On the night of Dec. 10, 2009, 44-year-old Patti Hammond Shaw was drinking at her house in the Fairfax Village neighborhood of Washington, D.C., with her cousin’s friend. They were sitting on the couch, watching TV, when Shaw says the man put his hand on her leg. She pushed him away and he became violent, she says. When she fought back, he hit her across the face with an 18-inch, gold-painted replica of Michelangelo’s “David.” The statue knocked out one of her teeth and left a raw, purple welt on her head.
When the police responded, the man claimed Shaw punched him first. Despite Shaw’s injuries, the officer arrested only Shaw. He brought her first to the United Medical Center so she could receive medical care for the wounds on her face, and then to the 6th District police station.
At the station, Shaw was placed alone in a cell — in the men’s cellblock. While she waited in her single cell, in full view of the men in lockup, she says one of them demanded she show him her breasts and said if she didn’t, he’d hit her in the face when they got to the U.S. Marshals’ bullpen. (In D.C., most people in police lockups are later transferred to the custody of the U.S. Marshals, a federal agency within the Department of Justice, before they see a judge.) “I’m facing a lot of time,” she alleges he told her. “I got no problem taking another charge.” Scared, she complied. After, she claims, men in a nearby cell masturbated.
When Shaw was transferred to U.S. Marshal custody, she alleges a marshal named Troy Musgrove strip-searched her, forced her to show her breasts, and to pull down her pants and cough.
“You need Jenny Craig,” he allegedly told her. Shaw argued that she is a woman and shouldn’t be searched with men but alleges that Musgrove dismissed her. “That’s what you all say when you come through here. Let your dick out, man. I said, open your legs, and let your dick out.”
After Musgrove searched her, Shaw was put in the bullpen with men, including the one who had threatened to punch her at the 6th District station. “That n****r got a pussy,” Shaw says he told others in the cell, demanding she show her vagina. She says that the marshals did nothing to stop the harassment.
Shaw, whose driver’s license identifies her as female, was searched by men and put in jail with men because she is a transgender woman. She legally changed her name from Melvin to Patti in 1989. Ten years later, she had sex reassignment surgery — a procedure informally known as “bottom surgery” that cosmetically transforms male genitalia into female genitalia.
Nightmare scenarios like this were not new to Shaw, who’s been arrested 18 times in her life. The first time, in 1984 (an arrest for sodomy, which was then still illegal), she hadn’t yet legally transitioned from male to female. The Metropolitan Police Department gave her a police department identification (PDID) number, and according to that number, her name is Melvin and her gender is male. Sources inside the department say the MPD does not update the information associated with that PDID number. Though Shaw’s name and gender have changed, her gender at the time of her first arrest is how the MPD has viewed her since.
The violence and discrimination that Shaw has faced as a black transgender woman is not unusual — nor, statistically speaking, is the fact that she’s had numerous interactions with police. According to a 2011 survey of 6,450 transgender people by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, 40% of black transgender women claim they’ve been harassed by police, and nearly half of the respondents say they are uncomfortable seeking help from law enforcement. Twenty-one percent of transgender women and almost half of all black transgender people report having been in jail at least once.
For years, Shaw wanted to sue, and in 2011 tried without success; in April 2012 she tried again. The complaint her attorney filed would come to name alleged abuses related to three arrests (the December 2009 one being the second of the three), and nine defendants, including MPD Chief Cathy Lanier, members of the MPD, members of the U.S. Marshals, as well as the District of Columbia.
As Shaw’s case has lumbered along over the last two years, transgender issues have captured the interest of mainstream media and public attention like never before. In late May, Emmy-nominated Orange Is the New Black actress and activist Laverne Cox was on the cover of Time magazine with the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point.” She and others have raised awareness around trans women like Shaw who allege their rights have been violated by the police — like Phoenix’s Monica Jones (popularized by the hashtag #StandWithMonica) and more recently, the Connecticut 16-year-old “Jane Doe” who was held without a trial or formal hearing in solitary confinement in an adult women’s prison (#JusticeForJane).
Patti Hammond Shaw’s lawsuit has resulted in two victories: In May 2013, a D.C. District Court judge refused to dismiss the case, finding that because Shaw is legally female she has “the same rights as any other female detainee.” In other words, being searched by male officers and locked up with men was a threat to her safety and violated her rights not as a trans woman, but as a woman. The case was set to go to trial. Then, though none of the defendants admitted any liability or wrongdoing, this month, the MPD and the U.S. Marshals agreed to an undisclosed monetary settlement in Shaw’s case — and to change how gender is reported in the PDID system.
