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A Call For Sociology’s #MeToo Mo(ve)ment

Ahead of next week’s American Sociological Association (ASA) 2018 annual meeting in Philadelphia, PA, it seems sociology’s #MeToo moment has finally arrived. Assistant Professor Robert L. Reece (University of Texas – Austin) was accused of serial rape and abuse in March — that is, after writing a Vox essay arguing that the #MeToo movement fails to consider the “gray areas” inherent in navigating heterosexual sexual activity. ASA’s Twitter account (@ASAnews) still promotes Reece’s Vox article, which — to me — is akin to promoting Klansmen’s (and women’s) views on Black people and race relations in general, and Nazis’ views on Jewish and LGBTQ Americans. ASA essentially has amplified and tacitly endorsed an accused rapist’s view of rape while doing nothing to amplify survivors’ voices.

Two weeks later, news broke that University of Wisconsin – Madison paid out $591,000 in settlements for sexual violence cases at the university. Emeritus Professor John D. DeLamater’s name was revealed as one sexual predator whom the department and university protected:

In another, sociology professor, John DeLamater, was found to commit impermissible long-term behavior harassing graduate students with inappropriate comments and touching. He was ordered to go through extensive harassment awareness training, and was no longer allowed to have unsupervised contact with students. Delamater died while the case was pending.

Later in April, Associate Professor Matthew W. Hughey (University of Connecticut) was accused of as a rape and abuse:

On August 1, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article featuring SUNY Professor Michael S. Kimmel’s response to allegations that he has sexually harassed multiple graduate students. An anonymous Twitter account, @exposeprof, questioned why Kimmel — given his long record of perpetuating sexual violence — was selected as the 2018 winner of ASA’s Jessie Bernard career award for enlarging “the horizons of sociology to encompass fully the role of women in society.” Through his public statement, he was able to set a six-month deadline for his accusers to formally report his sexual violence to ASA. If no one comes forward (despite the limitations of ASA’s reporting system) or ASA’s Committee on Professional Ethics finds his behavior in line with guidelines for ethical behavior, he wins is prize in January. The current system of reporting sexual violence that occurs at annual meetings fails to acknowledge that few victims report sexual violence.

Beyond the award, will Kimmel still be welcome to attend ASA meetings, which many of his victims also attend? Too little consideration is given to how unsafe ASA meetings are for survivors, perhaps leading some to stop attending all together despite losing out on professional opportunities to present one’s work and to network. What justice will be served to the graduate students his sexual harassment has left traumatized? Fearful? To those whose work he has stolen and claimed as his own? Besides Kimmel, how do we address this problem in the future? There are many sexual predators whose careers continue on unaffected.

And, Emeritus Professor Martin S. Weinberg (Indiana University) is one such person. On August 3rd, I decided to break my silence about the sexual harassment I experienced as a grad student at IU at the hands of Weinberg. As far as I’ve heard, Weinberg’s sexual violence has gone unpunished by IU and its sociology department for years, if not decades. Consequently, even after the he retired, he has been accused of harassing current grad students — those who have come years after me.

These latest exposures have given birth to a #MeTooSociology thread on social media, especially on Twitter. On this thread, you’ll find:

So, now we’re talking. This is sociology’s #MeToo moment, just under a year after the #MeToo movement exploded nationally (that is, over a decade after Tarana Burke launched this movement in 2006), and eight months since The Professor Is In’s survey went viral, collecting over 2,400 entries.

Our moment… A moment isn’t long enough, in my opinion. “Sociology’s #MeToo” Moment” implies that this moment will pass. By next year’s ASA conference in NYC, sociologists will be buzzing about some other controversy. Indeed, the Sociologists Against Sexual Harassment (SASH) — later renamed the International Coalition Against Sexual Harassment (ICASH), launched in 1992, seems to have died out in the past few years. Yet, here we are in 2018…

Sociologists Against Sexual Violence (SASV)

To prevent letting this #MeTooSociology moment end, I call, instead, for a #MeTooSociology movement. Given our critical investigation of power, gender, sexuality, and organizations, sociologists are in excellent position to raise public understanding of sexual violence and to inform laws and policies to support survivors and pursue justice on their behalf. And, we have at our fingertips sociological knowledge and resources to eliminate sexual violence within our own ranks. For example:

