I Hear Them Breathing: Trans women, prison, and the limits of tolerance

Monica Jones, who was arrested for "walking while trans and black," speaks out for sex workers. Image Credit: Facebook/Support Monica Jones

Monica Jones, who was arrested for “walking while trans and black,” speaks out for sex workers. (Image Credit: Facebook/Support Monica Jones)

2014 has been a decidedly double edged-sword of a year for trans women thus far. “Awareness,” that maddeningly vague but precious resource, has rained upon us like falling cherry blossom petals, right along with the false promises of that debauched liberal currency known as “tolerance.” That awareness has stretched across a long, polychromatic gauntlet, from the inspirations of Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, to a flowering of trans women’s lit, to the depredations of activism and social media gone horribly wrong, to, at long last, the daily struggles of our invisible sisterhood.

Where once the shadows of prison, border control, and policing were wide and deep enough to easily engulf armies of trans women, now a bright light is shining into the gloom. We know the words of women who would have otherwise been lost in the drear of the prison industrial complex: from Monica Jones’ activism against whorephobia, to Avery Edison’s tweeted defiance, to Jane Doe’s stoic missives, the trans women that courts, borders, and prisons are trying to swallow refuse to go quietly.

After an unpleasant struggle with Canada’s custom’s officers that unsparingly exposed the gulf between the humanity of Canadian civil society and the unreconstructed brutishness of its prison system, Avery Edison was allowed to return home to Britain. For Monica Jones and Jane Doe, however, the fight is ongoing.

What all three women expose is the fatal flaw in the tolerant self-conception of Western nations. The soaring rhetoric that blankets our colonnaded institutions, increasingly joined by a cheerful liberal story of rising LGBT tolerance and equality, is belied by the painfully stark reality of a criminal justice system that appears to measure progress in millimeters rather than miles. That chasm between liberal democratic self-conception and the frightening endurance of prison’s worst abuses and utter incompatibility with democratic aims is what trans women—and most particularly trans women of color—lay bare. It is a pattern repeated again and again in trans women’s interactions with the police and the institutions that often act as pipelines to prison for young people of color in the U.S. 

The Chasm

Consider Edison’s case: Canadian civil society was fertile with defenders of trans rights, even in traditionally conservative outlets like The National Post. Members of Parliament leapt to Edison’s defense. There was hand-wringing horror splashed across the pages of Canadian newspapers and websites that bled out into the wider world, gaining attention in Britain and the U.S.

Yet for all that outpouring of “tolerance” and the perfectly healthy liberal impulses that thrummed beneath it, prison guards misgendered Edison constantly, and the system interred her in men’s facilities; there was never a moment in her interaction with border guards, police, or prison officials that did not culminate in a mortal abnegation of her very self. Misgendering—or, more precisely, the beliefs that underlay it—can kill. It is a conviction made flesh, which leaves its mark on the bodies and psyches of trans women.

Jane Doe, a 16-year-old trans girl in Connecticut, was put in an extraordinary position that makes a mockery and a sham of Constitutional protections when she was transferred from the Department of Children and Families (child welfare services, in essence) to a state prison without ever having committed a crime. She is currently being held in isolation while her case is resolved, as she described in an op-ed in The Hartford Courant:

“Now, I am sitting in a room at the end of a hallway in the psych ward at York Correctional Institution. I’m in my room 22 hours a day with a guard staring at me — even when I shower and go to the bathroom. It’s humiliating. Women constantly scream and cry and it was hard to sleep. They moved me down a different hallway where it’s not as crazy. I tell myself that this is just a nightmare, but it doesn’t end. I know that I need to work on my issues and I want to, but this is not the place.”

She was accused of being an impossible case by Joette Katz, the commissioner of the DCF, and described as violent, uncontrollable, and essentially beyond help. Doe disputes this account, pointing out that some DCF workers spoke out on her behalf and that accusations she’d seriously injured people were outright fabrications. Yet, the debate about her character obscures a central issue: she has not committed any crime worthy of transferring her to a prison. She has been catastrophically failed by the State of Connecticut, which has attempted to cast her off into the prison system like so much refuse.

