About slcwhblog

SLC Women's History Blog is an online publication created by students of the Sarah Lawrence College Women’s History Graduate Program. In the interest of fostering dialogue, SLC Women's History Blog aims to promote a critical analysis of history and contemporary issues through the lens of multiple feminisms. We are focused on the intersections of lives realities and histories, such as the experiences related to race, class, gender, sexuality, age, and ability. We strive to keep the question of who gets to write history on the table.

Transgender Incarceration and Kamala Harris

Written by B. Clark.

Clark is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.

Transgender visibility week serves as an important and influential time for transgender, gender non-conforming, and intersex people across the world to come together through social media and community work to create an atmosphere of support and acceptance. It also creates a platform to address the challenges and systematic forms of discrimination that our communities face such as economic (in)security, access to reliable transitional health care, and mental health resources. One issue that has emerged at the intersection of these problems is the targeting of TGNCI communities for mass incarceration, prison violence, and police brutality.

Among the people tweeting support to TGNCI folks during this week was an unlikely supporter, former California State Attorney General and current 2020 presidential candidate, Kamala Harris. Harris began by tweeting a picture of a transgender pride flag with the caption: “This week, we’ve proudly added the transgender flag in front of my office. I want all transgender Americans to know that I see you, I’m with you, and I stand by you in the fight for equality. #TransVisibilityWeek” This was followed two days later with another tweet that stated, “Transgender people deserve to openly live life without fear. This Transgender Day of Visibility, let’s show dignity and respect to trans friends, family, and the community as a whole. #TransDayOfVisibility.”

While at face value these messages of support seem inspiring and a symbolic promise to politically uphold the rights of transgender people, Harris’s political track record tells a different story. In 2014 Harris’s office argued that supporting a program to parole more people who were currently incarcerated would drain the state’s source of cheap labor. This ensures that those who are incarcerated in California serve longer sentences in their facilities for the purpose of providing the government with unpaid labor. In 2015, Harris fought to stop a Michelle-Lael Norsworthy, a trans woman in California’s prison system, from getting reassignment surgery. (1)

Also in 2015, Harris adamantly supported California’s criminalization of sex work. Harris’s office stated that this criminalization is necessary because “[p]rostitution is linked to the transmission of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases”; the state has an interest in “deterring the commodification of sex”; and “[p]rostitution creates a climate conducive to violence against women.” (2) Not only are these statements factually incorrect and contribute to the stigmatization of sex work, but they also disproportionately lead to the incarceration of transgender people. Many transgender people, and specifically transgender women, rely on sex work for survival because of their hyper-sexualization and discrimination in other sectors of employment. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 19 percent of all trans people, and 47 percent of black trans women, have engaged in sex work. Those who lost a job as a result of anti-transgender discrimination are three times more likely to engage in the sex-trade. (3)

Incarceration is an obstacle to transgender liberation. Lambda Legal reports that one in six transgender Americans have been incarcerated, while half of all black transgender Americans have been incarcerated. (4) Issues concerning transgender people who are incarcerated should concern all of us, because it a system of discrimination deployed through the policing of our communities.

While Harris’s tweets and messages of support could be interpreted as a sign that she has reformed her views and now prioritizes addressing the challenges that face transgender people, it is more likely that she is voicing her support for transgender people as a tool to gain political leverage by rallying support from progressive voters, most of whom are not transgender.

Kamala Harris’s moderate reputation and confidence in policing and the criminal justice system has already gained her criticism from progressive Democrats, the same faction of the Democratic Party that demonstrated its power in influencing elections through its support of the Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign in 2016. Transgender rights have emerged as a key topic of discussion surrounding social justice and progressiveness. By voicing a message of support for transgender people she is attempting to rally the support of progressive voters who are not transgender and may have no relationship to the problems facing transgender people. If elected into office, Harris’s political background as a state attorney suggests that she will likely continue to rely on the criminal justice system as a mechanism for targeting crime, which in turn will only reinforce incarceration rates for transgender people.

Kamala Harris’s support for the transgender community is nothing more than an empty promise that offers no material support to the hardships that we currently face.

Work Cited

  1. Beckett, Lois and Sam Levin. “Kamala Harris: Can a ‘top Cop’ Win over Progressives in 2020?” The Guardian. January 19, 2019. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jan/19/kamala-harris-2020-election-top-cop-prosecutor.
  2. Samudzi, Zoe. “Incarcerated Transgender Women’s Lives Must Matter.” The Appeal. January 28, 2019. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://theappeal.org/incarcerated-transgender-womens-lives-must-matter/.
  3. James, Sandy E., et al. “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.” National Center for Transgender Equality, December 2016. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTS-Full-Report-Dec17.pdf.
  4. “Transgender Incarcerated People in Crisis.” Lambda Legal. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://www.lambdalegal.org/know-your-rights/article/trans-incarcerated-people.

