Issue 10.1-10.2 | Fall 2011/Spring 2012 / Guest edited by Joseph N. DeFilippis, Lisa Duggan, Kenyon Farrow, and Richard Kim

This is What Pride Looks Like: Miss Major and the Violence, Poverty, and Incarceration of Low-Income Transgender Women

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The Prison Industrial Complex: Hidden Violence for Transgender Communities

Miss Major began her work at the TGI Justice Project in 2004. The mission of TGI Justice is to use “direct services and community organizing to support the leadership development and capacity building of the TGI communities, and especially of TGI prisoners and former prisoners.”[6] TGI Justice is the only organization in the United States dedicated specifically to transgender people in the prison-industrial complex, which means that though it is rooted in California and primarily serves California residents, transgender people and activists from around the country look to them to provide support and intellectual leadership.

Miss Major visits California prisons bimonthly to provide direct support to incarcerated transgender women and men, connect them to legal and social services, and encourage them to organize within the prisons. She meets with individuals and organizes support groups when possible. Fifteen to twenty transwomen regularly attended her most recent support group at the California Medical Facility. In between visits, she keeps in touch with people in prison via letters and the collect calls they make to the office. She also is an advocate, having testified about human rights violations based on gender identity and race before both the California State Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva. There are at most five people in the United States who work full time on transgender rights in prison, which makes Miss Major an invaluable bridge from incarcerated transgender individuals to advocates and even advocacy targets like prison wardens and lawmakers.
Building on her work in prisons, Miss Major also organizes formerly incarcerated transgender women and men, which seems to mean being parent, sibling. friend, trainer, and resource to a lot of people. Because of her community relationships and because of prison demographics, she mobilizes primarily low-income transgender women of color. There is a reason Miss Major’s organizing is linked so heavily to the prison system: transgender people are overrepresented among the general population of people who have been incarcerated over the course of their lives. According to a 2002 study of the Bay Area transgender community by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center, 14 percent of respondents reported serving time in prison or jail at some point in their lives.[7] At the time, this was double the national average incarceration rate of people in the country as a whole. Miss Major put it this way: “If the world doesn’t approve of you, you’re not going to make it. Not everyone can live on the edge of society and be okay. Few people can survive and not go to jail.”

The range and scale of the abuse endured by transgender people in prison is hard to fathom.[8] Reports suggest that transphobic healthcare, including denial of hormones and discrimination in even routine medical attention, as well as excessive punishment and overuse of segregation, mean that the problems for transgender people in prison affect virtually every level of penal life.[9] Many of the problems start, however, with the fact that transgender people are housed in men’s or women’s prisons based on their genitalia.[10] This system of evaluation overlooks how people self-identify, how they have lived their lives, and how safe they will be. When asked about the impact of placing a transwoman in a men’s prison, Miss Major simply said, “It’s devastating.”

Physical and sexual abuse against transgender people in prison is rampant. A study by the Center for Evidence-Based Corrections showed that while 4 percent of people in men’s prisons in California reported experiencing sexual assault, 59 percent of transgender women in prison reported experiencing sexual assault, meaning a transgender woman is 13 times more likely to be victimized.[11] According to the same study, 75 percent of the transgender women who reported being sexually assaulted in prison reported that it occurred multiple times. Given people’s reluctance to report sexual abuse, we can surmise that even these numbers must be conservative. Informed by her own three and a half years in prison and from having worked with thousands of transgender people who have been incarcerated, Miss Major is unequivocal that corrections officers are active participants in the human rights violations that transgender women experience. She believes correction officers are routinely physically and sexually violent with transgender women and that even when they are not the perpetrators, their inaction sanctions abuse:

The girls usually keep physical violence [by correction officers] to themselves. They might say something if they can tell us directly, but they don’t write about it as much. The fact that people don’t talk about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. It means that people are scared. There’s no way it can just be the inmates because the inmates don’t have access all the time. It’s the guards who have access. They see it and know what’s going on. If it’s happening, even if it’s another inmate doing it, then the guards are involved, because flat out, they’re in control.[12]

She adds: “[Correction officers] assume our behavior as transgender women is always sexual. They think we just see a dick and fall on our knees and worship it. This idea weighs heavily on how they see us. If we’re involved, they assume we’re guilty because we just have to have ‘it’. They ask, ‘What did you to do excite him and make him want to hurt you?’”

