What first struck me about Leslie Feinberg is hir commitment to fighting oppression on a universal scale, rather than just in a cliquish self-focused manner. This means recognizing where our needs correspond and intersect, and characteristically parallel causes like race and sex, or reproductive rights and genital reassignment surgery access. Say what you want about Feinberg, but ze has walked the walk.
Leslie Feinberg has been arrested and is facing charges of property damage. The arrest came during a protest of the conviction of CeCe McDonald, who was sentenced to 41 months in prison for manslaughter following the death of Dean Schmitz in Minneapolis. Schmitz and several friends were attacking a group that included McDonald, when she pulled out a pair of scissors hoping to ward them away. From Feinberg’s statement on the sentence:
“… CeCe McDonald is being sent to prison during the month of Juneteeth: celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation—the formal Abolitionist of “legal” enslavement of peoples of African descent. The Emancipation Proclamation specifically spelled out the right of Black people to self-defense against racist violence.
“Yet, the judge, the prosecutor, and the jailers are continuing the violent and bigoted hate crimes begun by the group of white supremacists who carried out a fascist attack on CeCe McDonald and her friends…”
CeCe — like the majority of transsexed women — is being classified as male by the state and being made to serve her sentence in a mens’ prison, where there is inevitably an extremely high likelihood of prison rape. Sometimes, ostensibly to avoid rape, solitary confinement is used as an alternative, which itself becomes an isolating, harsh and cruel and unusual punishment (which doesn’t statistically decrease the incidence of prison rape by guards and personnel). It is not known whether these may be factors for McDonald, but trans prisoners are routinely denied access to hormones and medical treatment; are routinely humiliated, harassed, neglected and misgendered; are forced to adopt incongruent gender presentation; are denied access to programs, jobs and drug treatment because they take place in gendered settings; are restricted in movement far more than typical for prisoners; and are retaliated against when they complain or appeal for assistance.
From the Transgender Law Center’s 2005 report to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission on why this matters:
Most surprising to me early in my career was that the balance of these references was made by sheriff’s deputies, prison guards, and correctional officers. It is one thing to house someone who is female-to-male with women, but another entirely to house him as a woman.
I have personally witnessed these kinds of references.. For instance, when I am visiting a transgender prisoner and I refer to that person by the correct pronoun, I am regularly corrected by the facility employee and told to use the pronoun that is “appropriate” for the facility (i.e. that I should refer to a male-to-female prisoner as “he” simply because it was a male facility). This is true despite the fact that the deputy or officer often-times knows that I am a civil rights attorney who works on behalf of transgender people.
This form of harassment is not one that has the immediate negative consequences that physical violence does, but it is one that I believe facilitates the more egregious abuse and violence to which some transgender prisoners are subjected. One of the women to whom I spoke was able to speak directly about how this treatment provoked her to come into conflict with particular deputies and allowed them to take punitive action against her. While she knew intellectually that she would come out worse for the wear in these encounters, her sense of self was important enough to her that she had to stand up to deputies who were using male pronouns or her old male name in referring to her.
McDonald’s incarceration is another in a long line of injustices that trans and LGBT communities are often apathetic about addressing, usually because of the belief that a person convicted of crime deserves the punishment somehow. The way in which McDonald has been railroaded over what fairly clearly appears to be an act of self-defense, however, has revealed the institutional bias that disproportionately places trans women and men in such institutions, and uniquely dehumanizes them once there.
Feinberg’s arrest will likely draw some badly needed attention to this issue. And hopefully, solidarity.
Will this be the moment in which we finally rise up against the long-standing legacies of cruel and unusual punishment, institutional bias, and the exponentially severe nature of intersectional discrimination?
To be continued.
h/t to Suzan.