Beyond Marriage Equality: Transgender people and criminal justice

Have you read any of the New York Times’ series of editorials on transgender lives and issues? Transgender Today presents essays that have highlighted equality, workplace related issues, access to public restrooms, romance, transgender people in the military, and visibility. While my non-violent, anti-war Quaker sensibilities get ruffled by pieces entitled, Transgender in the C.I.A., I find it encouraging that the New York Times is devoting so much space and thought to transgender issues. These are not just guest op-eds either; rather these pieces come with the byline: The Editorial Board. The views represent the opinions of the newspaper’s editors. And while they expound on critical issues, the writers also focus on individual stories.


poster during the campaign to free CeCe McDonald

The most recent editorial in the Transgender Today series is about incarceration and transgender people. Prisons and Jails Put Transgender People at Risk.  The editors write about Estrella Sánchez:

Ms. Sánchez, a 28-year-old transgender woman from Mexico, was held in immigration detention for nearly a year, beginning in 2012. She was placed in solitary confinement for a month, solely because of her gender identity. At every place she was held, inmates directed slurs at her in front of guards, who routinely laughed. The harassment she faced in detention was a cruel reminder of the abuse she suffered in Mexico, which she had hoped to escape when she came to the United States in 2005.

They go on to graphically outline the abuses Ms Sánchez experienced in detention then give us a small window into what her life is like now that she has begun a new life in the US outside of prison.

They then outline myriad issues affecting most transgender people confronted by the criminal justice system.

In the United States, transgender people are routinely subjected to harassment, but few are as powerless as those in prison. As more have become vocal about their safety and their rights, prison systems that segregate inmates along conventional gender lines are facing mounting challenges. While a few have changed housing policies, the vast majority have not.

Transgender people are much more likely than the population at large to be imprisoned at some point in their lives. They are at high risk of police discrimination and abuse; many transgender women have been searched or arrested on suspicion of prostitution based on little more than their appearance. Transgender people also face widespread employment discrimination, and many turn to illegal activities to support themselves.

When they are in custody, transgender people face disproportionate risks. According to a 2011-12 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 39.9 percent of transgender prison inmates and 26.8 percent of transgender jail inmates reported unwanted sexual activity with other inmates or sexual activity with prison staff members, which is always considered nonconsensual under the law, in the previous year — 10 times higher than for the general prison and jail populations.

img-thingAs a white, cisgender, married gay man, I am easily shielded from the harsh realities regularly faced by immigrants and inmates–most of whom are people of color. I run the risk of rejoicing in marriage equality then leaving off the fight for queer justice as I settle into domestic bliss. This is why diversity in our LGBTQ spaces  and organizations is so important. The movement becomes sound and just when we hear a variety of stories and experiences. People’s needs get revealed.  Just like lesbian, gay, and bisexual activists for marriage equality relentlessly and rightfully forced straight folks to hear stories about lesbian and gay relationships, families, discrimination, and dreams in hopes that these would move straight folks to action and justice, similarly hearing stories about the challenges faced by transgender and gender queer people can and should dislodge cisgender lesbians, bisexual, and gays from a comfortable place of ignorant complacency.

We fought for our rights, but we also benefited from those who stood alongside of us in solidarity. We must now educate ourselves about other LGBTQ folks with different experiences than our own so that we engage in the same work for justice we insisted straight people pursue. A good place to start right now is this New York Times editorial, Prisons and Jails Put Transgender People at Risk. You can read a variety of articles over at Huffington Post. Deepen your understanding and explore the National Center for Transgender Rights.

Featured image: Estrella Sánchez, a transgender woman from Mexico.CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times


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