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Last week, I participated on a panel, Transgender People in Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Settings: Recent Research, hosted by the Virginia Anti-Violence Project (VAVP) at University of Richmond’s downtown campus. Dr. Eugene F. Simopoulos, a forensic psychiatrist, presented a thorough review of gender identity and expression, and the treatment of trans people in the criminal justice system and medical institution. Responses were offered by Edward Strickler (secretary of the Board of Directors of VAVP), Rebecca Glenberg (Legal Director, ACLU of VA), and me (in my capacity as a sociologist). Our collective goal was to educate local law enforcement about trans people, particularly their treatment within the criminal justice system, and hopefully offer recommendations for improvements. Below, I offer the notes from my response to Dr. Simopoulos. You can see media coverage of the event at GayRVA.
As a sociologist, I study discrimination, and its consequences for marginalized groups’ health and well-being. There are two features of my scholarship that I believe will be useful for today’s conversation about trans people generally and in the criminal justice system specifically. The first is to offer a critical sociological perspective for understanding discrimination. The way that most people understand discrimination in an everyday sense is fairly narrow. In particular, discrimination is thought to include specific, rare, and identifiable events of unfair treatment that are committed by specific, identifiable perpetrators who harbor prejudice toward a particular disadvantaged social group. Thus, the intent of one’s actions are crucial here, regardless of the impact on the victim.
However, as a sociologist, I recognize that discriminatory treatment is much more complex than this, and often occurs in the absence of explicit, conscious bias. The discriminatory acts perpetrated by a member of a dominant group against a member of a stigmatized group are merely the behavioral component of a system of oppression. And, these acts are justified by the ideological component of this system of oppression, or what we typically call prejudice. I suggest, then, that we think about transphobia as a system of oppression. The discrimination and harassment that transgender people face is neither rare nor random; rather, trans people repeatedly face discrimination, harassment, and violence across multiple contexts, and throughout their lives.
Transphobia Is A System Of Oppression
Transphobia, as a social system, includes the discriminatory acts perpetrated by cisgender (i.e., non-transgender) people against transgender people. It also operates through important institutions in society – the medical institution, the criminal justice system, education, the military, and so forth. It shapes the policies and practices of these institutions in ways that disadvantage, harm, and/or exclude transgender people. Finally, transphobia manifests as laws and policies, particularly at the federal and state levels, that disadvantage, harm, and/or exclude transgender people. This includes seemingly-neutral laws and policies that are harmful, nonetheless. One example would be the push for voter identification laws, which places additional burdens on trans people, particularly those whose legal documents do not reflect their current gender identity.
I offer this perspective of transphobia as a system for two reasons. First, I wish to highlight that the challenges to improve the treatment of transgender people are by no means unique to the criminal justice system. Second, I want to push our conversation about trans people’s interaction with and experiences in the criminal justice system into the broader context of transphobia. The challenges that transgender people face in the criminal justice system are both cause and consequence of the challenges they face in other domains of society. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey notes that trans people are more likely to interact with law enforcement and/or enter the criminal justice system because: 1) they are more likely than cisgender people to be a victim of a crime, particularly anti-trans hate crimes; 2) they are more likely to be homeless, kicked out of their homes by family or due to extreme poverty; and, 3) because of employment discrimination, many transgender people turn to sex work, selling as well as using drugs, or other parts of the underground economy.
Intersections With Racism And Classism
The second feature of my scholarship that I wish to share today is a framework that considers how other systems of oppression intersect with transphobia. Black feminist scholars have developed a concept called intersectionality to understand the interlocking and mutually reinforcing relationships among racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism. We can add to this list transphobia. Relatedly, they argue that you cannot attend to one of an individual’s multiple social identities to fully capture that individual’s experiences, well-being, and status in society.
In today’s conversation, by thinking of trans people solely in terms of their gender identity and expression, we miss important ways in which transgender people’s experiences are shaped by their race and ethnicity, immigrant status, social class, and other identities. More specifically, we miss that certain segments of transgender communities – namely poor trans people, trans women, trans people of color, and especially trans women of color – are particularly vulnerable to violence, discrimination, harassment, sexual violence, poverty, homelessness, and poor health.
Findings from a few recent reports, including the NTDS Survey, and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report for 2013, suggest that these groups bear the greatest burden of the challenges that trans people face in the criminal justice system. And, these disparities exist in every context in the system, from interactions with police, to arrest, to treatment in prisons.
