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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 promised myself a little time to vent about the nigger “joke” I heard on Christmas, and then I would forgive and move on. At the close of the sentence, “bigger than a nigger’s lips,” my mind went spiraling. I was shocked that I heard what I heard. Five feet away from me? In mixed company on many accounts? How was the joke even relevant to the conversation? How, in 2013, do whites still make nigger “jokes”? I felt eyes dart in my direction. Oh, Eric — the Black guy — the professor — the one who does research on racism — the one who speaks openly about racism — oh, gosh.
I tried to play it cool. But, that all dissolved in a matter of minutes. Sitting in the car for the remainder of our time at the party was the only thing keeping me from vomiting. Or at least it felt as though I would, as nausea built from feeling trapped between politeness and my burning, screaming mind. I promised I would get over it by the next day, continuing to focus on racism as a system of oppression — not individual acts and attitudes.
But, in just seeing @StandForOurFlag, a defender of the Confederate flag, notify me that many in the US South continue to feel nostalgia for the confederacy (which lasted for four years) 150 years later because of something about liberty (give me a break), I cannot quickly get over the Christmas event. Two days later, I saw a Confederate flag waving proudly on my way to the mall. I tweeted about it, which is why I received the aforementioned response about liberty for (whites in) the South. Liberty?
In the spirit of one of my my 2013 resolutions (now one for 2014 because it is still a work in progress) — forgiveness — I had hoped to move on from the nigger “joke.” Black people, from capture, forced removal, enslavement, to Jim Crow, lynching, rape, to a continuing, yet subtler practice of racism today have been forgiving whites for a lot. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights movement leaders advocated for forgiveness even in the face of vehement racist hatred. It takes a huge, committed, faith-filled heart to forgive that. But, I have been trying. Something akin to “forgive the sinner, but not the sin” because racist individuals are simply a product of their racist society. It takes an evolved mind and spirit to be better than your upbringing, in my opinion. People can change — I have, and I have seen others become better, more compassionate, more open-minded, more understanding, and more critical of inequality and injustice.
I can think of something bigger than a nigger’s lips: a nigger’s heart. Still today, Black people and other people of color fight to make the US a better, more equal place — even with a continued willingness to work with white people where they are. Despite accusations of “playing the race card” and being hypersensitive, there is a great deal of patience afforded to whites without laying blame for this country’s racist past. We ask only to address today’s racism, which is a product of past racism. You cannot eradicate racial inequalities today without addressing the impact of centuries of enslavement, disenfranchisement, violence, and barriers to advancing and succeeding in life. You cannot tell a group of people who have never experienced full, equal citizenship in this nation to “get over” the very events and treatment that continues to constrain their lives.
So, I admit that alongside my forgiveness is a twinge of resentment. I have been asked again and again to forgive, even to forget, even to forgo recognizing bigotry when it occurs. But, I am sometimes automatically damned, accused, found guilty, punished simply because of my racial identity. I am asked to forgive those who refuse to forgive me for not being like them. How small is your heart (and your mind) if you automatically punish someone for being something you have decided is inferior or undesirable? So, we’ve got you beat there, racist white people! In this vein, we have the more open minds, we have the bigger, more forgiving hearts. We are able to simultaneously love this country and hate its ugliness in order to make it a better place.
I will keep forging ahead in my work to fight racism as a system, including racist treatment and attitudes. But, I think I have reached my capacity for forgiveness. Now approaching 30 years, I am beginning to feel heartache. I cannot forgive the murder of Trayvon Martin, nor that the State, which unfairly punishes those it should be protecting, that let his murderer free. I cannot forgive “oh, I didn’t know anyone would be offended,” and then be told celebrating the racist legacy of the South is a matter of liberty. I do not know that I can forgive the political sabotage driven by racism that has severely hindered President Obama’s important legacy in this nation.
My heart is big, but it would burst if I forgave any more without forgiveness in return.