by passing the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act in New York State would set a national precedent for curbing violence against those who sell sex out of choice, circumstance, or coercion. Defunding and ultimately dismantling NYPD’s Vice Squad, which arrested Layleen in a sting operation in 2017, is also a necessary step. Reducing NYPD’s overall headcount and defunding its oversized budget by at least 1 billion would free up funding that could be used to support LGBTQ and HIV-affected survivors with community-based services and support.
AVP believes we can create a more just world that doesn’t rely on the violence of the carceral system to create safety. We can build safety in our communities while keeping LGBTQ, trans, and gender nonconforming people out of jails. We celebrate that Governor Cuomo acted swiftly and signed the repeal of this discriminatory and unjust law, and all legislators on the city and state level to continue the important work of decriminalizing LGBTQ survivors. There is still more to do!