- While 60% of the transgender people in the NTDS survey report any interaction with law enforcement, the number jumps to 80% for Black and Latina trans women.
- Trans women of color are more likely to report being targeted, disrespected, and harassed, and assaulted by police than other trans people, and LGBT people in general. For example, under New York City’s practice of “stop-and-frisk,” wherein 90% of individuals who were stopped were Black or Latina/o, LGBT people, especially trans women, were disproportionately represented.
- Trans women, particularly trans women of color, are often stopped by police because they are assumed to be sex workers – a pattern that the ACLU and other groups has now referred to as “walking while trans,” akin to racial profiling or “driving while Black.”
- While only 3% of the general population has ever been incarcerated, 16% of trans people have ever been sent to jail or prison. And, that figure is 41% for Black and Latina trans women; almost all report that they were incarcerated due to transphobic bias.
- Among trans people who have been incarcerated, trans women of color serve longer sentences, and are more likely to be harassed, and physically and sexually assaulted by both fellow inmates and prison staff than other trans people.
- And, a greater percentage of trans women of color report that either other inmates or prison staff block their access to hormones or regular medical care.
To conclude, I want to reiterate the importance of recognizing the roles that race, ethnicity, immigrant status, and social class play – or, more specifically, how racism and classism intersect with transphobia. We must avoid thinking of and treating trans communities as a monolithic group, as there is a great deal of diversity within these communities.
References And Additional Information
- Simopoulos, Eugene F. and Khin Khin. 2014. “Fundamental principles inherent in the comprehensive care of transgender inmates.” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 42: 26-36.
- Summary of findings [pdf] and full report [pdf] of National Transgender Discrimination Survey. (And, see my summary here.)
- Supplementary report [pdf] of Black respondents in the NTDS survey. (And, see my summary here.)
- Supplementary report Hispanic and Latina/o respondents [pdf] and Asian and Asian American respondents [pdf] in the NTDS survey.
- Summary of findings [pdf] and full report [pdf] of the 2013 National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report.
- It’s A War In Here: A Report on Transgender People in Men’s Prisons [pdf] by Sylvia Rivera Law Project.
- The Williams Institute report on Latina trans women’s experiences with law enforcement [pdf].
- “The Unfair Criminalization of Gay and Transgender Youth,” Center for American Progress, June 29, 2012.
- A Roadmap for Change: Federal Policy Recommendations for Addressing the Criminalization of LGBT People and People with HIV [pdf].
- Queer (In)Justice book
- “Dealing with Transgender Subjects,” Police Magazine, January 4, 2013.
- Resources from the Transgender Law Center
I’m (not) sorry, but can we hold up on celebrating every white straight cisgender man who does anything minimally non-homophobic/biphobic/transphobic? I appreciate these efforts. And, I recognize the work of some as anti-homophobic, anti-biphobic, and/or anti-transphobic activism (you know, because not being a bigot is not the same thing as being an ally or advocate). In my opinion, they should be doing this, and giving a cookie to every self-proclaimed ally reinforces the message that bigotry is just a few bad apples and justice can be achieved through a few noteworthy, but infrequent acts.
Beyond that, I find that queer people do not get enough credit for existing, daring to be visible, authentic, happy. Coming out. Refusing to hide. Refusing to conform. Refusing to resign themselves to a miserable, invisible, inauthentic existence. Refusing to tolerate the status quo. Refusing to be excluded from important social and political institutions. Who could ever imagine a day that lawsuits are filed in the country’s most conservative states to force them to get up to speed with federal recognition of same-gender couples? Even in the face of opposition that has demonized queer people as promiscuous, drug-abusers, pedophiles, non-monogamous, and perverts, queer people have demanded to have their relationships recognized and celebrated.
We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it. Straight, cisgender people, get used to it! That is some brave, bold shit.
Oh, but it takes a lot to be so brave. Individual queer people are worn out from the daily toll of being out (or not) or making that negotiation minute by minute. Our relationships are tested as we navigate another, unexpected layer of the closet: queer love and sex. Do we embark on the war with our intolerant families? How do we navigate our communities? How do we navigate the law and institutions? All while not really seeing ourselves, seeing others like us, in public and the media. All while, at best, being tolerated but never fully accepted.
