Where we're at: What's Next?

It's hard to know how long we should wait.

Transgender people are very happy to see the SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality. People tend to ignore the fact that the ruling gives transgender people the legal right to marry whether we are gay or straight. That right has not always been available...and is not something that should be taken for granted.

But trans activists also know that if we wait too long before trying to get our hirons back in the fire, the instinct for activism in the LGBT community can just evaporate. We can't afford for that to happen.

Nine transgender women have been murdered so far this year. Nine. The latest was Mercedes Williamson, who was stabbed to death and left to rot in a field near a farmhouse in Southern Mississippi.

Advocacy groups hope that the same public focus and enthusiasm for change that produced such an irresistible surge in support for gay marriage will now coalesce behind their decades-old struggle for trans equality. They are loth to describe the fight as a new frontline – fearing that would belittle the hard work that has been waged over many years largely out of the limelight.

Clearly gay marriage has been a cause of great celebration. But it’s critical to remember that many members of our community cannot celebrate when they are struggling to survive on a daily basis.

--Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center

Top of the list of priorities articulated by transgender groups is the ongoing epidemic of violence faced particularly by black trans women. Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said that hate violence was running at levels that rendered it a national crisis.

The issue is so urgent as the harm is so severe. We have to deal with it better than we have.


In its report into hate violence in 2014, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs warned of an ongoing crisis of deadly violence against transgender women of color. It was the fourth year in a row that the monitoring group had highlighted disproportionate levels of severe violence.

Associated with the physical threats against trans women is their treatment by police, as well as detention in prisons, jails and immigration facilities. A recent study by the Fenway Institute found that one in five trans women has experienced life behind bars, a proportion that shockingly rises to almost half of all black trans women.

It would be nice if you reread that last paragraph.

Forty-seven percent of transgender women with a history of incarceration who participated in the study reported having been victimized and mistreated while in jail or prison. One in four incarcerated trans women were denied healthcare services while serving their time.

Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the ACLU, said the criminalization of trans women of color was a central priority for modern civil rights.

We have to fight the atrocious conditions that people experience in custody, including high incidence of sexual assault, use of solitary confinement and lack of access to medical treatment for gender transition.


Raising our public visibility via Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox has its upside, to be sure, but one should also be aware that as our visibility grows, so do efforts to lock us up.

It’s not an overstatement to say people are living under conditions of torture. Forced to shower with men, subjected to strip searches by male guards. We hear stories all the time – all the time – about guards using their power to harass, abuse and torture prisoners.


In most prisons and jails across the country, it remains extremely difficult to get any treatment at all for gender dysphoria – varying from the most basic access to lipstick and eyeliner, to facial hair removal and prescriptions of hormones. When it comes to gender reassignment surgery, most states have imposed blanket bans despite the constitutional duty of corrections departments to medically care for their charges.

The case of California inmate Michelle Norsworthy, who currently resides in Mule Creek State Prison and is seeking reassignment surgery, is scheduled to be presented before the ninth circuit appeals court in August.

Recently a Fusion investigation has shed light on the alarming situation in immigation detention facilities. While only 0.2% of ICE detainees is transgender, we are around 20% of the victims of sexual assault while incarcerated.

A group of over a hundred immigration organizations banded together to write a letter to President Obama seeking the release of transgender detainees in order to end the torture.

The result was a proposed change of policy, as chronicled here.

While the new regulations are a step forward, it is not enough.

But we still hold them – and us, the advocacy community as well – responsible for not doing enough. We cannot continue to accept this level of mistreatment.


And while OITNB is and should be applauded for having a transgender actress of color portraying a transgender woman of color, we should not forget that the context presents her in prison...and that her experience there does not represent the actual lived experience of incarcerated transgender women.




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Robyn's picture

The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.

--Justice Anthony Kennedy, Obergefell v Hodges majority opinion

Demands for transgender rights are often premised on recognition of the fact that the sex assigned to many people at birth does not comport with the gender experienced, lived, and expressed by those individuals later in life. As such, people should have a right to define and express their gender and should not be made social prisoners by the sex assigned to them. Understanding that transgender identity is, in part, about access to the ability to express and define oneself makes the relationship between the court’s ruling and transgender rights clear.

--Scott Skinner Thompson, Slate

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