We must never stop fighting for incarcerated trans folks

A sad woman in prison with her head buried in her lap
Photo: Shutterstock

As the Trans Day of Remembrance (TDoR) draws near, members of the LGBTQ+ community are preparing to memorialize those members of our community who were taken from us much too soon as a result of violence and discrimination. When we think about our deceased siblings, we experience a wide range of feelings, from sorrow to fortitude and everything in between. But there is one facet of this battle that is typically disregarded: the predicament of our transgender brothers and sisters who are currently behind bars.

When I think about TDoR, I am reminded of the hostility and violence that transgender people face on a daily basis. Incarcerated trans folks are subjected to the same political and systemic cruelty.

As a transgender woman who was recently imprisoned and housed with men, I have a unique perspective on the difficulties experienced by those who must navigate the complexity of the correctional system while also coping with the harsh reality of being transgender. 

In my time spent in prison, I was forced to adjust to an atmosphere that did not correspond with who I am. I was a trans woman who lived with guys and was attempting to navigate a world that did not acknowledge or comprehend my gender. I was trying to find my place. My everyday struggles were both physical and emotional. Every day was a challenge since there was a glaring lack of acceptance and comprehension on the part of both the inmates and the prison staff.

Transgender people are already overrepresented in the correctional system for a variety of reasons, including prejudice, a lack of access to affirming healthcare, and economic disadvantages. What’s more, the criminal justice system does not adequately accommodate their medical needs. The lack of access to qualified medical treatment and healthcare that affirms gender identity is a major cause for concern. Hormone therapy is a lifeline for many transgender people, and yet in prison, it is frequently denied or delayed.

Once individuals enter a correctional facility, they are often placed in an unwelcoming setting, which makes them even more susceptible to being physically or sexually assaulted. The horrific events that individuals go through when they are detained can be traumatic, and there is frequently neither an accessible treatment nor remedy.

Isolation from the larger LGBTQ+ community is one of the most upsetting elements of being incarcerated as a transgender person. It’s also one of the most common. It is a profound feeling of isolation, and it is challenging to articulate this loneliness to those who could provide support, empathy, and understanding. Not only are there physical walls surrounding you, but there are also emotional and psychological barriers that sometimes feel impossible to overcome.

As we observe TDoR, the experiences of our trans siblings behind bars serve as a glaring reminder of the urgent need for changes to be made in the legal system in this country. The fight for the rights of transgender people does not cease when they are brought into custody; their stories need to be heard.

It’s possible that the harsh reality of life inside a correctional facility will make the already widespread mental health issues that transgender people face even worse. Transgender people who are incarcerated may struggle with challenges like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The trauma of incarceration is made worse when there is a lack of knowledge and empathy for the particular issues that the inmates are dealing with.

While we commemorate those who were killed as a result of violence and discrimination on TDoR, we also have a responsibility to find those who are still being mistreated and provide assistance to them. Their mental wounds are quite real, as, of course, are the physical risks they face. Their narratives are significant, their lives have value, and it is imperative that their voices be heard.

Finding the courage to advocate for myself and other transgender inmates while I was incarcerated was a lifeline for me. Finding that confidence was a challenge. The road leading to change is not an easy one, but it is one that is well worth traveling. There are groups and individuals who are working persistently to reform the criminal justice system, meet the special needs of incarcerated trans people, and provide support for those who these issues have impacted. Supporting, advocating for, and speaking out in favor of this cause is something we can all do if we work together.

It is not merely an act of sentimentality to remember imprisoned transgender folks. Rather, it is a call to action. We have the ability to work together to build a society that is more inclusive and just, one in which every trans person, regardless of their circumstances, has the opportunity to live with dignity, respect, and safety. Let us, in the spirit of TDoR, fight toward a future where the voices of our transgender siblings who are currently incarcerated will no longer be silenced, and where their lives will be cherished and safeguarded.

Let us honor those we’ve lost by making it our mission to make sure that nobody else has to experience these injustices.

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