A Period Memory

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College.

    Sitting in Mrs. Carter’s seventh grade Language Arts class during the fall of 2007, I slid down in my chair, legs spread out, relaxed – no care in the world. I always sat like that, not thinking about how much space I took up and loving how comfortable I felt. We learned about prepositions that day. Brandon Wilson, quite a bully throughout my time knowing him, sat directly across from me. I sometimes wonder if he ever saw it. I convinced myself he didn’t a few years ago when he reached out on Facebook to ask me on a date (I still got it). So he must not have noticed it, or maybe he blocked out the memory. Either way, it’s still pretty haunting.

Unlike the rest of my classes, Language Arts took two periods out of the seven I had. I didn’t mind. I loved the subject and Mrs. Carter was a real spunky teacher, so the two class periods didn’t bother me much. Her wit was quick, her accent thick – her class felt like the safest place to be. Though I can only imagine the 6 minutes in between periods would have been a great time to socialize with classmates, I never knew for sure. Thanks to a near disaster on a long bus ride years before, I always used the six minute break to run to the bathroom, whether I had to go or not (just in case).

    Down the hall, past my peers, I walked into my usual stall (the middle one) and my favorite bathroom (the one on the second floor of the old wing of the school), ready to sit and be alone on the toilet for a moment before heading back to class. I pulled down my khaki bermuda shorts to find a large, red stain. It looked like a murder scene. It took me a brief moment before I realized what had happened and I was quickly filled with terror wondering what to do next. I didn’t get a phone until I was in the eighth grade, so calling for help was out of the question. No one came into the bathroom during the entire 6 minute break, so there was no one I could ask for help. I didn’t carry a purse then because I felt like I had thwarted the patriarchy by being unfeminine in my clothing choices, so I had no tampon on hand. I didn’t know what to do.

School was important to me. I didn’t want to miss class. I wadded a bunch of toilet paper together, shoved it down my pants, and hoped I would make it through class. I spent the next 52 minutes of my life sitting with my back straight as a pole and my legs pressed so hard together that I could feel a heartbeat in my knees. I even crossed my ankles to the side. I took up as little space as possible. Never had I sat like such a lady during this class, or any class for that matter. I’m sure my grandmother would have been proud of my posture. I felt so small. I sat like that until the bell rang, at which point I quickly, but precisely, collected my things and went to the front office. They gave me a ratty, old pair of sweatpants to wear. Now everyone would know.


    This piece is the written form of a memory I had while listening to a speaker at a women’s history conference. The speakers were talking about the social justice issues surrounding periods: access to menstrual products in prisons, sex education and learned period shaming in schools, and access to medical services to address issues surrounding menstruation. Periods are complicated. A lot of people experience them, yet most memories and encounters with the bodily function are negative. The issues of menstruation are vast and in order to address the medical and emotional needs of the masses. It is necessary that a great many steps are taken in restructuring our educational values, how we treat the incarcerated, and the funding systems which support reproductive medical needs. The number of policy changes, and the of social and cultural overhaul which would subsequently need to occur, could very well be the topic of multiple books (and likely already are). But a simple first step is a bit more visceral.

    On top of policy changes, the action of speaking an experience into the ether can change lives. Despite the fact that billions of people menstruate, many feel isolated. The stigma of menstruation can be crushing and heavy. After years of understanding my body – how it functions and all the great things about being me – I still could not get out from under the weight of how small and dirty I felt in that classroom. That was ten years ago. I was socialized to take up less space, to be unseen, to be unnoticed and small. I thought that by dressing unfeminine, by taking up space, I could get out from under the pressure of that stigma. I didn’t. The memory rushed back without permission, and consumed my thoughts for a significant portion of the day. I wonder what might be different if we socialized kids differently: how might the human experience change?

Like I said, policy changes are necessary. But I argue that those changes are useless without changing the way we socialize kids. These discussions must start extremely young – well before the already heavy stigmas of puberty sets in. I know that many of my peers have similar memories consuming their thoughts, uninvited, on a regular basis. So I hope we can find ways to lift the stigma by fully supporting the bodies of children as we work toward lifting this harmful weight. Period.