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Council Members, Advocates Press Legislature on Condoms

Advocates pressed the State Legislature to bar the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution at a June 6 City Hall rally. | DONNA ACETO

Advocates pressed the State Legislature to bar the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution at a June 6 City Hall rally. | DONNA ACETO

BY GERARD FLYNN | New York City has the nation’s largest HIV/ AIDS population, and no responsible public health official would ever advise against carrying condoms.

But that’s exactly the decision made by some in the LGBT community as well as the sex industry. They are leaving them behind for fear that if police find condoms in their possession they could face prostitution charges, because of a state law that allows prosecutors to use prophylactics as evidence in court.

On the steps of City Hall on June 6, opponents of that law, including several district attorneys or their representatives and members of the New York City Council, rallied for change, demanding the passage of a bill, currently stuck in both chambers of the State Legislature, that would bar prosecutors from using condoms as evidence of prostitution.

A ban on using prophylactics as evidence of prostitution has law enforcement support

Council members and state legislators, as well as representatives of legal, human rights, and gay groups, told the rally that discouraging members of the LGBT community and sex workers from carrying condoms promotes the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, an ironic, even “schizophrenic” twist since the city runs a campaign promoting condom use to prevent the spread of STDs and to stop unwanted pregnancies.

The advocates called on Albany to pass the No Condoms as Evidence bill, known in the Legislature as S1379/ A2736. Existing law, they said, particularly targets members of the transgender community.

Johanna Vasquez, who is transgender, told the crowd of roughly 40 about being stopped by police several years ago as she walked along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. Despite pleading her innocence, the discovery of a single condom in her possession landed her in jail for a year, she said, due in part to her immigration status.

A Human Rights Watch report released last July documented in alarming language how sex workers and others, particularly transgender women, face arrest for possession of condoms. The arrests involve “degrading treatment and abuse at the hands of the police,” the report asserted. “For immigrants, arrest for prostitution offenses can mean detention and removal from the United States.”

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice (l.) looks on as Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, addresses the crowd. | DONNA ACETO

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice (l.) looks on as Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, addresses the crowd. | DONNA ACETO

Socheatta Meng, legislative counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the pending legislation a matter of good public health policy and common sense and said it would encourage all New Yorkers, especially individuals stopped repeatedly by the police, to use condoms.

Jim Vogel, an aide to Brooklyn State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who has sponsored the measure for nine consecutive years, pointed up the risks to public health in discouraging sex workers from carrying condoms. He said that a sex trade worker who stopped using condoms because of existing law could potentially infect hundreds within a month.

Despite the hopes of advocates, with less than two weeks remaining in the current legislative session, the condom bill’s passage seems unlikely. The measure is stalled in committee in both the Senate and Assembly, a victim to some extent of what Vogel termed “downstate/ upstate” politics and a conservative unwillingness to “rock the boat.”

Vogel remained publically optimistic. The bill’s history, however, might suggest a less upbeat assessment. Since 1999, it has repeatedly “died in committee,” according to the Assembly and Senate websites.

That record isn’t deterring some members of the City Council, who are pushing for a resolution in support of the bill. Though Council resolutions often wield limited influence in Albany, Stephen Levin, a Brooklyn councilmember, said he and others are calling on Public Safety Committee chair Peter F. Vallone, Jr., of Queens, to schedule a hearing on the resolution.

He argued it is important to put the Council on record to exert pressure on the Legislature to act. The law needs to change, Levin said, so “we can treat everyone fairly and with dignity.”

Despite the lukewarm reception upstate, some prosecutors, including Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, have taken action to stop the use of condoms as evidence in criminal and civil trials. His Nassau County counterpart, Kathleen Rice, talked about her office’s comprehensive policy banning the use of condoms as evidence in any prostitution-related cases, including trafficking cases. Elsewhere in the nation, San Francisco prosecutors have said they too have ceased submitting condoms as evidence in court.

Not all local district attorneys, however, share the position taken by Hynes and Rice. Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown released a statement to Gay City News asserting that though prostitution cases rarely go to trial in that borough, “condom evidence can be very useful in other prostitution-related offenses, such as closing down brothels and holding pimps and sex traffickers accountable.”

Council Speaker Christine Quinn, though not present at the rally, wants the law changed.

“No person anywhere should have to refrain from carrying condoms for fear of arrest or prosecution,” she said in a written statement from her press office. “Condoms are life-saving devices and should not be used as evidence.” Condom use, she continued, “should be encouraged –– never discouraged. Although we have made advances in the fight against HIV/ AIDS, the disease continues its devastating toll on our communities.”

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4 Responses to Council Members, Advocates Press Legislature on Condoms

  1. Perley J. Thibodeau June 10, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    Now this article is of interest to the gay community at large.
    However, I must add that I have never had anything but respect shown to me in all the years I traveled about NYC wearing show costumes on city busses going to and coming from night clubs where I was appearing.
    A person's comportment is a tip off to the police, and throw it in your face type actions could get a rock arrested if it is provocatively dressed and congregating with others of their ilk in questionable places, or being too challenging to the authority invested in law enforcement officers.
    I pulled out my debit card at Staples the other day, and had several NYC stamped condoms in my hand that a friend in the park gave to me.
    I told the young man waiting on me that I never use them.
    That was met by a very somber face, until I told him that I never get a chance to, and that brought on a huge smile.
    While true, nonetheless a good ice breaker, indeed.

    Reply
  2. Simon June 11, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    OK, but at the end of the day the mayor could just order the NYPD to cease seizing condoms, right?!

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Voices of NY » » LGBT Activists Rally for Bill to Decriminalize Condom Possession

  4. james228 June 16, 2013 at 10:01 am

    Yes…totally agree with this one. Everyone should have the right to choose and the accessibility of what they have chosen.

    Reply

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