Transgender women prisoner warriors: Bianca Sawyer, Tara Hudson, Vikki Thompson


November 20th was the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day to honor transgender people who have been murdered and transgender communities, past, present, future, who have survived. This is the story of Bianca Sawyer, Vikki Thompson and Tara Hudson, transgender women who were all `released’ this week.

Yesterday, it was reported that Vikki, or Vicky, Thompson was buried near her home in Keighley, West Yorkshire, in England. She was twenty-one years old. Her story is short, too short by far. Vikki Thompson, born male, identified all her adult life as a woman. She was arrested for robbery and sent to a men’s prison. She said if she were sent to a men’s prison, she would kill herself, and she did. The State is `investigating” … again. Vikki Thompson was released from all of that, however.

Yesterday, it was reported that Tara Hudson was also released. Tara Hudson is twenty-six years old. Born male, Tara Hudson has also self identified and lived as a woman all her adult life. She was arrested for getting in a fight with a barman, and was sent to a men’s prison. After much organizing, including a petition that went viral, Tara Hudson was finally moved from a men’s to a women’s prison. Yesterday, she was released from prison altogether.

A week ago, British Columbia announced it would start housing transgender prisoners according to their stated gender identities. This change in policy emerged largely from the mobilization of Bianca Sawyer, a transgender woman who has been in and out of the system for ten years, always placed in men’s prisons. After ten years, she had had enough and began petitioning and organizing. The last straw for Bianca Sawyer was the staff: “A group of, like, eight or nine officers were joking about how it would feel to get oral sex from me, and running their hands through my short hair [and making] jokes about me growing breasts. I was really upset. That night, I was like, ‘I don’t belong here.’”

When the State, in the form of staff members, began treating Bianca Sawyer with the misogyny and indignity it visits on women, she decided it was time to move. This is not irony, but rather the everyday of gender identity in the nation-State of mass incarceration.

Bianca Sawyer won her removal and managed to move the province to change its policies. British Columbia follows Ontario in recognizing prisoners’ gender identity based on the prisoners’ testimony, rather than the `science’ of experts, bureaucratically dispensed. For once, autonomy subsumes anatomy. What happens to transgender women in prison in your jurisdiction? Find out, and write to us. Remember Tara Hudson and Bianca Sawyer, and remember this, Vikki Thompson did not kill herself. The State killed Vikki Thompson, and will kill others.

(Photo Credit: The Globe and Mail)

Pride 2012: Actualize Transfeminism

When my friend Diana and I first met up to discuss collaborating on a benefit for Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald, we were filled with bitterness and rage. Diana had already started to campaign to raise money for CeCe, specifically wanting to get a chunk of money for her living expenses upon release. I loved a lot about that idea, particularly Diana’s life-affirming, positive remarks that she hoped there would be enough money raised that CeCe could just throw herself a big party when she got out, and not have to work for a while, and get massages every day. The list grew longer and we smiled as we thought of all the rest and joy CeCe deserves.

But when we started talking about the text of the poster, our anger resurfaced. We so wanted to curse all of the oppression that is responsible for CeCe’s situation. We wanted to condemn individuals working within the racist, cis-sexist criminal justice system and the institution itself, which is rigged to cage the poor and other undesirables. We wanted to attack the combination of administrative, legislative, and cultural forces that restrict the life chances of transpeople, particularly people of color, and punish or criminalize their survival. Yet we could not articulate that rage into a poster-sized message. Nor did we like the idea of that poster hanging on the walls of folks who probably do not need more anger and vitriol in their lives.

Diana wrote an amazing song for her band about the Trans Day of Remembrance, voicing her disillusionment and frustration at the despairing tone of the day, as well as at the futility of prayer. She is not the only person I have heard express their desire for a trans holiday that is more like a celebration.

For myself and many of my loved ones, striking a balance between the trauma of victimization and the triumph of survivorship is an ongoing struggle–in day to day life and in our activism.

Weighing all of this, we flipped our approach in crafting a message for the print to one of positivity and rejoicing, in the same spirit of that party for CeCe that Diana had imagined.

And we came up with:

we celebrate your survival
we praise your strength
we struggle with you

The bottom border of the poster contains three symbols: a crossed-out swastika asserting our resistance to fascism (both in the particularities of CeCe’s case and at large), the symbol for trans liberation, and a heart.

(Image Credit: Beck Levy / AstropressDC)

Uganda is … Who is in our hearts of hearts?

