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It’s hard to imagine what Virginia Grace Soto went through during the two days she spent at a male detention center at the D.C. jail. After her arrest in July for a missed court date — stemming from her April arrest on suspicion of prostitution — she was wrongfully perceived to be a male-to-female transgender.
Despite being strip searched and having female genitalia, Soto’s androgynous appearance led to assumptions that placed the 47-year-old in a male facility where she had to shower with four other men. Her pleas to be moved to a female facility were repeatedly ignored.
Anonymous government sources shared an internal report with The Washington Post last week, which reported that D.C. officials plan to fire three corrections officers involved in the mix up.
Virginia Grace Soto
But that’s simply not enough, says local transgender activist Ruby Corado, who says she hears stories like Soto’s all the time.
”It’s 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],” she says.
It was, in fact, just a few days ago that Corado met with other community members, including those from Transgender Health Empowerment, to discuss the Police Department’s lack of understanding and sensitivity toward individuals who fall outside of societal gender norms, during arrests and incarcerations.
”There’s really no guidelines that are in place on how to deal with transgender individuals,” Corado says. ”And the bigger [issue] is people are arrested, booked, and then… housed in the wrong section of the jails [where] they just get victimized over and over again.”
Traci Hughes, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), says the department’s procedure in such cases is to contact someone from the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU).
”[It’s] to make sure that the person who is arrested feels comfortable enough and that we are classifying the person correctly,” she says. ”We want to make sure we adhere to any degree of sensitivity that’s involved when dealing with this particular segment of our population.”
Hughes says she cannot comment specifically on the Soto case, directing any questions to representatives from the mayor’s office. Calls seeking comment before Metro Weekly deadline were not returned.
Sgt. Tania Bell from the GLLU was contacted in late April, when Soto was arrested for suspicion of prostitution. But Bell says it was the two arresting officers, who’s names she does not recall, from the MPD’s Fourth District Station, and not her, who determined that Soto was a transgender male-to-female.
”I did not identify her as a transgender male,” Bell says, responding to the Post article, which says Bell ”ultimately booked [Soto as] a man” after interviewing her.
”I was attempting to interview her,” Bell recalls. ”She had very masculine features, so I assumed based on the information that I had been given, and the reason that I was called there, that she was a transgender male-to-female.”
Bell says that she did not identify Soto as male during the interview, for which Bell used a Spanish-language interpreter. Adding to the difficulty of the interview, she says, Soto often yelled and screamed.
”We still didn’t understand what she said in Spanish,” Bell adds.
What happened to Soto is what the Trans Coalition, a group of transgender activists and allies who work to improve the lives of transgender people in Washington, hopes to prevent. In late June, the group launched a campaign to improve how D.C. jails, the MPD and Fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) handle transgender people by demanding training, and by offering definitions and other information.
In addition to asking that hormone therapy be made available through the District’s medical services, the Trans Coalition’s written proposal asks law enforcement personnel in the city to find ways to recognize and prevent harassment of transgender people; to address inmates in a manner appropriate to their gender identity; and to formally adopt a written policy that safely houses transgender people according to their gender identity.
”We want to see some clarity, because this is what is happening to transgender people all the time,” says Corado. ”This is just one particular case where they got the wrong [gender] but, trust me, it is going on all the time and they really need to come up with some ideas.”
The Trans Coalition is online at http://dctc.squarespace.com/.