Transgender Justice and Prisons

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Onni Gust

(Onni Gust is originally from London, UK, where she took part in social justice activism and education, particularly on LGBT rights and racism. Onni arrived in Champaign-Urbana in August 2013 and is a post-doctoral fellow at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities.)

In her talk at the IMC on Friday 27th September, Angela Davis stated that transgender people are significantly over-represented as a population in prisons.  According to the Silvia Rivera Law Project, which works on transgender issues and social justice, low-income transgender people are more likely than the average person to face police harassment, imprisonment and violence.  Why is this the case?  Why are transgender people more likely than most to face homelessness, imprisonment and, for transgender immigrants, deportation?

Five years ago, perhaps even less, the word ‘transgender’ would have meant very little to the majority of people living in America.  Recently, transgender people have become increasingly visible in the media and the word ‘transgender’ and ‘trans’ has become more familiar, if not necessarily well understood.  Most recently, the whistle-blower Chelsea Manning came out as a trans woman following her sentencing, an event that was widely covered in the media.  In popular media, Laverne Cox, a trans woman actress stars as a Sophia, a trans-inmate in Orange is the New Black.

As a term, ‘transgender’ refers to a broad spectrum of people who do not conform to society’s very narrow definition of a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ – including people who cross-dress, people who feel neither male or female, and people identify as the ‘opposite’ sex to the sex they were given at birth.  ‘Transgender’ is also an identity, primarily adopted by those whose sense of gender is radically at odds with the gender that society imposes upon them.  Trans people might choose to undergo surgery and/or take hormones in order to feel more comfortable in their own skin.  Yet very few insurance providers cover trans health, and as we have seen in the case of Chelsea Manning, prisons do not necessarily treat what is officially called ‘gender identity disorder’ despite it being a recognized mental health condition.

So, why are trans people being disproportionately incarcerated?  The same factors that lead to imprisonment in general – poverty, low levels of education, mental health problems and racism – are magnified by the addition of gender non-conformity in the case of trans people.  Like lesbian and gay young people, trans and gender non-conforming people often face bullying at school and can be rejected by their families for asserting their identities.  According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender people are nearly four times more likely to have a household income below $10,000 compared to the general population.  Trans people report overwhelming discrimination in employment, with double the rate of trans people unemployed than the general population and the majority of transpeople stating that they have experienced workplace harassment.

Trans people are more likely to suffer both homelessness and poverty, as a result of structural discrimination and widespread transphobia.  Basic documents that provide access to education, welfare and employment all use sex as a marker of identification.  Most US states place complex barriers to, or refuse to allow, gender change on documents such as birth certificate, drivers’ licence or social security.  Illinois requires that trans people have sexual reassignment surgery prior to allowing a gender change on birth certificates, surgery that is rarely covered by insurance, is often prohibitively expensive and not necessarily desirable.  This leaves trans people who attempt to access services requiring identity documents open to harassment, potential refusal or even arrest.

As a result of these many difficulties, poor trans people often turn to the underground economy in order to survive, work that is frequently dangerous, illegal, and exposes them to police surveillance.  At the same time, trans-women in particular tend to be hyper-visible, attracting police attention and often falsely arrested for soliciting, for using the ‘wrong’ bathroom, or for lack of documentation.  Racism and the criminalization of communities of colour renders trans people of colour and immigrants particularly vulnerable to police harassment, imprisonment and deportation.

As the recent media coverage of the whistle-blower, Chelsea Manning’s incarceration makes evident, trans people are usually placed in a prison that matches their assigned gender rather than their actual gender identity.  In addition to being prevented from expressing their gender through clothing and hairstyles, there are also almost insurmountable barriers to attaining trans-related healthcare (hormones, surgery) in prison.  Not only are trans people denied access to necessary treatment, they also face higher levels of harassment, discrimination and abuse in prison.  The Silvia Rivera Law Project’s report, “Its War in Here”, documents the abuse that trans, gender, non-conforming and intersex prisoners in a New York state men’s prison.  The report evidences the particular dangers and traumas that this group suffers in an environment that is already volatile.  Singled out for exemplary punishment, physical abuse, sexual harassment and assault, trans, intersex and gender non-conforming people suffer extreme levels of abuse at the hands of prison guards and fellow prisoners.  Given these experiences, what are the chances of successful rehabilitation into a society that has little room for trans people anyway?

Trans and gender non-conforming people are disproportionately incarcerated as a result of their exclusions from a society with deep prejudices towards those who fall outside a narrow definition of ‘man’ or ‘woman’.   It is for this reason that transgender activists, notably the Silvia Rivera Law Project, have been vocal on the problems of prisons for society as a whole, but for trans people in particular.  The more we talk about transgender rights as an integral part of the struggle for civil rights and social justice, the more we challenge those prejudices and open up the possibility for people to live and express their identities fully.  As Angela Davis says, “We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.”

For more information about transgender rights and mass incarceration see the Silvia Rivera Law Project’s website and the National Center for Transgender Equality




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