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Transgender and Incarcerated: How do our jails treat some of the most vulnerable prisoners?

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http://issuu.com/outwords/docs/outwords_210_may-june_2014 – pages 8-10

Transgender prisoners – particularly women – often face harsh situations in Canada’s jails. Without documentation or not having medically transitioned, offenders may face difficult questions when entering the prison system, not the least of which is what their gender is. Those who are non-operative or pre-operative are, by standard practice, sent to the prison that matches their sexed genitalia, said a spokesperson for Manitoba Justice. This is done regardless of how long they have lived as their identified gender.

A famous 2001 Canadian case saw Synthia Kavanagh, a 41-year-old trans woman who had begun hormone therapy and lived as female since she was a teen, placed in a men’s prison and given restricted hormone therapy. This resulted in a reversal of the physical changes hormones had provided her. After her requests for gender-reassignment surgery (GRS) were repeatedly denied, Kavanagh attempted to slice off her genitalia out of desperation.

Kavanagh filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission and eventually won her case in 2001. She received surgery at a cost of $14,000 and was then moved to a women’s prison. This followed several years in segregation after alleged sexual assault and harassment at the hands of male inmates. Kavanagh’s case illustrates all too well some of the hardships trans women face in Canada’s prison system.

“They’re mixed in with the general population, and they’re assigned based on whatever sex organs they still have.”

The case in Manitoba

In Manitoba, the Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity in the provision of services. The Commission’s website states, “Systemic discrimination is a form of discrimination that is often not intended. It takes place when a policy or practice that seems neutral has a greater negative effect on some people based on their protected characteristic.”

Failure to reasonably accommodate a special need that is based on a protected characteristic is also prohibited in Manitoba. The Code has special status over all other laws in the Province of Manitoba.

Factors like self-identification, gender on official ID and any file history about past placements is taken into consideration before placing a transgendered prisoner, said the spokesperson for Manitoba Justice. “Placements also consider the individual’s health and safety and any security concerns that could result. As I understand it, a transgender inmate in a correctional facility would likely be placed in an area with either a smaller population of inmates (i.e. not a dorm-style arrangement), or in other areas better suited to protect his or her safety.”

The spokesperson said Manitoba Corrections has effectively managed trans offenders in the past and isn’t aware of any significant incidents. Of a total inmate population of around 2,600, they estimate that there may be four to six transgender inmates in the provincial system at any time. The spokesperson said trans inmates have access to hormones if they have been taking them before coming in. The official was unable to say whether any pre-operative/non-operative trans women have ever been placed in a women’s prison in Manitoba.

Manitoba Corrections does not have policies specific to transgender inmates.

The case for transgender inmates the same across Canada

In addition to provincial facilities, there are three federal penitentiaries in Manitoba. Correctional Service Canada’s regional communications manager for the Prairies, Jeff Campbell said in an e-mail interview, “Pre-operative male to female offenders with gender identity disorder shall be held in men’s institutions and pre-operative female to male offenders with gender identity disorder shall be held in women’s institutions.” For all placement decisions, individual assessments are done to ensure those offenders diagnosed with gender identity disorder (GID) have their needs for safety and privacy accommodated, Campbell said. This means that without genital surgery, an offender would be placed in a prison that corresponds with their physical sex, but possibly not with their emotional and psychological well-being.

In order for an inmate to be diagnosed with GID and access trans-specific medical care, they must see a psychiatrist who is a recognized expert in the area. This mirrors the process many trans people outside prison must follow to access healthcare. The process for inmates happens if and when such a psychiatrist is available, according to Correctional Service Canada policy. The policy states inmates with GID diagnosis are the ones who can initiate or continue hormone therapy.

The policy also says, “Sex reassignment surgery shall be considered during incarceration only when: a recognized gender identity specialist has confirmed that the offender has satisfied the real-life test.” The real-life test refers to living full-time as one’s identified gender for a year in order to qualify for surgery. For inmates, the real-life test must have been completed prior to incarceration. If they are eligible for surgery, Correctional Service Canada foots the bill. This policy amendment was enacted following Kavanagh’s human rights victory.

