Law Enforcement and Transgender Communities

By Tod W. Burke, Ph.D., Stephen S. Owen, Ph.D., and April Few-Demo, Ph.D.
Transgender Individual (Stock Image)

In 1993 Brandon Teena was murdered. Born Teena Brandon he was biologically female, but identified with the male gender, dressing as a man and dating women.1 After being assaulted and raped by two acquaintances, Brandon reported the crimes to local law enforcement, with the sheriff’s office assuming the investigation. The Supreme Court of Nebraska later characterized language used in the investigative interview of Brandon as “crude and dehumanizing” and found that the “tone used throughout the interview was demeaning, accusatory, and intimidating.”2 At one point Brandon was asked, “Why do you run around with girls instead of guys being you’re a girl yourself? Why do you make girls think you’re a guy?”3

Brandon expressed fear that the perpetrators of the attack would retaliate, which they had threatened to do after learning that he reported the crimes, but the sheriff’s office did not provide protection to him while the alleged offenders remained at large in the community. The assailants subsequently killed Brandon and two other persons at the home where he stayed. The court issued a strong ruling in a lawsuit that followed the case, holding that in this instance the sheriff’s “conduct was extreme and outrageous, beyond all possible bounds of decency, and is to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”4 Also, the court held “that the county’s negligence was a proximate cause of Brandon’s death.”5

Through research, improved training, and community advocacy, law enforcement’s response to victims of sexual assault has improved over time. Also, an awareness of and respect for transgender communities have increased within police agencies; for instance, the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center has used in its curriculum “a viewing and discussion of ‘The Brandon Teena Story,’” a documentary about Brandon’s case.6 In addition, the U.S. courts of appeals have found transgender discrimination a form of “sex discrimination,” including a case in which a transgender police officer successfully challenged the denial of a promotion.7 Further, in a December 2013 poll, approximately 55 percent of the public believed that transgender persons should receive protection under the law from employment discrimination.8


Dr. Tod Burke
Dr. Burke, a former police officer, serves as the associate dean for the College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences and is a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.
Dr. Owen
Dr. Owen is a professor and chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.

Dr. Few-Demo
Dr. Few-Demo is an associate professor of human development at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia.

At the same time concerns remain. A report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) suggested that transgender communities are at heightened risk for sexual violence; hate-motivated violence, both in public and at shelters; discrimination or harassment from officers; and violence from the police.9 Other sources, while not exhaustive because they focus primarily on data from mainly urban support organizations to which victims may report incidents, also give cause for concern. 

For instance, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), administered to a national sample of “6,450 transgender and gender nonconforming study participants,” found that more than three-quarters of those surveyed faced harassment in school, and over half “reported being verbally harassed or disrespected in a place of public accommodation.”10 Specific to policing the same report found that over one-fifth experienced harassment while interacting with police, with much higher rates reported by people of color, and almost half of the respondents described feeling uncomfortable seeking police help.11

Training resources exist pertaining to police interactions with transgender communities, consistent with recent efforts by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service (CRS). Citing statistics from the NTDS, then Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole noted the importance of training “to educate law enforcement about the transgender communities they serve…[and to] enhance law enforcement outreach capabilities to the transgender communities by addressing sensitivities, stereotypes, and expectations.”12 This also is consistent with the NCAVP’s recommendation for the importance of training, in which it notes that a lack of knowledge or awareness may result in negative interactions between officers and transgender communities.13

The authors provide an overview of the relationship between law enforcement and transgender communities. Areas covered include key terms and concepts, the role of law enforcement policy and training, and recommendations for police personnel.

Overview and Terminology

Conflict and misunderstanding between law enforcement and the transgender community is not new. A number of studies have found that transgender individuals often experience negative interactions with officers. For instance, one study found that some transgender persons generally distrust police, often because of incidents of personal harassment and abuse that they experienced directly or heard about indirectly.14 Another study noted a lack of recognition, respect, and trust from some law enforcement personnel toward transgender individuals.15 Of course, perceptions of the police may be shaped by media accounts, as well as the experiences of family members, friends, and acquaintances. As a result the relationship between transgender communities and law enforcement may be strained, even for agencies that do not perceive issues or concerns.

