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For over a year now, I have been seeing a therapist to work through the trauma that was my graduate training. I have a knack for discussing personal troubles publicly, so I have been writing about the recovery process over the past year, as well. I figure, since the structure and culture of the academy is complicit in the trauma, why should I continue to suffer silently? Others like me (Black, queer, non-binary, fat, activist) and not like me have probably been traumatized, too.
Since going public about my story – grad school as “little T” trauma (not as bad as “big T” traumas like rape, child abuse, or war) – I have been privy to other marginalized academics’ trauma narratives. Most of these folks have not said a word, but their reactions to my story say a great deal. I have become more adept at recognizing trauma in other academics: retelling the same painful stories of oppression and injustice over and over; consciously or unconsciously seeking validation from others – “please believe how awful this was”; continuing to give power to those who traumatized them, at least as “air time” in their thoughts, nightmares, and stories. I recognize it because I was doing it and still do at times, albeit to a lesser extent with the help of therapy.
As others have actually named their own trauma and shared those stories with me, I have not only found confirmation that 1) I am not alone in being traumatized by my graduate school experiences and 2) the forces that lead to trauma for marginalized students and scholars is likely far worse than I imagined. Academe and its graduate education is not merely out of touch with the needs of the world beyond the ivory tower. It is not simply a matter of academics having their heads up their butts while job security remains a luxury for the few and exploitative labor conditions in academe have become the new normal for PhDs.
There is a longstanding, widespread phenomenon that I fear too few of us recognize, and even fewer of us are willing to name: intellectual violence. In the name of job prospects, tenurability, professional status, grant funding options, journal homes, citation rates, impact factors, and so forth, many (privileged) academics promote the erasure, stereotyping, disempowerment, objectification, exotification, and silencing of oppressed communities. The status quo of the larger racist, sexist, cissexist, heterosexist, classist, xenophobic, ableist, and fatphobic society is upheld by the academy; worse, academe maintains a reputation for social justice, diversity and inclusion, and critical investigation of the status quo.
I suspect many academics are aware of the ways in which science has been used to advance oppressive causes. We must credit early white men scientists, many of whom were obsessed with creating a taxonomy of humans especially on the basis of race and sexuality, for their influence in oppressive ideologies and policies. (But, let’s not be too optimistic in thinking scientific racism or scientific homophobia are historical artifacts. Think Jason Richwine and Mark Regnerus, among others.)
But, far fewer academics seem to be openly acknowledging the ways in which academic research and teaching (unintentionally) enact violence against oppressed communities through academic norms and values. Where money and resources go says a great deal about an institution’s priorities. So, we can infer from the relatively small number of gender and/or women’s studies, racial and/or ethnic studies, Black and African American studies, Latinx studies, LGBT and queer studies, Asian and Asian American studies, Native American/American Indian/Indigenous studies, and disability studies programs that these areas of academic study, curricula, and, arguably, communities of study, are unimportant in the academy. Where these programs exist, they are underfunded, underresourced, and understaffed.
Most insulting is making marginalized scholars complicit in this violence by making their own job security and professional success dependent upon it. Though naïve about the academy as I graduated college and headed to grad school, I was at least aware that a PhD in sociology would open far greater doors than one in gender or sexuality studies. But, I had no idea that trading off the joy I felt in my gender and sexuality studies courses in college for job prospects in academe was the first of a series of compromises and concessions. I regularly conformed, repeatedly passing up opportunities to pursue gender and sexuality studies for a more mainstream path. This explains why my most recent work falls in the realm of medical sociology, despite being recognized as a sexuality researcher on all counts but my actual training.
On some level, perhaps mostly unconscious, six years of training that implied to me that queer and trans people, women, people of color – and especially people at the intersections of these identities – are unimportant led me to agree with the devaluing of research and teaching on and advocacy with oppressed communities. It led me to agree that these communities themselves hold little value relative to cis hetero middle-class white America. No one held a gun to my head to force me to make the decisions that I made. However, I actually think the intellectual nature of this kind of violence was actually far more damaging than physical violence would ever be. The intentional resocialization of grad school changed how I view the world, how I think of myself as a scholar and an activist, and altered how I relate to my own communities.
Like many victims of oppression, I have also internalized the voice that leads me to doubt the severity of my own marginalization. As I write this, I want to concede that I am being a bit dramatic by using the word violence to describe my training, that I am insulting real victims of trauma (“big T” trauma). But, I keep coming back to the word violence when I think about what I have had to do to recover. On the health front, I have been spending a great deal of time and money on acupuncture, massages, fitness training, and therapy, plus taking a yoga class and Lexapro for the anxiety, to deal with the psychological, emotional, and physical symptoms of the trauma. I have given up a decent chuck of my research leave trying to get healthy – all the while feeling guilty for prioritizing self-care and resentful that privileged colleagues on leave can churn out books because there is little to no trauma from which to recover.
Professionally, I have had to unlearn much of my graduate training in order to heal, to move forward with my research trajectory, to sustain myself, and to feel that my work is aligned with my values as an activist. I have to relearn how to love my communities and myself, and to trust that my gut and spirit are leading me in the right direction, even if that means straying from mainstream academic norms. I will never be free if I let institutional and professional norms define me as a person, if I take my value and worth as a person and scholar from any institution.
Defining what it means to be a scholar on my own terms is scary because I lack role models, and I lack a path-well-taken that assures me that I am headed in the right direction. And, such self-definition is not without its risks. But, for the sake of my health, longevity, and well-being, I can no longer be complicit in the intellectual violence against my communities and me. I will never be free by appeasing institutions that are set on maintaining the status quo.
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).