The Appeal Podcast: Criminalizing Trans Lives

With Appeal writer Aviva Stahl and trans rights activist Ceyenne Doroshow.

Photo illustration by Anagraph/Photo by Tina Potocki/Getty

The Appeal Podcast: Criminalizing Trans Lives

With Appeal writer Aviva Stahl and trans rights activist Ceyenne Doroshow.

Perhaps no group is more vulnerable to violence in our society than trans people, especially Black and Latino trans people. Often treated with scorn by police and judges, trans people are frequently criminalized for what would commonly be viewed as self-defense or a minor infraction. Our guests today, Appeal writer Aviva Stahl and trans activist Ceyenne Doroshow, talk about the criminalization of trans people and efforts to draw attention to a population told time and again that their lives are expendable. 

The Appeal is available on iTunes and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Twitter.


Adam Johnson: Hi welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod, you can like the main Appeal magazine Facebook page on Facebook and you can always subscribe to us on iTunes. The story of the criminal legal system is one of how society mistreats and treats its most vulnerable populations. Using any key metric, almost no group is more vulnerable than trans people, especially those who are black and Latino. Offered no protection from the state and met with scorn and mockery by police and judges, trans people are frequently criminalized for what would otherwise be viewed as self defense or minor infractions. Today we’re going to be joined by two guests, Appeal writer of Aviva Stahl,

[Begin Clip]

Aviva Stahl: Trans people face discrimination in so many different parts of their lives. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 90 percent of trans people who are surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job, and trans people also face discrimination in education. So that’s one way that trans people are pushed out of the job sector, pushed out of education into sex work, into an underground economy. Also, I think trans people like a lot of other communities, like people of color, are assumed to be criminal. Trans people are arrested just for looking suspicious on the street.

[End Clip]

Adam: And trans activist Ceyenne Doroshow.

[Begin Clip]

Ceyenne Doroshow: I’m bringing awareness and not only bringing awareness, I’m changing the path through education and building community. If we don’t organize and do something about how the police deal with us, about policy work surrounded around us, when the government is saying we don’t exist we are sure to die.

[End Clip]

Adam: Hi Aviva. Thank you so much for coming on The Appeal.

Aviva Stahl: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Adam: So, you write a lot about trans issues as they relate to both policing and prisons, um, and some of the consistent problems that we, that we hear about. So obviously when you deal in the prisons and police sector, if you will, or space, you’re dealing with the kind of most forgotten people in society, disproportionately African American, poor, the people who are kind of seen as expendable. And even within that system, there’s a subset of people, trans people, who are even more traditionally and statistically speaking, more vulnerable, and you do a good job throughout the last couple of years detailing some of these cases, uh, the latest one you have is on a trans man by the name of Stevie Sullivan, which is consistent with some other cases we’ll get into, about prosecutors coming down harsh on trans people for defending themselves or things that would otherwise be minor skirmishes being escalated to major prison time. Can you talk about this case in particular and what the kind of broader, uh, prosecutorial trends are with regard to trans people?

Aviva Stahl: Sure. So, um, first about this case, last October, Stevie Sullivan and Asher Torres, two transgender men, went to a party at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg. And as they were leaving, they got into a fight with a hotel employee. So Torres went downstairs and called the police to report the assault and to say he believed that it was motivated by anti-trans bias. But when the police arrived, it was the two trans men who are arrested instead of the hotel employee and the prosecutor’s office refused to drop the charges even though the video evidence from the hotel indicated that it was the hotel employee who initiated the attack. I think this is really indicative of the ways that when trans people do defend themselves, the police oftentimes don’t believe them or criminalize them for it and prosecutors further retraumatize the victims and instead of their assaulter being prosecuted, they end up behind bars or being charged for the offense.

