Dance protest at the White House celebrating trans youth. Image by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

The conversation about sexual harassment and assault has finally hit center stage, even becoming a theme throughout the Golden Globe Awards. However, the experiences of communities of color — especially LGBTQIA+ people and women of color — continue to be relegated to the margins. Even among Hollywood actresses, the only experiences that were denied or disbelieved were Lupita Nyong'o and Aurora Perrineau, two women of color.

At Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) where I work as Executive Director, we work to implement preventative measures to address sexual violence in the spaces where it happens most frequently: public transit and nightlife. In both of these settings, employee training and safety posters are important components for cultivating an environment where staff is equipped to respond to harassment and prevent it from escalating to assault.

However, traditional approaches to addressing sexual harassment, like training and awareness campaigns, assume that everyone who needs to be safe already has one thing: access. That's not always the case.

A recent study shows that poor Americans are 12 times as likely to experience sexual assault as people with middle class incomes. Sexual violence isn’t about sex; it’s about power and control. People who are targeted are those perceived as vulnerable in some way, and often in multiple ways, and while people are frequently targeted because of their gender, it is not the only factor that makes someone vulnerable.

Image by Beau Finley used with permission.

Discrimination keeps some people from getting in the door

According to a 2014 study by Stop Street Harassment, 65 percent of women and 25 percent of men (mostly identifying as gay, bisexual, or transgender) have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. Data shows that the rates are higher for women of color, and particularly high among transgender women of color.

Trans women of color not only experience sexual harassment at higher rates, but often experience harassment in a different way. For example, two summers in a row at Banneker Pool, trans women reported being misgendered and sent to the wrong bathroom. In another recent incident, a Black trans woman was attacked with Roman candles and then beaten with a metal bat in Southwest DC, the same week as another Black trans woman was run over by a driver.

Trans women of color are often harassed in public spaces because, according to one local trans activist Nona Conner, they're a “triple minority” — black, transgender, and women. Data shows that everyday discrimination against transgender people of color — usually misgendering and transphobic comments — is backed by exclusion from housing and most traditional workplaces. Because the experiences are different, the solutions must be different.

For many trans women, harassment often takes the form of being turned away at the door. A 2017 DC Human Rights study showed that 48 percent of DC employers preferred a less qualified cisgender applicant over a more qualified transgender applicant. The study found that employment discrimination rates were highest in DC’s restaurant industry — and in every industry — the unemployment rate is higher among trans people of color. According to the 2015 DC Trans Needs Assessment, more than half of DC’s Black trans adults are unemployed.

Even outside of employing people of color in nightlife, there have been many local incidents that further illuminate the problem of access. In a recent incident at El Centro, bar staff selectively enforced a no-sneaker policy, denying entry to a Black patron with sneakers while a group of white sneaker wearers were spotted at the bar.

#ProtectTransWomen Day of Action in DC. Image by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

We need tailored solutions for different communities

The experiences of communities of color are so frequently left out of the conversations around sexual harassment because another form of harassment prevents them from accessing public spaces in the first place.

Restricting access, whether through sexual harassment or through blatant discrimination, is a way of exerting power and control. When sexual harassment makes people feel unsafe, this can effectively restrict their access to the spaces where it occurs when they opt out to protect themselves. Similarly, telling someone they can't be somewhere — i.e. anti-trans discrimination or telling parents that they can't breastfeed in public — is rooted in keeping marginalized people out of public spaces. This is why harassment in all forms is an issue urbanists should be addressing.

The same problem of access comes up on public transit. As WMATA has implemented more measures to address sexual harassment than any transit agency in the country, the agency simultaneously seeks to restrict low-income people — disproportionately people of color — by raising fares and advocating for criminalization of fare evasion to “reduce violence.” This has the impact of keeping DC residents with lower incomes, and especially people of color, off of DC’s public transit system and puts people at increased risk of police violence.

“Bus drivers will be forced to leave riders without cash behind, even if they need transportation to get to an ATM,” said Emmelia Talarico, organizer with the Save Our System campaign and steering committee chair for No Justice No Pride, at an action to distribute fare cards at the Anacostia Metro stop on January 8. “Ultimately this will increase disputes over fares, which WMATA has claimed its working to reduce in its ongoing campaign to criminalize low income people — namely black and brown communities — who cannot afford high fares.”

As local businesses and agencies work to respond to sexual harassment and make public spaces safer, they must also ask themselves: safer for whom?