Itâ€™s estimated that 30 percent of transgender Americans have been incarceratedâ€”three times the national average. Those that go to prison are often placed in the sex-segregated institutions based on genitalia, not gender identity.Â This system is particularly brutal for transgender women, who are forced to live in menâ€™s prisons where they are often raped, denied medical treatment and placed in psychologically damaging, long-term solitary confinementâ€”to protect them from other inmates.
The 2006 film Cruel and Unusual (www.crueland-unusualfilm.com) illustrates the dangers of these procedures.Â 46-year-old Ophelia, sentenced to 67 years for committing a bank robbery with an unloaded gun, was denied female hormone treatment, and mutilated her genitals to force the system â€śto finish what she started.â€ť
Filmmakers Janet Baus, Dan Hunt and Reid Williams donâ€™t deny that these women are guilty; but they demonstrate the difficult circumstances that led to their incarceration.Â One transwoman explains that she understands stealing is wrongâ€”but living on the streets and faced with starvation, she chose to break the law to stay alive.
Cruel and Unusual is sponsored in part by The Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP, www.srlp.org )â€”a New York organization founded by attorney Dean Spade in 2002â€”that provides social and legal services to New Yorkâ€™s trans community.Â Naomi Clark, a â€śgenderqueer person of trans experience,â€ť whoâ€™s a member of SRLPâ€™s public education team, coordinated screenings for the documentary.
In order to alter the current â€śoppressive state of affairs,â€ť Clark says, â€śfirst we have to make sure that our communities can surviveâ€¦[and] that weâ€™re not being targeted by the police or mistreated in gender-segregated institutions.â€ť
The 30-something Asian American Clark says SRLPâ€™s goals are for self-determination of gender identity and expression, and to â€śend gender coercion, especially at an institutional level.â€ťÂ In doing so, Clark explains, the organization focuses its resources on assisting trans people whose lives are most severely affected by â€śthe overlapping of different oppressions and the misuse of institutional powerâ€ťâ€”low-income individuals, the disabled, and people of color.
According to the SRLP trans and other gender non-conformists are disproportionately poor, homeless, and incarcerated, and are up to 10 times more likely to be a murder victim. â€śWe believe that justice doesnâ€™t trickle down, and that those who face the most severe consequences of violence and discrimination should be the priority of movements against discrimination.â€ť
SRLP has a collective structure with members representing the community they serve.Â In keeping with that commitment, earlier this year Spade, stepped down from his leadership role, empowering the collective to assume full, non-hierarchical control of the organizationâ€™s future.
Clark says SRLPâ€™s prison reform efforts are critical because, â€śthe criminal justice and the prison-industrial complex system in this country are racist, classist institutions. They frequently fail to improve or rehabilitate peopleâ€™s lives and arenâ€™t effective at preventing crimeâ€¦[and they] are increasingly being used by corporate America as a source of guinea pigs and slave labor.â€ť
Trans people in particular, Clark says, â€śare often subjected to even more extreme conditions than other prisoners.â€ť Most institutions discontinue hormone treatment even though doing so can cause severe health consequences for example, once a transwoman starts receiving estrogen treatments, her body no longer produces testosterone naturally.Â When the estrogen treatment is later eliminated, the body is suddenly without hormone production at all.
Clark says, â€śThis is one of the few areas in which the government feels they can make medical decisionsâ€”even against the medical opinions of doctorsâ€”because itâ€™s alright to discriminate against trans people and dismiss their need for adequate medical care.â€ť
As a queer-identified woman, Clark reminds others why gay men and lesbians should care about trans issues: â€śall of our struggles are interconnected.â€ť
Â â€śActing like liberation is a scarce resource that we have to scrabble over is exactly what helps institutions with power keep that power, and keep oppressing us; itâ€™s a trick.â€ť
Trans writer Jacob Anderson-Minshall can be reached at email@example.com.Â He co-authors the Blind Eye mystery series which premiers March 2007 with Blind Curves.