Dealing with misidentification

One source OutWords spoke to has seen some of the effects of these policies on the ground. In a telephone interview, an employee of federal corrections described some of the ways trans women are treated in male penitentiaries and how some of them cope. “They’re mixed in with the general population, and they’re assigned based on whatever sex organs they still have,” the source said. “Even if they’ve had breast augmentation and have been living fully as female and on hormones.” Others could care less if they’re in with the males, and “[those ones] only live as female part-time or by choice.”

“But there are a couple in particular who live fully as female and identify as female and we call them by their female names… Most of them are forced to work the streets when they’re out, and then they come in, and if they really want to affect change it’s pretty hard, because they’re kind of used as females within the prison,” said the source. “In some ways for some of them it gives them a lot of power in the prison, because they have something to barter with. But for others who are sincerely wanting to change, and [who] live their lives as females socially, it’s an added struggle for them. I think it’s kind of shameful.” The source described the situation as psychologically damaging and quite bad. “But I don’t know what the other solution is either.”

Prisonjustice.ca, an activist organization for trans prisoners, notes the connection between criminal activity, poverty and the isolation and stigmatization many trans people face. Incarceration rates within trans communities are disproportionate, and this is linked to the vulnerability of the trans population.

Moving forward

The federal employee said Manitoba Corrections is looking at work done by the Winnipeg police to help plan an expansion for its own diversity programs. “We’re also doing it [federally], because we work with a diversity committee, and we’re looking to bring in speakers and stuff from related organizations that have been successful in doing diversity training with their staff.”

A guide put together by Joshua Mira Goldberg for the Justice Institute of British Columbia aims to provide criminal justice personnel with the information necessary to respond appropriately to trans people in the criminal justice system. It suggests a case-by-case approach to placing trans prisoners. “In some cases, it may be appropriate to place a prisoner according to their identity (e.g., placing a trans woman in a women’s facility). In some locations, it may be possible for trans prisoners to be housed together in a special unit. In some instances, a trans prisoner may request placement in general population or protective custody… There needs to be a framework to guide the assessment.”

Australia’s model is a three-tiered policy that prioritizes prisoner safety. First, it is asked which facility would be safest for the prisoner. Then, the prisoner’s general appearance and what gender they live as are considered. The last consideration is physiology and genital status.

An international academic study that looked at transsexuals within prison systems in North America, Europe and Australia found that only 29 of 64 correctional institutions said they would maintain existing hormone therapy if it had been prescribed prior to imprisonment. Sixty-two of 64 facilities said all inmates must wear the clothing appropriate to the institution regardless of the inmate’s gender identity. And only 40 per cent of correctional services had policies addressing issues like hormone treatment.

Published in OutWords Magazine, May/June 2014

–Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice.

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Making connections: Bridging racial divisions in the GLBT* community

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http://outwords.ca/2014/issue-september-2014/making-connections/

GLBT* rights have come a long way, and we know there’s still a long way to go. Yet some things are continually overlooked, like the glaring gap in conversation and action around race.

“It’s a major problem,” says Uzoma, a Winnipeg woman who identifies as black, and prefers to go by first name only for safety reasons.

212-12b-making-connectionsShe’s the initiating force behind a new queer people of colour (QPOC) group that held its first dance party for QPOC and allies during Pride this year. Although Winnipeg has many strong GLBT* groups, most are white-dominated. “There’s a danger with the queer community just because the experience of being queer in itself is an experience of existing on the margins,” says a local queer woman of colour who is using the pseudonym Jill for fear of backlash.

“There can be a tendency to think that because we exist in this space, we don’t have to deal with the issues like racism, or we’ve figured that stuff out. We haven’t.”