Adam: Yeah. You note that while five percent of US adults report spending some time in prison, a shocking 21 percent of trans women say that they’ve been inside prison. There are systemic reasons why that is. There’s a general stigma. To what extent do we have data, anecdotal or otherwise, about the degree to which trans lives are, are criminalized in general, and then the kind of broader sociological trends in terms of relatively high rates, according to Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights Watch, relatively high rates of murder, a relatively high rates of suicide that they’re filtered through the system as kind of, they’d rather be sent elsewhere, they’re put off, they’re like, we talked about the most vulnerable of the vulnerable?

Aviva Stahl: Sure. So one important thing to know is that violence against trans people, or at least reported violence against trans people, is actually increasing. So last year there was the highest number of trans people that were murdered at 29, I believe. Um, and I think for example, the Stevie Sullivan and Asher Torres case indicates that trans people face discrimination in so many different parts of their lives. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, um, 90 percent of trans people who were surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job and trans people also face discrimination in education. So that’s one way that trans people are pushed out of the job sector, pushed out of education and into sex work, into underground economy, which is another reason they ended up behind bars at higher rates. Also, I think trans people, like a lot of other communities, like people of color, are assumed to be criminal. Trans people are arrested for having condoms, um, just for looking suspicious on the street.

Adam: Yeah. You talk about the way that the criminal legal system disproportionately affects trans people. One of the more heightened iterations of that is laws against sex workers, laws against quote unquote “sex trafficking” specifically. And you write about one trans woman in particular named Sonja, who is negatively affected by FOSTA and SESTA. For those who don’t know, those are, those are the laws that were passed by Congress back in April. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the, uh, Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. Congress has pretty much good at one thing and that’s naming things, um, now those bills have been, have been widely condemned by an increasing number of not just sex worker advocates, but sex trafficking advocates who think that by blurring the line between sex trafficking and sex work entirely in this sort of puritanical broad brush that you drive things underground. Can you talk about the way in which these laws have affected trans sex workers in particular, and again, adding to the pile on in terms of the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable?

Aviva Stahl: Sure. So this is an important part that I actually left out of a story before, which is Stevie Sullivan, one of the trans guys who was attacked at the hotel, he actually worked at the Wythe and the person who attacked him had been his supervisor and Stevie had reported to HR that he felt that his supervisor was being really aggressive towards him and staring at him for long periods of time, that he was experiencing transphobic bias at work. Um, and so I think that’s what I was trying to say before about how trans people, how the bias they experience at work pushes them out of the job sector and that’s one reason that a lot of trans people end up getting pushed into the underground economy, including sex work. So that’s one reason that FOSTA-SESTA has such a huge impact on the trans community is because discrimination, institutional systemic discrimination means that there are so many people in trans work. Um, and also trans people are in unique risk of violence, um, if they’re working on the street being raped or murdered, trans people have less negotiating power with clients. And so basically FOSTA and SESTA have pushed trans people off the internet and into the streets, which has made trans people especially vulnerable to assault and also to arrest and conviction.

Adam: Right. And so you have, you have this idea of any kind of assault or defense as magnified. You’ve also written previously about the case of Merci Chrisette, who was a trans woman who was, um, who was involved in an altercation. You can get into the details. The community kind of rallied around her as a, as a trans woman, and this was a case of more kind of prosecutorial discretion, sort of gone, gone amok. Can we talk about the degree to which in this case prosecutors overreached and tried to, I mean we’re, we’re talking about five, ten years in prison, can we talk about this case and what it means for the, for this type of a singling out of trans persons?

Aviva Stahl: Sure. So Merci Chrisette was on the subway in December 2015 and there was a video captured of her lunging at people on the subway with, um, what was later found to be a hair separator. I think some of her friends or she had said that she was being harassed. The alleged victims denied that, but regardless, nobody was seriously harmed. Nobody had to go to the hospital or anything. And she was charged with assault on a number of other offenses and was facing seven years behind bars. Eventually after a sustained public campaign the prosecutor agreed to allow her to plead into the Brooklyn Mental Health Court, which basically allows people with serious mental health issues to avoid prison time if they agree to a treatment plan. But it took a long time to get the prosecutor to agree to plead her into the system, to plead her into the court. Um, and I think it really indicates what we’ve been talking about in this larger scale of the way trans people are criminalized for defending themselves.

