Update: You can read a rough transcript of part of my contribution to the workshop, meant to help introduce what policing of queer & trans communities looks like, offered in loving solidarity with the rising movement against policing:
Next weekend in Chicago, I will be helping to lead a workshop with other folks from BYC at the Watching the Watchers: Strategies to End Police Violence conference. It’s called “We must love and protect each other”: Queer and Trans Resistance to Policing and we will be trying to help shed some light on how policing impacts queer and trans people, disproportionate impacts on QT people of color communities, constructing an interactive timeline of our favorite moments in history when our communities fought back, and brainstorming what we can do to build the movement to end state-sanctioned violence for good.
The conference is organized by We Charge Genocide and Project NIA – if you haven’t already, please get to know the work of these two amazing Chicago organizations! And keep an eye out for all of the beautiful acts of resistance that are happening all across the country right now. I am so inspired to see movements lead by young people of color rising up everywhere I look. In Chicago you can also check out Black Youth Project 100 for updates on the movement locally.
If you can’t come to the conference, you can also participate on social media with #wewatch. (See below for transcript)
The entire world is built to privilege people who conform to sexual and gender norms. Simple example: Everyone’s ID either has an M or an F on it, and everyone is expected to use a bathroom with either an M or an F over it. With some exceptions, most cisgender people (i.e. people who mostly identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) take for granted that they can use one of these bathrooms, or use their ID to buy cigarettes or whatever, without it being too big of a deal. But for queer and trans people, incongruent ID and gender segregated bathrooms regularly lead to harassment and maybe violence or even arrest.
By the way, this structure is not ‘natural’ and does have a history. It was built largely by powerful, wealthy, white cisgender people, who drew borders between genders just like they drew borders between nations. Indigenous peoples and people of color across the globe had and still have a variety of ways of constructing gender and sexuality. The current model that now dominates the world, a model of being permanently assigned one out of only two genders at birth based on genitalia where we can never change our gender and must only have sex with the opposite gender — this was and is part of the colonial project of “civilizing”, assimilating, and exploiting Black and Native people that defined the creation of this country and its entire legal system. That is the history we must remember in order to understand the context of policing of queer and trans communities today.
More specifically, why are so many trans and queer people interacting with police and/or locked up in high numbers, here and now? Sometimes it’s just straight up trans/homophobia: From the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey: “One-fifth of respondents who have interacted with police reported harassment by police due to bias, with substantially higher rates (29-38%) reported by respondents of color.”
But often there is also an economic reason. We are often unable to get jobs due to discrimination that is basically impossible to prove, especially as the economy comes to rely more heavily on “flexible” (i.e., expendable) service labor. In a homo/transphobic society, we are not even offered these low wage “customer service” jobs because we make the customers uncomfortable and bosses don’t want to put visibly queer or trans workers on their staff. According to the same national survey, 50% had been harassed or discriminated against by an employer and one quarter had lost heir job for being trans or gender non-conforming.
There are more reasons: many trans folks drop out of school due to harassment, so don’t have formal education required by capitalism. We’re discriminated against by landlords, social service agencies, homeless shelters, and of course, criminal (in)justice systems. We may be disowned and often lack support from traditional/assigned families and thus have no safety net.
And, sadly, it isn’t just our assigned-at-birth families who commit this kind of exlcusion. Even radical communities are responsible for our lack of support networks – for example, many feminists who fought to build rape crisis centers also fought to keep trans women out of them — even though trans people experience higher rates of sexual assault than cis women and thus actually need these resources even more! The very movements who should be offering solidarity and mutual aid to us to replace the traditional support structures from which we are already excluded have failed us.
Going back to that same national survey again, trans people as a whole were four times as likely to live on less than 10K/yr, twice as likely to be unemployed, and twice as likely to be homeless than averages. We also use drugs at very high rates to cope with stress and trauma – 41% of respondents to that survey had attempted suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population. FORTY ONE PERCENT comprared to 1.6%. And that doesn’t include the ones who succeeded. Isolation is literally killing us. Our desire to be included in spaces is not a luxury. It is a matter of survival.
It feels like we have no options other than to live criminalized lives in the underground economy… drugs, sex work, theft etc — esp sex work for trans women. For literally millennia in the colonized world, sex work has been one of the only options for trans people and this is still true. And its true that many trans folks are sex workers (a different study that I helped work on, the Washington DC Needs Assessment survey, whose sample was majority Black, found that 41% of our respondents had worked in the sex industry). But also because the association is so strong culturally, queer and trans folks, especially trans women of color, are routinely profiled and arrested for solicitation just for walking around in their gender after dark, regardless of whether we’re working or not.
While all the numbers are bad, numbers for TPOC are worse across the board, in every category from HIV rates to income. Case in point: “While 7% of the sample reported being held in a cell due to their gender identity/expression alone, these rates skyrocketed for Black (41%) and Latino/a (21%) respondents.”
Not only are trans and queer people in jail and interacting with cops at disproportionate rates, we also often have a worse time while its happening. Physical and sexual assault by cops is common, especially against sex workers and for trans women in jails, prisons, immigration detention, etc. While locked up we’re likely to be denied our medicine and placed in gendered populations that do not match how we live our lives and that, especially for trans women in male facilities, places us at extreme risk. Rates of rape for trans people who are locked up are extreme. The system’s solution is to put us in solitary confinement for weeks and months on end supposedly to “protect” us from the other inmates (even though guards assault trans women in male jails as frequently as do other inmates).
This is how the criminalization of poverty, homelessness, sex work, and drugs meet transphobia and racism to create a system that seems, at every step, to want to destroy the lives of anyone who challenges gender and sexual norms – but especially trans and queer young people of color. When 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ, then the targeting of homeless youth is a queer issue; when trans women of color are being profiled and arrested as sex workers, then the criminalization of sex work is a trans issue. We can’t let our struggles be separated, because we are fighting the same things, so let’s fight together.
One of the my final points is that transphobia and homophobia are not just abstract concepts or individual prejudices. They are systems that are enforced by structures made of real people, real buildings and infrastructure. It is the forces of the state and capitalism like the police and the prisons who enact and uphold these systems of transphobia, racism, and homophobia. The good news though is that since these things are tangible, they can also be resisted and attacked. And trans people have had a variety of tactics to do so, which we are gonna look at in a minute. [cue interactive history lesson]