On Jan. 19, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, over a hundred Stanford students took part in nonviolent civil disobedience in order to honor and embody the spirit of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. Sixty-eight of us, myself included, were arrested on the San Mateo Bridge.
We stood in solidarity with oppressed peoples around the world. However, by virtue of our arrest, we had already entered a system whose job it was to divide, separate and dehumanize us. The first and most striking way they did this was by gender.
“Put the females over there,” said one officer dressed in black riot gear. One by one, officers walked up to us and began splitting us into two groups. There were no questions, no explanations – we were either male or female, and that identity was assumed from the shortest glance.
I found myself sitting with “the females,” but couldn’t help wondering what would have happened had I not put on makeup that morning. I thought of my driver’s license that read, “Sex: M,” and couldn’t shake the feeling of anxiety that built up while we sat on the bridge, wrists zip-tied together.
On the way to jail, all I could think about were the stories I had heard about what happens to transgender women in prison. Transgender women are often housed in men’s prisons – assigned there arbitrarily by their physical presentation, genitalia or other characteristics – and while in prison, 59 percent of these women are sexually assaulted. In prison, we are denied healthcare, placed into solitary confinement (which prisons call “protective custody”) and consistently have our gender identities and pronouns ignored and delegitimized. In prisons, transgender women are not only endangered by other inmates but also face violence from correctional officers themselves. In fact, according to the results of a comprehensive study with over 6,000 respondents, transgender inmates reported that the majority of abuse comes not from other inmates but instead from correctional officers.
Transgender identities do not exist in a vacuum. Police aggression, stereotypes and implicit biases that result in arrest and violence towards often innocent people of color, low income individuals and other disadvantaged groups in society also intersect with discriminatory behavior towards gender-nonconforming individuals. A sobering example: While physical and sexual assault are experienced by over 15 percent of all transgender inmates, over 34 percent of black transgender people indicated that they had been sexually assaulted in prison.
While these exact numbers may not be common knowledge among the transgender community, their existence is by no means a secret. For many of my friends and loved ones, the threat of incarceration or police harassment prevents discourages them from even basic interaction with law enforcement. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey finds that only 35 percent of transgender people feel safe in seeking police assistance at all.
Data from that particular survey strongly suggests that transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals face difficulties in all arenas of life, from schools to streets to solitary confinement. Civil disobedience, then, is another such arena.
While many trans activists – an iconic example being Isa Noyola, the Program Director at the San Francisco-based Transgender Law Center who was placed in men’s prison after her arrest – continue to participate in demonstrations and protests across the country, they do so with an added burden. It is almost guaranteed that when transgender activists face any possibility of arrest, they also face possibilities of intense discrimination, abuse, mistreatment and trauma at the hands of the system.
Addressing this problem is not as simple as further segregation. In fact, it would only be another indication of how grossly oversaturated America’s prison system has become if there were enough inmates to warrant genderqueer prison facilities. In order to fix a broken system, every level and every institution that constitutes it must be reformed.
Parallel to demilitarization, police must commit to increased accountability and increased education; reform must be designed to best serve not only cisgender, heterosexual, white individuals, but all of us in all of our communities. The justice system must take further steps in providing resources for transgender defendants, more adequately selecting and informing juries, holding judges and other members of the courts accountable to higher standards and ensuring that a “fair trial” is more than just words on paper. Finally, the prison system must reverse increasing privatization, renounce the largest population of incarcerated individuals out of any country in the world, release their unjustly incarcerated inmates and improve existing conditions in prisons for all held there.
For as long as these structures exist as they are, civil disobedience will continue to be far more dangerous, difficult and traumatizing for gender-nonconforming people, people of color, low-income individuals and other groups marginalized by society. However, it is for this precise reason that we continue to put our voices, bodies and actions into these situations. It is with the knowledge that structures of oppression make resistance the hardest for those who can dismantle them that we continue to stand.
Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.