More Than Healthcare: Transgender Prisoner Rights
Ophelia De'Lonta, a transgender prisoner, recently won an appeal of her lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections for refusing to evaluate her for sex reassignment surgery. Along with Michelle Kosilek's similar win last year, it's a significant victory for trans prisoner rights. Still, the fight for equitable treatment of transgender people by law enforcement is about more than healthcare.
Many transgender people, especially people of color, experience harassment by police both in and out of jail. In a 2011 report [PDF] titled, "Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey," 22 percent of respondents said they had experienced harassment when interacting with police, and 37 percent said they were harassed once imprisoned.
"Once behind bars, the experiences of transgender people are rooted in sexual violence, state control over physical autonomy, medicalization, and consistent denial of health care," said Reverend Jason Lydon, the founder of Black & Pink, an organization connecting LGBTQ prisoners to "free world" allies.
Lydon said there's hope as trans prisoners find solidarity within their confinement and litigate for equal health care. The mistreatment of transgender people both inside and outside prison will continue, however, as long as gender nonconformity is demonized.
"Policing of gender expression has an incredibly long history," Lydon told Campus Progress. Not abiding by the rules of one’s gender subjects an individual to ridicule and scrutiny.
"A common word used among trans women is 'walking while trans,'" he said, suggesting transgender and gender non-conforming people can't exist in public without experiencing violence or harassment.
The same mandates that moralize the boundaries of women's hemlines police the bodies of transgender people, and cultural violence normalizes state violence. In a society with a profitable prison industrial complex, where nearly a fifth of transgender prisoners have been physically or sexually assaulted and only 16 states and Washington, D.C. include trans people in their anti-discrimination laws, equitable health care and acceptance of all genders may require more than a few successful lawsuits.
Molly Savard is a reporter for Campus Progress. You can follow her on Twitter @mollicules.