Sometimes, the well runs dry. Sometimes, it is easier to give it up — accept our second-class citizenship. The opposition can be so fierce that you begin to wonder why you fight — maybe you are asking for too much, too soon. Maybe you are naive to hope for better. Maybe you are even greedy for wanting equality in an unequal world. Maybe you should concede to the world’s desire to make you disappear.
Fuck. That. Noise.
My activism is not radical unless staying alive is radical. It is radical if equality is radical. We have got to fight — all of the time — so we can stop fighting. When one of us gets weary, another one should step up to carry on, and another to support the both of them. By continuously fighting, we carry on the legacy of those who fought before us, and improve the opportunities for future generations. It is not a war we started, but it is one we will have to win in order to survive.
So, I am celebrating queer warriors — all of them. And, I am honoring the fallen. Fight on. Thanks to our heterosexual and cisgender supporters and allies; keep fighting on, but celebrate the victories for queer justice — not yourselves.
A few weeks ago, I watched (and loved) the film, Gun Hill Road. One scene of the film hit me in the gut, hard. The film’s lead character, Vanessa Rodriquez (played by Harmony Santana), a young Latina transwoman, was coerced into having sex with a woman sex worker by her father, Enrique Rodriquez. Her father pressured her to do so in attempt to “cure” her gender identity, making her the heterosexual cisman he preferred as his child. “Wow,” I thought, “that’s a form of sexual violence!”
Oh, wait… that happened to me. When I was 17, just a week shy of my 18th birthday, a family member guilted me into being with a sex worker. I identified as bisexual then, so the pressure was on to finally give sex with a woman a try – of course, with the implied intention to “cure” me of my sexual attraction to men. I resisted, saying I was not interested, and did not want my first sexual experience to be with a sex worker in a hotel room.
Eventually, I caved to the pressure. The sex worker arrived and explained that for the amount of money I had, she could only provide an erotic dance. I was uncomfortable and wanted her to leave immediately. While she danced, I asked how business was, and she asked how school was coming. Ten minutes later, she was gone and I was both relieved and disgusted.
I later came out as gay, and now identify as queer. And, fortunately, my family has come around to accepting me as a whole human being. But, I will live with the memory of being coerced into any sort of sexual activity with a woman for life. So, too, will every other instance in which I was asked an inappropriate question about my sex life or relationships, or been subject to comments that aimed to shame me for being a sexually active queer man. “You don’t take it up the butt, do you?” “I hope you are using condoms. You can die from AIDS” “Which one of you is the woman in the relationship?”
Sexual Violence Against LGBTQ People
As a scholar, my perspective – informed by my research and personal experiences – has shifted to see sexual violence as the sexualized manifestation of any system of oppression, not merely of sexism or misogyny. In the ugly racist history of the US, Black people and other people of color have been raped, lynched and castrated, sterilized, and exotified; we have been demonized as jezebels, savages, whores, and temptresses.
Homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, too, are regularly expressed in sexualized ways. The subtle and explicit shaming of LGBT people for existing, being sexual, and having loving relationships is widespread. Transwomen are harassed on the streets by police who assume that they are sex workers. Manufactured lesbian sexuality is exploited for cis, heterosexual men’s desires, while authentic lesbian relationships remain invisible or stigmatized. Lesbians are subject to “corrective rape” in South Africa (and worldwide), while gay men are punished with extreme violence, including rape, for being gay. Even as the US has become more tolerant of LGBT people and same-gender relationships (that mirror the acceptable, heteronormative and cisnormative standard), queer sexuality remains demonized, despised, and closeted.
Ironically, queer people are punished, sometimes through sexual violence, because of our sexualities. While the cis heterosexual dominated society is obsessed with our sex lives and our sexual desires, we are the ones who are seen as perverts.
When news first broke about the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, some lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) organizations spoke out about the injustice. Some even signed onto calls demanding that Zimmerman be tried for the murder. Now, after the not-guilty verdict, which has freed Zimmerman of any responsibility and thus punishment for taking Martin’s life, even more LGBT organizations have voiced their outrage. Indeed, advocating for justice is the right thing to do.