Ray Hogg’s experience as a local black gay man and artistic director of Rainbow Stage, is one of finding himself in a homogenous Winnipeg culture, where the environments he works in every day are mainly made up of white people. He attributes this partly to Winnipeg being a small city. “I haven’t directly been on the receiving end of any overt racism in the queer community or any other community in Winnipeg. But I am on the receiving end constantly of systemic racism…. Those who have straight privilege or white privilege or cis privilege… naturally and without thinking, discriminate against me and fail to recognize that they’re doing that.”

Asagwara says the QPOC group is necessary because, “(It) triggers a conversation that people (who are not directly facing the issues) have not been having.”

Hogg would like to see people take the responsibility of actively empathizing. “As a community, the queer community is an oppressed community; it’s a misunderstood community and it’s being discriminated against. And so it behooves us as gay people, or whatever you want to call us all, to think about other marginalized members, and care for them.”

Albert McLeod has seen some of the ways marginalization plays out on the front lines with the most vulnerable, in his work with two-spirit youth.

“For aboriginal youth coming into the (queer) scene, a lot of places they get exploited,” he says.

In his work as a co-director with Two-Spirited People of Manitoba, and the AIDS movement, McLeod has seen a lot. “There’s been a history of many aboriginal youth—they come to the city, they’re HIV-positive within a couple of years, then get discarded and then they move away to other cities, and that’s where they die. It’s life on the very fringes of society.”

Winnipeg is home to the largest urban aboriginal population in Canada, and Manitoba as a whole encompasses the territory of at least 63 First Nations.

Part of Two-Spirited People of Manitoba’s advocacy work is bridge- building between the aboriginal community and broader GLBT* community. The organization also offers workshops to schools and does research on two-spirit people’s experiences.

The intersection of gender and race is a dangerous place to be.

212-12a-making-connectionsTwo Spirit People of Manitoba at Pride Winnipeg 2014. Photo by Albert McLeod.

One academic project published from the research, titled Aboriginal Two-Spirit and LGBTQ Migration, Mobility and Health, draws a parallel: “Colonization is sometimes presented in public policy discourse as a thing of the past.” The result, according to the report, is that indigenous people are rendered invisible and current colonization is ignored and enabled. “Similarly, some people may underestimate the effects of homophobia given the advances that have been made in Canada regarding same-sex rights. Yet the results from this study clearly show the continuing impact of colonization, racism and homophobia on many people’s lives,” reads an excerpt from the study.

“The intersection of gender and race is a dangerous place to be,” says McLeod, quoting a friend.

Denying that racism is a problem in Winnipeg’s queer community can only perpetuate it, says Uzoma, but being willing to feel uncomfortable means being willing to grow.

The QPOC group in Winnipeg will be working hard to bring more events to the community as the year moves ahead. Dance parties, Sunday pickup basketball, open-mic nights and more are in the works.

Uzoma says from there, “We’d like to formally put together a presentation for other LGBTQ organizations… on the unique issues of queer people of colour.”

recognizing racism

Racism isn’t always obvious, but it is always wrong. Here are seven tips to recognizing racism and battling it.

Recognize the difference between centering people of colour and indigenous people’s concerns versus tagging them on. Being truly inclusive means opening up and being willing to transform. It also means taking leadership from queer people of colour and indigenous people.

Show solidarity—don’t date/sleep with people who write things like “no Asians” on their Grindr/ online dating profiles. That’s not a preference, it’s racism.

Recognize that experiences of homophobia and racism compound to make life harder and more limited for the people who experience them. Know that being queer does not make you immune to experiencing white privilege. It is easy for GLBT* people to see homophobia and transphobia, how social systems favour heterosexuals and cis people, and the suffering that causes. Understand how whiteness gives or denies privileges as well.

Do not make statements to the effect that gays are the last oppressed minority. That’s not true. Don’t pit racial and cultural struggles against struggles for GLBT* liberation. The movements are intersected and can make each other stronger.

Recognize that people of colour and indigenous people are not responsible for educating white people about the suffering they experience due to racism. Do your own research and reading and don’t ask invasive questions.