  • See Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield’s (Sociologists for Women in Society president, Southern Sociological Society president-elect, and [in my opinion] the next president-elect of ASA) Conditionally Accepted blog post on the ways in which universities facilitate sexual violence. (Also see Dr. Bedelia Nicola Richards’s Conditionally Accepted blog post on the ways in which universities facilitate white supremacy.)
  • See Dr. Debra Guckenheimer’s suggestions for what perpetrators (like Kimmel) should do once their sexual violence has been brought to light.
  • See Dr. Hephzibah Strmic-Pawl’s suggestions for action that the discipline should take to effectively address sexual violence.
  • See my blog post arguing that when departments, universities, and professional societies fail to address sexual violence in academia, they pass the burden on to individuals to work with or around (or avoid) those perpetrators.

Yet, since news broke of then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump’s taped admission of perpetrating sexual violence against multiple women, sociologists have been noticeably absent from national discourse on sexual violence.  This silence is even more suspect now as a national movement has taken shape (#MeToo), and initiatives focusing on the issue specifically within academia have been launched (#MeTooPhD). In fact, even in the discipline as multiple perpetrators have been identified and victims have voiced their experiences, most sociologists have done little beyond discussion of this epidemic. While public statements are an important first step, sustained action is needed to dismantle the systems that facilitate sexual violence.

ASA has created a working group on harassment, tasked to develop a more stringent anti-harassment policy for ASA annual meetings.  (But, are policies and trainings enough?) The group is also hosting two workshops at the 2018 annual meeting. (See the full list of events related to sexual violence at next week’s ASA conference here.) However, a group directly affiliated with ASA is constrained in its ability to hold the organization accountable for effectively addressing sexual violence. And, I am worried that these efforts continue to view victims as subordinate-status heterosexual non-Hispanic white cisgender women without disabilities and perpetrators as senior-level heterosexual non-Hispanic white cisgender men without disabilities. We must recognize sexual violence as one manifestation of any system of oppression, including sexism, cissexism, heterosexual, racism, xenophobia, classism, ableism, fatphobia, ageism, and religious intolerance. And, more importantly, we must be attuned to sexual violence at the intersections among these systems of oppression.

In light of these issues, Dr. Shantel Gabrieal Buggs, Dr. Hephzibah Strmic-Pawl, and I propose creating an independent initiative: Sociologists Against Sexual Violence. Broadly, this group would serve to address sexual violence in and through sociology. We cannot effectively achieve our goal of using sociological insights to end sexual violence while it continues to happen within our own ranks. Ideally, we should be a model discipline for the entire profession, and be at the forefront of national discourse on this epidemic.

Some specific ideas we have for addressing sexual violence through sociology:

  1. Amplifying the work of sociologists who do work on sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment, stalking, and intimate partner violence. This can include putting experts in touch with the media, creating a database of experts, and creating a blog that features accessible blog posts on key sociological insights, new research, and sociological critiques of current events. This public sociology initiative can also include offering concrete steps for organizations to address sexual violence, for bystanders to intervene when sexual violence occurs, for victims to know what options exist for them, and for potential victims to protect themselves against the threat of sexual violence. Particular emphasis should be placed on an intersectional understanding of sexual violence.
  2. Work to create new opportunities for research on sexual violence, including conference sessions, special issues in journals, and funding opportunities.
  3. Contribute to and support the #MeToo movement.
  4. Compile and publicize research briefs on sexual violence to serve the work of non-profit organizations, activists, lawyers, and schools. For example, raise awareness about how organizations actually facilitate sexual violence.
  5. Issue amicus briefs for court cases on sexual violence.
  6. Create a public syllabus with crucial readings for the sociological, intersectional understanding of sexual violence.
  7. Create a database of resources for teaching on sexual violence.