Sometimes, misunderstandings and feelings of mistrust or discrimination can occur solely based on language used. This may originate from a lack of knowledge and appreciation of terminology related to transgender communities. Law enforcement officers should understand some key gender-specific terms specific to transgender communities to minimize miscommunications.

An individual’s sex is biologically determined by sex chromosomes—XY for male and XX for female—and is assessed at birth by the appearance of external genitalia.16 Gender “refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, [traits], and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.”17 Gender identity relates to persons’ sense as to whether they identify as male, female, both male and female, neither male nor female, or as intersexed; this is separate from sexual orientation or attraction.18 Gender expression pertains to the way an individual communicates gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice, or body characteristics.19 As such, sex is biological, gender identity involves persons’ internal feeling as to their gender, and gender expression is how someone communicates gender externally.

Much confusion often exists as to what transgender, transsexual, and intersex mean. These terms are neither interchangeable, nor mutually exclusive.

People who identify as transgender or transsexual usually are born with typical male or female anatomies, but feel as though they have been born into the wrong body. For example a genetic woman who identifies as transgender or transsexual may have typical female anatomy, although she feels male and may prefer a masculine or alternative pronoun.

Transgendered individuals may seek to alter their bodies through hormones, surgery, and other means to make them as congruent as possible with their gender identity. Transsexual individuals all undergo some type of surgical or hormonal intervention or alteration to align the physical body’s appearance with their gender identity. Surgical alteration of genitalia is referred to as sex-reassignment surgery or, in the vernacular, a sex-change operation. 

Intersex persons have either ambiguous anatomy not considered by doctors to be typically male or female or have a mix of both female and male anatomies at birth. Individuals who are intersexed typically are assigned a sex by doctors and parents. The majority of such individuals identify as male or female, rather than as transgender or transsexual.20

For those persons transitioning to another sex and living as a different gender, the process occurs over several years. It is not merely a singular event, such as physical alteration by hormonal and surgical interventions (e.g., mastectomy or sex-reassignment surgery). Transitioning also involves negotiation, conflict, and changes in relationships with intimate partners, family members, and other sources of informal social support (e.g., friends, fellow employees, and colleagues) and occurs in diverse environmental settings (e.g., home, school, work, and community).21 

Transmen (female to male, or FTM) and transwomen (male to female, or MTF) are common labels for those in the process of making the transition from one sex to the other.22 Use of the words post-op, pre-op, and non-op to identify a transgender person’s surgical status now is considered offensive by many in transgender and LGB (lesbian, gay, and bisexual) communities. Transgender persons’ surgical status is private information generally needed only by their medical providers or others entrusted with their care and safety.23

Transgender, an umbrella category, identifies persons whose gender identity, gender expression, or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with traditional notions of male and female or which mixes different aspects of traditional female and male gender roles.24 It is erroneous to assume that all transgender persons have the same backgrounds, identities, and experiences; logically, not all law enforcement interactions with transgender persons will manifest the same concerns or even use the same language.

Trans or trans* are terms sometimes used within transgender communities, LGB communities, and academic and activist publications.25 The asterisk denotes an inclusivity of people who as transgender individuals may identify in a variety of ways. Transgender persons sometimes may prefer to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns, such as queer, genderqueer, one, ze, sie, zie, ziers, hir, zim, ey, or singular they, their, and them.26

As the variety of terms illustrates, preferences vary, and the language surrounding transgender communities constantly evolves. Potential generational differences exist, as well, because older adults may be more uncomfortable with some of the terms. One example is the word queer, which has been “taken back” by the LGB and transgender communities in an effort to defuse the strong negative connotations typically associated with it. More than any of the labels, “queer” is more popularly used by youth and young adults, specifically those who do not want to be locked into a more exclusive label.27          

Being transgender concerns gender, but not sexual identity or sexual orientation. Sexual identity refers to how persons perceive their own sexual desires and sexual expressions, while sexual orientation denotes an individual’s physical, romantic, and emotional attraction to another person.28 In other words, transgender individuals may be attracted to members of the same or different gender. As persons begin to embrace multiple ways of expressing gendered or gender-neutral lives, a plethora of different groups who welcome or reject a variety of labels has grown over the years. Genderqueer, a relatively new term, is used by some people who may or may not identify as transgender, but who describe their gender as somewhere on the continuum beyond the binary masculine/feminine gender system.29

