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Transforming Justice

Jessica Stern
Date Published: 
January 01, 2008

When your gender does not conform to predictable expectations of “man” and “woman,” you stand out. To stand out is to be a potential target for discrimination. The result is that poverty, violence, drug addiction, and imprisonment are a regular reality for many transgender and gender non-conforming people in the US. This is an account of how a year of grassroots organizing, national strategizing, and the centralized leadership of transgender former prisoners produced a gathering that hopes to birth a movement dedicated to liberating our communities from poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, racism, transphobia, classism, sexism, and the brutality of the prison industrial complex.

The idea for this conference, “Transforming Justice: Ending the Criminalization and Imprisonment of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People,” which took place October 13-14, in San Francisco, emerged from discussions among community members, activists, and organizations working to assist transgender people in prison who were experiencing egregious violations of their human rights and basic dignity. While advocates were able to provide assistance in some cases, it was clear that much more needed to be done to attack the root causes of these abuses. The conference was organized and sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union-LGBT Project, Northern California American Friends Service Committee, Critical Resistance, Human Rights Watch, Lambda Legal, Justice Now, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Transgender, Gender Variant & Intersex Justice Project, the Transgender Law Center, and the Transforming Justice Planning Committee.

Transgender and gender non-conforming people remain disproportionately low-income, marginally housed, and entangled in the prison industrial complex. These factors decimate poor communities and communities of color nationwide, transgender communities included. While no comprehensive studies have been done, one of the sole advocates for transgender prisoners in the country—the Transgender, Gender-Variant, & Intersex Justice Project in Oakland, California—estimates that as many as one in two transgender people may be in prison or jail at some point in their lives. The Washington Transgender Needs Assessment Survey of transgender communities in Washington DC found that nearly 30 percent of respondents reported having no income at all, 42 percent were unemployed, and 47 percent had no health insurance. Another study, TransRealities: A Legal Needs Assessment of San Francisco’s Transgender Communities, found that two-thirds of the transgender population of San Francisco earned less than $25,000 a year.

Because many transgender people are marginalized from legal economic activity by discrimination and prejudice, they are forced to turn to criminalized work such as sex work to survive. Being forced into illegal forms of work, in addition to often being poor, homeless, and of color, make transgender and gender non-conforming people exceedingly vulnerable to police profiling, surveillance, violence, and arrest. Once arrested and imprisoned, transgender and gender non-conforming people are consistently housed according to genitalia rather than gender identity. For transgender women, this is a highly dangerous practice. One study of California male prisons found that while 4 percent of all people in male prisons report experiencing sexual assault, 59 percent of transgender women prisoners report sexual assault. Seventy-five percent of transgender women prisoners reported being sexually assaulted on multiple occasions. Transgender people in jails, juvenile detention facilities, immigration detention, and prisons are exposed to extreme levels of medical neglect, humiliation, discrimination, and grave physical and sexual harassment and violence—including rape and murder.

Upon release from prison, transgender and gender non-conforming people return to a world which discriminates on the basis of both their gender identity and criminal record. And all too often, they’re overlooked. As people in or returning home from prison, they’re off the radar of most LGBT organizations; as transgender people, they’re off the radar of many prisoner rights organizations. In the end, transgender and gender-non conforming people in and returning from prison are rendered invisible, leaving their needs unmet and the reasons for their second-class status and stigma unquestioned.

In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that a meeting like Transforming Justice has never previously taken place in the United States. The organizers sought to build a movement of people and organizations that typically were not previously networked; represented all regions of the country; and lacked the time, money, and even freedom to travel. Activists and community members may be restricted from travel by the conditions of their parole, where applicable—at least two people invited to participate in Transforming Justice were unable to attend due to the conditions of their parole.

One of the first questions the conference organizers had to consider was one of the most basic: who in the country had lived experience with these issues, and who was doing this work? As one of the organizers said at the end of the conference, “I’d never even been around so many other transgender people before.” In all aspects of planning Transforming Justice, the organizers sought to centralize and promote the leadership of transgender former prisoners from start to finish to follow-up.

Realizing vision

To realize their vision, the organizers developed a multilayered strategy: a local organizing committee, a group of national advisors, and an aggressive fundraising strategy to provide scholarships to the many community members and organizations that would need them to be able to participate. The first step was the selection of the host city. San Francisco was chosen largely because of its concentration of formerly imprisoned transgender community members and activists. A local organizing committee was formed which consisted of formerly imprisoned transgender women and men as well as local organizations. A national committee was formed that consisted of representatives of anti-prison, human rights, and LGBT organizations. Ad hoc committees were created to develop the program, the list of invitees, and to meet the communications, fundraising, and logistical needs of the conference.

Transforming Justice was attended by 200 people from 14 states around the country. Twenty scholarships were distributed. Approximately 60% percent of the conference attendees were transgender and gender non-conforming people who had at some point in their lives been in prison, jail, juvenile detention, or immigration detention. Though the conference was free, simultaneous translation, childcare, and meals were provided. From the moment the conference began, it had a sense of urgency and purpose. The program booklets contained personal testimonies from four transgender women who were currently imprisoned. As they arrived, the attendees were asked to write to currently imprisoned transgender people whose photographs adorned the meeting room. The opening session included a fishbowl exercise in which formerly imprisoned transgender women and men shared their stories. So many people wanted to describe their experience and attest to the importance of the conference that the session ran long. One formerly jailed transgender woman, an activist from California, broke down as she addressed the group, “I never thought I’d see something like this in my life.”

The conference was structured around systems of oppression and specific thematic areas. The first day consisted of two sessions, “Cycles of Imprisonment and Criminalization in Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Communities” and “Sharing Successes, Strategies and Lessons Learned in Challenging the Prison Industrial Complex.” The second day addressed thematic issues such as violence, health, housing, immigration detention, employment, education, youth, and prison conditions. All sessions were structured to maximize group participation.

At the end of the second day, the group agreed to continue working together. The core principle in all aspects of this work as it moves forward is that the leadership of the people most impacted will be “centered, supported, and promoted.” The specific points of unity are:

    1. We recognize cycles of poverty, criminalization, and imprisonment as urgent human rights issues for transgender and gender non-conforming people.

    2. We plan to organize, to build on and to expand a national movement to liberate all our communities and specifically transgender and gender non-conforming people from poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, racism, ageism, transphobia, classism, sexism, ableism, immigration discrimination, violence, and the brutality of the prison industrial complex.

    3. We commit to ending abuse and discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming people in all aspects of society with the long-term goal of ending the prison industrial complex.

    4. We agree to continue to discuss with each other what it means to work towards ending the prison industrial complex while addressing immediate human rights crises.

The attendees of Transforming Justice envisioned a time when someone’s ability to enjoy their human rights is no longer determined by their gender or any other identity, and when prisons and the imprisonment industrial complex are not catch-all answers for dealing with the social and economic consequences of discrimination. The attendees of Transforming Justice articulated the need for full legal protections against discrimination and real legal equality in rights to employment, housing, and healthcare, and access to education. Nikkas Alamillo-Luchese, a transgender woman imprisoned at the California Medical Facility, and one of the women who provided a personal statement to Transforming Justice, made the urgency of these needs clear, “I really am beginning to believe that we will always be victimized by the system. It truly saddens me to think such thoughts. We need help.” More than help, Transforming Justice provides the hope of a movement.