MHP   |  January 19, 2014

No one can 'take my identity away from me'

CeCe McDonald talks about her experience of being a trans woman incarcerated in a men’s prison. The MHP panel discusses the policies that need to be changed to stop the systemic discrimination transgender people face.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> laverne cox's character in "orange is the new black," sophia , is not just incidentally transgender, the show explores many of the issues that arise from being a transgender person in prison. the reason sophia is incarcerated is related to theft of the resources to finance her transition, and a major story arc is sophia struggling to get the hormone regime from prison officials.

>> what do you want from me?

>> i want to see a doctor.

>> you can't go to the clinic unless it's an emergency.

>> this is an emergency.

>> yeah, well, we don't see it that way. was there something else?

>> yes. i'd like to report an emergency.

>> so that moment is an extraordinary one, and cece , i want to come to you on this, because i want to talk to you about the realities of what it's like to be a trans woman incarcerated in a men's prison, and what that environment entails, what the dangers are.

>> melissa, to be honest, i felt like regardless if it was a men or women's prison, prisons in general aren't safe at all. of course, i had to deal with the policy of discrimination and demonizing and delegitimateizing of my transness, but, you know, prisons aren't safe for anyone and that's the key issue. for men and women, in prison, the policies are harsh and strict and very exclusive and very belittling. and that's what i felt in prison. i felt like they wanted me to hate myself as a trans woman . they wanted to force me to be someone that i wasn't. they wanted me to pretty much delegitimatize myself as a trans woman , and i was not taking that. as a trans woman , as a proud black trans# woman, i was not going to allow the system to delegitimatize and hypersexualize and take my identity away from me.

>> so, i love, like, that level of resistance, at the most core human level. and yet, i want to ask about how our policies can help to assist others in resisting these policies that are dehumanizing in this case. cece is obviously right, prison is tough for everybody but the percentage of transgender folks who end up in prison, are much higher among the committee. so the percent of people who have gone to prison or jail of all trans persons, is 16%. of black trans persons, 47%. american indian trans persons, 30%. for trans women , 21%. these are extraordinary numbers, meaning incarceration impacts trans people are the a higher level . and what miss mcdonald's experience shows us is we do need the policies, and even when they are in place, we need to change hearts and minds and attitudes. let us not forget, her experience happened in the state of minnesota, the very first state with a nondiscrimination law. we now have major equality that protect against gender discrimination . and yet this still happened to her. we're seeing a few glimmers of hope. a long way to go in terms of creating change for transgendered people in this country, particularly transgendered people who are incarcerated. a few glimmers of hope. the los angeles police department has created a safe facility for transgendered people . just this week, we had a ruling out of the first circuit insisting or upholding a ruling that transgender people must receive the health care that they deserve, while they are incarcerated. just like everyone else. so we are seeing a few glimmers of hope, but we have a long way to go to push for change and to push not only for laws, but for changes in hearts and minds and attitudes.

>> katie , let me come to you on this.

>> yeah, i think this was a really interesting moment, actually, for our campaign, where we've been advocated for cece the entire time she was incars rayed. upon sentencing, everyone was totally ready to go to bat for her, and people were definitely ready to press charges against the department of corrections , file a suit to get her out of a men's prison and into a woman's prison, if that's what she wanted. but she made it very clear to us, a woman's prison isn't going to be safe. a men's prison isn't going to be safe. prisons aren't safe for people period. and that we could have gotten wrapped up in trying to change the kind of policies that are here in minnesota, that are pretty progressive, that we would have had a chance of getting some leverage on. we could have tried to change the way that transfolks are housed in prisons, or we could have made it very clear that the only way that trans folks are going to be safe in prison is for incarceration of people to end. the only way for trans folks to be safe in prisons is for us to fight against these laws that criminalize things like drugs, sex fork, poverty. people of color are finding clear paths to work because of that.

>> i feel like i just listened to katie talk and had this aha moment where i was like,a well, of course. exactly what trans activism is to do is push against the binary set of assumptions about what a male prison or a female prison -- like, it took me a second, but as soon as katie started talking about it, right, of course. of course it would be trans6 activism that says, don't get caught up in this question whether i'm with this group of people or this. the issue is one of justice.

>> and the issue too is that we are stigmatized and criminalized at every level of culture. that we trans people don't exist. we don't do statistics for census, we don't track trans people in that regard, in terms of hiv transmission, we do not track trans women . we love to track men who have sex with men. so there's constantly this denial of the existence of trans# people, and because of that denial, we don't get services and are discriminated against everywhere. we have to have policy that acknowledges that we exist --

>> so even begin to like sort of dismantle some of the systemic discrimination that we experience.

>> thank you so much. cece , i'm just going to say this as we go out. i hope that now that you're hope that you're just playing on repeat, like all day long. i hope you're playing beyonce, flawless, and being like all of the amazing that you are and reminding yourself that you woke up like this and you are, indeed, flawless.

>> yes, thank you, melissa!

>> thank you, so much, to cece mcdonald and katie burgas and laverne cox here in new york. and ray's organization is hosting the 26th national conference on lgbt equality, creating change, where laverne is giving the keynote address. the conference starts january 29th in houston, texas. you know, where yonce's from. when we get back, my letter of the week.