Cross-dressers (formerly referred to as transvestites), drag kings (biological women who dress in men’s clothing), and drag queens (biological men who dress in women’s clothing) are not typically transgender persons; the majority of these individuals do not have a gender identity different from their biological sex.30 In fact, most cross-dressers identify as heterosexuals, but can be of any sexual orientation, may or may not dress as a different gender for erotic reasons, and most often do not desire to alter their biological sex. Drag kings and drag queens are performers who dress in clothing associated with a biological sex different from themselves. The clothing, accessories, gestures, mannerisms, voice, and body movements of the performer often highlight exaggerated stereotypical gender characteristics.31

Policy and Training

Many police agencies have implemented specific policies to reduce tension with and to better serve transgender persons. For instance, the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Police Department implemented Directive 152 to guide their interactions with transgender communities. One of the orders within the directive instructs officers to remain cognizant of the use of proper terminology when addressing transgender individuals, such as asking a person being questioned which gender pronoun is preferred.32

Not isolated to law enforcement, the use of improper terminology can cause strain between transgender communities and the community at large. On July 14, 2013, Diamond Williams was brutally murdered and dismembered after the suspect discovered that Diamond was a transgender woman. Her body was located in an isolated field. “Initial news articles about Williams’ death described her as a ‘male prostitute dressed as a woman,’” language offensive to many transgender persons and allies.33 Some of the other orders within Directive 152 include keeping transgender arrestees isolated from the general inmate population and referring to transgender victims, witnesses, or arrestees by their preferred names, particularly when addressing the media.34

In October 2007 the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department implemented General Order PCA 501-02, Handling Interactions with Transgender Individuals.35 This extensive policy includes many features.  

  • Definitions of key terms (e.g., gender identity, intersex, transgender, and transsexual)
  • Regulations (e.g., use of appropriate/nondemeaning language and proper pronouns)
  • Procedural guidelines (e.g., methods for handling calls for service and citizen complaints involving transgender individuals; proper techniques for stop-and-frisk situations with transgender persons; procedures for conducting arrest situations involving transgender individuals, including appropriate searching; ways to communicate with fellow officers; and procedures for documenting potential risk factors associated with an arrest, such as hostility from other arrestees)
  • Procedures for transporting transgender arrestees (e.g., separate transportation for transgender individuals due to safety concerns)
  • Ways to process and house transgender persons in custody (e.g., segregated cells and restrictions regarding appearance-related items, such as wigs and makeup) 

The policy also includes sections on handling juvenile transgender arrestees and providing medical treatment to transgender persons in custody (e.g., special medical needs for hormone treatments).36

However, policy implementation does little without proper training. CRS provides resources and exercises for law enforcement agencies interested in training officers about issues in transgender communities.37 In its presentation CRS notes the importance of terminology, including that which may be deemed offensive by transgender individuals, such as any nonpreferred pronoun, “it,” “shim,” “tranny,” “transvestite,” “hermaphrodite,” “he-she,” and “shemale.”38 Additionally, CRS offers tips for interviewing transgender individuals, including having respect for the person’s self-identification, using appropriate pronouns, and, if a search is required—keeping officer safety in mind—asking persons if they prefer a male or female officer to conduct the search.39

Some police agencies include training for officers in their attempt to better serve transgender communities. For instance, the Chicago, Illinois, Police Department produced a video that focuses on police-transgender interactions, including interviews by transgender and LGB community members.40 Law enforcement personnel also have access to free online training programs.41 One such presentation stresses the need for greater awareness of transgender concerns, including specific types of calls for service (e.g., bullying, discrimination, domestic violence, and suicide); incarceration issues (e.g., searches, medical needs, and risk management); and officer sensitivity training, protection, and community referrals.42


The aforementioned research provides much to consider. To this end, the authors offer several recommendations.

