Voter ID laws are a poll tax on women

In the United States, 10 states have recently passed so-called voter ID laws, laws that require not only photo IDs but official state-issued photo IDs. The Brennan Center issued a report today, The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification. Much of the report confirms what you already knew. The voter ID laws have a disproportionate effect on low- and no-income individuals and communities, on individuals and communities of color, and on rural individuals and populations.

But the voter ID laws go even further than the run-of-the-mill exclusionary practices. They target … married women. Voter ID laws are a poll tax on married women: “More than 1 million eligible voters in these states fall below the federal poverty line and live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issuing office open more than two days a week. These voters may be particularly affected by the significant costs of the documentation required to obtain a photo ID. Birth certificates can cost between $8 and $25. Marriage licenses, required            for married women whose birth certificates include a maiden name, can cost between $8 and $20. By comparison, the notorious poll tax — outlawed during the civil rights era — cost $10.64 in current dollars. The result is plain: Voter ID laws will make it harder for hundreds of thousands of poor Americans to vote….

“Married women who have changed their surname face an additional burden: They may need to present a marriage license with their current name to obtain a photo ID. Only 48 percent of voting-age American women who have ready access to their birth certificate have their current name on it. Fees for official copies of            marriage licenses range from $5 to $40. Thus, a married woman            who does not have a certified copy of her birth certificate and marriage license could easily spend $30 to $70 acquiring the documents necessary to obtain a photo ID.”

And that is the tip of the iceberg. Passports cost money, birth certificates cost money. The costs for those born without proper birth certificates, for whatever reason, are astronomical. Every aspect of the restrictive voter ID laws addresses and attacks women. Women of color. Low- and no-income women. Rural women. Women who are naturalized citizens. And yes, married women. It’s the triumph of patriarchal capitalism.

 

(Photo Credit: St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

 

 

 

Let’s hope France does not vote for US-style prisons

As France goes to the polls in May, I think of women in prison in France and those in the United States, and I shudder. Consider the following.

These are the rules applied to pregnant women in prison in France, and they are clear:

No restriction of rights and access to Public Health Care during pregnancy.

Women are automatically covered by the health care system, mothers with babies under 18 months of age may receive maternal subsidy in prison the same as any woman in the “free world.”

No surveillance during delivery or at any stay at the public hospital where women who are incarcerated have to go for their regular visits and delivery.

The stay after delivery is the same as for any other, that is to say a minimum of 4 days and for as long as the doctor judges they have to stay.

Mother can be sent to a special section of the prison and keep their infant if they want to. The child is not incarcerated, and so receives all regular subsidies from the state, without restriction, and the mother manages the money, if she so chooses.

The hospital director may ask for surveillance outside the room, if deemed  necessary.

Those are the rules, and they’re a far sight better than those in the United States. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the distances, in France, between conditions as they for women in prison are and the claims made in official documents. Life for pregnant women in prison is difficult and not often talked about.

In France, for instance, there are 64 000 people incarcerated and 2500 are women. Women in prison often complain that because they are so few, their conditions are not taken seriously. There are political women prisoners, the majority of whom are Basque activists. Women may have private visits with their spouses, so it is possible, within the rules, for a woman prisoner to become pregnant.

Take the much-publicized story of Véronique Le Gall.

Véronique Le Gall was in jail for having killed and stored her newborn baby in a freezer. That was most likely a case of post-partum depression. At any rate, while in prison, she became pregnant. The authorities didn’t know and so only at the last instance was she sent to the hospital to give birth.

The point of the story of Véronique Le Gall is that it’s not unusual. It’s not unusual for women prisoners in France to become pregnant. There are several, formally sanctioned ways to get pregnant in prison. If a couple is incarcerated in the same institution, they have access to an internal visiting room. Women prisoners may be released on weekends. Finally, women can meet their family for 6 to 72 hours in a unité de vie familiale, or family life unit, which are small private apartments.