Adam: Right.

Aviva Stahl: I think something also really important to know is that trans people on the inside, especially trans women, face really high rates of assault and solitary and a host of other forms of violence. So for Chrisette to be forced to do jail time, really does an additional violence to her that I think leaves everyone in a worse place.

Adam: So the issue of FOSTA and sex workers, you quote Sonja, one of the sex workers you spoke to saying quote, “The people who have the privilege of stepping away from doing sex work are doing that, and the people who have no choice are banding together and figuring out new strategies, even financially supporting each other.” From your reporting, can we talk about the ways in which not just sex workers in general, but also specifically trans sex workers are adapting to these new laws and to what extent our local police forces and even federal law enforcement, using these laws to kind of further criminalize their, their livelihoods and existence?

Aviva Stahl: That’s a really good question. I think so far it seems when I did that reporting that a lot of trans people are going back to clients who’ve assaulted them, who’ve harmed them, who they don’t feel safe around or working on the street where they don’t necessarily know whose car that going to end up in and whether they’re going to be safe. So the way people have been coping is by putting themselves in danger, uh, and in terms of what’s been happening in New York or across the country, the kind of anecdotal accounts I got, not data, but just anecdotes from people I spoke to said that there were more cops on the street in New York City patrolling the areas where sex workers work on the street, which indicates to me that the police know that there are more people working on the street and have showed up to arrest them. But again, that’s not data driven. That’s just anecdotal.

Adam: Yeah. And then there’s also anecdotal evidence from people you’ve spoken to and one of the reasons of course it’s hard to get data on this is so much of this is, is underground and sort of under, you know, sort of non formal economy. And so numbers are just generally hard to come by. Um, this is true for, I think a lot of populations that don’t, you know, there isn’t, there isn’t like a huge trans lobby. There isn’t like Big Trans, right? There’s no sort of way of knowing, tracking a lot of these things, so there’s, there’s some epistemological issues with finding out the details, but when you quote one trans worker talking about the, trans sex worker talking about why the disproportionate rates of trans people in sex work, and one of the reasons is, is discrimination on the job at their kind of quote unquote “normal” work. One said that “I’ve been discriminated against in the workplace, at four different times, for four completely different companies.” This was the 25 year old trans person you spoke to in Las Vegas. Um, they went on to say that, um, that they get sexually harassed, dead-named, which is where one sort of pejoratively uses a trans person’s prior name, getting compared to Caitlyn Jenner and that they kind of go to sex work because they have nowhere else to go. In your reporting over the years, have you found this to be the case that this is kind of, that sex work is obviously not ideal for a lot of these people, but it’s pretty much the only place they can go to make a living?

Aviva Stahl: I mean, I think it depends on a lot of factors of trans people’s backgrounds, where they come from, but I think for a lot of trans people, sex work is the least worst option, or at least it was before FOSTA and SESTA was passed because it meant they had some agency over their work conditions, um, and a chance to make, in some cases, substantial amounts of money that they wouldn’t be able to make in the legal economy. And I think, you know, sort of what’s happening with FOSTA and SESTA shows us the ways that discrimination on the job force, discrimination in education is related to, you know, where people work and why they’re criminalized and why so many trans people end up behind bars and the trauma they experience there that we have to see the linkages between all of these different systems, um, in order to address what’s that actually happening.

Adam: I know there are groups like Breakout in New Orleans who do a really good job documenting a lot of this stuff. They were sort of on talking about the disproportionate murder of trans people before it became more mainstream within the last year or so with more mainstream human rights groups documenting it. Can you talk about various groups that you’ve seen or maybe from whether it’s Las Vegas or LA or New Orleans, that you’ve seen that are trying to provide a support network and a community for trans people who are both inside, both outside and also in the sex worker space?

