by Michalle Wright
The Trump Administration is waging a war on transgender rights. They’ve rescinded protections for transgender students in public schools, attempted to ban transgender soldiers from the military, argued against transgender employees in Federal courts, and allowed discrimination against transgender people in homeless shelters.
Their latest assault removes the rights of transgender people to be housed according to their gender identity while incarcerated in federal prisons. This is a dangerous attack that perpetuates hate towards transgender individuals. The Obama administration, understanding that transgender people are a vulnerable and misunderstood population, subject to greater risk of assault and abuse, issued guidance that trans people should be housed according to their gender identity.
By rolling back such important protections, the Trump administration has put transgender people at risk. I know this firsthand as a formerly incarcerated transgender woman.
Despite my being a woman, the Oregon Department of Corrections placed me in a men’s prison. They also denied me access to the hormones I needed to counter my gender dysphoria. With the help of Basic Rights Oregon and the ACLU, I sued the state and won. I was eventually transferred to a women’s facility and given the health care I needed. While it felt good to secure this victory, it wasn’t just a matter of principle – it was a matter of safety, perhaps even life or death.
Transgender people experience indignities every day in our society. When you’re incarcerated, though, you can’t walk away when you’re insulted or physically attacked. Likewise, there’s no one to appeal to, just the guards who are often perpetrating the harassment or encouraging it from the other inmates. While suffering this abuse in prison, I turned to self-harm and suicide attempts to cope. Eventually, though, I reached a point where even this couldn’t stop the despair I felt. It was then that I found the courage and will to stand up and fight back.
Sadly, my experience was the norm for incarcerated trans people.
According to a 2011-2012 study from the U.S. Department of Justice, while 4% of general prisoners experienced sexual assault in state and federal facilities, 39.9% of transgender prisoners were sexually victimized. That means transgender prisoners are almost ten times as vulnerable to these heinous acts. When our government refuses to honor transgender people’s identities by housing them according to their gender identities, it sends the horrible message that it’s okay to disrespect trans people. This makes it even more likely that incarcerated trans people will be abused by fellow inmates and staff. Likewise, any transgender woman receiving hormone therapy, before or during incarceration, develops secondary sex characteristics to align with that of a female body ( i.e. breasts, body fat redistribution, softer features). And as numerous studies have shown, transgender individuals have the highest risk for sexual abuse when housed in male facilities while incarcerated.
Knowing that transgender people are as vulnerable as we are in prisons, the government should be taking extra steps to guard our safety, rather than removing the few protections we have.
Through my advocacy I was able to arrange accommodations for myself in prison that improved my security and helped preserve my dignity. For instance, during the daytime prisoners would have to use the bathroom with our cell doors open. In the men’s prison, this meant my cell mate, other prisoners and guards could all look in at me. I did not know if I could trust these people, and felt afraid of being abused. Also, because my body was different, due to hormones, I attracted predatory viewing. Eventually I secured the right to use the bathroom with my cell door closed. This simple change helped me feel safer while incarcerated.
Other changes helped, as well. Being issued bras and panties instead of male undergarments helped with my dysphoria. Likewise, it was agreed that strip searches and pat down searches of me would be conducted by female guards only, and would be documented each time.
Changes like these take into account the vulnerability transgender prisoners experience, and counter it. These aren’t “special rights,” as conservatives like to argue. Instead they’re measures to address the epidemics of abuse, sexual assault and suicidal ideation that define trans people’s experiences in prisons. The Trump Administration should be employing solutions like this in our federal prisons, rather than turning back the clock to a more barbaric time when the prison system pretended trans people didn’t exist at all.
While I won my suit against the Dept. of Corrections, the current system in Oregon is by no means perfect. Transgender women are still being routinely housed in men’s facilities, and have to fight on a case by case basis to have gain the rights and health care access I secured.
I will continue to fight the system, though, with the help of Basic Rights Oregon, until all incarcerated trans people experience safety and respect.