We need to address the mass incarceration of black and brown trans people

The hands of a brown trans person pulled through jail bars
Meepoohphoto / Shutterstock

Johana Medina Leon, a 25-year-old asylum seeker from El Salvador, was taken into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody in April of this year. ICE held Medina Leon in Otero, a privately run detention center in New Mexico. After complaining several times that she needed medical attention, Medina Leon was transported to a Texas hospital on May 28. She died there on June 1.

Also in April, 27-year-old Layleen Polanco was detained in Rikers Island Jail after she was arrested on a misdemeanor charge and unable to pay $500 bail. After languishing in jail for two months awaiting trial, Polanco was found dead in her cell on June 7. The cause of her death is still unknown.

Even during Pride month, the United States continues to ignore the systemic over criminalization and under protection of queer, trans, and nonbinary individuals of color like Polanco and Medina Leon. Once July rolls around, the morsels of attention given to incarcerated trans people seem to diminish even further. The effects of mass incarceration on LGBTQ people of color, though, are persistent and destructive — and they need to be addressed year-round.

LGBTQ people are three times as likely to be incarcerated as the general U.S. population, and are more likely to experience violence and abuse while incarcerated. Black and Brown people, as we know, are also disproportionately targeted by police and the criminal justice system. When these identities overlap, the repercussions for those individuals can be particularly devastating. For trans women of color, the experience of being stopped and harassed by the police is so common that many call it “walking while trans,” explains Kayla Gore, an organizer in Memphis with the Transgender Law Center and Southernors on New Ground (TLC@SONG).

“Here in Memphis, it's a big thing that police harass trans women of color in the Midtown area for simply walking. Any time I was walking in Midtown I would get stopped by the police,” says Gore, who identifies as a Black trans woman. “I’ve had police pass me and yell out on their speakers, ‘people know that you’re a man.’” (Mic reached out to the Memphis police department for comment on this claim and did not receive a response at time of publication).

Because of discrimination in employment and education, queer and trans people are more likely to resort to illicit occupations such as sex work for survival. The criminalization of sex work then fuels a cycle of poverty and incarceration for those who cannot access the formal economy. LGBTQ people are also incarcerated through selectively enforced (and outdated) laws criminalizing HIV, which can result in HIV-positive people being placed on sex offender registries for life.

According to the advocates Mic spoke to for this story, trans women of color are routinely arrested on prostitution charges — whether the are engaged in sex work or not — often simply for keeping condoms in their purse. “I got arrested on my birthday for literally walking down the street. It was horrible,” Gore says. “Like 7:00 in the morning and I was walking to get me some tobacco from the corner store, and this officer pulled me over and he’s like, ‘you’re going to jail.’ And I’m like, ‘what am I going to jail for?’ He said, ‘Presumption of prostitution.’”

Black trans people are also disproportionately likely to be stuck in jail awaiting trial because they might not be able to afford to pay bail. Thirty-eight percent of Black trans people live in poverty, compared to 12 percent of the general U.S. population and 24 percent of all Black Americans. And white defendants are more likely to get off bail free than black defendants facing the same charge.

On top of all that, the U.S. justice system imprisons people according to a binary definition of gender, which is based on genitals or sex assigned at birth rather than an individual’s gender identity. This leads to most trans women being placed in men’s prisons, where they are targets for abuse by prison staff and other incarcerated individuals.

“The way the criminal justice system is set up is such a shaming environment. You are shamed for even talking to a transgender person,” says Janetta Johnson, executive director of the TGI Justice Project, which supports trans women during and after incarceration. “With all the sexual trauma and abuse that trans people face while on the inside ... once you get out of that situation it can be very traumatizing and very shocking.”

Prisons often place trans individuals in solitary confinement — despite the fact that the United Nations deems this a form of torture. “Prisons usually cite safety issues [as the reason] they place trans people in solitary confinement, but that’s really just crap,” says David Booth, whose experience being incarcerated for six months in Virginia now informs his work as policy and advocacy director at Black & Pink. “They say that because their genitals don’t match their identity they have no ‘safe option’ for them and so they just shove them in a cell by themselves.”

Advocating for incarcerated queer and trans people is particularly difficult because prisons don’t generally collect data on sexuality or gender identity. In order to combat this vacuum, prison abolition organizations have compiled their own data on LGBTQ criminalization. In May, TLC@SONG released The Grapevine: A Southern Trans Report, an advocacy and education resource created by trans people across the South. In 2015, Black & Pink released Coming Out of Concrete Closets, a survey of nearly 1200 incarcerated LGBTQ individuals. A staggering 85 percent of respondents reported spending time in solitary confinement, and about half spent 2 or more years.

Although the obstacles presented by the prison industrial complex are deeply rooted in a history of oppression, LGBTQ advocacy groups across the country strive tirelessly to support incarcerated community members. In San Francisco, TGI Justice Project lobbies for prosecutors and judges to offer trans women alternatives to incarceration, corresponds with trans women in prison, and provides employment and housing to formerly incarcerated individuals. Black & Pink runs a national pen pal program, which often provides incarcerated LGBTQ people with their only lifeline outside of prison.

With Trump in the White House, conservative politicians have been emboldened to introduce a wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation, as well as increasingly punitive criminal justice and immigration policies. “The political landscape that’s coming out of Trump’s White House is leading to a rollback of critical protections,” says Booth. “Essentially they’re trying to erase our gender and sexual identities. That’s a big threat, because not only does it impact policies, it also impacts society in general. People feel it’s okay to stigmatize or discriminate against queer and trans individuals.”

But there have also been critical victories that can’t be ignored. In May, the House passed the Equality Act, which would extend civil rights protections in housing, employment, and other sectors to LGBTQ people. Maryland, Hawaii, and New Hampshire recently passed laws to create a nonbinary gender designation on state IDs, with 11 states now offering an “X” gender category alongside “M” and “F.”

LGBTQ people on the outside and allies can actively support queer and trans incarcerated people in a variety of ways. We can stay aware and engaged in the cause through responsible media coverage, donate to LGBTQ groups combating incarceration, use “people first language” such as ‘incarcerated individuals’ rather than ‘felon’ or ‘inmate,’ and actively encourage leadership from queer and trans people who have experienced incarceration.

“We’ve lived through it so we know what doesn’t work,” Booth says about the importance of leadership from individuals who have been formerly incarcerated. “When people don’t have that lived experience they often lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day we’re not just fighting systems. There are people in these systems, and it’s people that we need to fight for.”

“There are a lot of ways to support Black trans leadership,” adds Gore. “You know, doing a simple Facebook post, writing a letter of support for someone to attend a conference, donating to a crowdfunding campaign, or donating to a trans-led organization, whether that’s monetary support or offering your time or services.”

It’s critical to center the leadership and needs of the LGBTQ populations who continue to be most marginalized - not just during Pride, but year-round. “We have to remember our historical legacy and what that means today. It was trans women of color who built this movement, and it’s trans women of color who are still disproportionately impacted,” says Booth. “We haven’t gotten very far in 50 years and that’s a huge problem.”