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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.

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

Can We Celebrate Queer Lives And Activism, Too?

James Franco

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.

The Unjust Murder Of Trayvon Martin Is A LGBT/Feminist/Human Rights Issue

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).

Actually, Racism Is Probably Worse Than We Realize

In 2008, the argument that race has declined in importance became the crystallized “post-racial” thesis upon the election of President Barack Obama.  By his re-election in 2012, some had offered clarification that race still exists, but it is racism that has disappeared – the “post-racism” thesis.  There it sits, almost as a sense of relief — “whew, now we can stop tip-toeing around people of color, and supporting these race-related causes like Affirmative Action.”

On day 2 of George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the supposed reality of post-racism contrasts with that of the hyperrelevance of race and racism.  A young Black man was killed because his race made him a suspect.

Today, Blackness is still a crime, and whites are charged with the task of policing Black people.  The harshness of law enforcement and the criminal justice system is magnified for Blacks, from the use of excessive force to longer sentences to denial of justice all together.  Even those who are not police officers, judges, and lawyers serve to police Blacks; the days of lynching Black women and men has merely evolved into a calmer form of extralegal vigilance.

For example:

My blood boiled as I watched this video.  I posted it in various places on Facebook, expecting similar outrage.  The video was widely shared, but often introduced with concerned, but surprisingly calm notes: “watch this”; “wow”; “this is messed up.”  Those were comments mostly comments from white people.

But, even some Black folks articulated concern, but little surprise.  In fact, a few people seemed to think that it was problematic that I was surprised, and that they are superior in some way for being unmoved.  The unsympathetic response of “why are you surprised?” stung, playing on my fear that I am “not Black enough” or “too white” to fully comprehend the severity of contemporary racism.  I suppose the anonymity of the internet is a dual-edged sword, where hostility is widely expressed and, absent of an in-person connection, there is little expression of empathy and solidarity.

Racism Is Worse Than We Realize

As I further processed my reactions to this video, I realized that my surprise and anger are warranted.  Yes, in the self-confident sense where I do not need to justify my feelings, or shape or suppress them according to others’ opinions.  But, also because the sheer pervasiveness and severity of racism cannot be fully comprehended by one person.  Even as a researcher, I am unable to see every instance, manifestation, and consequence of racism in every corner of the world.

Like this video, racism that hides behind seemingly race-neutral interactions, laws, and practices is harder to see, and near impossible to prove exists.  Today, we are dealing with consciously suppressed and unconscious racial prejudice — both which shape behaviors.  Few racists openly, proudly identify themselves as racists, and most racists do not even know that they are racist.

Racial discrimination, too, is harder to identify, particularly absent of outwardly expressed racial bias.  It is no longer limited to exclusion at the entry point or first contact.  The “whites only” sign has to be implied since it cannot be hung from the front door.  We may be hired, but then harassed on the job or denied opportunities to advance.  We may receive a loan, but are offered one that is economically risky.

On the ground, we cannot see other interactions to “accurately” assess whether we have been discriminated against.  (This speaks to the importance of research to look at the broader patterns!)  Like the racial profiling video above, Black people may suspect unfair or differential treatment driven by racial prejudice, but rarely can we compare the same situation experienced by a white person.  Even in some of the recent audit studies that demonstrate racial discrimination in the labor force, some of the participants were unaware of the discriminatory treatment they faced until they compared notes with others and the researchers.

In reality, racism and the pervasiveness of racial discrimination are likely far worse than we can imagine.  So, I stand by my surprise because it is a reasonable reaction to such harsh reminders of the everyday consequences of racism.  But, also because I much prefer to hope for something better than resign myself to accept the world as it is.