Editor’s Note: This open letter was sent to City Paper Wednesday afternoon from Ava Grace O’Brien, a trans woman concerned about steps the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police is taking to prepare for its first transgender police officer. The letter is printed in its entirety below.
To Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay and the rest of The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police,
Yesterday I read the article about you welcoming a transgender officer to your police force
. I was pleased to read that you are taking steps to better understand how to make the work environment and, by extension, the city more safe and inclusive for trans people. As a trans woman active in various political spaces throughout the city, it is refreshing to see the police doing what they can to learn and grow. I am concerned, however, with the way in which you are going about this.
The person you chose to consult regarding trans issues is Gary Van Horn, president of The Delta Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based organization self-described as “improving the quality of life for and visibility of the LGBT community [in Pittsburgh.]” I understand that The Delta Foundation is often the first Pittsburgh LGBT organization that comes to mind because of their work organizing Pride in the Streets, but they are primarily an organization that throws parties, many of which are inaccessible to people in the LGBT community (poor, sober, and/or disabled people, to name a few). Aside from that, Gary is a cisgender man (someone who is the gender they were assigned at birth),and thus, should not be speaking about trans issues, regardless of whether or not he works with the trans community.
In the article, Gary was quoted as saying, “You wouldn’t want this officer to be a target out there for the general public,” which is a valid concern, but what sort of internal protocols will be put in place to ensure this officer’s safety? As trans people, we constantly fear for our safety, including at our workplace. Insinuating that the biggest threat to this officer is the general public shifts the focus to the city’s citizens instead of any internal wrongdoing. For example, if this trans officer were to call for backup but no one shows, then is harmed in the line of duty, will the general public be blamed or will there be an internal investigation as to why something like this would happen? Transphobia exists in many forms and spaces, and it is quite possible that some of this person’s fellow officers will exhibit transphobic tendencies.
There are plenty of community leaders better suited to discussing the issues facing trans people in this city because they are trans. Somebody who is associated with, but not a part of, a community should not speak on behalf of that community. If I wanted to know what the culture of firefighters is like in Pittsburgh, I could ask you, and you may have a general idea because of your association with them, but you would probably refer me to some firefighters who would be better suited to speak about such things. That is what a trans ally should be doing: lifting up the voices and experiences of trans people instead of speaking over us.
Organizations such as The Garden of Peace Project, Initiative for Transgender Leadership, and Dreams of Hope are directed or staffed in part by trans people. These organizations work tirelessly to give many of their resources to the trans community and help combat common struggles like a lack of access to housing, employment and food.
I wish nothing but the best, and hope everyone involved can learn and grow from this.
Ava Grace O’Brien