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Al Jazeera: NY Moves to Ban Condoms as Evidence Against Sex Workers

by Massoud Hayoun, 4/30/14

Trina Vuitton is not a sex worker. But when the transgender community advocate was stopped by a police officer in New York’s progressive West Village neighborhood last year, she was detained for “prostitution.” The grounds of her arrest, she says, was the fact that she was in possession of two condoms.

Despite efforts to subsidize condom distribution in a state battling high HIV/AIDS rates relative to the rest of the nation, police are still allowed to cite possession of multiple condoms as grounds for arrest on suspicion of sex work.

But that could soon change. Proposed legislation is currently making its way through the state Legislature that would put an end to the practice. It would be a move cheered by safe sex advocates.

“When the police take our condoms or lock us up for carrying condoms, they are putting our lives at risk,” Vuitton told a hearing of the New York City Council Civil Rights Committee shortly after her release.

“How am I supposed to protect myself from HIV and STIs when I am scared to leave my house with condoms in my purse?”

According to Vuitton’s testimony, the arresting officer repeatedly called her “faggot.” She was then held in a male cell in what transgender rights advocates call “misgendering.”

The New York City Police Department did not respond to an interview request from Al Jazeera at time of publication.

Meanwhile, prosecutors are encouraging lawmakers to rush through the bill. The proposed legislation — which would allow for sex workers and non-sex workers to carry multiple condoms without fear of arrest — has already passed the New York state Assembly and is awaiting review in the state Senate.

“Condoms provide critical protection for sex workers, who are more likely to be victims than criminals in prostitution cases,” Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen M. Rice told Al Jazeera.

“The public health impact to sex workers far outweighs any value they could provide in court.”

A longtime proponent of the legislation, New York Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard N. Gottfried, agreed.

“New York City distributes millions of free condoms every year because we know it’s an effective way to reduce unwanted pregnancies and curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. It doesn’t make sense to encourage it on one hand and criminalize it on the other.”

Similar legislation has been considered for over a decade and faces little opposition from elected officials who cite public health concerns. But a bill has never passed, owing to what advocates decry as the state’s legislative gridlock.

“There aren’t really any real opponents to this legislation. It’s hard to get important and logical measures through our legislative process sometimes,” said Sienna Baskin, co-director of the Sex Workers Project of the advocacy group the Urban Justice Center.

Baskin added that for the bill to be approved this legislative session, it must pass through the Senate and be signed into law by the end of June.

Where Baskin says the condom issue points to overarching problems regarding the sclerosis of the state Legislature, transgender community advocates say it is also part of the kind of profiling they face.

Queer community advocate with Streetwise and Safe, an NGO that educates LGBTQ youth on their rights, Mitchyll Mora noted that in cases like Vuitton’s, transgender women of color are — often mistakenly — profiled by police as sex workers.

“Condoms being used as evidence has been an issue of stop and frisk,” Mora said, accusing the NYPD of racism and “transphobia.”

“White men in Chelsea aren’t getting arrested for having condoms,” he said, referring to a major hub of the city’s gay community. But in the same neighborhood, their transgender nonwhite counterparts are being detained for possession of prophylactics, he said.

Mora said that hinders his work promoting the use of condoms in the gay African-American and Latino communities.

Arrest for possession of a condom only has to “happen to one person and it affects many people,” he said, adding that many carry around multiple condoms.

“Oftentimes a responsible sexual encounter will require more than one condom,” he said.