And, some specific ideas that we have for addressing sexual violence in the discipline:

  1. Contribute to and support the #MeTooPhD initiative.
  2. Conduct a survey of survivors in the discipline to assess the pervasiveness of sexual violence in sociology, the professional and health consequences of sexual violence for victims, and the social location and professional status of perpetrators of sexual violence. One crucial question is whether survivors of sexual violence limit their participation at annual meetings, or forgo these meetings all together. (Many women attend Sociologists for Women in Society exclusively for this reason.)
  3. Host workshops on sexual violence at ASA meetings, particularly on bystander training.
  4. Create safe spaces for survivors at ASA meetings (e.g., a hospitality suite just for survivors, morning meditation/prayer for survivors).
  5. Host trainings for department chairs to address sexual violence.
  6. Conduct a survey of departments to find out whether and how sexual violence is being addressed, and the effectiveness of measures currently taken.
  7. Push ASA to improve its reporting system for sexual violence, and the measures used to hold perpetrators accountable. Assess how useful this system is for sexual violence in the discipline that does not occur at annual meetings.
  8. Protect sociologists who pursue advocacy and activism on sexual violence from professional harm and public backlash.
  9. With every initiative, devote special attention to the discipline’s most vulnerable members, including graduate students, junior faculty, contingent faculty, and those at the intersections of multiple systems of oppression (e.g., women of color).

If you are interested in helping to launch this movement — whether it be the Sociologists Against Sexual Violence initiative or take another form — please join Dr. Buggs, Dr. Strmic-Pawl, and me during our meeting at ASA: this Saturday (August 11), 8-10pm EST in Pennsylvania Convention Center room 104. We welcome ideas for the structure this group will take, what its vision and values will be, and who will lead it. If you are unable to attend, please contact us by email either ahead of or immediately after the meeting. There are a few workshops on sexual violence at ASA that you should also check out.

On Sunday, 8/12, we ask that you wear white to help raise awareness about sexual violence in sociology.  The three of us will be handing out #MeTooPhD and Sociologists Against Sexual  Violence buttons at the ASA and Society for the Student of Social Problems conferences, and the ASA Section on Sexualities preconference this Thursday and Friday.

As Dr. Wingfield noted in her SWS statement this morning:

As many of you know, our discipline is having a public reckoning with the issue of sexual harassment and abuse. As the #MeToo movement has shown (and as many of us already know), no industries are immune from the problem of those in power abusing it to harass those in subordinate positions. This issue within the field of sociology is not a new one and there have been conversations about this for years. In fact, SWS was initially founded because of the lack of support for women and nonbinary people in ASA. It seems old issues die hard.

We are overdue for this reckoning. We are overdue in making our classrooms, departments, universities, committees, professional societies, and conferences safe, free from abuses of power, sexual violence, bias and discrimination, and other unethical behavior. We are overdue for recognizing and redressing the “brain-drain” that our discipline experiences in lost productivity, skipped conferences, terminated collaborations and mentoring relationships, and other ways in which individuals have to make difficult decisions about how to interact with (or not) perpetrators who walk around freely and continue to be rewarded and protected. We are overdue for putting this silly “activism versus academia” debate to rest and actually putting our insights to use to end this epidemic on our campuses and beyond.

#MeTooSociology – will you join us?

Sociologists, #CiteBlackWomen: Wear Your T-Shirt On Saturday, August 11, 2018!

Wear your Cite Black Women t-shirt on Saturday, August 11th!

Sociologists attending one or more of the upcoming conferences in Philadelphia, PA in August — Association for Black Sociologists, American Sociological Association, Society for the Study of Social Problems, Sociologists for Women in Society, Association for the Sociology of Religion, Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction — please take part in the #CiteBlackWomen t-shirt campaign.  Purchase your “Cite Black Women” t-shirt immediately so that you can take part.  We will wear our cool t-shirts on Saturday, August 11th.  Besides taking part in this important cause, doing so is a great excuse to dress a bit more casual for the day. And, the proceeds go to the Winnie Mandela School in Salvador, Bahia.

(And, while you’re at it, please plan to wear any piece of white clothing on Sunday, August 12th in solidarity with survivors of sexual violence in our discipline. And, keep an eye out for #MeTooPhD and Sociologists Against Sexual Violence buttons. See more info here.)

Growing evidence points to yet another way in which Black women’s contributions are devalued and ignored: academic citation rates. Unfortunately, even for those Black women academics who are able to thrive despite subtle and overt efforts to push them out of academia, their work is undercited relative to their white and male counterparts. To put it bluntly, the extent to which one’s publications are cited is a form of professional capital. So, this means that Black women are at yet another disadvantage when it comes to merit reviews, tenure, promotion, awards, grants, invitations, etc. — all of which also translates into yet another mechanism producing racial and gender disparities in income, power, and influence. It is yet another way in which Black women are not recognized for their intellectual and creative works, not compensated for their labor, and not considered worthy of learning from.

