Young, Black, Trans, Arrested: How Women Like Meagan Taylor Are Made Invisible
Meagan Taylor, a 22-year-old jailed while visiting Iowa with a friend earlier this month, got released last week after a flurry of activism drew attention to her plight—and what was probably a bogus arrest.
Meagan Taylor has bright red hair. She takes cute selfies. She went to Iowa two weeks ago, a trip from her home in Illinois cut short with an arrest. Her name became a hashtag. She is black and transgender and young, and in a month that has seen at least five black women die in American jails, last Wednesday, Meagan Taylor left her cell alive.
How many women like Meagan Taylor will we never hear about?
On Monday, July 13 at 1:30 in the afternoon, Meagan Taylor was booked into the Polk County Jail in Des Moines, Iowa. She would not be there had the staff of the Drury Inn not called them to take Meagan Taylor away from the room she had paid for, after alleging—as cops put it—that she was engaged in "possible prostitution activity." Meagan Taylor told the Des Moines Register she saw hotel staff "acting really funny." Then police arrived at her room.
"It seemed like they were trying to find something to charge me with," she told the paper.
After seeing local news reports of her arrest, Des Moines activists Kaija Carter and Tony Tyler put out a call on Facebook for help. On Friday, July 17, they met at Smokey Row Coffee on Cottage Grove Avenue to talk about how to support her. Tyler told me around 30 people came out, and on Saturday, they rallied in front of Drury Inn, carrying a huge red banner with the hashtags #FreeMeaganTaylor and #BlackTransLivesMatter.
Black trans women don't need to be doing anything to be profiled: It's enough to just be breathing, to just be seen.
The West Des Moines Drury Inn and Suites is part of a Midwestern chain. CEO Charles Drury has said his hotels are owned and controlled by people, like himself, who are "adherents of the Catholic faith and wish to conduct their business in a manner that does not violate the principles of their faith."
Drury's declaration of faith came in an amicus brief filed to support Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. in their Supreme Court case to restrict employee access to emergency contraception. One generous profile of the Drury business in Lodging magazine lauded it as "Family Values Meet Real Business Value." Drury last made national headlines when it was reported that one of their hotels near Ferguson, Missouri fired a staff member for posting a video online that showed dozens of Department of Homeland Security vehicles parked there just ahead of the grand jury decision on the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.
At their West Des Moines protest, the local activists—who came together ad-hoc, Tyler said, and aren't part of any official organization—gave the Drury Inn 48 hours to respond to a letter seeking a formal apology to Meagan Taylor, as well as reimbursement for her hotel room and for the costs associated with her arrest. "We ask that the manager, Kim Bier, who as far as we understand is who called the police, sit down with Meagan," Tyler said, "and to go through a process of understanding what it was she initiated." They also asked Drury to commit to training their staff nationwide on working with LGBT people and people of color. "We need them not only to change how they perceive people, but institutional change as well."
Drury Inn has not yet responded to these demands.
On Wednesday, July 22, Meagan Taylor was released from Polk County Jail. She risked extradition back to Illinois on an outstanding warrant related to fines she had been unable to pay on a previous charge. The warrant was voided and her release was secured thanks in no small part to the work of Flor Bermudez at the Transgender Law Center. The ACLU is now also supporting her case. When she got out, local activists got her fresh clothes, and a place to sleep.
When I called the West Des Moines police that day to inquire about Meagan Taylor, I had to use a name she doesn't use anymore, a name the local press disclosed. Knowing all this, I still don't know what I thought I would learn from the police about the arrest of Meagan Taylor that could make sense of what had happened to her in what we call the criminal justice system.
Almost half of all black transgender people have been incarcerated at some point in their lives, according to the 2013 report "Injustice at Every Turn" by the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce. Of the black transgender people they surveyed, 44 percent had done sex work. The trans sex workers they surveyed were also four times more likely to have been incarcerated than other transgender people.
There's also no disputing that police profile transgender women of color, often by describing them as sex workers. This presumes that any time a sex worker is visible in public, she must be also be doing sex work—that is, suspected of committing a crime. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as community-based organizations like Make the Road New York and Alliance for a Safe & Diverse DC, have documented how often police target transgender women this way, how it funnels them into jails, and sticks them with criminal records that only make them more likely to be targeted by police again.
There are thousands of women like Meagan Taylor.
"What happened to Meagan Taylor is horrible and terrible and it is absolutely part of a larger problem of how the criminal legal system is designed to target people of color and trans people and people who are pushed into the margins of the labor market in various ways," Chase Strangio, staff attorney at the ACLU's LGBT Project, told me. "Her story is important because it shows us that this happens, but just because we know about Meagan doesn't mean this is the only person this has happened to."
