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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.
Last night, I received an email from the Tennessee Anti-Racist Network thanking me for allowing the organization to use my blog post on a bystander intervention approach to anti-racism for their April 2013 conference theme. This served as a counter-protest to a white supremacists rally:
American Renaissance (AmRen), a white supremacy group, plans to hold their annual racist conference at Montgomery Bell State Park Conference Center, near Dickson, Tennessee, April 5-7, 2013.
[Download the post-conference recap here.]
This sounded like an important event, so of course I agreed to lend the idea as my way of supporting it. Bystander intervention was developed as a community response (i.e., it is the community’s responsibility) to eliminate sexual violence. At some point, other advocates have picked it up to fight other forms of bigotry and violence, including racism. So, it certainly is not my original idea; but, I do take credit for my own perspective on it as laid out in my blog post, “A Call For Bystander Intervention To End Racism.” At the time, I was finishing up my dissertation; so, the idea of having a blog post serve as an anti-racist conference’s theme was a welcome break from sitting alone in my apartment day in and day out (in the name of social science, of course!).
On October 12, League of the South, an extremist hate group will invade middle Tennessee and try to infect our home with false Southern Pride (aka white power). They intend to demonstrate in Murfreesboro and Shelbyville. We intend to get in their way. They are already bullying and trying to intimidate Tennessee residents who are taking a stand against their racist group. Don’t let these people invade OUR home and get away with this.
But, the organizer also gave me the heads up that they have faced some backlash — and, my name has come up:
From the Tennessee Anti Racist Network page:
“Be proactive. Do not be a bystander. Go to the Murfreesboro, TN, Anti Racist counter rally on October 12, and tell League of the South To Stop The Hate. Information on this page adapted and taken from Eric Grollman at http://egrollman.com/?s=bystander+intervention”
Eric Grollman is a professional Black homosexual feminist (his articles on those interests are on his website). He says he is a scholar whose “research centers on medical sociology and social psychology to investigate race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and sexualities, and the intersections among them.” He “examines the social factors that produce and maintain disparities in mental, physical, and sexual health” and “investigate(s) the effects prejudice and discrimination on marginalized groups’ health and well-being.” With meager credentials, these special interests must have been what got him a spot as Asst. Professor at the University of Richmond.
So, I suppose I am now on the white supremacists’ shit list. I tweeted about this, and shared it on Facebook, receiving mostly praise (“you’ve arrived!” as indicated by making enemies, especially of the bigot variety). A few folks expressed some concern: notify my university just to err on the side of caution for my safety (done); make sure I am taking care of myself internally to weather any more that may come of this (a work in progress).
The funny thing is, I just wrote a post yesterday on “playing it safe,” and that I am still doing other things that appear anything but safe and traditional. I have been calling for greater intellectual activism — in my case, blogging — and, I suppose pissing off racist bigots counts for something. This is at least a reminder to be careful what you wish for!
Now, back to being a good first-year professor with “meager credentials.” I should know being a “professional Black homosexual feminist” will not guarantee job security.
New York City’s unpopular, but supposedly “effective” crime-reducing program, “Stop, Question, and Frisk” or (“Stop-and-Frisk” for short), was ruled unconstitutional on Tuesday. The program entails the following: “a police officer who reasonably suspects a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a felony or a Penal Law misdemeanor, stops and questions that person, and, if the officer reasonably suspects he or she is in danger of physical injury, frisks the person stopped for weapons.”
The judge, Shira A. Scheindlin of Federal District Court in Manhattan, ruled that NYC police officers were systematically stopping people with little cause for suspicion. (In this particular case, police officers were stopping individuals thought to be trespassing on a Bronx apartment complex property.) In reviewing police training, she further noted that this evidence “strengthens the conclusion that the N.Y.P.D.’s inaccurate training has taught officers the following lesson: Stop and question first, develop reasonable suspicion later.”
“Because any member of the public could conceivably find herself outside a TAP building in the Bronx, the public at large has a liberty and dignity interest in bringing an end to the practice of unconstitutional stops at issue in this case,” the judge wrote.
In a way, this is exactly what NYC major Michael Bloomberg and other advocates of the “stop-and-frisk” program call for. In exchange for the universal possibility of being stopped by a police officer, residents of NYC see a significant reduction in crime and gun possession. While there have been notable declines in the crime rate (but few seizures of guns), many have argued that this purported exchange is not enjoyed universally. Rather, an overwhelming majority of those stopped by police over the past two years were Black and Latino men. Judge Scheindlin took note of one role of race (and racism) in her decision:
As a person exits a building, the ruling said, “the police suddenly materialize, stop the person, demand identification, and question the person about where he or she is coming from and what he or she is doing.”
The decision continued: “Attempts at explanation are met with hostility; especially if the person is a young black man, he is frisked, which often involves an invasive search of his pockets; in some cases the officers then detain the person in a police van.”