Shaw’s life offers a glimpse into the trenches of the fight for transgender rights and recognition where even incremental change can take years, where those who choose to become plaintiffs are worn down, exposed to scrutiny and humiliation. Shaw and her supporters — like other advocates around the country — are combating the fact that many Americans just don’t pay much mind to the plight of transgender people, especially ones who’ve been arrested. And ignorance can be a very formidable opponent.
On a sunny day in October 2013, Shaw sits at her kitchen table and recalls that night in 2009 — the fight, the arrest, the assault. Her attorney, Jeffrey Light, sits nearby. Light is modest and thoughtful, with stooped shoulders and closely cropped brown hair. Shaw lives in a cozy one-bedroom apartment with her two beloved, noisy Chihuahuas, Toy and Krossheoh. Decorated in brown and tan, the living room is still home to an 18-inch, gold-painted statue of Venus — the companion to the David statue that broke.
Shaw has dimpled cheeks, a wide smile, and a round beauty mark above her lip. As a teenager she attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts near Georgetown University and has always loved being onstage. For decades, she performed at drag balls and fashion shows in long, sequined dresses. “I’m very, very, very shy,” she says, “but that person that you see on stage is totally different.”
In 1989, when Shaw was 23 and had been living as Patti for several years, she joined a traveling show called the Railettes and performed in an adaptation of Cinderella called ’Rella starring drag and butch queens. Considered a legend by many in the D.C. LGBT community, Shaw says she has performed at the National Zoo in D.C. and for former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams. She has appeared onstage as Natalie Cole and Jill Scott, and has a particular fondness for Phyllis Hyman because they have the same initials, shared a costume designer, and met once backstage in Chicago. Back in the day, “we all wanted to be like [Patti],” prominent D.C. trans activist Ruby Corado tells me.
Shaw thumbs through an album with pinup photos of herself — some in a sheer purple dress and others in floor-length, magenta-and-white feathered capes. She is beaming in the pictures.
Shaw got married in 1996 but after her operation three years later, things with her husband, in her words, “got sour” — she thinks that she was no longer appealing to him. In 2003, she was arrested during a fight with him and an officer searched her, put her in a cell with men, and allegedly “exposed my vagina to the inmates that was locked up with me.” She contacted the media afterward but her husband told her not to sue — she thinks that he didn’t want his co-workers and parents to know that his wife was transgender.
When their divorce was finalized in 2009, they had debts: more than a dozen credit cards, a truck, and a house in her name. She declared bankruptcy, set about rebuilding her life, but an incident in June of that year impeded that progress. She had suspected a friend of stealing her purse and called the police. She eventually found it, and says she was later robbed by two men outside her house. The officer came by, took her account, ran her name, and, according to her, later called her and said that he was issuing a warrant for her arrest because he realized her name was actually Melvin. She was arrested for filing a false police report.
Shaw is nearly yelling as she tells me about the argument with that arresting officer. “You telling me, based on my gender — because you ran my name — you don’t believe my story?” In police custody, Shaw says a male detainee touched her buttocks in front of an MPD officer, and a marshal later rubbed her breasts, butt, and between her legs for five minutes during a search. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen,” the marshal allegedly said, and joked that her breasts “must be implants, because hormones don’t make breasts stand up so perky.” According to Shaw, later, in the Marshals’ bullpen, male detainees allegedly groped her and she was forced to urinate in a cup in front of men.
Shaw says that as a child, while others wanted to grow up and be ballerinas or firefighters, “my dream was just to be a girl and to be happy.” Shaw had changed her ID, had surgery, and had been in a 13-year marriage, but now her husband was gone and the police and marshals were still locking her up with men. “Since I’m not with him, I’m not gonna be stupid,” she says. “I need to just go ahead and be a voice.” Fighting back against the PDID system and the abusive searches in court was a way to keep pursuing that childhood dream and make sure “other transgender [people] won’t have to experience what I experienced.”
She filed her first lawsuit in 2011, but a judge dismissed it. An older cousin who works as a transgender liaison with D.C.’s Department of Corrections suggested Shaw hire Jeffrey Light to file another lawsuit. Light had gained trust and respect in the transgender community when he helped organize on behalf of an anti-discrimination ordinance in 2005.
Light filed suit in April 2012, and in June, Shaw and a friend were arrested for possession of PCP. Shaw had her little dogs with her in the car. Again, while she was in MPD custody, Shaw says male officers invasively searched her and male detainees masturbated in front of her. One threw “some kind of thick liquid” at Shaw and it landed in her cell. The charge was later dropped. Light amended the complaint that fall, adding the allegations related to the June arrest.