Black trans women don't need to be doing anything to be profiled: It's enough to just be breathing, to just be seen. Drury Inn staff said they saw, as the police phrased it in their report, "two males dressed as females." Staff called police because they witnessed Meagan Taylor being a black transgender woman, not because they witnessed her doing sex work or using drugs. (Neither West Des Moines Drury Inn and Suites staff nor their corporate office responded to my request for an interview.)
Meagan Taylor wasn't charged with prostitution. After detaining her in her room and interrogating her and a trans friend traveling with her, police charged Taylor with offenses related to her legal identification and possession of hormone therapy (police say she had unmarked prescription drugs). Some of the news and commentary that followed made a point of telling readers that Meagan Taylor wasn't a sex worker, that she was only in possession of prescription drugs she needed, that she wasn't doing anything wrong.
Does it matter?
When we in the media report these stories of police profiling, in shaping the public's response and attempt to make sense of them, we can write ourselves into knots. What we might usually just call "walking the down the street" or "hanging out with friends" gets turned into something else: "not doing anything wrong." The "wrong" here isn't what Meagan Taylor was or wasn't doing. The wrong occurred when the hotel profiled her as a legitimate target for discrimination and arrest, or what I prefer to name directly, for forced removal from public. Meagan Taylor was marked because of her body. It didn't matter what she was doing—the hotel just wanted her body unseen.
These arrests are not news; they are the daily order of business in this country. It is time for the media to ask different questions: Would such discrimination, this forced removal, be somehow acceptable if women profiled as sex workers really were doing sex work? Should we regard the arrest of Meagan Taylor as a system error, or as evidence of the system at work?
At their core, all of these laws are meant to criminalize a body for its conduct, past, present or future.
The laws against prostitution the hotel sought to invoke have been up for debate from the founding of this country. Over the course of our history, under the rubric of fighting prostitution, we have outlawed being in public after dark ("nightwalking"), cross-dressing, or crossing state lines for "immoral purposes." Would someone be an acceptable target for profiling for breaking these more archaic laws? Why does breaking these laws, revised or rarely enforced now, no longer constitute doing something wrong?
At their core, all of these laws are meant to criminalize a body for its conduct, past, present or future. Today, the penalty for many municipal-level prostitution charges are so-called SOAP orders: "Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution." Law enforcement use these to keep bodies out of view, to control the movements of bodies no matter what they are doing. Certain bodies—black bodies, trans bodies—are already always suspect. Enforcing these laws provides rationale for the expulsion of those bodies from public, for making people invisible.
When we live under a punitive legal system like our American system, where many people have been cast as criminals for engaging in the same conduct as others who will never feel the bite of handcuffs on their wrists, why are we willing to draw these lines as if they are facts? To describe people targeted by this system, if we start by declaring, "She wasn't a criminal, she was..." anything that follows sounds like a pre-emptive apology: she was a mother, a teacher, a student, a daughter. And all these things are true and real—as real as the power of the police that can so quickly take them away.
I think here of Sandra Bland. She isn't here to reply to those who, in trying to make sense of her death in a Texas jail cell, want to know what she did wrong, why she was threatened with a Taser, who ask if it's legal for police to order you to put out your cigarette. We can watch her arrest over and over. Each time, it says the same thing about the power of the police. There are no answers there.
They may not be answers, but there is a struggle against that power in the demands to know #WhatHappenedToSandraBland. Activists have put critical pressure on the media, on elected officials and on those seeking office, as well as on all those who seek to support the movement for black lives. The answers may never be found in police records or autopsy reports, but in the struggle to redefine what bodies matter.
All that momentum has served Meagan Taylor, too. "I was really happy to see the community come together around Meagan," Flor Bermudez at the Transgender Law Center told me. "This just brings to the forefront the reality that there is such bias, racism and transphobia, and that the interactions hotel staff have with people can trigger so many things, like what happened to Meagan."
"Justice, as far as I'm concerned, is a world where Meagan wasn't arrested in the first place," Chase Strangio at the ACLU told me. "Already, we are starting from a place where every intervention we make is going to be a compromise. Even paying the bail and getting her out is a compromise."
"That doesn't mean we don't do it," he added, "but it means we have to question the system itself and what we can do to destabilize the dynamics that lead to trans women of color—and black trans women in particular—from being routinely funneled into the system and spending much of their lives navigating criminalization."
"The point of incarceration," Strangio went on, "is to cut people off from support and to make invisible what is happening to them."
What Meagan Taylor and her supporters have done is make her seen again.
Follow Melissa Gira Grant on Twitter.