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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
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).
With the start of Women’s, Womyn‘s, and Womanist Herstory Month this past Friday, I have been wondering what more I can do to challenge sexism — including my own. As I have noted in previous posts, I have an evolving awareness that my own disadvantaged social location as a brown queer man does not make me immune to sexism, nor any other system of oppression.
One important task of my anti-sexist advocacy is to become aware of the ways in which I am privileged as a man. I know this to be a particular challenge for queer men because of our awareness that we are disadvantaged among men. So, I was disappointed to find little beyond a few personal reflections from feminist-identified gay men to guide me and other queer men to understand and appropriately fight sexism. The Guy’s Guide to Feminism seems like a good start, but I find it useful to engage gay men from their unique relationships with sexism, women, and male privilege.
Feminism For Gay Men 101
Though I am just at the beginning of a lifelong journey to understanding sexism and my own male privilege, here are a few lessons I would like to impart to my fellow gay men:
- We are men. We hold male privilege. Period.
- Yes, number 1 is true despite our sexual orientation and despite our gender expression (no matter how feminine, androgynous, or queer). Though gay masculinity is devalued relative to hegemonic masculinity (i.e., white heterosexual middle-class able-bodied young/middle-age masculinity), it is still privileged over all femininities.
- Systems of oppression are linked including — particularly relevant to this discussion — sexism, heterosexism, and cissexism. As such, our liberation is tied to the liberation of ciswomen and trans* people.
- While number 3 is true, we are not immune to sexist attitudes and behaviors. And, most importantly, being gay does not make us anti-sexist. Our marginalized status among men may make it easier to understand sexist oppression, but it does does not preclude us from it. Just like heterosexual cisgender men who engage in anti-sexist activism, we must be active in challenging the prejudice, discrimination, and violence against women, and to keep our male privilege in check (i.e., give it up or use it for good).
- Though we generally are not sexually attracted to women, we are just as capable of sexually harassing or assaulting women. The root of sexual violence is power, not sexual attraction. I must point out here that too many of us have sexually harassed or assaulted women and naively excused the behavior as innocent because we are gay. Sexual violence by any perpetrator is wrong. But, that of gay men has the added element of placing our women friends and allies in the difficult position of questioning whether to feel violated or upset.
- Related to number 5, we must stop treating the women in our lives as objects or accessories. Yes, many heterosexual women are guilty of doing this to us — the gay BFF, every girl’s must have! — which is also wrong. Friendships that exist because of her gender or your sexual orientation are forms of exotification.
- Attraction to male-bodied individuals, men, and masculinity must be stripped of the presumed aversion to female-bodied individuals, women, and femininity. We need not be repulsed by female bodies just because we are not sexually attracted to (cis)women. Even when joking, this is no less problematic than (cisgender) heterosexuals who proclaim to be repulsed by people of their same sex.
- Certain aspects of gay men’s culture that promote pride and empowerment among us come at the expense of women’s empowerment. To call a fellow gay man “bitch,” “cunt,” and, more commonly in the drag scene, “fish,” is to use a term that derogates women. Though they may be positive in intent and meaning, these are not instances of reclaiming pejorative terms used against us: self-identifying as queer is; “servin’ up fish!” isn’t. Just think how outraged we would be if women decided to adopt “faggot” as a term of endearment among themselves.
- Our queer, bisexual, and lesbian sisters are oppressed by heterosexism and sexism. We, as LGBT and queer people, will not be fully liberated by addressing homophobia and heterosexism alone.
- Related to number 9, we must recognize that LBQ women are often subject to our sexist prejudice and behavior, ranging from anti-lesbian jokes to outright exclusion (often disguised as innocently bonding with other gay men or even the product of our exclusive attraction to men).
- The way that we devalue femininity among ourselves is another arm of sexism. The “no femmes” sentiment, aptly called femmephobia, is nothing more than the hatred of femininity, which is associated with women. Beyond eliminating this silly prejudice in our anti-sexist efforts, we do ourselves the favor of freeing the constraints on how we can behave and express our gender.
- We owe it — yes, we owe it — to the ciswomen and trans* people who have fought against the injustices we face to fight against those they face. Even when kept at the periphery or outright excluded, transpeople have fought for equal rights and status for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Many lesbian and bisexual women served as caregivers to gay and bisexual men with HIV/AIDS during the 1980s and 1990s, while also fighting along side those who worked for better HIV/AIDS health care. Feminists of all walks of life have advocated for our protection from prejudice, discrimination, and violence, seeing it as important in (and linked to) activism against sexist discrimination and violence against women.
We owe it to our ciswomen and trans* friends and allies — and ourselves — to be better feminists.