Start conversations about race with your white friends with a focus on creating a supportive space where you can ask questions and make mistakes.

If someone tells you you’ve been racist, don’t take it personally or get defensive. Instead apologize and commit to doing better next time. Take the time to reflect following the incident and learn why it was racist.

fighting racism

Our interview subjects offered the following advice to being more inclusive:

Think about where your organization is located and whether people of colour and indigenous people live there, too. Are you inaccessible, or white-dominated, because of your location?

Know that people of colour and indigenous people are the experts on their own experience. Listen.

Recognize that two-spirit is not necessarily the same as being lesbian, gay or queer. It’s a culturally-specific term from another context. Also, some indigenous people identify primarily as lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, etc. Just because someone is aboriginal doesn’t mean they identify as two-spirit.

Know that most racism is subtle and systemic. Overt discrimination does not need to occur for something to be racist.

Expose yourself to diversity.

Ask people of colour and aboriginal people what their needs are and how you can meet those. Take their answers to heart and take action to reflect that.

Hire aboriginal outreach workers in your service organizations, and make sure they are not tokenized. Reflect on what makes or does not make your organization a place people of colour and aboriginal people want to work.

Work on incorporating Elders and elders (seniors) into the GLBT* movement.

Do your homework on language: terms like berdache are colonial terms used by Europeans (and subsequently academics) to refer to gay men and two-spirit people at the time of contact. The term two-spirit is a word used to reframe colonial history, since two-spirit people predate settler society.

Be willing to be nervous and uncomfortable. Crossing the social lines that divide communities and uphold racism takes courage, commitment and time. Forge genuine relationships with people of colour and indigenous people.

Published in OutWords Magazine, Sept. 2014

– Larkin Schmiedl is a writer of German, Scottish and English descent who is committed to social justice and believes privilege at the expense of others hurts everyone.

Final countdown

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What athletes think about the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics on the eve of the Games

http://outwords.ca/2014/issue-february-2014/final-countdown/

From Feb. 7 to 23, queer athletes – some out, some not – will compete in the Winter Olympic Games hosted by an increasingly GLBTQ*-hating Russia. The 22nd Olympic Winter Games will not only be the most expensive Games ever hosted, held in Sochi’s subtropical climate, but will also put athletes, trainers, spectators and others on an international stage in a place where skinhead gangs have lured and videotaped assaults of gay teens, a village has gotten together to kill a suspected gay neighbour, and where Orthodox priests have led assaults on gay rights demonstrations, among other events.

 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has confirmed its anti-discrimination mission statement, Principle 6, includes sexual orientation, yet the IOC has refused to speak out against Russia’s laws. Betty Baxter, a former Olympian in Canadian women’s volleyball who was later fired as head coach in 1982 for being a lesbian, said she thinks the IOC bears the brunt of the blame for not thinking about the impact of holding the Games in Russia. Openly gay speed skater Blake Skjellerup, who will be competing, said he thinks the way the IOC protects its athletes needs to change. Russian President Vladimir Putin has assured the IOC the Games will be “comfortable” for GLBTQ* athletes, but many are unconvinced.

Skjellerup, a who trains in Calgary and competes for New Zealand, said he will be wearing his Pride pin during Olympic ceremonies. “Hopefully more people will offer up a statement of support or some kind of sign of support – and not only for the solidarity of the GLBTQ* community in Russia, but for the solidarity of GLBTQ* people across the world.” Skjellerup came out shortly after the 2010 Olympics and has been a driving force in GLBTQ* activism in New Zealand’s schools. He said there is nothing he’s afraid of in Russia and that, “If anything does happen, then so be it… It would definitely expedite conversation in making sure that when Olympic Games do happen, they happen in countries that are safe for all people.”

Blake Skjellerup displays his Pride pin from the London Games.

