Talking to Albany About Condoms as Evidence
Members of Streetwise and Safe (SAS) took to Albany on April 17th to lobby their representatives to pass A1008/SB 323, a crucial piece of legislation that the LGBTQQ community and public health advocates have dubbed the "No Condoms as Evidence Bill."
The long overdue bill would curtail the harmful police practice of confiscating condoms from people-- typically LGBT youth and adults of color and women of color who are, or are profiled as, being engaged in the sex trades -- during stops. It would prevent officers from using possession of condoms as grounds for arrest and prosecutors from listing condoms as evidence that a person is engaging in prostitution-related offenses in often flimsy cases.
Streetwise and Safe has been a North Star Fund grantee since 2010.
As a result of these current misguided practices, many New Yorkers are scared to carry condoms. Some have sex without them as a result, and health service providers are hesitant to give condoms to their clients despite programs of the New York City Department of Health programs that encourage them to do so. SAS let legislators know that by passing S323, they would be sending New Yorkers a clear message that they should carry condoms without hesitation or embarrassment, and without fear of their condoms being used to justify their arrest by police or a charge by prosecutors.
In a meeting with the Chief of Staff to Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, high school student and Streetwise and Safe member Ileana Gonzalez described the humiliation she felt after being stopped and frisked in front of her friend's house in Washington Heights. Unfortunately, she had condoms in her purse. The two officers who stopped her asked, "What are you standing here for, what are you waiting for, what are you going do with these condoms, are you going to use them right now?"
"I had to answer these embarrassing questions and it just made me feel horrible. I felt like they were assuming I was a sex worker or just not a good person at all. It made me not want to carry condoms anymore," Gonzalez responded.
By sharing her story with multiple legislators as a part of SAS's lobbying efforts, Ileana hopes to finally get A1008/S323 passed so that LGBTQ youth aren't afraid to carry condoms in the city. She captured the sentiment of other lobbying SAS members who simply want to protect themselves and stay safe. But Ileana's not the only person second guessing her protection. Half of the folks SAS members interviewed for a report released on lobby day by the PROS Network, a coalition of organizers, public health advocates, and service providers of which Streetwise and Safe is a member, at some point did not carry condoms for fear that they would be used against them by police. I know that during my most recent stop and frisk experience, one of the first things I worried about as I handed my bag over to the officers who demanded it, without any lawful basis whatsoever, was whether I had any condoms in it.
As SAS members diligently lobbied legislators, Streetwise and Safe coordinator Andrea Ritchie and I spoke at a press conference with State Senators Velmanette Montgomery and Ruth Hassell-Thompson, Sienna Baskin of the Urban Justice Center and Katherine Todrys of the Human Rights Watch. Ritchie pointed to a memorandum that SAS sent to legislators earlier this year urging them to support the bill.
Legislators couldn't deny the problem or its impact when SAS members handed them the latest study by the PROS network, which found that "45.7% of sex workers interviewed did not carry condoms at some point for fear of police repercussions, and 50% of sex workers who had condoms taken away or destroyed by police engaged in sex work afterwards without a condom."
Senators had little idea about those potentially fatal figures and the high numbers seemed to spark their interest. With a combination of SAS's personal stories and the studies to back it up, it became apparent that legislators need to act on the bill and move it out of the Senate Rules Committee for a vote before the situation gets out of control. In 2012, New York is the epicenter of the HIV and AIDS epidemic in America, yet ironically, it's also the epicenter of anti-condom law enforcement practices that discourage the most at-risk populations from carrying condoms. Public health demands nothing less than immediate passage of this crucial legislation.