Aviva Stahl: Definitely. I mean in the US there are a lot of different groups. Black & Pink is a group that, among other things, links people inside and outside of prison to have pen pal relationships to try to give incarcerated LGBT people support and friendship. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York provides a lot of support to currently and formerly incarcerated trans people and Fight to Live, which is a sort of activist collective in New York City, did a lot of support around the Merci Chrisette case, um, and also has done some fundraising for trans people to get bailed out or to have support when they are released from prison. One thing that Fight to Live and some other groups have been looking at is specifically the question of the Brooklyn DA’s office. We’ve seen with the Merci Chrisette case and the Stevie Sullivan and Asher Torres case that it seems at least that there’s a pattern or an emerging pattern of the Brooklyn DA prosecuting trans people for defending themselves or, you know, just overreaching. That’s despite the fact that the Brooklyn DA’s office has a promise to make his office a safe space for LGBTQ people to report when they’re victims of violence. You know, he’s claimed that he has done training, cultural competency for prosecutors. But I wonder if that’s the case, why these cases are turning the way they are?

Adam: Right. Correct me if I’m wrong, but trans people, in terms of like police abuse or disproportionately people of color? That they’re sort of, um, high on the NYPD hit list for various reasons.

Aviva Stahl: Oh, for sure. I mean trans people of color, black trans people are incarcerated at rates that far surpass like white trans people, for example.

Adam: Do you want to update us as to the latest of the Sullivan case?

Aviva Stahl: Yeah, sure. So in October, Stevie, Stevie Sullivan and Asher Torres took an AOB, an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. Uh, which basically means that if they don’t have further encounters with law enforcement or in the criminal justice system, that the case will be dismissed. I think it’s cases like these, um, the outcome is often preferable for the defendants because it means they don’t have a criminal record even if the evidence doesn’t support the initial crime.

Adam: So is that, is that sorry, Is that good news or bad news? I couldn’t quite tell.

Aviva Stahl: Right. I think it’s, um, it’s good news and bad news. Theoretically.

Adam: Okay. Alright.

Aviva Stahl: I guess, I mean, speaking as a reporter, it seemed to me that there wasn’t evidence to support their conviction. I watched the video, I watched the surveillance video and there is no indication at all that Sullivan and Torres initiated the attack. I mean, Sullivan’s back is turned to the hotel employee when he’s assaulted. Uh, so to me it seems that there’s very little evidence that they are guilty of the alleged crimes. That said, um, we’ve seen what happens to trans people when they do try to defend themselves in court for alleged assaults. Um, and I think for them, maybe you taking the AOB was the safest option.

Adam: Alright, that was very informative. Thank you so much for coming on.

Aviva Stahl: Oh, thank you so much for having me on.


Adam: Next up I’ll be speaking with trans activist Ceyenne Doroshow. She’s was the focus of an Appeal article called NYC TRANSGENDER ACTIVIST SAYS SHE WAS CRIMINALIZED FOR DEFENDING HERSELF AGAINST ABUSER. Stay tuned for Ceyenne.


Adam: Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Ceyenne Doroshow: Sure.

Adam: So, um, we had talked earlier in the show about criminalization of trans people, specifically on the inability of the state to defend or protect them and to criminalize what is self defense behavior. Now you have one case in particular, Emma Whitford wrote about it for The Appeal, about your case in particular about an assault that you had suffered and how the New York City, how the Queens Criminal Court and NYPD handled your case. Can you set the table by giving us a general background of your case, if you’re comfortable doing that, and what you think it says about the kind of broader way in which the criminal legal system treats trans people?