Because he was already out, Skjellerup said he couldn’t shy away from the issue. “I wouldn’t have been staying true to myself.” But the gay friends he has who are not out are more focused solely on competition. Skjellerup said he sees an opportunity forthe Games to bring about change. “The person who has put on these Olympic Games, Vladimir Putin, is the exact opposite of what the Olympic Games stand for. It’s a great opportunity for the Olympic Games to do its part in highlighting those morals that should be showing during that time.”

Baxter takes a different, more cynical view of the Games. “The way the modern Olympics are is it’s really about selling product and proving your country’s dominance,” said Baxter. “The ancient Olympics was to keep warriors fit in between wars…. And then the modern Olympics were founded basically on the same thing.” While Baxter is critical of the endeavour, her main concern is always to look at how athletes can be supported. “The last thing we want to do is move some well-meaning political campaign in and take away from their opportunities. We need to condemn Russia, but we need to be very careful in our strategies so that doing that doesn’t take away from the athletes who have worked hard. Athletes have to take four, eight, 12 years of their lives to get [to the Olympics]. What my concern would be is if there’s too much action around the [GLBTQ*] issue in Russia, it’s a distraction.”

She said the reason more high-performance athletes don’t come out is because it takes away from their main focus, their athletic feats. “When you’re competing in something where it’s a hundredth of a second, or a psychological pause where you can lose what you’ve been attempting to do with your performance, you can’t be distracted by somebody saying, ‘I support you because you’re gay.’” Even a scene with supporters at the Olympics would be harder on GLBTQ* athletes than we would imagine, said Baxter. She’s glad the call to boycott the Sochi Olympics failed. Athletes like openly-gay figure skaters Johnny Weir and Skjellerup also condemned the boycott, saying it would have punished athletes more than Russia.

The 1968 Games saw an organized call by African-American athletes to boycott, but when that fell apart, two athletes memorably took their protest to the medal stand. Baxter said one strategy that would have worked should have been implemented some time ago. “Each Olympics has generally a beverage company, generally a telecommunications company and generally a petroleum company…. If we’d had massive boycotts for those companies, the Olympics would have been moved out of Russia, there’s no doubt.”

Outside the safety of the Olympic Village, tireless gay Russian activist Nikolai Alekseyev has announced a Sochi Pride March to coincide with the opening of the Games. Meanwhile, athletes like Skjellerup will be doing their part to raise visibility within the confines of the Village. “It would be nice to not have to stand up and to fight for who I am, but that is unfortunately the situation that I’m in. I have to speak out, and I have to be that voice, because there aren’t a lot of GLBTQ* athletes in sport. That visibility isn’t there, and that visibility needs to be there. GLBTQ* youth who are growing up need to see that you can be whatever you wish to be in life, and that your sexuality isn’t something that prevents you from doing that. Your sexuality is something that you should be very proud of, and it’s not something you should let in any way define who you are, especially when it comes to living your life.”

Published in OutWords Magazine, Feb. 2014

– Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice.

Written by larkinschmiedl

September 3, 2014 at 3:23 am

Writing trans-genres

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http://outwords.ca/2014/issue-april-2014/writing-trans-genres/

Because transgender arts and literature are not often understood on their own terms, and because when trans work is reviewed, it’s often viewed through stereotypical lenses, poet and University of Winnipeg assistant professor Trish Salah decided to organize Writing Trans Genres. Part academic conference and part performance cabaret, the three-day event at the University of Winnipeg will include panels, workshops, keynote speakers and presentations of papers on May 22 to 24.

“What I’m interested in doing is creating a space for trans people to talk about how we understand our work,” said Salah, author of two books. “Interest in trans figures frequently translates to an interest in trans figures produced by non-trans people, and those representations – you know, I can think of exceptions that are quite good, but the majority tend to be quite stereotypical and quite either condescending or fetishizing, or just simplistic.”

Although the conference is not trans-exclusive, it centres on trans authors, performers and artists as the people who are the most knowledgeable about their own work. That sounds straightforward, but self-representation flies in the face of a long history of misrepresentation. 

“I figured the best way to start that conversation was to get large numbers of trans writers together.”

