Last Sunday, Ashley del Valle was in Savannah, Georgia’s historic City Market, enjoying time on vacation when she was approached by two police officers. The officers claim that she was sitting on a park bench with her breasts exposed, and that she cursed at them and walked off when they approached. Del Valle, a Queens native who was spending time on vacation with her cousin, says that she was merely wearing a sheer top. She was subsequently arrested for indecent exposure and disorderly conduct. (And why should a woman have to listen when a man complains about what she’s wearing anyways?)
Her ordeal grew steadily worse when jail personnel realized she had a penis, as she was subsequently moved throughout the jail system over the next few days. She spent two days in a holding cell, during which jail personnel were reportedly rude to her, calling her “a thing.” She was then moved to a cell in the men’s section of the prison. During this time, del Valle reports that men in the surrounding cells “were banging on walls, calling [her] names,” and that she was afraid for her life.
Chief Deputy Roy Harris claims that since the other cells were locked, del Valle was not in any danger. Of course, this argument completely ignores the obvious emotional and psychological trauma that a woman would likely experience from being locked up with nearby men hurling abuse at her. While the information we have available to us from the single news story on the incident isn’t very detailed, it’s not hard to imagine such abuse might well have continued throughout the day and into the night.
On the fourth day, Harris claims that del Valle was placed in an isolation cell. While perhaps solitary confinement might be viewed as a temporary improvement over having abuse hurled at a woman held in a men’s prison facility, this points to a much larger problem that trans women face when pushed into the prison system. Many trans women who are incarcerated in the United States are forced into long-term solitary confinement by a prison system that either doesn’t care or just doesn’t know what else to do with women whose bodies don’t conform to society’s cissexist norms.
The fact is however, that long-term solitary confinement is incredibly psychologically damaging and cruel.
Fortunately, Ashley del Valle has at least now exited the prison system and has been able to speak out publicly about her ordeal. However, her case points to several issues. First, her case calls attention to the contradictions that trans women are forced to negotiate in a trans-misogynistic society: she was arrested for allegedly showing her breasts, then placed in prison with a group of men who themselves almost certainly never would have been arrested for exposing their chest in public. Secondly, this itself draws attention to one of society’s many misogynistic double standards: no big deal for men to appear topless in public, but the same behavior from women is viewed as criminal.
To place this more fully in the larger context, one should also note that the violence and unjust incarceration experienced so often by trans women in general are social cruelties disproportionately inflicted on trans women of color and trans women sex workers. As an example of the former, consider the case of CeCe McDonald, an African American trans woman who was incarcerated in Minnesota after killing one of her white-supremacist attackers in self-defense, and who was later herself held in long-term solitary confinement.