From one perspective, the standards in prisons in France are much better than those in the United States, but that’s not saying much.

What remains an issue is the prison environment in which a no-exception rule reigns. Pregnant women are trapped in this no-exception rules situation. Their parental right is not going to be compromised but their parenting is. Women prisoners in France can become parents, but they can’t be parents. They can’t act as parents, because they can’t make autonomous decisions about their children.

The last few years has seen both an improvement and a degradation of detention conditions. Recently, both the Controleur General des Lieux de Privation de Liberté, Jean Marie Delarue, and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment have identified disturbing, new elements: increased use of force, lack of training among wardens, increased use of solitary confinement, inadequate food provided by outsourced provisioners, slow psychiatric response to needed attention, and increased use of hand cuffs, especially for male prisoners. In France, doctors oppose the use of any restraints on medical grounds.

The International Observatory of Prisons sent a letter to both President Nicolas Sarkozy and to his main election contender Francois Holland. Neither said much. Hollande declared that French prisons should remain in conformity with principles of dignity. His chargé d’affaires explained that they wanted to render prison “useful” and work to decrease the rate of repeat offenses. As for Nicolas Sarkozy, he announced that he wanted to add 24 000 beds to the 56 000 already in place, and to rework the sentencing reduction program in place as a kind of zero tolerance program. He calls this “reinforcing the authority of justice”.

Prisons reflect as they participate in the evolution of the political economy of a society. That has certainly been the case in France. Let’s hope that the May 6th election marks a positive turn that keeps France’s prisons distant from those of the United States.

 

(Photo Credit: Robin des Lois)

Radical Feminisms & Occupy

 

(Photo Credit: Rabble.ca)

As one who was an activist and a radical pre-occupy (as I have been during- and will be post-), I had mixed feelings upon occupy’s initial momentum. It is nice to be surprised once in a while. A friend put it best—“if someone had told you five years ago that Adbusters would be responsible for the next US protest movement, and that Crimethinc would be providing useful, levelheaded discourse on it, would you have believed them?” Not a chance. So when it kicked off, I was extremely skeptical. I had long ago dismissed anything resembling a mass mobilization as being unable to enact real change in the USA. Instead, I cast my lot (as did many of my friends and colleagues) with what we call somewhat euphemistically “long term movement building”: direct services, raising funds and resources for said direct services, and small-scale community building. But I was also excited that the national conversation was approaching a critique of capitalism, excited for there to be a left movement in the USA again, and intrigued by the possibilities of the encampment tactic. Occupy’s connection to the “Arab Spring” in the national imagination gave it a particularly tantalizing flavor of possibility.

On paper, occupy is inherently aligned with feminist critiques of power. The heart of occupy is an objection to unearned power—the same objection at the heart of work seeking to dismantle patriarchy, white supremacy, homophobia, ableism, and the myriad interlocking oppressions that both sustain the ruling order (or in the parlance of occupy, the 1%) and keep the 99% divided and conquered.

But at large and locally, the internal and external dynamics of the movement have not always reflected that ideological alignment which seems at once so obvious and so necessary. Instead, the physical spaces of occupy have often replicated oppressive social relationships, when they should have been sanctuaries for those who need it the most—people experiencing homelessness, people of color, queer and trans* people, women in need of shelter and childcare, and survivors of violence, to name a few. Also, the conversation with occupy seems to have shifted to mainstream liberal concerns such as Citizens United and away from poverty and structural violence.

Occupy’s shift to liberal values, if not tactics, did not come as a total surprise. Radicals have long known to be wary of our liberal and moderate compatriots. They can sometimes be our worst enemy or biggest obstacle, as The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently expressed in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

…the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

This is why a feminist critique is essential to occupy. We have got to keep an eye on the people who claim to be speaking for us or on our behalf, but are not. It is not a lack of demands or incoherence of message that weakens the occupy movement, but the lack of a radical analysis, and the unwillingness of privileged people within the movement to step back and let the movement be directed by the needs of its most marginalized participants.

