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Commission moves to bring transgender voices to public safety table

Thursday, December 10, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

A discussion on providing support to victims of anti-transgender violence quickly gravitated toward the work of the city’s “reimagining public safety” initiative at this week’s meeting of the Public Safety Commission. In line with repeated requests from local LGBTQ community leaders, the commission passed a unanimous recommendation to City Council to place a transgender or gender-nonconforming individual on the city’s task force on reimagining public safety, which was established this summer.

Mateo de la Torre, who serves on the advisory board of Transgender Education Network of Texas, said actual representation and participation on the task force is important for the transgender community, which has previously been “used as an extra option as opposed to an active participant and a partner.”

The reimagining public safety task force now has 22 members, including five members from the city of Austin and 17 representatives from various community advocacy groups. The group’s purpose is to help create a framework for a new understanding of public safety and offer specific policy recommendations.

“Based on the structure that we saw of the initiative, you have the task force, you have advisory groups and then you have listening sessions,” de la Torre explained. “Being a part of the listening session just doesn’t seem sufficient for the level of harm that our community experiences at the hands of law enforcement and in the name of public safety.”

A 2013 study by the Williams Institute found that 48 percent of victims of anti-LGBTQ violence reported experiences of police misconduct, including unjustified arrests and the use of excessive force.

Farah Muscadin, director of the Office of Police Oversight and a member of the task force’s executive team, said it would be possible to add a new member. However, she offered a different path forward, suggesting she serve as a “bridge to the (transgender) community to ensure that their voices are heard.” Muscadin offered to meet directly with leaders in the transgender and gender-nonconforming communities and bring their concerns to the task force, including requests to add a new member.

“I don’t want the community, per se, to think that the task force is the end-all-be-all for providing input about reimagining public safety,” Muscadin said. “That is not the case because, of course, 22 people can’t represent a city of 1 million people.”

Nonetheless, Commissioner Rebecca Webber moved to pass a recommendation that Council direct the city manager to add the new transgender task force community representative. Webber added, “The extreme vulnerability of this group when it comes to the police and public safety does warrant that.” Webber said the recommendation was meant as a “signal of support to this community” and not as an attempt “in any way to try and undercut (Muscadin’s) process.”

Naomi Wilson, co-founder and director of Black Trans Leadership of Austin, told commissioners that adding a transgender or gender-nonconforming member to the public safety initiative task force is a “minimum” of the work that needs to be done for this community.

Devyn Harris, a rapid rehousing advocate with the SAFE Alliance, said further efforts need to deal with issues of safety and privacy for transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals experiencing homelessness. Harris said solutions include providing safe showers at shelters, offering gender identity trainings for service providers who collect data and process people through the homelessness management information systems database, and building safe shelters where transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals are able to receive needed support.

Under the current system, Harris said there is no recognition of transgender identities or chosen names when providing or determining when to provide housing services, “even though we know people who are transgender and gender-nonconforming are more likely to end up living on the streets, especially if they are people of color.” At the same time, Harris noted, data show that the rates of transgender and nonbinary individuals in need of shelter are rising fast.

Harris said one example of the lack of training around gender identity is the use of a practice known as “deadnaming,” or insisting that an individual use a given or legal name rather than the name that person has chosen for themselves. “At SAFE, we have clients who have been in the program for months and are still being deadnamed, regardless of how many times we correct the service providers, because (the service providers) have little training in transgender and gender-nonconforming needs and rights and they don’t see this training as a priority.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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