Critique of the Criminal Justice System

Clifton Goring/Candi Raine Sweet explains in Being an Incarcerated Transperson:  Shouldn’t People Care? the difficulties trans* people and other gender-non-conforming communities undergo once inside the criminal justice system.  According to Sweet, “rapes, very nasty physical assaults, and beatings take place, by other inmates and by the very same prison personnel who are sworn to protect each and every inmate” (186).  As a result, law enforcement agencies clearly have not made a significant effort to protect marginalized communities from discrimination and harassment.  Instead, officers are the ones engaging in the very painful and unlawful activities, causing trans* people and other minorities to rightfully distrust and fear law enforcement (i.e. their presumed “protectors”).  Sweet believes the entire prison system needs to undergo changes that transform the way it functions, making it a safer and fairer place for trans* people.  So, what can be done to protect the health and safety of this marginalized community?

I found a small dose of hope in a New York Times article published two years ago featuring the story of Maribel, a transgender female.   Maribel was retained with male detainees upon first entering Chicago’s Cook County Jail for retail theft, despite her female gender identification.  After two weeks of being harmed and violated by fellow inmates, Maribel was moved to women’s housing.  Why the sudden change?  In 2011, the jail instituted a new policy to protect those considered having “gender dysphoria disorder” and also to cover procedures related to housing, clothing, grooming, medical care, etc.  Trans* detainees are given the choice to either be housed with the gender they identify with or separately kept away from all other detainees.  Sheriff Thomas J. Dart chose to institute the policy, because he knew laws protecting trans* people are few and far between.  This became apparent during one of his meetings with other jail officials, when silence followed after he asked what should be done to help protect transgender detainees.  Law enforcement, similar to medical professionals, simply just don’t understand how to deal with trans* folk. 

While the policy seems like a good step forward, I also see its possible limitations.  It appears to follow a familiar pattern found in the medical world, where trans* folk need to be defined by others (i.e. the dominant, cisgender society) in order to gain the privileges that come with being labeled as having “gender dysphoria disorder.”  If individuals do not follow the typical “gay childhood” or “trans* childhood” narrative as described by Dean Spade, will police officials, like medical professionals, not categorize them as transgender enough, too?  The policy has some obvious pitfalls that could end up seriously hurting trans* people rather than benefiting them.  Additionally, the policy does not actually eliminate harassment and discrimination against trans* people from occurring—other inmates and officials can still harm trans* people with or without the policy intact.  Thus, more radical changes need to occur in order to really change the current penal system.    

Here’s the link to the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/23/us/for-transgender-detainees-a-jail-policy-offers-some-security.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 

-Anna Sekine

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Politicizing the Trans* Experience

Last fall, I studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark and went to a discussion featuring a transsexual male named Warren.  He began by retelling his story of transitioning, accounting moments of depression and anger that ensued from his pre-operative body.  His personal narrative was painfully honest and focused largely around the tension he felt with trying to be actively perceived as male without appearing to follow traditional male gender roles because society thinks he should.  In other words, Warren believes the performance of gender comes with a checklist, stating one should do “x” in order to be perceived as “y.”  Because Warren challenges the traditional gender binary, his gender performance has been under high scrutiny especially during his transition.  People assume his decision to wear male clothing or lift weights is because he is trying to be seen as a man (and these are activities men do).  Warren, however, argues he does these things because he prefers a more masculine style of clothing and enjoys working out.  He said that if he ever decided to live his life as a woman, he would continue to wear men’s clothing because it’s what he likes.  Thus, Warren has to struggle every day with the blurry line between being seen as doing something to portray one’s gender and doing something to portray one’s freedom of choice.

I decided today to research Warren, since I knew he had an active YouTube presence.  With over 76 amazing videos (all describing his own trans* experience), I chose to look at one called “Trans* Stories on YouTube.”  Similar to the Serano text, he talks about how media projects a singular trans* story which often makes them the bud of jokes. Additionally, Warren discusses how documentaries about trans* folk are seldom ever created by transsexuals or transgender people. The trans* experience then becomes told by cisgender people… and then becomes watched by other cisgender people.  Therefore, a real trans* experience is hard to come by in popular culture, but YouTube acts as an outlet for transpeople to share their stories.  While the fact that YouTube creates communities and connects strangers is not new, I think what’s interesting is its potential to create a large enough social movement for the demedicalization of “gender dysphoria disorder” or the singular trans* experience. In order to remove the medical definitions associated with trans* folk, I feel like a strong leader(s) that has the power to politicize a social movement that challenges high powered groups, like medical professions or major institutions, is key. Is YouTube this leader?  Are the YouTube stars, like Warren, the ones with the potential power to move a collective group?  Or is it a combination of YouTube’s global power to reach people on a large-scale and the people’s individual power to be heard on a small, communal scale that make a successful demedicalization possible? I think it will be fascinating to watch (through the lense of Youtube) the political movement surrounding the trans* community unfold.

Check out his video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKz6AQLEBFE&list=UUlUX18JHqW2-_UEpwxyZhuA&index=12

-Anna Sekine