To quote the campaign’s founder, Dr. Christen A. Smith (@profsassy) of the Transformation Silence Collective:

It’s simple: Cite Black Women. We have been producing knowledge since we blessed this earth. We theorize, we produce, we revolutionize the world. We do not need mediators. We do not need interpreters. It’s time to disrupt the canon. It’s time to upturn the erasures of history. It’s time to give credit where credit is due. 

To be clear, these racial and gender disparities in citation rates undermine the advancement of new knowledge. So, why call for political action to address this matter?  Because “[c]itation is political.” This t-shirt campaign is, of course, just a start. But, every movement starts by bringing light to the issue.

The campaign’s broader goals are to encourage academics to make the following commitments:

  1. Read black women’s work.
  2. Integrate black women into the core of your syllabus.
  3. Acknowledge black women’s intellectual production.
  4. Make space for black women to speak.
  5. Give black women “the space and time to breathe.”

Beyond buying and wearing the t-shirt, I call upon my fellow sociologists to intentionally and actively counter the systemic erasure of Black women academics’ work. Cite them. Assign their work. Hire them as consultants. Pay them for their labor. Nominate them for awards and elected positions. Include them on conference panels. Invite them to speak on campus. Become familiar with their work, and use whatever your privilege to amplify that work.

Further Reading About The #CiteBlackWomen Campaign:

I Can’t Save You… I Can Barely Save Myself

feminists of color

It’s 11am now — typically the 2- or 3-hour mark into my work day.  But, on this day, like many of the days over the past two weeks, I have been awake and working in some capacity for 6 hours now.  I can assure you that I did not intentionally rise at 4:30am, not over summer, not ever.  I blame the anxiety, the growing uneasiness about an impending move from apartment to house — that is, while interrupted by attendance at an academic conference on the other side of the country.  Anxiety about my partner’s ongoing job search on the eve of taking on a mortgage.  Frustration that I’ve poured hundreds of dollars into acupuncture, personal training, nutrition, massages, and therapy, plus the free yoga class at my university’s gym, only to gain weight and feel just as anxious as I did months ago.  Even the supposedly easy way out — taking anti-anxiety medicine — doesn’t seem to be enough these days.

Oh, and should I mention the recent slew of hate-motivated assaults and murders, state-sanctioned executions on the street, and terrorists attacks on places of peace against people like me?  Black.  Queer.  Trans.

Meanwhile, the 2016 election circus, which seems to now be in its second year, serves as a perverse laugh track to news of death after death.  Murder, execution, and genocide are obvious in their disruption of our lives.  Increasingly, researchers have documented how even experiencing exclusion, discrimination, and microaggressions wears on our health and well-being.  The effects on entire communities — namely fear, distrust, alienation, and trauma — come at a cost, too.  Even hearing news about all of this violence wears on us.  For the most unfortunate, death comes quickly; for the rest of us, death is slow, like being poisoned over decades.

After the queerphobic terrorist attack on Pulse in Orlando, FL, I felt okay, but was probably numb.  Marriage equality, pushed hardest by those who benefit most from it (i.e., middle-class white gay cis men), did not prevent the senseless murder of 49 people, mostly Latino gay men.  Oddly, I heard a voice in my brain say, “see — it was only a matter of time.  Marriage didn’t liberate us.”

After the televised executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I thought I was okay. I tried to avoid watching Diamond Reynolds’s video of her fiance (Castile) being murdered before her and her four-year-old daughter; but, thanks to my school’s gym, I couldn’t help but catch it playing over and over on the big screens airing CNN and MSNBC. I wept while walking on a treadmill.  But, I generally felt I was okay. 

I jumped into high gear with doing more anti-racist advocacy while others pulled back, overcome with grief.  I encouraged Dr. Judy Lubin to restart the Sociologists for Justice initiative, and successfully scheduled a forum for the group at the upcoming American Sociological Association annual meeting.  I started an associated Facebook page for the initiative, now kept active by several sociologists of color.  Weeks before, I had created Sociologists for Trans Justice, an associated Facebook page, and scheduled a forum for this group at the ASA annual meeting to advance transgender rights through sociology.  Did I mention that I run a blog, Conditionally Accepted, that features weekly essays by marginalized scholars?  And, that I am now co-editing a book on academic bravery among women of color scholars?

