GARY — A transgender woman and ex-police-officer in-training has filed a federal civil lawsuit against the city, its Police Department and one of its officers, alleging harassment, police misconduct and gender discrimination.
Carmen Carter-Lawson, a former Gary resident who now lives in central Indiana, filed the suit recently in U.S. District Court against the Gary Police Department, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and Gary officer Antonio Johnson.
Carter-Lawson claims Johnson humiliated and berated her for using the women’s restroom during a Jan. 26 visit to the Police Department.
According to complaint documents, Johnson loudly knocked on the restroom door, demanding that Carter-Lawson end use of the women’s restroom.
Carter-Lawson, 28, was born male but began transitioning to female with hormone injections prior to starting high school. She told The Times she identifies with the female gender.
“At this time, Officer Antonio Johnson continued to publicly make bias claims of me not having a ‘full sex change’ to support his actions in front of patrons in the lobby. He also discussed it with fellow officers in passing,” the complaint states.
“I told him, ‘Are you seriously saying this? This is sexual harassment. You can get in trouble.’ And he really didn’t care. He made a big scene trying to justify why he was pulling me out of the bathroom. People were all around, and he’s literally making a scene of my personal business,” Carter-Lawson said.
The entire situation made her “extremely uncomfortable,” she said.
The city of Gary and its Police Department declined to comment through a spokeswoman this week, citing pending litigation.
A national issue
Transgender bathroom access laws have been a topic of intense political debate at the local, state and federal levels in recent years.
Just under 20 states, including Illinois, have adopted anti-discrimination transgender laws.
Indiana does not have any such law.
A federal judge last month ordered Evansville schools to allow a transgender teen to use male bathrooms, according to the Associated Press.
The 17-year-old student had sued the district alleging his rights were violated after he was told he had to use the female restroom or bathrooms in the nurse’s office.
School officials had told the student he could use the male bathroom only if his birth certificate was changed to identify him as a male, according to the AP.
Several “bathroom bills” requiring people use the bathroom corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate have been introduced in the Indiana General Assembly in recent years, but none have become law.
According to Carter-Lawson’s complaint, she asked to speak with a supervisor and met with a payroll specialist after the incident.
A short time later, the specialist arranged a meeting between Carter-Lawson and Johnson, who allegedly offered an apology, which Carter-Lawson declined, the complaint states.
“Johnson continued to speak in a loud, verbally aggressive manner in the presence of his supervisor while being questioned of his actions. At one point, (Johnson) became so highly enraged he walked out of the meeting until his supervisor requested of him to return and regain his composure,” the suit claims.
Carter-Lawson said she attempted numerous times to contact the Gary Police Civil Service Commission to file a verified complaint detailing the bathroom incident “with no resolution.”
2016 suit settlement
Carter-Lawson said she believes actions by the officer and the department may have been retaliatory for a previous suit she filed against the department alleging a 2016 unlawful arrest.
In that case, police charged Carter-Lawson with impersonating a public servant on Jan. 13, 2016, according to a police report. Carter-Lawson’s vehicle broke down, and she needed a ride home so phoned Lake County dispatch. During the call, she said she mistakenly identified herself as a “reserve” officer —instead of a “recruit,” she said.
When an officer arrived to the scene, “they were arresting me for saying reserve instead of recruit. Over a mix-up of two words. It was an honest mistake. And I had never previously been informed of what my contingent title was,” she said.
According to the 2016 complaint, Carter-Lawson asked the officer on scene, who responded “(Expletive). Because you ain’t (expletive) until you’re sworn in.”
The suit alleges she was harassed about her sexual identity during the booking process.
Court documents show that case was settled on April 4, 2016. The stipulation of the dismissal was the $1,000 payment to Carter-Lawson and release of her towed vehicle. The city also agreed to throw out a non-disclosure agreement, she said.
Prior to that arrest, Carter-Lawson said she passed the written and agility exams in 2015 in hopes of becoming a police officer. While not yet hired by the department, she said she believes her chance to have a career with the Gary Police Department was ruined with that arrest.
“I believe the Gary Police Department and officials within, purposefully colluded to disqualify me from becoming a Gary Police officer. However, without justifiable explanation, Gary Police Department disqualified me,” Carter-Lawson wrote in her latest suit.