After spending five harrowing days between being stuck on an Interstate 10 bridge in New Orleans and then at the totally lawless New Orleans Convention Center, with precious little food or water, all Sharliâ€™e Dominique wanted was a shower.
But less than 24 hours after Dominque arrived at Texas A & M University in College Station, where she was housed at the campusâ€™s Reed Arena with other evacuees fleeing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Dominique found herself in jail. Simply for taking a shower.
Though Sharliâ€™e Dominique lives her life as a woman, she was born male, as Arpollo Vicks. As a pre-operative male-to-female transgendered person, Dominque appears female in the only clothes she escaped New Orleans with: a tight white shirt with the word â€śsexyâ€ť on it in silver glitter, a pair of jeans and flip flops. But in the shower, it was clear Dominique was born male.
The commander who runs the shelter at Texas A&M, John Van Alstyne, says he received a complaint from another shelter resident about Dominique using the womenâ€™s rest room. He warned her not to use it again.
But Dominique says she felt unsafe using the menâ€™s rest room, particularly to take a shower. So, she says, she asked and got permission from a shelter volunteer to take a shower in the womenâ€™s rest room.
After she came out of the womenâ€™s facility, Dominique was arrested for criminal trespassing. Having endured the life-threatening perils of Hurricane Katrina, the 20-year-old African American, who hopes to someday be a journalist, thought being bused to Texas A&M was going to be a lifesaver. She could have never guessed she would land in a county jail for five days for wanting to get clean.
Dominiqueâ€™s case is one of the more dramatic illustrations of how already potent discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens adds an extra layer of burden to glbt people who are also victims of Hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, members of the glbt community are likely to face more hurdles, not less, as they struggle to get their lives back to some semblance of normal.
One of the big challenges is for people with HIV and AIDS, who have been stranded without their medicines or access to doctors. An estimated 8,000 people with HIV were left homeless after Katrina ripped through the Gulf States. Many of those people are at temporary shelters, and fled without their medications.
Others were trapped for days without electricity. Many of the HIV medicines require refrigeration.
Furthermore, some patients now do not have access to their doctors, or to refilling prescriptions. Others may fear disclosing their HIV status to the shelters where they are staying, mindful of the prejudices that persist against the HIV-positive.
If a heterosexual person lost his or her spouse due to the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, the surviving widow or widower would be entitled to surviving spouse Social Security benefits. Since the federal government does not recognize gay unions, surviving partners in a gay or lesbian relationship will not receive any such help to get their lives back in order.
Lawyers from Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national gay rights group based in New York City, have already expressed concern that the Federal Emergency Management Agencyâ€”which is bound by federal rules and regulations, including not recognizing gay relationshipsâ€”excludes gay partners from family benefits offered to married couples.
But beyond the monetary benefits, some of the most simple, basic dignities remain in question: Will same-sex partners be housed together? Will separated partners get help to find each other, as other separated families do? Will people with injured partners be allowed to accompany them to hospitals and make important medical decisions with them, or for them, if needed?
Some of those questions are legal ones, and that does not fare well for glbt people in the states hardest hit by the hurricane: Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. None of these states are exactly known for their groundbreaking laws to protect gay people.
Neither is Texas, where many of the refugees have been evacuated.
But at least in the short term, the legal issues take a back seat to the more basic and immediate questions of how glbt people will be treated by their fellow refugees, and by the people on the front lines who are supposed to be helping them.
Maybe Sharliâ€™e Dominqueâ€™s case offers a glimmer of hope.
While it is almost unfathomable that Dominique was forced to spend five days in jail for taking a shower, particularly given the circumstances she endured before arriving at the university shelter, the good news is that the county attorney who reviewed her case refused to press charges on the â€ścriminal trespassingâ€ť charge.
Brazos County Attorney Jim Kuboviak became aware of Dominiqueâ€™s case after she received local media attention. After reviewing her file, Kuboviak ordered Dominique to be released from jail. She â€ślacked criminal intent to violate the law,â€ť he said in published reports.
After Dominque was released from jail, Claudette Peterson, a former director of an HIV clinic in College Station, took Dominique into her home so she wouldnâ€™t have to face the dilemma of whether to use the menâ€™s shower or the womenâ€™s shower at the shelter.
Peterson also connected Dominique with the Montrose Counseling Center, a Houston organization providing housing and support for glbt evacuees of the hurricane. The Centerâ€™s executive director said once word of Dominiqueâ€™s plight hit the news, offers to help her had been pouring into the Center from around the country.
Perhaps most importantly, the publicity from her case helped Dominique find her mother and other family members. Dominique had become separated from her family during the hurricane, and previously did not know where they were or even if they had survived.
Luckily, Dominiqueâ€™s mother and family had been evacuated to the George Brown Convention Center in Houston. Perhaps most amazingly, Dominique has come through this trying ordeal with her spirit in tact.
â€śIâ€™m not angry,â€ť she told the Eagle, the universityâ€™s student newspaper. â€śItâ€™s good to finally get a little support. Maybe this will make people more aware of transgendered and transsexual people.â€ť