While sitcom reruns play on the TV behind her, Shaw tells us she has never been placed in protective custody or somewhere out of sight and sound of the other detainees. “They put me with the reptiles, with the snakes and lions, so they be hungry to get me. All night, all I hear is ‘psss, psss,’ and I’m seeing penises and cum shootin’ out,” she says. She begins to cry again and looks down at her hands. “I’m cried out.”
From Shaw’s couch, Light explains that lawsuits like this are rare because “it’s hard for people to come forward and expose themselves to the publicity, being deposed, and the potential retaliation from the police.”
In the 18 months I’ve talked and met with Patti Hammond Shaw, I’ve come to appreciate the extent of her anger toward these agencies. A simple question about an arrest — “how many men were in the nearby cell?” — will release a torrent of foul memories. She has been utterly committed to telling this story, but her manner changes from casual and friendly to irate and wounded the moment she’s asked to recount the specifics of this case.
Not all have always sympathized with her. Trans activist Ruby Corado says that when Shaw first started complaining about being locked up with men, “nobody wanted to help her. Nobody.” According to Corado, many in the transgender community “turned their backs” on Shaw after her surgery. “I think people always thought, ‘She gets in trouble and she gets what she deserves.’” But even people who have gotten into trouble — and Shaw has surely gotten into trouble — deserve rights. Her willingness to provoke people, to demand attention, and to sometimes literally fight has made her a particularly tenacious opponent in her lawsuit against the MPD and the U.S. Marshals. The outcome of this lawsuit will very likely help many people who have criticized her in the past.
Her story is one of persistent fear and frustration. “Any time I’m doing the least little thing, [the MPD] want to accuse me of doing something wrong,” Shaw says. “Why? Because they think that they know my gender. And they think all transgenders have to be sex workers, have to be stealing.” (Despite a pervasive stereotype, only around 1 in 10 transgender women the National Coalition for Transgender Equality surveyed reported having done sex work.)
Shaw sips a bottle of water and wipes away tears running down her cheeks. “We all are not criminals. Am I right?”
“You’re right,” Light replies softly.
In the suit, Jeffrey Light argued that when male officers and marshals searched Shaw and locked her up with men, they violated her rights not just as a transgender woman — but as a woman. The court agreed. “Everybody was really surprised that this worked,” Light says. He’s also careful to explain that Shaw is legally female because she lives as a woman and has changed the gender on her documentation, not because of her sex reassignment procedure. Many transgender women can’t or choose not to have that surgery.
The suit alleged that the marshals and the MPD officers named conducted unconstitutional and invasive cross-gender searches, and acted with deliberate indifference — meaning they knew that locking Shaw up with men would violate her right to safety. It also alleged that Musgrove’s supervisor, Benjamin Kates, and Merrender Quicksey, an MPD lieutenant who is the central cellblock manager, failed to properly train, supervise, and discipline officers.
Numerous motions to dismiss were filed by various defendants. When asked to discuss Shaw’s suit this June, the MPD declined to comment on “active litigation” but said of the PDID system, “We are aware of this issue and we are looking into a way to capture the individual’s current name and gender.” The U.S. Marshals have failed to respond to questions about their policies regarding transgender people and the lawsuit by our deadline.
The irony beneath all this is that as cities go, D.C. actually had some of the most progressive policies already on the books. But, as Light put it in 2012, “In D.C., you will find the widest gulf between what is supposed to happen and what has happened.”
Ruby Corado is bubbly and welcoming, with long eyelashes and bright red polish on her nails. She’s executive director of Casa Ruby, a bilingual LGBT advocacy organization that opened in 2012 and serves many minority and low-income D.C. residents. Its drop-in center’s numerous services include HIV testing, clothing swaps, and GED classes. The main room’s walls are pastel purple and a big rainbow banner reads: Casa de Tod@s. Comfortable couches encircle a coffee table stacked with donated pastries and cookies. People of all ages, genders, and sexual orientations pass through the space, stopping to watch TV, tidy up, or use the computers. So far, this drop-in center for the LGBT community is a grassroots effort, supported by donations. Corado estimates she has spent $25,000 of her own money and sings the praises of her landlord, whom she sometimes owes thousands in back rent.
Corado and many others are still haunted by the 1995 death of a transgender woman named Tyra Hunter, who’d been well-known and well-liked in the transgender community. After being injured in a car crash, paramedics saw her genitalia, stopped providing lifesaving care, and mocked her while she died. Corado herself says she once suffered through heatstroke for hours because she was too afraid to call 911.