Ceyenne Doroshow: Yes. Um, so in December last year, we’re coming up on it again, in December last year, December 17th, I hosted an event, the Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. On December 18th, I went to a film premiere about sort of the same thing, violence against trans women. That night, I came home early morning about 3:00 AM and was physically beaten within every inch of my life. I wish I could show you the cake pan, because I won’t throw it away, but I had a giant steel cake pan, a butcher knife went through that cake pan, a young man actually saved my life by putting that cake pan before the knife. Same young man that defended me also broke a chair over my abusers back. That was the only way to stop him. At some point of this attack, I was knocked out. Unconscious. I had glass, crystal, antique crystal within every inch of my body, in my scalp, in my head, under my arms, my thighs, my back had little shards of glass. Um, I was beating really, really bad. Um, my abuser, after he got hit over the back, ran out of my house. Then the police showed up. When the cops came to the door, needless to say, I was dressed, coming from an event, my clothes were completely destroyed. I didn’t feel comfortable with my blouse ripped open, I asked them if I could go upstairs and change my clothes. I didn’t even want to see my face because I knew what I felt when I could look like. I went and put on the Mickey Mouse onesie, I came downstairs and my abuser, who was gone, was coming back across the street yelling homophobic, transphobic and sex worker slurs at me from across the street. Now mind you, he’s coming back in violent. The police stop him. They asked him to sit on the curb. He’s still yelling stuff, you know, just slurs. Very, very transphobic slurs actually calling me out as an offender. But mind you, I just got attacked in my home. The police proceeded to ask me to put my hands behind my back. Me and the guy that saved me to put my hands behind my back. They asked me could they open my onesie, told you I had on a Mickey Mouse onesie. Well, of course you can’t open my onesie, I’m naked under here, but they still proceeded to try. I said to them, no, you need a lady officer. The lady officer steps up to open the onesie. ‘Miss I just told you I have no clothes on.’ So they told me that I’m being put under arrest. They take me to a police station. I tell them they have to take me to the hospital. Here goes just a key into how I was treated like an animal. I was shackled. In a onesie, shackled. Now we’re going three hours in before they get me to the hospital. I get to the hospital and my abuser, I’m shackled to a bed, my abuser walks by me. So not only did you put me in harm’s way right here in my home, you sent me to the hospital with my abuser. That’s putting me in harms way. While I’m strapped to a bed and the officer tells me I’m safe because I’m shackled. Long story short, 17 hours in shackles and then I arrive to court. My lawyers greet me downstairs and I was very happy to see my attorney. I don’t, I’ve never been so happy in my life. Again, ridiculous onesie, of course, she fell out laughing and it made me laugh. It gave me a sense of being comfortable because a familiar face was there to greet me when I came in through the basement of the courthouse. Mind you, I have been to court twice within that evening because when I went to court the first time, the judge had a stomach issue and could not be in court, so they had to take me back to the police station. Why? They claim for my safety, but I was in a cell by myself. ‘I needed safety.’ The whole time I was not fed. I was still shackled. I come out of court, the court is, they give me, they give me probation, my abuser an order of protection, but here’s where it looks totally screwed up. My abuse is a serial abuser, a long history of abusing people. Two years before my incident, he kicked a white woman in the face, a girlfriend of mine who has now since passed away. When he abused her, she found out she had brain cancer. It was kind of a bad thing and a good thing because he had abused her she was able to get an MRI. He broke her nose, but he went to jail for this. What made it all too particular was he got arrested in my house. He busted her face in my house. He was arrested in my house by the same police station in Queens. So what looked different from my case of abuse to my girlfriend’s case of abuse?

Adam: Well, yeah. I mean I have a theory.

Ceyenne Doroshow: So do I.

Adam: Right. So then you were charged with a crime.

Ceyenne Doroshow: Oh yes.

Adam: And you still, you still are facing that. Can you give the audience an update as to the status of this, of these charges?

Ceyenne Doroshow: Well, I passed my six months, the charges have been dropped. He’s still got an order of protection, so I think, I don’t know. International traveling for me was a bit risky because coming back into the country, I’m detained each time because of a screw up, like the police doing this. Bigger picture, I have to save lives. This is what I do. So being detained coming back into the country is disgusting when my abuser gets away with all of this, but it’s all too common for NYPD to do this to black trans women. It looks different for white trans women that are being abused as you can best believe you’re going to go to jail if you abuse one of them.