For a moderated panel discussion of this and more—where is occupy going in relation to labor? To academia?—please attend a Panel Discussion on the Future of Occupy, GWU Gelman Library, Wed March 7
march_7_forum_flyer

Nicaraguan feminists protest for their bodies, autonomy, lives

The news of the day was that Democratic representatives walked out of a hearing on “religious liberty and birth control.” Republicans had blocked the testimony of a woman who wanted to speak in favor of the Obama administration’s compromise on birth control.  But the Republicans allowed representatives, men, from conservative religious organizations to testify.  House Representative Carolyn Maloney remarked, “What I want to know is, where are the women?”

A picture tweeted by Planned Parenthood illustrates this question completely.

Where are the women?  In Nicaragua, some women are in the streets.

Yesterday, at the International Poetry Festival in Granada, there was a parade, with dancing and singing and cheers.

There was also a protest by Nicaraguan women.  Nicaraguan feminists.

On the parade route, a group of Nicaraguan women, wearing signs that read “Fui violada y ahora estoy embarazada.  ¿Te parece justo?” (“I was raped and now I am pregnant.  Does that seem just?) lay down in the middle of the parade, stopping the flow of the marching.  They passed out flowers in protest of the ban against therapeutic abortion in the country.

Therapeutic abortion—an abortion performed to save the life of a pregnant woman—had been constitutional in Nicaragua up until October 2006.  When Sandinista politician Daniel Ortega re-assumed the presidency, he kept the law intact, a complete reversal from his stance before his re-election.  Women’s groups have been pressuring the State to repeal the ban, but Ortega’s switch came with the support of an important Catholic bishop.  Within a year of the law’s passing, 82 women had died due to lack to life-saving abortion procedures.

The State passes regulations preventing women from accessing health care that would save their lives.  Then the State uses religious institutions to embolden its position.  Sound familiar?

Violence against women more than often flows from patriarchal institutions trying to police their bodies and autonomy.  It happens globally, outside the United States, and inside the country just as easily.

Women are defending their equality all over the world, in the State and in the streets.  That is where they will be until the job is done.

(Photo Credit: Esteban Felix / AP / Guardian)

 

Prison labor haunts `history’

When is slavery not slavery? When the slaves are called prisoners, their condition is not slavery. It’s … history. The Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution says so, and so do the United Kingdom Border Authority, UKBA, and the private prison corporation, Serco.

Last month, on December 9, 2010, prisoners in several prisons across Georgia went on strike.  According to Elaine Brown, one of the prisoners’ spokespersons, the strike involved “Augusta, Baldwin, Calhoun, Hancock, Hays, Macon, Rogers, Smith, Telfair, Valdosta and Ware state prisons.” Others claim seven prisons were involved. The strike concerned prisoners’ working and living conditions across the state. The conditions of prisoners in Georgia are famously bad. Prisoners in Georgia receive no pay for the work they perform. The possibility of going to jail in Georgia, especially for people of color, is infamously high. Georgia has the highest rate of prison `involvement’ in United States: “In Georgia, 1 in 13 adults is either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole.” The national average is 1 in 31.

The strike was non violent, peaceful even. The media focused on the capacity of prisoners to organize a structured, non spontaneous, non violent work stoppage across the state. This was facilitated by the use of contraband cell phones, bought largely from guards.

The strike was called `historic’, in two senses. On one hand, it was massive. Again according to Elaine Brown, the strike was “historic in scope and in the unity of thousands of black, brown, white, Muslim, Christian and Rastafarian prisoners.” Others claimed it was one of the largest prison strikes and the biggest prisoner strike in U.S. history. In terms of scale, of numbers of prisoners involved, of numbers of kinds of prisoners involved, the action was historic.