  • To develop a stronger professional relationship with transgender communities, law enforcement agencies should integrate training on transgender issues into academy and in-service programs. During planning stages and the training process, the sessions should include members of transgender communities. For example, transgender community members may serve in role-playing exercises to provide officers a better understanding of relevant issues.
  • Police agencies should develop specific policies and directives focusing on transgender issues. Any training, policy, or directive should have input and buy in from line officers, as well as their immediate supervisors. Law enforcement agencies should review their policies regarding transgender persons to assure conformity with general orders and  transgender communities’ concerns. All implemented policies should, first and foremost, focus on officer and community safety issues (e.g., during searches).
  • Officers must have a thorough understanding of proper terminology when addressing or referring to transgender individuals. Law enforcement personnel should not ask if a person is transgender; rather, the Transgender Community of Police and Sheriffs recommends that transgender persons “be honest and forthright about your identity and gender with the officer.”43 Once a person identifies to a police officer as transgender, the officer can ask the individual how he, she, or zie prefers to be addressed. “A few antagonistic words can go a long way toward deepening the divide between transgender [individuals] and the people sworn to protect them.”44
  • As part of community policing efforts, some agencies might find it beneficial to establish a police-community liaison officer to interact with transgender communities. While similar to police liaisons with the gay and lesbian community, many of the issues needing to be addressed are unique to transgender communities. It also is essential that members of transgender communities understand the role of law enforcement officers to better assist in communication efforts.
  • Police agencies must pay particular attention to racial profiling issues that target transgender individuals. Transgender youth and adults, including homeless individuals and, particularly, transgender people of color, can experience profiling and discriminatory treatment by law enforcement officers.45
  • When employing a transgender officer, law enforcement agencies should remain diligent in creating an inclusive environment, recognizing and proactively seeking to prevent discriminatory behaviors and policies.


Police agencies can benefit by proactively engaging transgender communities through the creation of liaison positions and support networks. Understanding and addressing misconceptions regarding transgender communities may prove valuable in police-community relations and the overall mission of law enforcement. While training and policy implementation are critical for law enforcement in building a trusting relationship with transgender communities, it will take more than a training session, workshop, or video to make a difference; it will require a change in police culture. In discussing the Philadelphia Police Department’s new policy, its commissioner said, “We’re not here to judge folks—we’re here to serve folks.”46 Giving consideration to interactions with diverse communities is an important step toward doing so.