Discrimination and Poverty: the Economic Realities of Transgender People in the Labor Market

Research shows that transgender people experience widespread social exclusion, which leads to high levels of employment discrimination and poverty.[13] The 2011 report, “Injustice at Every Turn,” documented that transgender survey respondents experienced unemployment at twice the rate of the general population, near universal harassment on the basis of gender identity at work (90 percent), and rampant underemployment (44 percent).[14] The 2006 “Good Jobs Now!” (PDF) study of San Francisco’s transgender communities found that nearly 60 percent of study respondents earned under $15,300 annually, and only 8 percent earn over $45,900.[15] Only 25 percent of respondents were employed full-time. More than 54 percent reported experiencing employment discrimination. Another study, the 2002 Washington Needs Assessment Survey, found that nearly a third of the transgender population in the US capitol were unemployed, while another third reported incomes below $10,000.[16] Fifteen percent reported losing a job as a result of discrimination in the workplace. Clearly, transgender people whose appearances do not fit neatly into expectations for either their sex at birth or the gender they identify with experience extreme difficulty obtaining and retaining secure, living-wage jobs. Transpeople who can present as the gender they identify with or their sex at birth may find employment, but job insecurity and personal costs are high. And of course, it is difficult for transpeople who are fired for discriminatory reasons to prove their qualifications and employment history. Consequently, transgender people may be disproportionately concentrated in informal sector employment: work that doesn’t offer benefits programs like social security, health insurance, or paid leave.

When I asked Miss Major how the recession has affected transgender women and men, she laughed humorlessly and said, “We don’t have jobs to lose. We never had pensions for a company to take from us. I used to get $50 for a blowjob and now I get $25. The cost of me has gone down. And I’m going to accept it because I have to, whether it’s $25 or $50. I have to eat; rent’s due, I have to get it somehow.” Under the new economic regime, informal sector workers including transgender people may be working more hours and under potentially riskier circumstances. Miss Major estimates that since the start of the recession, twelve social service organizations in California alone have cut services that transgender clients depended on. She has extended her workday to include more one-on-one time and case management with community members coping with additional financial burdens.

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  1. Transgender, Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project Web site. (Accessed July 18, 2009). [Return to text]
  2. National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center, TransRealities: A Legal Needs Assessment of San Francisco’s Transgender Communities (PDF) (San Francisco: National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center, 2002). (Accessed July 19, 2009). [Return to text]
  3. Sydney Tarzwell, “The Gender Lines are Marked with Razor Wire: Addressing State Prison Policies and Practices for the Management of Transgender Prisoners” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 38 (2006):167. [Return to text]
  4. Darren Rosenblum, “‘Trapped’ in Sing-Sing: Transgender Prisoners Caught in Gender Binarism” (PDF) (New York: Pace U School of Law: Pace Faculty Publications, 2000). (Accessed July 19, 2009). [Return to text]
  5. National Center for Lesbian Rights, Rights of Transgender Prisoners (PDF) (San Francisco, National Center for Lesbian Rights, 2006). (Accessed July 19, 2009). [Return to text]
  6. Valerie Jenness, Cheryl L. Maxson, Kristy N. Matsuda, and Jennifer Macy Sumner, Violence in California Correctional Facilities: An Empirical Examination of Sexual Assault (California: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2007). (Accessed July 19, 2009). [Return to text]
  7. Miss Major, personal interview, July 11-13, 2009, via phone. Transcripts on file with author. [Return to text]
  8. L. Motet and J. Ohle, Transitioning Our Shelters: A Guide to Making Homeless Shelters Safe for Transgender People (PDF) (New York: The National Coalition for the Homeless and National Gay & Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, 2003). (Accessed July 15, 2009). [Return to text]
  9. Jamie Grant, Lisa Mottet, and Justin Tanis, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (PDF) (Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011). (Accessed January 10, 2011). [Return to text]
  10. San Francisco Bay Guardian and the Transgender Law Center, Good Jobs Now! A Snapshot of the Economic Health of San Francisco’s Transgender Communities (PDF) (San Francisco: San Francisco Bay Guardian and the Transgender Law Center, 2006). (Accessed July 19, 2009). [Return to text]
  11. J. Xavier, The Washington, DC Transgender Needs Assessment Survey (WTNAS) (Washington: US Helping Us, People Into Living, Inc., and Administration for HIV/AIDS, Department of Health, Government for the District of Columbia, 2002). (Accessed July 16, 2009). [Return to text]