On LGBTQ Youth, Condoms and Police Stops

A Conversation With Youth Leader Mitchyll Mora of New York City's Streetwise and Safe

Contributing Editor

What does "stop and frisk" have to do with HIV prevention? Members of groups that are often targeted by police know that a person need do nothing illegal to be stopped by a cop -- and in the case of condoms, a person's intention to safeguard his or her sexual health could be held against that person. Condoms found during police stops have been known to be used as evidence of prostitution -- and grounds for arrest -- though carrying condoms is, of course, perfectly legal. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report shed light on the use of this practice in several U.S. cities, and its targeting of transgender women and LGBTQ youth, especially those of color -- two of the populations most impacted by HIV. Whether the person being stopped is a sex worker or not, criminalizing the tools by which individuals keep themselves HIV negative, or help protect their sexual partners, adds a brutal slant to an already discriminatory phenomenon.

But community groups have responded -- not only by fighting the practice and supporting the No Condoms as Evidence bill, which goes before the New York Senate next year, but also by training LGBTQ young people to know their rights and harness street-based knowledge to stay as safe as possible in encounters with police. One such group is Streetwise and Safe (SAS), which serves LGBTQ youth in New York City. Here to talk about SAS's work is Mitchyll Mora, a youth leader with SAS. Mora, along with SAS participants, has been heavily involved in the coalition to end the use of condoms as evidence, and with Communities United for Police Reform, which has been instrumental in fighting stop-and-frisk practices in New York City. Mora began at SAS as a participant in the program himself.

Can you give us an overview of SAS's work?

Our SAS youth population is generally anywhere between the ages of 16 and 24. One way youth become part of SAS is to go through our 15-week program, where we learn the legal landscape of encounters with police on the street. Most of our work is focused on street-based encounters and "know your rights" work. That 15 weeks is a blend of the legal information provided by the staff and strategies that are shared among peers for applying that information on the street. We end up with an understanding of the legal framework, and what our rights are as young, LGBTQ people of color; but also acknowledging the reality that our rights are often violated, and ways to work with street knowledge to respond to those violations in ways we're all safe with.

At the center of our work is our "know your rights" trainings led by SAS youth, which we do at drop-in centers and various locations in the city where LGBTQ youth of color could be hanging out, or attending an event. Those are two-hour versions of our 15-week program, combining street knowledge, legal knowledge, and working with people to come up with strategies that feel safe for them.

What's the significance of No Condoms as Evidence -- the phenomenon it grew out of, and the campaign that's evolved to respond to it -- to the population that SAS works with?

While condoms being used as evidence of "prostitution" affects people with involvement in the sex trades, it also has a larger effect on LGBTQ youth of color. First, we're often profiled as engaging in deviant behavior, or engaging in the sex trades -- whether we are or not -- and stopped by police. This creates a situation where the population most at risk for HIV is in fear of carrying condoms due to this potential profiling and targeting.

"The _legal_ reality is that you can carry as many condoms as you want. But the reality on the street is that people are getting arrested for carrying one condom and having a dollar in their pocket, and being dressed 'provocatively.'"

In this campaign, SAS has emphasized that it doesn't matter whether we are or aren't involved in trading sex; this is an issue for LGBTQ youth of color, as a whole, in New York City. And it's definitely something we hear about all the time from youth. In a "know your rights" training, I'll ask: "How many condoms is it legal to carry?" We can be in a room with 15 youth, and no one will have the answer. The legal reality is that you can carry as many condoms as you want. But the reality on the street is that people are getting arrested for carrying one condom and having a dollar in their pocket, and being dressed "provocatively." That's one of the issues that we've raised as a part of this coalition. SAS has been at the forefront of this issue for quite a while.

A 2012 Human Rights Watch report, "Sex Workers at Risk: Condoms as Evidence of Prostitution in Four U.S. Cities," has been extremely helpful in bringing attention to the effects of this policy in New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, and highlighting populations on which it has great impact -- including LGBTQ youth of color and black and Latina transgender women, as well as sex workers, generally. People involved in the sex trades, LGBTQ youth, and those of us who work with them: We've known this stuff. But of course there's been a lot more mention of it since the Human Rights Watch report was released. Other studies have been released since then as well. We've seen so much movement around this issue in the past year.

All of SAS, as well as a bunch of other organizations in the city, were part of going up to Albany and lobbying for the passage of the No Condoms as Evidence bill. One of the main arguments against the bill has been that prosecutors want to be able to use condoms as evidence against sex traffickers, and that this bill will take away that ability.

But what we've known and talked about and seen at SAS is that, for youth who are in exploitative relationships, their daily lives are monitored by the person exploiting them. This is a bigger issue that includes those who are trafficked, where their access to getting condoms is being mediated by other folks, and sex workers, and people with all those experiences. It has been a really powerful experience for SAS folks to not only contribute our own experiences of having this policy used against us -- whether we are, or not, involved in trading sex -- but to also understand the multifaceted issue that this is for all of us.

The bill passed the New York State Assembly floor in June of this year, and now will go up for vote in the Senate in June, I believe, of next year. This bill was first introduced back in 1999, but it's never gotten past codes. It's always just "died in committee." We have the majority of people who provide services to trafficking victims in New York City as a part of the coalition working to get this bill passed. We have such diverse and strong coalition around this bill, as well as all these reports supporting it, and so much momentum. Now, we're talking and strategizing about ways to keep the bill in the public consciousness, and make sure that we don't lose the momentum we have right now, and figuring out what we need to do to push it all the way through the Senate next year.

Readers can find more information about how to take action at nocondomsasevidence.org.

So people should check in on that site regularly for up-to-date information about calling their senators, and other potential action steps to support this bill's passage.