For additional information contact Dr. Burke at, Dr. Owen at, or Dr. Few-Demo at


1 “Downtown: Brandon Teena’s Tragic Story,” ABC News, (accessed March 9, 2015).
2 Brandon v. County of Richardson, 624 N.W.2d 604, at 622 (Neb. 2001).
3 Ibid., at 613.
4 Ibid., at 621.
5 Ibid., at 628.
6 Stephanie Fairyington, “Two Decades After Brandon Teena’s Murder, a Look Back at Falls City,” The Atlantic, December 31, 2013, under “National,” (accessed March 9, 2015).
7 Glenn v. Brumby, 663 F.3d 1312, at 1317 (11th Cir. 2011); and Barnes v. City of Cincinnati, 401 F.3d 729 (6th Cir. 2005).
8 Alex Roarty, “Poll: End Workplace Discrimination Against Gays,” National Journal, December 11, 2013, (accessed March 9, 2015).
9 National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, Hate Violence in 2013 (New York, NY: New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, New York, NY, 2014), 2013_ncavp_hvreport_final.pdf (accessed March 11, 2015).
10 Jaime Grant, Lisa Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody Herman, and Mara Keisling, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011), 2-5, (accessed March 9, 2015).
11 Ibid., 6.
12 U.S. Department of Justice, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole Delivers Remarks at the Community Relations Service Transgender Law Enforcement Training Launch, (Washington, DC, March 27, 2014), (accessed March 9, 2015).
13 National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, Hate Violence in 2013, 65.
14 Jan Redfern, “Best Practices to Improve Police Relations with Transgender Individuals,” Journal of Law Enforcement 3, no. 4 (2014): 1-17.
15 Leslie Moran and Andrew Sharpe, “Violence, Identity, and Policing: The Case of Violence Against Transgender People,” Criminology and Criminal Justice 4, no. 4 (November 2004): 395-417.
16 Anne Fausto-Sterling, “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough,” in The Gender and Psychology Reader, ed. Blythe McVicker Clinchy and Julie K. Norem (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1998), 221-227; and Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000).
17 World Health Organization, “What Do We Mean By ‘Sex’ and ‘Gender’?” (accessed March 9, 2015).
18 Lisa Diamond, Seth Pardo, and Molly Butterworth, “Transgender Experience and Identity,” in Handbook of Identity Theory and Research, ed. Seth J. Schwartz, Koen Luyckx, and Vivian L. Vignoles (New York, NY: Springer, 2011), 629-647.
19 American Psychological Association, “Practice Guidelines for LGB Clients: Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Clients,” (accessed March 9, 2015).
20 Brandy Smith and Heidi Levitt, “Transgender,” in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, ed. William Darity, Jr., 2nd ed., vol. 8 (Detroit, MI: Macmillan, 2008), 431-432; and Diamond, Pardo, and Butterworth, “Transgender Experience and Identity.”
21 Mildred Brown and Chloe Rounsley, True Selves: Understanding Transsexualism—For Families, Friends, Coworkers, and Helping Professionals, 1st ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003); Diamond, Pardo, and Butterworth, “Transgender Experience and Identity”; Sally Hines, “What’s the Difference? Bringing Particularity to Queer Studies of Transgender,” Journal of Gender Studies 15, no. 1 (March 2006): 49-66; and Sally Hines, Transforming Gender: Transgender Practices of Identity, Intimacy, and Care (Bristol, UK: The Policy Press, 2007).
22 Smith and Levitt, “Transgender.”
23 Lambda Legal and the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, Bending the Mold: An Action Kit for Transgender Students (New York, NY: Lambda Legal and the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, 2008), 1-36, (accessed March 9, 2015).
24 Diamond, Pardo, and Butterworth, “Transgender Experience and Identity.”
25 National Center for Transgender Equality, “Transgender Terminology,” (accessed March 9, 2015).
26 Becca Chase and Paula Ressler, “An LBGT/Queer Glossary,” English Journal 98, no. 4 (March 2009): 23-24; and Claire Winter, Understanding Transgender Diversity: A Sensible Explanation of Sexual and Gender Identities (CreateSpace, 2010).
27 Robin Brontsema, “A Queer Revolution: Reconceptualizing the Debate over Linguistic Reclamation,” Colorado Research in Linguistics 17, no. 1 (June 2004).
28 American Psychological Association, “Practice Guidelines for LGB Clients.”
29 Lambda Legal and the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, Bending the Mold.
30 Ibid., 24.
31 Smith and Levitt, “Transgender.”
32 Aubrey Whelan, “New Phila. Police Policy Reaches Out to Transgender People,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 11, 2014, (accessed March 9, 2015).
33 Ibid.
34 Ibid.
35 Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department, “Handling Interactions with Transgender Individuals,” (accessed March 11, 2015).
36 Ibid.
37 U.S. Department of Justice, Community Relations Service, “Transgender Law Enforcement Training Preview” (presentation, 2014).
38 Ibid.
39 Ibid.
40 Chicago, IL, Police Department, “Transgender Training Video,” (Chicago, IL, Police Department), YouTube, Adobe Flash Player video file, November 15, 2008, (accessed March 9, 2015).
41 Justice Planning and Management Associates, “Transgender Awareness for Law Enforcement Officers,” Justice Planning and Management Associates website, Adobe Flash Player slideshow, (accessed March 9, 2015).
42 Ibid.
43 Transgender Community of Police and Sheriffs, “Community Policing Corner,” (accessed March 9, 2015).
44 Whelan, “New Phila. Police Policy.”
45 Catherine Hanssens, Aisha Moodie-Mills, Andrea Ritchie, Dean Spade, and Urvashi Vaid, A Roadmap for Change: Federal Policy Recommendations for Addressing the Criminalization of LGBT People and People Living with HIV (New York, NY: Center for Gender & Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School, 2014), (accessed March 9, 2015).
46 Whelan, “New Phila. Police Policy.” 2015.