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Making the Grade: Equality for Who?
by Derwin Wilright, Jr.

For LGBTQ youth of color in New Orleans, it seems that we might have missed a community memo.  Big Gay Inc. came to town and we didn’t receive an invite to the party.

Every year, the Human Rights Campaign releases their Municipal Equality Index, an assessment of LGBTQ-inclusivity at the city-wide level through evaluation of several factors, from relationship recognition to law enforcement.  Just recently marked the release of the 2013 Municipal Equality Index.

While the report acknowledges that “The MEI specifically rates cities on their laws and policies” and that  “it is not a measure of an LGBT person’s lived experience in that city,” BreakOUT! was still surprised to see that New Orleans was given a score of 91% – due in part to a perfect score in the area of law enforcement.  That’s an A-minus the last time we checked!

This is to say that on average, New Orleans is a beacon for LGBTQ individuals who find themselves within it’s borders.  But what about those whose lives situate them “at the borderlines” and at the intersections of oppression?

While the HRC’s Municipal Equality Index does acknowledge that “Some high-scoring cities may not feel truly welcoming for all LGBT people,” when such reporting comes from Big Gay Inc. without direct communication with the people whose lives are most impacted by the very policies they seek to evaluate, our histories are further obscured by the research intended to illuminate it.

The report goes on to say that “it neither attempts to quantify how respectfully cities enforce their laws, nor does it try to gauge the experience of an LGBT  person interacting with the police or city hall…” and that “a 100-point city, then, may have terrific policies…but nevertheless have an atmosphere in which LGBT people have intense fear of tangling with the police department. This fear may be magnified for LGBT people of color or undocumented LGBT immigrants…”

But the report still gets some facts just plain wrong!
There is no LGBTQ Liaison in the New Orleans Police Department.
To this day there has been no official appointment of an LGBTQ Liason by the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) and when inquired about the appointment, responses have been varied.  Several calls to the NOPD headquarters, NOPD officers, and the Department of Justice have made it apparent that no one knows who the LGBTQ Liaison is in the NOPD, nor is even aware of such a position even existing.
The New Orleans Police Department’s Policy 402 has not been approved by the Department of Justice and thus, is still not considered a “final” policy.
While BreakOUT! actively pushed the New Orleans Police Department to adopt an LGBTQ-specific policy for over two years before it’s actual publication, they only seemed to speed up their efforts during a last-ditch attempt to avoid a federal consent decree.

On June 28, 2013, the New Orleans Police Department published what is now known as Policy 402- a bias-free policing policy which includes protocols for stopping and searching LGBTQ individuals, among other provisions.  Now under the decree, the Department of Justice must review and approve all NOPD policies before full implementation. Given that the policy has not yet been approved by all parties involved, the policy is not considered a “final” policy and will likely continue to undergo revisions in the coming year.

While BreakOUT! envisions a world free of Stop n’ Frisk of any youth in our city, we have used this policy as an organizing tool to directly confront the reality of police violence our members face on the streets.  While BreakOUT! certainly celebrated the passing of this policy, it was not without some disappointment, too, particularly at the NOPD’s lack of community engagement during the initial stages of the policy’s development.
There are still complaints regarding misconduct on behalf of the New Orleans Police Department.
LGBTQ people, particularly people of color, youth, and transgender women still report misconduct at the hands of the NOPD.  In fact, BreakOUT! started compiling our own data for release in 2014 and in December, Human Rights Watch will release a report documenting many abuses, including the threat of the use of condoms as evidence of criminal activity.  Furthermore, police reports continue to refer to transgender people using inappropriate language, showing a true lack of understanding of even the most basic concepts regarding LGBTQ identities.  Lastly, anonymous sources tell us that LGBTQ training for NOPD officers is inadequate at best and at worst, offensive.
There’s still more ground to cover before we can consider ourselves “making the grade.”
The school-to-prison pipeline is alive and well for LGBTQ youth of color in New Orleans; there are schools in the city where young transwomen of color have faced expulsion for simply wearing clothes aligned with their gender identity.  There is not a single LGBTQ-affirming shelter for youth in a city with the second highest rate of homelessness in the country; there are very few beds available for adult transgender women.  The NOPD is reported to continue to collaborate with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents as translators; there is routine violence and displacement of our LGBTQ and undocumented community at the hands of ICE agents.

We must reassess the oft-imagined realities of safe spaces and what makes safe cities.  When we stop thinking about equality in isolation, then we can better create a picture of equality for all of us.