To build support for better police policies, Corado went to city council meetings, spoke with the media, and did outreach in the community and with the MPD. The movement gained momentum in the summer of 2007 when a woman named Virginia Grace Soto, who has female genitalia and who is not transgender, was arrested for missing a court date on a “suspicion of prostitution” charge. Soto was placed in the male population, where she had to shower with men. A sergeant from the MPD’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit told D.C.’s Metro Weekly LGBT magazine that because Soto “had very masculine features” she assumed that she was transgender.
After Soto’s arrest became public, Corado told the Metro Weekly that this was “the perfect example of how not having a plan on how to deal with individuals that do not fit in the binary gender of this society, of being male or female, creates [problems].” What happened to Soto, she said, “is happening to transgender people all the time.”
Three officers were fired because of the oversight, which was covered widely in the local papers — including the Washington Post. That fall, the MPD released a General Order on “Handling Interactions With Transgender Individuals.” The policy was among the first of its kind for a U.S. police department.
But even good policies must be put into practice. On a D.C. news radio station in early 2011, a listener asked Lanier about violence against the transgender community. There were several unsolved murders and assaults on transgender people between 2000 and 2013 — despite the fact that the MPD has a Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit tasked with investigating bias crimes.
Lanier replied that because “we’ve had a lot of attacks on transgender members of the community that are engaged in prostitution … we’d like to see all of those folks who are in that high-risk environment find ways to increase their safety, and help us out.” Two organizers with the D.C. Trans Coalition wrote an op-ed in Metro Weekly calling Lanier’s comments “an outrageous example of victim blaming.” The D.C. Trans Coalition and sources within the department have also criticized Lanier for restructuring the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit and reducing the number of officers dedicated to it.
In an attempt to resolve the ongoing tension between the department and LGBT activists, Lanier commissioned a report by the Anti-Defamation League on police relations with the gay, lesbian, and transgender community. An ADL task force conducted interviews with MPD and reviewed internal documents, interviewed local LGBT advocates, and met with transgender residents.
The results were damning. The task force found that “the reported treatment of transgender people by MPD officers is a matter of serious concern.” During community meetings, transgender people described police conduct “that ranged from acts of ignorance and insensitivity to outright hostility, overt expressions of bigotry and harassment, and physical attacks.”
Because Lanier commissioned the report herself, there was no hiding from it. Shortly after it was released in February of this year, the MPD met with members of the D.C. Trans Coalition. Lanier reportedly gave activists her personal cell phone number to call in the event of police misconduct.
In an email, MPD Director for the Office of Communications Gwendolyn Crump acknowledged to me that the biggest challenge when dealing with the transgender community is “building trust between community and police,” which she called an “ongoing effort.” When asked about a timeline for implementing some of the ADL Task Force recommendations, Crump wrote, “We are actively working with the community on implementing various recommendations of the report.” She cited a town hall meeting with the community that was held on June 10 as a “concrete action” by the department. She also indicated that the department would revise the training for all members and a “new training curriculum” will launch in 2015.
Though activists say MPD officials seem more responsive in meetings, this doesn’t necessarily translate to changes in the streets. Ruby Corado gives the example of what she calls “‘hey, girl’ policing.” Whereas before officers might have been outwardly brutal toward transgender women, now police pull up alongside women on the street, saying, “Hi, girl, where you going? I want to make sure you’re OK.” Corado says police shine their lights on women and then follow them home. “Now what we have is constant profiling that is taking away people’s civil liberties.”
On a bright spring day, Corado sits at her desk on Casa Ruby’s second floor, sending and receiving a steady stream of Facebook messages and texts to one or another of the more than 2,000 contacts in her phone. A woman standing behind her drags a straightening iron through her hair. In Spanish, Corado pesters a shy, pretty young woman to be interviewed by a writer making a “documentary play” about Casa Ruby. “Confidential,” the writer promises, repeatedly. But the woman still seems nervous.
Shaw makes her way up the stairs, gently leading her friend Tina, who is blind, by the elbow. The women pull chairs up to Corado’s desk while her phone continues to buzz. Shaw has come to talk about using settlement money she might receive to fund a transitional house for homeless transgender people. She quickly grows annoyed with Corado’s multitasking. “If I knew it was going to be this many interruptions, I wouldn’t have come,” she chides.
Chastened, Corado shoos away the woman with the steaming straightening iron, and the two begin discussing their hope for a transitional house. Despite everything they’ve faced, Corado and Shaw are relatively fortunate. They have somewhere to live. Many others don’t. Trans people are homeless at a rate almost twice the national average. “Every day when I close the doors it’s the hardest moment. I get to go home,” Corado pauses and takes a breath. She starts to cry. “And my clients don’t get to go home.”
