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.

Marsha P. Johnson, the Revolutionary

Written by Nico Lueba Jones, a second year at Sarah Lawrence College.

Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 4, 1945 in Elizabeth, NJ. She self-identified as a street queen and “transvestite” at a time when the word transgender did not yet exist, but she always called herself a woman and used “she” pronouns. The P stands for “Pay It No Mind,” and that was her attitude much of the time, with her friends saying she had an exuberant personality and a penchant for optimism. She dressed in brightly colored outfits and cared deeply for the people in her community, often praying for them. She was so generous, some of her friends even called her “Saint Marsha.” She has gotten a lot of attention lately as one of the trans women of color that Pride has forgotten, and many credit her with being an instigator at the Stonewall riots in 1969. The truth is much fuzzier than that, with Johnson herself saying she didn’t arrive until the riot was already underway, and her close friend and partner in activism Silvia Rivera saying she was there when the riot started but did not instigate it. She is remembered as a prominent figure nonetheless. Regardless of her involvement in the Stonewall riots, what I think makes Marsha so amazing is all the activist work she did after the riot.

    After the Stonewall riots, Marsha P. Johnson continued to advocate for LGBT rights, participating in and organizing protests. It was following one of these protests, a sit-in at New York University in 1970, that Johnson and Rivera decided to found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR. At the protest, many groups had come together to protest for gay rights, but Johnson and Rivera noted that there were no groups protecting the interests and livelihoods of street youth, particularly transgender youth. Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were themselves homeless and working the streets to make money, and they knew how dangerous it could be. Rivera even credits Johnson with saving her life, after meeting her in 1963 and offering her some comfort and constancy in her life. STAR was the first documented LGBT youth shelter in North America, and by the next year they had opened their first house for street youth in a trailer parked in a parking lot in Greenwich Village. When that shelter fell through, they got a building. Together, Silvia and Marsha provided a safe living space, a gathering space, and a space for LGBT youth to learn. STAR expanded to multiple cities before having to close in the mid 1970’s.

    Johnson’s activism did not end, though. In the 80’s she worked with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) as an organizer and marshall. Johnson herself was HIV positive, and participated in direct action demonstrations with ACT UP for much of the 80’s, and cared for many of her HIV+ friends. Johnson dedicated her life to activism, to protecting LGBT youth, homeless LGBT folks, and making her community better and safer for herself and everyone. She was an active member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), marching every year on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and her direct action both personally and through STAR helped feed and house many trans and gay homeless youths. She was also an activist against police brutality, regularly engaging with police who harassed her and addressing their harassment in court when she was arrested. Marsha P. Johnson’s activism extends far beyond Stonewall. As a trans person myself, I am happy to have Marsha as a radical trans icon, to remind me to always look out for my community, and when it comes to those who don’t like us, to pay them no mind.

Works Cited

Brockell, Gillian. “The Transgender Women at Stonewall Were Pushed out of the Gay Rights Movement. Now They Are Getting a Statue in New York.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 12 June 2019, http://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/06/12/transgender-women-heart-stonewall-riots-are-getting-statue-new-york/?noredirect=on.

Feinberg, Leslie. “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries .” Workers World, Workers World, 24 Sept. 2006, 11:53pm, www.workers.org/2006/us/lavender-red-73/.

“Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries Found STAR House.” Global Network of Sex Work Projects, NSWP, 12 July 2017, www.nswp.org/timeline/event/street-transvestite-action-revolutionaries-found-star-house.