Trans Survival in Prison

Three years ago I kicked myself out of the closet. Two years ago I both had my name legally changed and I started hormones. One year ago I was invited to be an inside committee member of the Coalition for Trans Prisoners. From where I sit now, it all seems absolutely unbelievable. Somehow, while all this was happening, I managed to avoid dozens of traps I didn’t even know where waiting for me and gain recognition as a woman from some of my fellow incarcerated people.

Recently, this has been repeatedly brought to my attention in that special way that the universe reserves for making sure a body is really paying attention. Karma placed someone similar enough to me to make it hard for me not to identify with her, yet massively different in all the life choices she’s making for herself.
It’s hard to watch, and made even harder because, to me, she looks uncannily like my older sibling. But she’s not my sibling by blood. She’s a part of my queer family, and happens to live near me. She’s also specifically asked to be left alone to (and I quote) “make my own bad decisions.” To say I’m worried about her is an understatement.

This leaves me wondering, since when am I all grown up and responsible and shit? I’ve spent so much time and energy of the past couple years fighting whatever battle in front of me, and planning for the next one, that I somehow missed out on the fact that I haven’t had someone call me some sort of slur since Valentine’s. I still get hit on, but not nearly as aggressively as I used to be. People giving me notes asking for random sex has cut back to one or two notes every three to four weeks. The only reason I could think of for this is that enough people see me and see what I’m about to understand that that maybe I’m not easy prey and perhaps I should be afforded some basic human dignity.

So I talked to some people to find out what’s up. Turns out my perception was completely wrong. Most people thought that I was a mess and that I deserved what I got. They formed this opinion from seeing c/o’s harass me and not being able to see other trans folks dealing with the same situation because there weren’t any other trans people here. Now that there are 4 visibly out and proud trans people at WSR, allowing the masses to compare and contrast between myself and other trans folks, they have decided (for the most part) that I should be left alone. My initial reaction to this was ‘Great!’, then I heard why they decided to leave me alone…

1) One of the trans people here puts out so that makes her more of a target.
2) They’ve seen how poorly other trans people handle the stress of being trans in prison.

I am not okay with either of these as reasons for me to not be harassed. The first one is straight up sexism, the second is built on the assumption that some some trans people are better/more deserving than others.

By saying a trans person who is sexually active is not deserving of love and respect, they are placing trans people in the same impossible position which all women face, the whore/Madonna double bind. I have chosen a very difficult path for myself by refusing to trade sexual favors for protection in prison. Seeing to my own safety is a full time job which I am only able to accomplish thanks to the small group of trustworthy people both inside and outside prison I have surrounded myself with. Other trans people may not have the ability or opportunity to do the same. Likewise, I made the choice I did because I do not have it in me to engage in survival sex. If things had gotten to the point where that choice was forced on me, I don’t know how I would have gotten by because doing that would have destroyed me mentally, and not doing that could have resulted in something far worse. I can’t fault someone for doing what they feel they need to do to survive especially when they are doing something I am unable to do. Thus, I am not okay with them being devalued for their choices and myself benefiting from their being devalued.

As for me being seen as being able to handle stress better than others, that’s complete BS. I’m just better at hiding it. I may look calm cool and collected with a smile on my face, but most of the time I’m actually in some sort of panic. I was taught from a young age that looking panicked was like blood in the water and would only egg others on to heap more pressure, stress, or bullying on me. So I learned to not look scared. I should not be valued over other trans folks for having a trauma based stress response that appears/manifests in a socially acceptable way.

I’ve tried really hard to help people around me understand that me being trans is not a big deal as long as they can give me a basic minimum amount of human dignity. But now, seeing how people are treating the other trans folks around me I feel like a fake, a fraud, and a failure. I haven’t won any acceptance or compassion for trans people. I managed get people to treat me as an acceptable exception to being trans. Even while I’ve riled against the stratification of respectability politics, I’ve become a measure of what a respectable trans person in prison should look like, as opposed to trans people who are sexually active in prison, or who get panic-y when stressed. I’ve acted within my values, so I don’t know what I could have done differently, but my choices have still had a result that I am not ok with.

Sure, I’ve only been out for three years. Hell, I’ve only been sane/mentally stable for five or six. But I still feel that I need to figure out ways to not perpetuate hierarchy and exclusionist narratives. When talking about this with others I was told that it’s society that’s broken and I need to accept that there is only so much I can do. I think this is wrong. I think that society is broke because we, as a society, keep telling ourselves that no one can fix it. Well of course no one individual person can fix it. The only way we can fix it is as a collective.


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