Jail inmate helps Iowa’s transgender learning curve
But as the circumstances leading to Taylor’s July 13 West Des Moines arrest prove, all can’t be trusted to go according to plan, especially when you’re black, transgender and on a trip to a new place with a trans friend. Your appearance might be deemed suspicious by the hotel manager, setting off a call that brings police to your room. An outstanding $500 fine, incurred when you were 17, might now have escalated to $1,713 and generated a warrant. Had you come from wealthy stock, that might have been paid off long ago, buffering you from the indiscretions of youth. Then you might not have given the wrong name when police showed up at your hotel room. Had you not been transgender, the hormone pills you take to make your physical being match your mental one probably wouldn’t have been in your purse.
Iowa already tops the nation in the rate at which it incarcerates black people. Add in trans and you’re likely out of luck.
We might hear these statistics, but when a Meagan Taylor, whose legal name is Derez Flowers, comes along, we get to see how it works in real life. “It’s still hard to be black and transgender,” said Taylor Tuesday in an interview in her cell in the medical unit of Polk County Jail. “You get racially profiled. They think we’re all doing stuff.”
For all her problems, Taylor comes across as a sweet 22-year-old who unsuspectingly landed in a bad spot, when all she really wants to be doing is nails and hair. She goes to cosmetology school and works in a salon. But she also got lucky: Her story inspired an outpouring of donations topping $4,000 in just a few days. The fund drive was taken up by Megan Rohrer, a Lutheran pastor in San Francisco with the Welcome Ministry, after a column on Taylor appeared in this space last week. Locally, activists have picketed the Drury Inn — which remains tight lipped — on Taylor’s behalf.
She also drew support from an unexpected place: the jail itself. “The jail had a lot to do with getting my story out there,” said Taylor. It was Polk County Sheriff Bill McCarthy who reached out to me about Taylor’s story because he wanted aspects of it to reach the LGBT population, and get their input on how some things should be handled. McCarthy says there’s “a disconnect” between law enforcement and some sectors of society. “Issues like this should not be resolved by the justice system alone,” he told me. “There has to be input from society in general.”
That seems an awfully enlightened position for a county sheriff to take. McCarthy said Caitlyn Jenner has helped serve as a catalyst. He thinks in Hollywood, this would be a “ non-issue,” though I suspect it would still be one, maybe just less of one. “It’s an issue here,” he said, “because we haven’t crossed those bridges yet.”
This is also significant because Taylor had complained earlier of feeling alone and isolated in the medical unit, and some activists around the country took that to mean she’d been placed in solitary confinement. Some critics slammed the jail, even going so far as to say it bordered on “torture,” said Donna Red Wing, who heads the LGBT organization One Iowa. She visited the jail Tuesday and was impressed with the care officials have taken with Taylor. They are bound by state law that requires men to be placed with men and women with women. But given the high incidence of assaults nationally on transgender inmates, jail officials wouldn’t put Taylor in a male unit. They also said she had requested protective custody, so they housed her in what the jail director calls the “penthouse” of the facility — with a television, hospital bed and telephone access.
Taylor now says she has been treated very well and that jail officials stretched to give her access to people who could help her.
There’s a learning curve all around; that’s inevitable. But maybe the lesson is that the best way to handle the discomfort of an unfamiliar situation is to try and get more educated and familiar with it, rather than jump to the worst conclusions — as Drury Inn seems to have done. For all that Taylor had to endure, this story has an uplifting twist in the way that some people who never met her — maybe never met a transgender person at all — reached out in outrage and empathy to support her. If only we all only followed our better instincts.