Adam: Right.So yeah, there’s obviously a sort of a hierarchy of how police differ and obviously race is an issue.

Ceyenne Doroshow: Now here goes a bigger slap in the face is that my own community wanted to make this a sex worker issue when it was not. This is my personal life issue, so I had people telling me not to listen to my attorneys. We should rally. Everybody should wear red. I need you all to take several, several steps back. This is my life we’re talking about not as safe sex worker issue where I advocate for sex workers, we have to move that aside. This is my personal life issue.

Adam: Right. So did, did you feel like people were trying to make it a sex worker issue when it was more about-?

Ceyenne Doroshow: People were trying to make it about them and it wasn’t, it was about me in a very fragile state of being. I was not trusting a system that yet again does not protect me. I’ve been in this predicament several times.

Adam: Right. And so the NYPD generally, it’s fair to say, has very little knowledge of how to deal with trans people in general and they’re automatic assumption is that if it’s a trans woman, that they’re the aggressor.

Ceyenne Doroshow: If you base the NYPD’s training opposed to real life issues going on within the trans community and NYPD, you need to be better trained and you need to be trained by us and you need to pay us for that training because stepping into a setting to train these morons? They haven’t gotten it right in all these years. Now we’re put in such fragile states where the government is actually saying ‘erase trans people.’

Adam: Yeah.

Ceyenne Doroshow: So we don’t have the police on our side. We don’t have the government on our side. What are we all supposed to become vigilantes now? Because it’s being said we don’t exist, we don’t deserve to be protected when I’m seeing on social media trans women being killed globally.

Adam: Yeah. This is not a, a one off. There’s a 2015 study, as you probably know, that says that 58 percent of trans people who have interacted with the police report mistreatment, uh, ranging from verbal harassment and misgendering to actual physical assault. Uh, that’s way above the mean for those who are curious. So it seems like the police view trans people they interact with as inherently doing some sort of illegal behavior and being inherently aggressive and being worthy of scorn and mockery and misgendering.

Ceyenne Doroshow: Yeah, and it’s all too common that its a, what they told me because I tried to have an investigation against the police, they told me my complaint was unwarranted. Bullshit. And I called bullshit. It was damn sure warranted. If a white woman got beaten up in my house and this man went to jail, please explain to me how he didn’t go to jail for attacking me in my house yet again.

Adam: So moving forward, I guess if you had to sort of impart upon our listenership, um, something that they can do or some sort of lesson from this, what would you say it is and what do you think your sort of average quote unquote “average” person can do to help mitigate harm in this situation? Or, or kind of help trans communities or trans people in their communities?

Ceyenne Doroshow: We can organize. You can go to, go to my website, hit the donate button because every dollar counts when we’re helping lives. You can also go to other organizations, Caribbean Equality Project that deals with the same kind of stuff dealing with Caribbean people. NYTAG that does the policy work, but definitely GLITS because I’m bringing awareness and not only bringing awareness, I’m changing the past through education and building community. If we don’t organize and do something about how the police deal with us, about policy work surrounded around us, when the government is saying we don’t exist we are sure to die.

Adam: Right. Well, thank you so much for joining us. Checkout that’s and the other organizations that she mentioned. This was extremely informative and I really appreciate you coming on and talking to us.

Ceyenne Doroshow: Thank you. Thank you so much. Y’all have a wonderful day.

Adam: Thanks to our guests Ceyenne Doroshow at Remember, you can go to to check that out and Appeal writer Aviva Stahl. This has been The Appeal podcast. Remember, you can check us out on Twitter @TheAppealPod, on Facebook at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook page and as always you can subscribe to us on iTunes. The show has been produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Sarah Leonard. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much. We’ll see you next week.


Support The Appeal

If you valued this article, please help us produce more journalism like this by making a contribution today.