Maybe taking on initiative after initiative, project after project, was just a means to distract myself from the weight of the world.  But, it certainly did nothing to help me outrun it.  My sleep has been interrupted more and more over the past couple of weeks.  I feel incredibly overextended, yet surprisingly isolated and hopeless.  A bit of intense organizing, largely within the walls of the ivory tower, doesn’t feel like much; and, it certainly did not shield me from the nausea I felt after seeing a picture of Sterling’s funeral on Facebook.  My mind screamed, “Emmett Till,” and I promptly logged off, keeping a low profile online thereafter.

I’m in the thick of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity‘s (NCFDD) “bootcamp” — Faculty Success Program — right now.  This week, our homework is to lower our standards and expectations, hopefully calling out those among us who are perfectionists.  Would you know, perfectionist describes me well.  So, I brought the issue of being controlling to my therapist yesterday.  Surely, the need to control things and other people, to make everything neat, to tidy up loose ends, are all at the core of my anxiety.  It now seems to me that I will continue to be anxious until I get to these root issues.  I was a bit disheartened to hear my therapist say that that’s just who I am, and that the lifelong goal is maintenance — to keep the need to control in check.

But, we made some progress during the session, specifically engaging my need to perform at a high level.  I have a tendency to work so long as there is enough energy to get out of bed.  I have convinced myself that I have perfected the 40-hour workweek, not counting the time I put into blogging and other forms of service and activism.  But, now I am being forced to reconcile with a limited capacity for productivity.  I can’t do it all, even without suffering from mental illness.  But, with the ongoing symptoms of anxiety, I certainly have to scale back on all that I do.

It is hard, though, because what seems to be the most appropriate level of concern, labor, and advocacy is just barely outside of myself, envisioning concentric circles of concern here.  I have a limited capacity to concern myself with what’s going on in other people’s lives and what’s going on around the world because I’m overwhelmed just managing my own life — at least until I can learn to scale back.  My starting point for responding to tragedy in the world can no longer be, “what can I/we do?!”  Rather, it has to be, “what do I need right now?”  (Sshhh, internal critic; self-care is not selfish.)  I admitted to my therapist that this felt like resignation; I feel like the kid with asthma who is stuck in the house, watching other kids run and jump outside of my window.

What seems even harder is that the situation was already bleak for me as a Black queer non-binary person.  Think about the trauma inherent in being queer in the midst of ongoing queerphobic violence, or of being Black in the midst of ongoing state-sanctioned violence against communities of color.  If you can even fathom it, imagine being at the dreadful intersections among racism, heterosexism, cissexism, and sexism.  (Fuck intersectionality.)

I haven’t been as attuned to this baseline of oppression, distracted, instead, by the unique oppressive reality of academic institutions.  I’ve been working through and writing about the trauma inherent in my academic training.  Maybe I was already traumatized by this oppressive society.  Maybe every social institution is already set to crush me, just as graduate school did and, on some days, as my current institution does.

I don’t have much to offer.  I’ve resisted the temptation to just yell “Black women rule the world!” on Facebook and Twitter, and then deactivating my social media accounts.  For my own survival, I’ve got to back off for a while.  Unfortunately, I can’t save anybody else, since I’m barely hanging on myself.

Fear of Violence at the Intersections of Sexuality, Gender, and Race and Ethnicity

A great deal of victimization research has investigated factors that explain differences in fear of crime, including prior victimization, community disorder, and population density. A number of scholars have examined gender differences in fear, consistently finding that women experience greater levels of fear than men. Given the high level of violence against LGB people, particularly anti-LGB violence, it is surprising that no studies to date have considered sexual orientation differences in fear of violence.

Doug Meyer and I recently published an article on gender and sexual orientation differences in fear in the Journal of Homosexuality (April 2014). This was the first study to examine whether sexual minority (e.g., lesbian, gay, and bisexual [LGB]) people are more likely to report fear of crime and violence than heterosexuals. In light of the extensive work on women’s heightened levels of fear relative to men’s, we also considered whether sexual orientation differences in fear differed by gender. I briefly summarize our study below.