This gulf, between lofty democratic idealism and the real work done by our criminal justice system, by no means, affects only trans people; all who go through prison, immigrant detention, jail, or who deal with the police experience it on some level. But the hoopla of “tolerance” that garlands mainstream LGBT politics makes that disjuncture painfully obvious for trans people — especially when the complicating intersections of race and sex work enter the frame.

“I believe I was targeted for being outspoken about Project ROSE, a program that takes away agency and targets women in poverty,” said Monica Jones in an interview with Tina Vasquez at Black Girl Dangerous. “Many sex workers live in poverty and so do many trans women of color, who the police associate with sex work whether it’s true or not. So you have two agencies — the police department and diversion programs — working together to target low-income women.”

And thus we come full circle to the border-work done by policing and prison: it disciplines our society out of integration, and—in this case—it obviates any complexity that might be brought by the transgender experience. Some may accept our genders in the abstract, but come the rigid hierarchies of prison, our round pegs must be hammered back into patriarchy’s square hole, for the system can do no other.

The Tolerance Trap and Patriarchy’s Skeleton

What trans people expose in our interactions with the criminal justice system, however, with the way some agitate for us outside of prison even as prison itself heaps abuse upon us, is the failure of what we might call “tolerance politics.”

This is, simply put, the idea that the highest good of political pluralism is the idea that one must simply tolerate thy neighbor—acknowledge and grudgingly accept their existence, follow all prescribed codes of politeness for the group in question, and carry on.

The invisible moral enterprise on which this liberal house of sand has been built is the idea that tolerance comes to the worthy: those who are “like us,” who are “good, law-abiding citizens,” who have in some sense “earned” their humanity, as if one is born without it.

Tolerance politics makes no provision for the concept of an inalienable right, one that is immanent to our very being, irrespective of how that being may manifest—for such a concept would mean we all share something essential in common. “Tolerance” lacks an ethic of meaningful integration. Indeed, this is the fundamental lie at the heart of “we’re just like you” politics: it does not acknowledge that social change is transformative of us all, that the world of cis people will indeed be changed by meaningfully integrating trans people into it, and vice versa.

Our own Alexandra Brodsky gave a useful definition of what integration might mean in practice:

“I don’t think moral acceptability should be our goal. Let’s aim instead for celebration… Acceptance admits X behavior or identity isn’t bad. Celebration declares that it’s good. The tolerant are fine that there are gays in the neighborhood, while the celebratory are glad the world is queer.”

Integration means it would be unthinkable for discrimination to occur because it would make about as much sense as, quite literally, cutting off your nose to spite your face. In an integrated world, trans women, people of color, those who do sex work, would all be so deeply woven into a shared community that there would be no “them/us” separation worth speaking of any longer. The tolerance ethic keeps us in the silos of essential identities, treating minorities as pathogens to which the body politic must develop an immunity.

Integration, by contrast, transforms both “them” and “us,” synthesizing both into something new.

Put very bluntly, our current system of incarceration makes plain how far we are from that majestic aim. Incarceration shows that when a person of trans experience is considered immoral, or has been “bad” or otherwise perceived as “disruptive,” she is treated as subhuman, revealing the knife’s edge upon which we all walk, at present.

I am a woman, until the police get ahold of me and try to make me into something else, something more intelligible to them, something that asks nothing of their humanity and still less of our democracy.

Monica Jones, arrested for essentially walking while trans and black, and convicted of “manifesting prostitution,” is currently fighting what has been done to her, and in the name of all the women—cis and trans—that suffer from the predation of Phoenix’s police department and the misbegotten moralism of its local religious nonprofits. That unholy alliance is simply meant to sand down the queerly rough edges of a society that demands a worthy form of pluralism, one that sees the multifaceted complexity of a woman like Monica Jones, an educated black trans woman and activist, one that sees the full polyhedron of humanity that is the sex working person and not a vessel to be filled with someone else’s salvation, one that sees trans people as people, one that prizes a citizenship too vast and promiscuous to be contained by a passport or green card.

In a much cited quote, the writer Arundhati Roy observed “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

When I look at the work and struggles of my sisters with the patriarchal skeleton of prison, I remind myself to hear their breath and to honor what it means—for, in many ways, they are the coming world.

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross believes tolerance is never going to be enough.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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