Salah hopes the conference will build an understanding of how to read trans writing in ways that are attentive to the specifics of different people’s experiences. She also hopes some active networks of trans, two-spirit and genderqueer writers and critics will emerge.

And non-academics are welcome. The keynotes and daytime readings will be free and open to the public, and parts of the conference will be streamed online and digitally archived for later public use. To attend the entire conference, fees range from $10 for unwaged attendees, to $120 for those employed full-time. Registration is open until April 15.

Keynote speaker Rachel Pollack will talk about what it means for trans people to make literature for one another, rather than to explain the trans experience to non-trans people. Another keynote will address ways of thinking about indigenous approaches to gender and sexuality.

“We will be having conversations specifically around intersectionality and the ways in which racialized linguistic and cultural identities interact with sex and gender identities in shaping people’s literary production,” said Salah.

And the ways the queer and trans communities relate will also be a topic of conversation. “Certainly there are trans folks and trans artists who participate within queer contexts, but there’s actually a much broader segment of the trans community that probably doesn’t, so that will also be reflected in the kind of art we make, the kind of writing we do,” Salah said.

The conference’s call for papers asks, “Are there unknown histories of trans literary production?” and “What genres and figures have been important for two-spirit, genderqueer, trans-identified writers and writers with transsexual histories?”

“It’s often assumed trans literature is just an expression of identity, or a simplistic response to oppression,” said Salah. “And certainly we do respond to oppression and we do talk about our experience and the difference of trans lives from cis lives, but there’s a lot more complexity to what’s being produced than that.”

Inspired by trans film and arts festivals in Toronto in the late ‘90s, and by historic conferences like Women and Words, which brought women writers together to debate and define women’s literature, Writing Trans Genres aims to build a public cultural space for trans people.

“I’m hoping that we can bring a similar spirit to imagining what trans folks’ literature looks like,” Salah said. 

Check out the details at www.writingtransgenres.com.

Published in OutWords Magazine, April 2014

– Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice, especially where it involves other trans folks.

Magical camp transforms lives

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Annual Camp Aurora in the Whiteshell builds self-esteem of queer youth

http://outwords.ca/2014/issue-julyaugust-2014/magical-camp-transforms-lives/

Imagine a space where queer youth could go to feel safe. Imagine GLBT* teens openly being themselves and spending time with others like them—perhaps for the first time. Manitoba youth get this opportunity every August with Camp Aurora. “Camp is the most amazing, loving, safe place I have ever been in my life,” reads a participant quote from the camp’s website.

The sentiment is a common one, experienced by GLBT* youth at a small handful of queer camps throughout Canada, such as Alberta’s Camp fYrefly, British Columbia’s CampOUT! and Ontario’s camps Rainbow, Ten Oaks and Project Acorn.

From August 26 to 29, young GLBT* Manitobans will head to Camp Brereton, in the Whiteshell Provincial Park on the Ontario border. “Being an LGBTTQ* youth or ally can be tough,” reads the website. “At Camp Aurora, that part of your day-to-day is forgotten.” The camp aims to build the self-esteem and resiliency of queer youth, and builds important relationships that get some teens through the whole year.

It’s organized by volunteer community leaders and has a nurse, social worker, lifeguard and counsellor on staff. Peer youth leaders between the ages of 20 to 26 apply to act in mentorship roles within the camp, to campers from the ages of 14 to 19. There is space for 43 campers in all, and the deadline to register is July 15. Canoeing, swimming, crafts, talent shows, obstacle courses, campfires, bunk beds and hotdogs are all on the agenda.

The cost is $250 to attend, but campers who cannot pay that can apply to have part or all of the fee waived. The camp welcomes donations so it can continue offering opportunities to youth regardless of their finances. Transportation is provided from and return to Winnipeg, and all meals are included at camp. Visit campaurora.ca for more information.

Published in OutWords Magazine, July 2014

–Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about queer things.

Written by larkinschmiedl

September 3, 2014 at 1:27 am

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