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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.
Following is the approximate text of my comments at the 2012 Trans Pride Toronto rally that took place 29 June. Before my formal remarks, I drew attention to the news from earlier that day that Pride Toronto’s Dispute Resolution Panel had concluded there was no basis for the claims from Israel lobby groups that Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) should be excluded from the parade, or any other part of Pride week. Members of QuAIA and Dykes and Trans People for Palestine were proud to participate afterwards in the trans march.
Sisters and brothers, friends and lovers; I think we are experiencing an important moment in the evolution of the placement of our community in relation to wider society. In the last few years in particular I think trans people have begun to take on larger and more visible roles that society had previously denied us. Simultaneous with that however has come a backlash, which has taken many different forms, both explicitly and implicitly violent.
In my home country of the United States we saw a wave of violence against trans women of color in the last few months. While this phenomenon is unfortunately nothing new, it is a stark reminder that violence is very real, and if often acts as the final act of silencing.
Furthermore, it calls attention to the often-overlooked fact that not all of us in the trans community are equally vulnerable.
Indeed, it is a sad state of affairs that the fact that trans women, and particularly trans women of color, sex workers, and those living in poverty, are most vulnerable often passes without comment, even by those who stand up, generically speaking, for “trans rights.”
That has to stop, and we all should commit ourselves to trying to build a trans community with more representative leadership of the community as a whole.
Further, there is the critical issue of prison justice here in North America that is often overlooked. Perhaps these issues are best exemplified by the case of CeCe McDonald, a black American trans woman who was attacked along with a few friends by a group of anti-trans white supremacists one year ago in Minneapolis.
When this gang of thugs hurled racist and trans-misogynistic epithets at her, CeCe stood her ground. And when one person in that group started a fight by slamming a glass across face, lacerating her salivary gland, CeCe stood up for herself and her friends and fought back. And in the end she killed an aggressive man with a swastika tattoo on his chest in self-defense.
And that’s when the system stepped in to reinforce racism and trans-misogyny by charging CeCe despite the fact that the County Attorney’s office had previously declined to press charges against other people under similar circumstances. While the charges were at least dropped to manslaughter at a later point, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that CeCe has been punished for surviving her attackers.
Further, there is the fact that CeCe is now forced to inhabit a men’s prison, where she is potentially vulnerable to coercion and abuse, and further largely forced to live cruel conditions under solitary confinement. Of course, this is not unique to CeCe as this is the situation for countless trans women, particularly trans women of color, across North America. We must begin to have a serious conversation around these issues.
And finally, I want to make a small statement that the reason for fighting, for standing up for ourselves and for others who are even more oppressed than ourselves, is not because victory is assured. If you are here because you believe victory is assured all I can say is I think you don’t understand the meaning of honor. Victory is never assured, and if it were it would not be worth fighting for.
The reason we fight is because it is the process of standing up for ourselves that we obtain our dignity, we stand up and we take our honor. And I want to emphasize that our dignity does not come from Pride Toronto. Our dignity is not given to us by the federal government, the provincial government, the city or any other such entity. Our honor does not come from the government or society’s acquiescence; rather, it comes from our demand.
Our dignity is not give to us by anyone other than ourselves. We bestow upon ourselves our own honor in the act of standing up as individuals and as a community for ourselves.
Free CeCe! Free Palestine!
Update: Here is a short video my friend Cathy made of the Dykes and Trans People for Palestine/QuAIA contingent at the Trans March:
As many of us aware, last June CeCe McDonald and several of her trans friends were walking in Minneapolis when confronted by a group of angry white supremacists, who proceeded to verbally assault CeCe and her friends with racism and transphobia. When CeCe stood her ground against this verbal tirade, they proceeded to physically assault her and her friends. In the aftermath of the resulting melee, Dean Schmitz (who was later discovered to have a swastika tattoo on his chest) wound up dead.
CeCe survived, and the system punished her for that by throwing her in prison, and further, forcing her into solitary confinement, an exceptionally cruel punishment for an exceptionally vulnerable member of society.
Meanwhile in Palestine, hunger strikes have broken out amongst Palestinian political detainees who are held in cruel conditions in Israeli prisons without charge or trial, often for entirely arbitrary reasons. This includes Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak, who Israel recently promised to free after his epic three month fast.
Just as the media remains largely silent about CeCe McDonald and other trans people (particularly trans women of color, sex workers and those living in poverty) who are unjustly forced into abusive conditions in prisons here in North America, the media also remains silent about Palestine’s hunger strike heroes like Mahmoud Sarsak who are standing against arbitrary arrest and torture at the hands of Israeli occupation forces.
At this year’s Pride Toronto Trans March, we commit ourselves to reminding the world of their voices and their stories.
As members of Dykes and Trans People for Palestine, we invite all trans people and allies to join us at the trans rally Friday June 29 at 6 pm at Norman Jewison Park, followed by the trans march at 7:30 pm. Our group will be meeting in the space around 7:15 pm to form a contingent committed to promoting justice and solidarity with those targeted by the prison-industrial complex, and in solidarity in the wider struggle against patriarchy and imperialism, including Israel’s apartheid against the Palestinian people.
As feminists and trans-feminists we stand opposed to all forms of gender violence. As feminists and trans-feminists we stand opposed to all forms of racism and colonialism, and all other oppressions and social injustices.
My recent article at Pretty Queer focuses on leadership, politics and support for trans women within the trans community:
I want to preface the comments I’m about to make by acknowledging that our trans community (communitIES is really what I should say) is reeling from some events over the last couple of months. I think many of us are heartbroken, as we should be, over a series of murders of young trans women of color across the U.S. in the last month followed by the recent development that CeCe McDonald had few better legal options than to plead to 2nd degree manslaughter with a recommended 41-month sentence.
To make matters worse, the aftermath of the murders mentioned above recall the usual patterns of police dismissal and blatant disrespect from the media for the victims of racism and trans-misogyny. It is in this context that I think a lot of us feel, in addition to grief and frustration, plenty of doubt and uncertainty about where to head next. The solutions are not always clear, and I think we must avoid the trap of looking for easy answers.
In the aftermath of CeCe’s plea bargain, PrettyQueer’s Tom Léger conducted an interview with Dean Spade, a well-known trans activist and Assistant Professor of Law at a Seattle law school. I’ll note from the outset that criticisms of Dean have been surfacing in recent years; the criticisms primarily focus on his relationship (both professionally speaking and as an activist) with trans women.
For the rest, check out the full article at Pretty Queer here.