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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.

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