Trayvon’s Murder As An LGBT Issue
But, is this really something that we should expect of organizations that advocate for equality on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression? Or, as the Queerty article asked of its readers, “Should the LGBT community care about the George Zimmerman trial verdict?“
When I first saw the headline, I thought the answer was obvious — yes! And, other LGBT media were focusing on the organizations that were demanding justice; so, it seemed the question did not even need to be posed. I skimmed the article and then the comments to see if the obvious “yes” and the reasons for it were articulated by others. Fortunately, most of the readers at least said yes, though largely because they could empathize with the injustice in this case as LGBT people.
Admittedly, I was underwhelmed by this response. It felt as though LGBT people — at least the few people answering Queerty’s inquiry — cared about the unjust murder of Trayvon Martin to the extent that they were able to envision fearing such violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. I had hoped to see some recognition that this racial injustice affects the lives of LGBT people of color — that that was enough for the entire LGBT community to be concerned that some of its members’ rights have been threatened.
However, I read an op-ed in The Advocate this morning, which help me understand this sort of empathy (which I would better understand outside of this very divisive case). Michelle Garcia, the magazine’s commentary editor, wrote a piece that connects the so-called gay panic defense to the not-guilty verdict Zimmerman received. In the former, there have been cases of anti-LGBT murders wherein the heterosexual murderer argues that he (typically) was momentarily insane because of a sexual advance made by the gay or transgender victim. In a way, they feared for their safety (in line with the stereotype of gay rapists), and thus defended themselves. Zimmerman’s defense for pursuing and killing Martin was that he feared for his and others’ safety. Because the stereotype of young Black men as violent criminals exists, eliciting real fear in whites, it seemed to be enough to justify taking Martin’s life, and letting Zimmerman (and his racial biases) walk free.
I find this take (and this one) convincing. The very laws (i.e., Stand Your Ground) that let white murderers of innocent Black people walk free could let heterosexual or cisgender murderers of innocent lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender walk free. In fact, prior to such broad self-defense laws, and without drawing directly upon them now that they exist, there are several of such murderers who do walk free because of the “gay panic” or “trans panic” defense. Courts and juries have sympathized with privileged people who momentarily felt unsafe (often because they stereotyped an LGBT person as a sexual predator), while offering no justice for their victims — people who live in daily fear of anti-LGBT discrimination and violence their entire lives.
A(nother) Call For Coalition-Building
As such, the unjust murder of Trayvon Martin is an LGBT issue… is a feminist issue… is a human rights issue. In the past few weeks, LGBT people have celebrated major advancements toward sexual and gender equality. In that same time frame, the hard-fought rights of people of color and women have been attacked and, in some cases, successfully eliminated. These setbacks hurt lesbian, bisexual, and transwomen, and LGBT people of color. Thus, they are setbacks for all LGBT people, and all people of color, and all women. And, pessimistically speaking, they are a signal to the LGBT movement that bigots never retire, even as discrimination and violence are outlawed. The very rights we finally secure today may be undermined in a few decades.
This is yet another reminder that single-issue politics are less effective, at least in the long-run. We cannot afford to have white feminists focusing exclusively on the slow reversal of Roe v. Wade, while white gay men continue to blindly celebrate marriage equality, while heterosexual, cisgender people of color exclusively mourn the recent string of racial injustices (Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action, Baby Veronica, Zimmerman’s acquittal, etc.). That is, while women of color, LBT and queer women, and LGBT people of color are exhausted by trying to keep up with all of these issues, and trying to explain to others how they are fundamentally linked. Simply put, we are overdue for successful coalition-building. For, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Dr. King).
I have been thinking about Miley Cyrus a bit lately.
I never thought I would start off a post that way — particularly one about queer sexuality and queer people. She … I don’t even know what to call it… at MTV’s Video Music Awards a few weeks ago. And, became the talk of the town once more, this time swinging in nude on a wrecking ball. When I finally saw the video for that single, “Wrecking Ball,” I was so disappointed. Such a lovely, heartfelt song; in no way had I imagined seeing her naked, especially not sexually licking other construction equipment. It just seemed unnecessary. And, really, unnecessarily vulgar. Must every video be an opportunity to sell sex?
I depart there from the conversations about Miley Cyrus and her public and private sex lives. (I’m late, anyhow.) But, I am intrigued by the conversations that speak more broadly about sexuality, gender, and empowerment. Yes, Miley Cyrus is just one woman in our sexist, sex-obsessed, sex-negative society — even within the music and entertainment industry that suffers from those same characteristics. (Really, just look at Rihanna’s new video…) Good; let’s think sociologically!