Initial Findings

We used data from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative sample of adults in the US. Our outcome of interest was self-reports of fear at night. That is, whether respondents said yes to the following question: “Is there any area right around here – that is, within a mile of your residence – where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?”  

We found that approximately one-third of adults reported being afraid to walk alone in their own neighborhood. As prior research has indicated, women were significantly more likely to report fear than men (44% compared to 19%). Similarly, sexual minoritiesand people of were significantly more likely than heterosexuals and non-Hispanic whites, respectively, to report being afraid to walk alone at night. These differences are displayed in the graph below.

Graph 1 Fear - Main Statuses

Next, we assessed whether these initial sexuality differences in fear hold once accounting for gender, race and ethnicity, age, education, income, religiosity, urbanicity, and region. Indeed, even net of these other factors, sexual minorities were significantly more likely than heterosexuals to report fear at night. Women and Blacks and Latina/os were also significantly more likely to report such fear than men and non-Hispanic whites, respectively. We found other significant differences, as well: greater fear with decreasing income; and, greater likelihood of reporting fear among Southerners and those living in urban areas.

In sum, we found that sexual minorities were significantly more likely than heterosexuals to report being afraid to walk alone at night in their own neighborhoods. Women, people of color, and lower-income individuals also shared this heightened sense of fear relative to men, non-Hispanic whites, and higher-income individuals, respectively. Considering these patterns, we decided to explore the intersections among sexuality, gender, and race and ethnicity in these reports of fear, which I discuss below.

Intersections among Sexuality, Gender, and Race and Ethnicity

The graph below displays the reports of being afraid to walk alone at night in one’s neighborhood for the four gender-sexuality subgroups: heterosexual men, heterosexual women, sexual minority men, and sexual minority women.

Graph 2 Fear - Gender-Sexuality

Sexual minorities’ and women’s higher reports of fear compared to heterosexuals’ and men’s, respectively, mask the patterns at the intersections of sexuality and gender. The effect of sexuality on fear is gendered, wherein it distinguishes reports of fear among men but not women. Heterosexual women (44%), sexual minority men (41%), and sexual minority women (46%) are significantly more likely than heterosexual men (19%) to report fear at night. However, the three former groups’ reports of fear do not significantly differ from one another.

We investigated whether race and ethnicity intersected with gender and sexuality in reports of fear, as well. The graph below displays fear for each racial/ethnic-gender subgroup.

Graph 3 Fear - Gender-Race

We found that the effect of race and ethnicity on fear at night was unique to men once we controlled for the effect other sociodemographic characteristics. That is, like the effect of sexuality, race and ethnicity distinguished men’s but not women’s reports.

We were unable to consider simultaneous intersections among sexuality, gender, and race and ethnicity due to the small number of sexual minorities. You can see differences just in percentages, without controlling for the effects of other sociodemographic characteristics, in the graph below. These patterns should be interpreted with caution given sampling constraints.

Graph 4 Fear - Race-Gender-Sexuality

One in six white heterosexual men reported being afraid to walk alone at night in their neighborhoods. That jumps to one in four for heterosexual men of color, and approximately two-fifths of white heterosexual women and white sexual minorities. And, half (or slightly more) of women of color and sexual minority men of color reported fear at night. These differences in fear mirror the disproportionate violence experienced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged identities.

Conclusion

Using a nationally representative survey, we found that sexual minorities are more likely than heterosexuals to be afraid to walk alone at night in their own neighborhoods. However, this sexuality gap reflects differences among men; substantially more women (both heterosexual and sexual minority) and sexual minority men report fear at night than heterosexual men. A similar gender-specific effect exists for race and ethnicity. Black and Latino men are more likely than white men to report fear at night; however, fear does not differ by race and ethnicity among women once accounting for the effect of other sociodemographic characteristics.

Our paper emphasizes the importance of studying the intersections among racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression. Prior research comparing women’s and men’s fear of crime and violence has (unintentionally) assumed that these gender differences hold across sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, and other statuses; however, we found that it appears to be limited to white heterosexuals’ reports of fear. Given the vast diversity among women, as well as men, these groups’ experiences should not be treated as universal. Our other studies highlight the urgent need to attend to the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals (e.g. Black LGBT people), who are often the most vulnerable to violence and discrimination.

Transgender People And The Criminal Justice System

Source: GayRVA.com

Source: GayRVA.com

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