Behind Bars for Being Trans*: On the Carceral Consequences of Cisnormativity

cisnormativity kills 2 final
No Justice For Islan Nettles

Cisnormativity: the pervasive assumption that gender and biological sex are one and the same; that cisgender and cissexual identities, where gender and sex align, are more valid, real, truthful or authentic than transgender or genderqueer identities; the belief that transgender people’s identities transgress the norms of gender; the assignation of gender without asking people what their genders are, especially at birth; the assumption that feminine or female-bodied people are women, that masculine or male-bodied people are men, and that people cannot exist outside of this binary.

In Connecticut, a 16-year-old trans teenage girl was recently transferred to an adult men’s prison. Despite not receiving criminal charges, the teenager has not only been placed in a men’s prison as a trans female, she has also been assigned to an adult prison as a youth. This was due to the Department of Children and Families’ alleged inability to house the girl any longer. Sandra Staub, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, insists this was due to “the result, if not the intent” of her being transgender and, by extension, the government affiliates’ transphobia and cissexism. A sentence of this kind has not occurred in 20 years. The #rethinkmalloy campaign has been trying to raise awareness about this unique situation.

Even though she has previously assaulted staff members for unspecified reasons (i.e., we do not know if these assaults occurred due to cissexist provocation or violence), she does not have a criminal record. Her assaults of other members at juvenile detention centers are not uncommon for youth.  She has not ever been charged with any crimes. Therefore, she is not legally a criminal, though she is an imperfect, flawed human being, like all of us.

As punishment for her untried “crime,” she has not only been misgendered and incorrectly assigned to a men’s prison, she’s been sentenced to live in a facility that is incredibly dangerous for trans female youth.

While the decision is heartbreaking, it is hardly surprising. The vast majority of Departments of Correction base prison placement is on the basis of biological sex (which is not a binary category), instead of gender identity (because of cissexism) or the assumption that gender is not and cannot be assignable (because of cisnormativity.)

Trans women, such as CeCe McDonald, have also undergone incorrect prison placement on the basis of gender due to a lack of understanding about transgender people’s identities. And, like CeCe, who was charged with manslaughter after being called “tr*nny,” *f*ggot,” and “n*gger,” while being assaulted, many trans people, especially trans people of color, receive harsher punishments and sentences for the same crimes as cis, white people. This is not just the case for trans women; race, class, (mental, corporeal, educational, lingual) disability, ethnicity, and other factors influence how we are either charged or acquitted of crimes, as was the case with Marissa Alexander. Even as Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black is co-producing the Free CeCe Documentary – which addresses trans-misogyny, the epidemic of violence against trans women of color, and prison injustice – the policies have yet to be changed or adequately addressed in mainstream media.

Organizations like the Department of Corrections remain the institutional gatekeepers of trans people, deciding if and when their identities are valid, determining whether or not they should be subjected to augmented violence. While the bodily consequences of cisnormativity are not new phenomena, we have the potential to confront the trauma and violence that trans people experience by amending these policies.

Thankfully, the youth’s lawyers are trying to get her out of the adult male prison, but if they are unsuccessful, her safety may be in jeopardy. Though the exact statistics are unattainable due to underreporting and differences between prison facilities, trans people — and in particular trans women — are disproportionately more likely to be the victims of sexual assault and harassment.

In a study done in California, a whopping 59% of trans women incarcerated in men’s prisons were sexually abused, as opposed to the general rate of 4% for cis men in men’s prisons. What is further troubling about this case is that her vulnerability will be heightened given her young age — as she is 5 years younger than the youngest prisoners in prison. She is at a much higher risk of becoming the subject of sexual and/or physical violence on the basis of her identity. It is also unknown whether or not she is a trans woman of color or a disabled trans woman, and thus potentially at risk of racism and/or ableism factoring into her treatment in jail (both of which have higher rates of abuse.)

Too often, we assume that trans people are deceitful and criminal, and that such “deceit” deserves “retributive” violence, and that such violence is just, appropriate, or understandable because the trans people were “dishonest” about their identities or bodies. The transphobic trope is so rampant that trans people have portrayed the consequences that disclosure of trans status, such as violence and murder, as a creative form of therapeutically working through cultural trauma.

The trans musician Kokomo released her breathtaking song, “There Will Come a Day,” that describes the futurity of trans acceptance and the (perhaps optimistically) eventual eradication of anti-trans* violence that ripples throughout America and the world. In the video, a woman comes out as trans to her partner after a series of vignettes of their loving courtship, ending in him reaching for a knife with the subtextual threat of violence being implied. Just as Laverne Cox emphasized that simply loving trans people is a revolutionary act, Kokomo insists, “I know there will come a day, when our lives aren’t thrown away” and “Hate by definition enslaves me. Love me and set us both free.”

Her age also plays into yet another transphobic trope. Because she is only 16-years-old, she does not have the financial or legal access to diagnostic therapy for “gender dysphoria,” she cannot access hormone replacement therapy or, thereafter, gender reassignment surgery. Worse still, because she has not undergone physical transition, like many other pre-transition binary trans people, she is at greater risk of being categorized as “really a man,” which serves to further justify her placement in a men’s prison. This transphobic trope – that trans people are only really trans* when they’ve undergone transition – serves to erase the self-identification of trans people’s gender identities, ignores the fact that our bodies do not define our genders, and displaces trans identities that do not conform to the either/or gender binary. It installs a hierarchy for trans people: “post-op transsexuals” are “real” trans people, while people who choose not to or cannot afford to undergo transition are not “trans enough,” leaving trans youth without the freedom to experiment with the contours of their gender identity, expression and behavior.

What is truly criminal (in the informal sense of the word, deplorable) is the current treatment of trans people in our world. This case is more than one of a juvenile youth who has assaulted staff members. We do not know the context of the violence, especially given the power dynamics between inmates and staff members. Trans people are all too often presumed guilty before innocent (as part of the deception trope.) This is particularly evident with an interlocking trope, that of a liminal yet constant de/sexualization of trans people (either perceived as porn star-level hypersexual or ‘woman-is-really-a-man’ sexually undesirable.) In New York City, for example, trans women with condoms were presumed to be sex workers in accordance with the racist-cissexist-heterosexist stop-and-frisk policies, and often arrested on the sole basis of having condoms (because practicing safe sex as a trans woman is criminal.) A trans woman in Arizona was found guilty last week for the “manifestation of an intent to prostitute”, and trans women of color are often targeted by the police and, due to the broad inexplicit nature of the laws, many are arrested. And, in this 16-year-old’s case, she was not charged. While she was, certainly, violent, we do not know the mental and medical health of the girl or her background. Trans people undergo a considerable amount of additional stress for simply being trans, from familial abandonment to employment discrimination, increased rates of poverty and homelessness, which is not usually mentioned in the news coverage of this trans girl’s “outbursts.”

As evidenced by the discrimination, the derogatory remarks, the side-eye glances, the violence, and every utterance of “tr*nny,” the criminality of transphobia and cissexism is the real problem here, not this poor girl’s behavior. The point is not to trivialize the aggression she exerted, but instead to show how trans people, like many other minorities, are scapegoated for behaviors that are similar to their privileged counterparts. Trans people receive cruel and unusual punishment for identical “crimes.” As more and more trans women are allotted harsher sentences and unfair treatment, the need to address the matter at hand remains salient in the face of injustice.

Ragna tweets @raggijons.

Featured Image Courtesy of Ragna Rök Jóns

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