“A lot of them are going to the shelters, sleeping on the benches, sleeping with a friend, don’t have nowhere to go,” Shaw explains. “She has a good heart because she comes here, she feeds them, she clothes them, she helps them with whatever they need.”
Shaw turns to Corado, who is dabbing her face with a crumpled tissue. “Get yourself together, it’s OK.”
Corado’s phone keeps chiming, and she continues to talk about the plans for the shelter. “I want you to own it,” she says to Shaw. “As much as I want the money — and please bring it — I want her to be part of this,” she tells me.
“For Patti, filing that lawsuit, it’s not about just Patti Shaw — it’s about when is this shit going to stop?” Corado says. In her opinion, Shaw, with her lawsuit, her righteous anger, and her courage, “just changed American history.”
On June 2, Patti Hammond Shaw was deposed for over eight hours. Attorneys for the MPD officers and U.S. Marshals questioned her at length about her prior arrests, her experiences in lockup, her medical history, her drug use, “how she felt about her body when she was 4 years old — everything,” says Jeffrey Light. Shaw says she felt like the lawyers for the Marshals were particularly “aggressive,” and it got to her: “I got very emotional and started crying about when I was in the bullpen.”
It was the hardest deposition Light says he has ever been to. And it became clear that she wasn’t going to be able to go through something like this again during a trial, in front of a room full of people and a judge.
Shaw told Light, “I’m just done. Make them an offer. Let’s just get this over.”
Before the deposition, Light seemed excited to try to hold MPD and U.S. Marshals supervisors accountable for the way their employees treated Shaw. “On an intellectual level, it would have been really fun to argue this in the D.C. District Court, but I don’t do this for intellectual satisfaction,” he says. Though he won’t have the chance to take this case to trial, he is “thrilled” about the settlement and agreement to change the PDID system.
There’s very little case law dealing with treatment of transgender people in custody, in part because there have been few cases, and many like Shaw’s eventually settle. New York attorney Andrea Ritchie, who has represented several transgender people in complaints against the city and the New York Police Department, nonetheless argues that the district court holding in Shaw’s case is “landmark.” She says lawyers and courts around the country will have to “look to whatever’s out there for a guide.”
In March, before Shaw was deposed, the ACLU and 10 other civil rights organizations submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in Shaw’s case arguing her treatment was unconstitutional. Chase Strangio, the ACLU lawyer who wrote the brief, sees Shaw’s lawsuit as crucial to “clarifying that trans individuals in prison and jail have constitutional protections” that specify where and how they can be held. Strangio has talked with several police departments and county sheriffs offices that “want to have better policies” and says, “We can connect some of that to Patti.”
“If you can imagine, back in 2004 it was still legal to discriminate against trans people,” says Light. Since then, advocates in D.C. have gotten Medicaid to cover transition-related health care. The Department of Corrections, the MPD, and the U.S. Marshals have policies for dealing with transgender people in custody. Homeless shelters nationwide are required to accommodate transgender people. The D.C. Fire Department and EMS have apologized for what happened to Tyra Hunter, the transgender woman who died in 1995. D.C. Mayor Gray established an employment program for transgender people called Project Empowerment. A new national law, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which is slowly being implemented, dictates that consideration for a person’s gender identity and feelings of safety must be taken into account while searched or housed in custody. (Agencies that don’t comply will lose 5% of their federal funding.) Each of these is a little battle in the greater war. And D.C. is a single city in a nation that’s just realizing its responsibility to its transgender citizens — and its trespasses.
“It is so unbelievable how much has happened in 10 years and how bad things were back then,” Light muses. “The thing is, if this is your life, it cannot move fast enough.”
But Light has seen how cases like Shaw’s can become “a proxy for whether there’s any justice in the world.” When people who’ve been abused in jail, discriminated against at work, or harassed on the street want their day in court, “it’s really hard to tell people, ‘No, the system doesn’t work and doesn’t care about you.’” Light tells his clients that whatever the outcome, it will likely never be enough. “But maybe, just maybe, we’ll get you something.’”
On July 18, Shaw will start volunteering at Casa Ruby three days a week. She’s going to run a focus group for transgender people and then, she says she’ll see about putting the transitional housing plan into action. While she says the award will support her for “a long period of time,” she is especially happy that the MPD has agreed to fix the way PDID numbers are updated. “The most important part is to get things changed within the system.”
“I am so happy,” Shaw tells me. “I feel relieved, like a burden is just gone.”
This story was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, which awarded Nicole Pasulka an I.F. Stone Award for emerging journalists. Pasulka also received a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.