Going back to SAS's work around street-based encounters: I've seen some of the "know your rights" campaign materials and tools SAS has developed to help youth navigate the reality of being stopped on the street by police. Can you talk a bit about those, and how they're used?

Have you seen our condom case? That's one of my favorite materials that we have. One, it's effective in hiding a condom -- or at least, if you are being stopped by the police and for whatever reason you don't feel it's safe to say, "I don't consent to this search," and the police officer goes in your bag, the hope is that they see that case and assume it's makeup or something -- that you've effectively hidden those condoms. That holds as really street-based strategies in the ways that we navigate these situations.

On the inside of the case is a little billfold with a tiny pull-out flier that's illustrated like a smartphone text message exchange that shares the "know your rights" information. It's something like: "Girl, I got stopped by the police last night ... " And then the response to the "text message" reads: "Oh, you should have said, 'Am I free to go?'" Then the other person responds: "Well, then he looked in my bag." And then the friend answers: "You should have said, 'I don't consent to this search.'" It's a really friendly way of sharing that information.

On the back of that flier are the actual legal things you could be charged with, and the things that the police officer has to have evidence of to prove that charge. Again, tools like this really capture a lot of the way we do our work: It is this legal framework, then a breakdown into a little text exchange that is true to the way that we speak, and youth culture; and then all wrapped in this really street-based way to navigate and, hopefully, not be put into the criminal legal system because you have a condom.

Where do you pass them out?

We pass them out when we do outreach at events, and at "know your rights" trainings that we do throughout the city. Pretty much anywhere we go, we're giving them out. We're really proud of our condom cases.

I remember when I first saw one, I said, "This is perfect. It's genius!"

And it's cute. You want to have that on you, and show people; and, hopefully, that's starting conversations outside of us from SAS talking to someone.

Have you gotten anecdotal reports back that it's been helpful to youth in real-life scenarios?

We've definitely had those stories. It's also a lot of information to remember; but with the condom case, people walk away with the really basic stuff they need. We have other materials, but just because of the format of the condom case, it's helpful because you can go back to it.

It's like a cheat sheet, basically.


What other projects is SAS currently working on?

I myself am working on a Department of Justice-funded research project in partnership with the Urban Institute, looking at LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13 and 21 who have experience in the sex trades, or have been profiled by the police as having experience in the sex trades. As a part of that, I head up the work we do around youth in the sex trades, generally -- and making sure that the experiences of youth that have experienced homelessness or sex trades are a part of these larger policing conversations.

SAS was also part of getting the transgender patrol guide changes in the city. There are now new boxes on the forms that get filled out during a stop. For instance, you have a legal name, but you may also have a preferred name. Police officers are supposed to refer to you by that name, or they're supposed to refer to you by the pronouns you've indicated. These are things that you can ask police officers to do, and they're supposed to respect that and do it. They lay out basic human-interaction stuff. Before, there was no framework for police officers to even address transgender or gender-nonconforming folks. But we're not seeing changes -- or at least in what we're hearing from youth.

The changes are not being implemented or enforced very well?

To penetrate the NYPD to get any information is crazy! We don't know what kind of training is being done. But we're creating a tool that's going to be accessible for youth to understand those patrol guide changes, and then be able to advocate for themselves in their interactions with police. Especially if you're being put into the system; you can ask to be a special-category prisoner, and they have to put you in your own cell. There are all these kinds of ways and provisions to be safe. But people don't know how to do that, because it's all legal and sounds all weird.

One of the reasons why this has become a focus for us right now is that we know people may be aware of the changes, but not actually know what the changes are.

So, it's sort of like harm reduction, essentially, for police stops of trans and gender-nonconforming youth, so that they know that this is what is expected of the cop who's dealing with them?

Yes, definitely.

One more question: What message would you want to send to New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio regarding LGBTQ youth of color? What do you want his first action to be to benefit young LGBTQ people?

We need housing. There's such a profound lack of adequate housing for youth, in general, in this city -- but especially for LGBTQ youth, who make up a large number of the homeless youth population. I would say that 40 to 60 percent of the homeless youth population in New York City is LGBTQ identified. I would say we need voluntary housing. That's the only thing I can say truthfully, based on what I hear every day from the youth I've interviewed in the study. There's such a lack of funding for housing. I spoke at a City Council hearing around this issue specifically, on behalf of youth with involvement in the sex trades, and experience with homelessness, and that correlation.

It's frustrating that every year we're just fighting for the same amount of funding; and there are only 250 beds, fewer than 250 beds, reserved for youth in the city every night, with a homeless population of 4,000-plus on any given night in New York City.

I also think that, when it comes to LGBTQ youth: We really need to start thinking about alternatives to Child Protective Services, and really listen to youth when they run away from home, when they're not living at home, when they're doing the things they need to do to survive -- instead of policing folks and trying to control their bodies. LGBTQ youth are naming what they need every day, and they're saying they need housing, and ways to get adequate incomes, and livable wages. I hope that's a priority when it comes to this next mayor.

I hope so, too. Is there anything else that you want to add before we wrap up?

I want to ask that folks really tune in to Communities United for Police Reform to watch what rallies are going on, or who we're asking people to call. These reforms are really important to LGBTQ youth. SAS and other organizations were part of supporting the bill to end discriminatory profiling, and raising the experiences of queer folks of color as a part of these larger campaigns around profiling -- that while we experience policing like our peers, on the basis of our race or ethnicity, sometimes our experiences look different -- and making sure that sexual harassment, physical abuse and all of these actions that are carried out with homophobic and transphobic underpinnings, or explicit homophobia and transphobia, are part of that conversation.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Olivia Ford is the executive editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.