Sylvia Tamale

The Rev. Gideon B. Byamagusha is a person of courage, a person of the hearts of hearts. Byamagusha is an Anglican priest in Uganda, in a parish outside of Kampala. In 1992, Byamagusha announced that he was living with HIV. He was the first African religious leader to do so. In 2003 he founded the African Network of Religious Leaders living with or personally affected by HIV/AIDS, or ANERELA. By the end of 2006, ANERELA numbered over 2000 members in 39 African countries. In 2006, Rev. Byamagusha started a shelter for AIDS orphans. In May of this year, Rev. Byamagusha was awarded the Niwano Peace Prize. He lives today with his wife and three children.

He lives today, and in today’s edition of the Sunday Monitor, he writes: “No one really knows how many homosexuals , tri-sexuals, bi-sexuals, hetero-sexuals and non-sexuals we are in Uganda. What is known is that these sexualities are certainly not new ways of life.”

We are … homosexuals, tri-sexuals, bi-sexuals, hetero-sexuals and non-sexuals. We are.

On Thursday, November 19, Los Angeles County reported a 21% increase in crimes against gay, lesbian, bisexuals and transgendered people. The report noted that sexual-orientation hate crimes were more likely to be more violent than hate crimes based on racism or religious hatred.

Friday, November 20, marked the eleventh Annual International Transgender Day of Remembrance. The Transgender Day of Remembrance began in 1999, to commemorate, mourn, and protest the 1998 murder of Rita Hester, a transgender woman of color in Boston

Last year, in Yeoville, a neighborhood of Johannesburg, South Africa, Daisy Dube was brutally murdered, shot, when she and her friends asked three men in an car to stop calling them “isitabane”, a Sepedi slur against LGBT people.

A little over a week ago, on November 13, in Puerto Rico, 19-year-old Jorge Steven López-Mercado, was killed, beheaded, dismembered, and his remains were set on fire, because he was a man dressed in woman’s clothing.

Tara Sawyer sees November 20 as “an opportunity for all of us to stand up to end violence against all women….Some counts have the average number of murders of transgendered people at 19 per month! Or put another way, 1 in 12 of us in America will be murdered. But we as transgendered people are the only ones counting, in pretty much every country across the world. I’m a transgendered sex worker, and I want to not get killed for who I am or what I do. As our death count rises, I beg that you consider your prejudices around gender, and let us live in peace. I’m literally begging for my life.”

We are the only ones counting. Let us live in peace. I’m literally begging for my life.

In Uganda, homosexuality was already criminalized, and that was not enough. A new bill proposes death. Remember, sexual orientation crimes are likely to be the most violent, especially when perpetrated by the State, by Society, by Large Structures. The people must be protected, Society must be defended, the Nation must be preserved. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people must learn to die, must learn to beg for life … and then die.

Die … or dialogue? On Wednesday, Makerere University hosted a public dialogue between Sylvia Tamale, well-known human rights, women’s rights, sexual minorities rights’ feminist lawyer, and Maj. Rubaramira Ruranga, Executive Director of the National Guidance and Empowerment Network of people living with HIV/Aids in Uganda. Major Ruranga has been living openly with HIV since he announced his HIV status on World Aids Day, 1993. Before his promotion to his current rank, he was known as Captain Condom. There are many courageous people in Uganda.

Tamale opened her remarks with an invocation to dialogue: “I would like to thank the Human Rights and Peace Centre for inviting me here this afternoon to share my views on this bill.  It is great that HURIPEC organized this to be a dialogue and not a debate because debates have a tendency to polarize and divide along irrational gut-level responses.  A dialogue, on the other hand, usefully sets the stage for people to listen to each other with understanding, tolerance and helps build bridges.  I hope that this public dialogue will mark the first stepping stone for all of us to embark on a rewarding journey of mutual respect, simple decency and fairness.”

Stepping stones or stones of violence? It is not enough to put down the stones. Something must be built, an open bridge, an open road, an open and shared journey.

She concluded her remarks with an oblique return to the theme of dialogue: “Do we really in our hearts of hearts want our country to be the first on the continent to demand that mothers spy on their children, that teachers refuse to talk about what is, after all, “out there” and that our gay and lesbian citizens are systematically and legally terrorized into suicide?  Ladies and gentlemen, you may strongly disagree with the phenomenon of same-sex erotics; you may be repulsed by what you imagine homosexuals do behind their bedroom doors; you may think that all homosexuals deserve to burn in hell.  However, it is quite clear that this Bill will cause more problems around the issue of homosexuality than it will solve.  I suggest that Hon. Bahati’s bill be quietly forgotten.  It is no more or less than an embarrassment to our intelligence, our sense of justice and our hearts.”

What is in our hearts? Justice? Love? Who is counting our deaths, who is opening our spaces, who is charting our journey? Who is in our hearts of hearts? Let us live in peace. I am literally begging for our lives. We are …

(Photo Credit: The Sunday Monitor)