But, what troubles me is we have not walked away from these conversations with any clear answers. Is Miley Cyrus a sexually-empowered feminist icon? Or, is she yet another pawn of the music industry? Apparently, the line between one’s sexual objectification and one’s sexual empowerment is too thin. Fuck. That is a really disturbing revelation.
Queer Sexual Empowerment
In deluding myself that there is a clear distinction, I am able to come up with clear examples of women’s sexual empowerment. It’s women who refuse to hide that they are sexual, want sex, and like sex. Right? It’s “girl groups” like Destiny’s Child, TLC, and Salt ‘n Pepa, right? It’s older women artists and actors who refuse to cave to the expectations that they should cover up, stop having sex, or just disappear completely, yes?
My thought process eventually turned to queer sexuality — including, but not limited to, gay men’s sexual empowerment. My mind drew a blank. What would queer sexual empowerment look like? In some ways, merely existing as queer people, especially as sexual and loving queer people, is a political act. Fuck you homophobia. We exist.
For some, that empowerment entails a more heightened expression of queer sexuality. Yes, gay pride regularly reflects the very public display of queer sexuality. We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re scantly clad. I have to remind the prude in me that homophobes and transphobes dismiss queer people whether we are dressed in gender normative ways or donning a rainbow boa, 6-inch-heels, and 5 o’clock shadow. So, while I do not personally embrace the joy of public queer sex and sexuality in this way, I refuse to rain on fellow queer folks’ parade.
But, I do grow tired of the conflation of gay with gay sex. I suppose the final straw was seeing yet another men’s sports team gone nude for a calendar to raise money for an LGBT-related cause. First, this story implies that all of the players are cisgender and heterosexual. It also ticks me off because — duh! — white muscular cis masculine men without disabilities are always sexy. The pervasive sexualization of these kinds of bodies in the context of queer pride has gotten to the point that it no longer registers as empowerment, at least in my opinion. These kinds of bodies are now used for more than sexual desire — ranging from political LGBT events, to businesses’ advertisements to LGBT communities, to any general nod that something is queer. That’s not empowerment.
Even if that was empowerment, when do queer people like me get to be sexually empowered? Why do brown queer bodies still serve the taboo sexual desires of white audiences? Why are fat queer bodies only celebrated in subcultures within LGBT communities, while otherwise invisible or used to repulse or for humor? And, what about gender expression — can I be sexy, sexually desired, and sexually empowered while defying society’s expectations for male-bodied individuals?
As an aside, I think that being sexual or having sex in public is only one way to be sexually empowered. Yes, I do believe queer people should have the freedom to be sexual beings in their public, everyday lives without worrying about threatening cis heterosexuals. But, not everyone wants that. Speaking for myself, I would feel more sexually empowered if I could be a loving, whole person in public. I hate being on guard during the few times my partner and I even hold hands in public. I hate having to monitor how I interact with other men — especially cis heterosexual men, especially other queer men. Even how I interact with people with whom I do not want to or actually have sex with is constrained because of the disempowering force of homophobia.
I suppose, like cis women’s sexual empowerment, the bounds of queer sexual empowerment are difficult to define. For queer people, it is their sexual relationships, behaviors, and desires that are the primary targets of homophobic and biphobic hatred. Sex is often used to evoke panic around trans* issues. To embrace one’s sexuality as a queer person in this homo-, bi-, and transphobic society is a political act. But, only to an extent, it seems. We have gained political ground by convincing the cis straight dominated society that we can be in loving, monogamous relationships, and thus deserve access to marriage and other important institutions. Don’t worry, all of that kinky public sexuality stuff is just a phase until we are ready to have real relationships.In a way, I worry the sexual empowerment of cis heterosexual women and of queer people is not 100% on their terms. A cis woman’s public expression of being a sexual person is valued if it gets heterosexual men off. The flip side of that is that women’s sexuality serves as a source of power — sometimes their sole source of power in this misogynistic society of ours. Queer people’s sexualities are acceptable to the extent that cis heterosexual people do not have to witness it. We gain power by presenting ourselves as “Good As You.”
Empowerment on the dominant group’s terms… that’s not empowerment. Ugh.