Cornell Holden was arrested in May 2014 after leaving a men’s bathroom in the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Afterwards, he heard Port Authority cops refer to the officer who arrested him as “the gay whisperer,” a new class action lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleges that Port Authority Police Department officers “engage in a pattern and practice of targeting and wrongly arresting men [who use the Bus Terminal restrooms] that such officers perceive as gay and/or gender non-conforming, on baseless charges including public lewdness and exposure,” according to a copy of the complaint obtained by The Daily Beast.
The lawsuit is being brought by the Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit legal organization serving low-income New Yorkers, and the international law firm Winston & Strawn, which is serving as a pro bono partner on the case.
“We will decline comment,” a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey spokesperson told The Daily Beast, adding that the PAPD also has no comment on the litigation.
The two plaintiffs at the center of the class action lawsuit—Holden and another man named Miguel Mejia—both allege that they were wrongfully targeted while using urinals in men’s rooms at the Bus Terminal in Manhattan.
According to the complaint, Holden saw a man “watching him from an adjacent urinal” who “looked around the privacy wall between the urinals in an apparent effort to see [his] hands and genitals” and then left. When Holden exited the restroom himself, he learned that the man was a PAPD officer dressed in plainclothes who Holden believes targeted him because of his “clothing, hairstyle, and jewelry,” and later accused him in an affidavit of “masturbating,” the complaint alleges.
In his holding cell later that day, Holden allegedly overheard the “gay whisperer” comment, which he understood as a reference to that particular officer’s presumed “pattern and practice of arresting men that he perceived as gay or gender non-conforming.” The public lewdness and exposure charges against Holden were later dismissed and the court record sealed, according to the complaint.
Miguel Mejia’s story followed a similar pattern. He claims that he was watched by a plainclothes officer at the urinal in a Bus Terminal men’s room, then arrested outside of the bathroom “in plain view of numerous [Bus Terminal] patrons,” and charged with public lewdness. The case ended in an acquittal, according the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges that these “shocking and appalling” arrests are part of a pattern of targeting gay and gender non-conforming men in order to increase quality-of-life “arrest statistics.”
The plaintiffs further allege that these charges were doled out with the assumption that the “majority” of the targeted men would “ultimately be effectively forced to plead guilty to lesser charges” to avoid “public embarrassment,” jail time and fines, and “potential reputational and professional harm.”
The complaint calls for a trial by jury and for the awarding of “compensatory damages for economic harm, pain and suffering, and emotional and mental distress” to Holden, Mejia, and the class of other men who have allegedly been targeted for the same reason.
The lawsuit itself has been three years in the making. In October 2014, a New York Times report found that PAPD officers had arrested over 60 people in the bus terminal that year on public lewdness charges, which amounted to “a sevenfold increase over the same period last year.”
Both of the named plaintiffs’ stories in the current lawsuit were described in further detail in that New York Times report. Holden told the Times that what the officer interpreted as a movement “consistent with masturbation” at the urinal was actually him “shaking off” after peeing.
And Mejia said that the officer who apprehended him was smiling at him in the men’s room and kept repeating “you know what you did” afterward when Mejia asked why he was under arrest.
(Mejia was identified only as “Miguel” in the Times report but the Legal Aid Society confirmed to The Daily Beast that Miguel Mejia is indeed the client in question.)
Both men speculated that the way they were dressed while using the restroom—Holden in “a leather jacket [and] fitted clothes” and Mejia in Mejia in “shorts [and a] tank top”—contributed to their arrests.
But the lawsuit also cites an incident as far back as the year 2000, when a man named Alejandro Martinez was arrested outside of a PATH station men’s room.
Martinez told the New York LGBT newspaper Gay City News in 2004 that a plainclothes officer inside the restroom “looked at [him]” and “gave [him] a smile” before following him outside and arresting him.
Martinez later testified that while he was in custody with other men who had been arrested, officers laughed at them calling them “faggot” and “queer,” a 2005 court order shows. The case drew outrage from LGBT rights groups.
As the 2014 New York Times report noted, a federal jury ruled in Martinez’s favor in a 2005 court decision, finding that officers made arrests “for the crime of public lewdness, without regard to probable cause.” He received over $400,000 in damages.
“The Port Authority Police Department was found liable for this exact behavior in 2005 and they’ve made absolutely zero effort to correct their practices or even hold the officers accountable who committed these acts of unrepentant discrimination,” said Kim Fortes, the supervising attorney of the LGBT Law and Policy Initiative at the Legal Aid Society, in a press release. “Let this lawsuit and our client testimonials again prove that PAPD is overzealously profiling and arresting innocent men in these situations solely based on their appearance.”