Many civil rights and anti-racist activists have criticized the “stop-and-frisk” program due to the overrepresentation of men of color in police stops. Indeed, in practice, the program is a form of institutional discrimination — in this case, as disparate impact discrimination. That is, while the program does not target a particular disadvantaged group — men of color — by design, it does, in practice, disproportionately burden them.
Typically, disparate impact discrimination is deemed otherwise innocent in terms of intention or bias; these are merely programs or policies that have been unfair in practice. Yet “stop-and-frisk” actually operates as a legal door for racial profiling by both those unintentionally and those intentionally targeting Black and Latino men. Some say the racial and ethnic imbalance is merely a product of geography: greater surveillance of predominantly black and brown areas of the city (this, of course, is problematic, too!). In light of stories of being stopped many times in one’s life, others suggest the “stop-and-frisk” program legally allows police to use one’s blackness/brownness as suspect. “You’re Black/Latino, so you must be up to no good!”
Even if police stops were equally burdensome for every racial group (and police were evenly hostile to “suspicious” people), the experience of being stopped, questioned, and searched by police is fundamentally racialized. Given the history of racism, including racist violence and harassment by police or by others yet ignored by police, no white person can ever fully experience the feelings of anger, humiliation, and powerlessness that follow being targeted by police as a person of color.
Further, programs like this one, Arizona’s “show-me-your-papers” law that unfairly targets Latina/o people, among others are just the tip of the racist iceberg of the US criminal justice system. From interaction with the police, to arrest, to court, to prison, racial inequality exists at every step and every facet of law enforcement and criminal justice. Unfortunately, the narrow view of the law cannot handle the reality that racism shapes the core and operation of every social system and institution, including law enforcement.
Legalized Homophobia And Transphobia
It may have come as a surprise to some that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups joined the chorus of anti-racist and civil rights organizations that rallied against the “stop-and-frisk” program. Beyond advocating for racial equality, these groups took issue with the disproportionate number of LGBT people of color who have been stopped by police. Often, young Black and Latino LGBT people are stopped as suspects for sexual crimes (e.g., public sex, sex work). In these stops, many are sexually harassed or assaulted by police.
Parallel to blackness and brownness as suspect, LGBT people are legally targeted through the “stop-and-frisk” program often because of their gender expression. LGBT people, especially transgender and gender non-conforming people, are deemed suspicious because their “appearance transgresses gender norms embraced by mainstream society.” It turns out that stops based on suspicion of sexual crimes has already been deemed illegal, again by the same judge:
In 2010, in a decision dripping with outrage, US District Judge Shira Scheindlin held New York City in contempt for failing to end enforcement of loitering laws held unconstitutional decades before. One of the laws at issue was the “loitering for sex” statute that Lambda Legal had succeeded in getting struck down in 1983 by New York’s highest court, shortly after it threw out the state’s sodomy law.
“The human toll, of course, has been borne by the tens of thousands of individuals who have, at once, had their constitutional rights violated and been swept into the penal system,” Scheindlin wrote. “More disturbing still, it appears that the laws — which target panhandling, remaining in a bus or train station, and ‘cruising’ for sex — have been enforced particularly against the poor and gay men.”
Missing The Complex Reality Of Discrimination Today
The above discussion points to the inability for the law, in its present state, to fully appreciate the complex reality of discrimination today. One challenge is to prove that a law or program — instances of institutional discrimination — disproportionately affect a particular group (without just cause). This sidesteps the matter of proving biased or prejudiced intentions, a matter central to cases of unfair treatment; however, the narrow view of the law fails to account for the systemic, wide-reaching influence of systems of oppression such as racism, homophobia, and transphobia. Indeed, it can be argued that discrimination within one institution (e.g., criminal justice) mutually reinforces discrimination in other systems (e.g., education). The true challenge, then, is proving when discrimination is not at play, at least indirectly.
The other important matter that is systematically overlooked is the simultaneous, interconnected operation of multiple systems of oppression. “Stop-and-frisk” reflects the practice of both racism and homophobia/transphobia by police and the criminal justice system. What, on the surface, appears to be a matter of racial inequality has turned out to disproportionately affect Black and Latina/o queer people. Another instance of legalized discrimination, the US military’s “Don’ Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, had its greatest effect on Black women. And, given the greater number of Black same-gender couples who have children, Black LGBT people hold a greater share of the burden created by laws that prohibit or hinder same-gender marriage and adoption.
Of course, greater attention should be paid to the reality that some people are victimized by multiple forms of discrimination (e.g., racist and sexist discrimination). Yet, discrimination cases that pursue such claims are ultimately less successful in court, probably because the court is unable to apprehend this level of complexity.
The days of explicit, unapologetic racist discrimination are (mostly) gone, and great progress has been made toward equality for LGBT people. Yet, the task remains to better understand prejudice and discrimination in the new millennium. There is a great deal of complexity to discrimination that we consistently miss when attending to the discriminatory actions of a few bigoted apples. We will never achieve full equality, whether in opportunities or outcomes, without an appropriately comprehensive understanding of what discrimination is, how it operates, and how to prevent it.