On the other hand, the strike was historic in that it protested the history of prison labor. Prison labor has historically been part of a racially, ethnically segregated labor market, “an emblem of racial subjugation.” Prison labor, especially in the United States, has its roots in slavery. Read the Constitution of the United States.

According to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” For prisoners, slavery and involuntary servitude are constitutionally just fine. Where do slavery and justice sleep comfortably together? In prison.

And not only in the United States.

At Yarl’s Wood, in the United Kingdom, women refugees and asylum seekers are held in detention … for the crime of applying for asylum. This week, current and former prisoners, all women, revealed their working conditions and described them as modern day slavery.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work while their application is in process. But not at Yarl’s Wood. There they work, for next to nothing. Gloria Sestus, a 32-year-old Nigerian, says she is paid £1 to clean the dining room twice a day. The job takes more than an hour each time. As former prisoner Nordia Hylton, 34-year-old Jamaican asylum seeker, noted, “People who work without papers to try and feed their families are arrested for illegally working and detained. But once they get to Yarl’s Wood they can work for next to nothing. The UKBA and Serco are hypocrites. They are taking advantage of people’s situation.”

Gloria Sestus sees it as more than hypocrisy, “It is like slavery in a modernised form.”

It is like slavery in a modernized form. African women, Afro Caribbean women, women of the African diaspora know a thing or two about the history of slavery. The prison strike across Georgia was historic. The prisoners’ testimonies and protests concerning Yarl’s Wood are historic as well. Both call on us to speak and address the historic name of prison labor: slavery.

 

(Photo Credit: hiphopandpolitics.com)

 

Because they are still human

James Kessler is a justice architect. That means he works in criminal justice architecture. He is a senior principal at Hellmuth, Obata + Kassebaum, Inc, better known as HOK, one of the largest architectural firms in the world. Here’s how they describe justice architecture: “As an integral part of society and a component of contemporary life in our cities and states, Justice Architecture is a powerful symbol that serves to define the image of justice in every community.”

In a profile this week, Kessler talked about women prisoners in the United States: “Incarcerated women, for example, are more likely to change, or want to change, Kessler said, noting “an incredibly high percentage – more than 50 percent – have been abused as children.” Statistically they also have more health issues than men, and 75 percent are mothers with the added burden of being away from their children, exacerbated by having been abandoned by their own parents in similar situations….In the past, and sometimes at present, Kessler said parity issues arise vis-à-vis men’s prisons, with fewer opportunities and programs available to women who comprise a much smaller percentage of the prison population.…One of the goals during incarceration, Kessler explained, is to ameliorate the anger that defines inmates. According to Kessler, because research has determined women have a much greater need for privacy than men, requiring them to live in open dormitories would very possibly build on that anger rather than helping to relieve it.”

Women prisoners’ anger, women’s anger, creates a different space and inhabits a different architecture than the anger of men.

The profile concludes with Kessler’s reflection: “As architects, we have social responsibilities and certain sensitivities, perceptions and skills to deal with unusual situations for the people that work in them, the people that visit them and for the people that are in them, because they are still human.”

Because they are still human. What determines the humanity of a prisoner? The architecture? The design elements? Such as shackles around the ankles and waists of women in labor and delivery?

In Rhode Island, pregnant prisoners are handcuffed and shackled. Earlier this month, the Rhode Island chapters of the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union find this “troubling” and “unnecessary”. Rhode Island Department of Corrections officials see shackling as striking “a balance between the need for security and the interests of a pregnant inmate.” How is being shackled in the interests of a pregnant woman? She is still human, isn’t she?

In California, the ACLU is challenging the same “balanced” shackling of pregnant women: “In California, we currently shackle pregnant women. In jails and prisons, women are forced to walk with shackles around their swollen ankles, chains around their middles, and handcuffs behind their backs. They walk through downtown city blocks chained to one to another, trying their best not to lose balance”. The ACLU thinks this is cruel and unusual punishment, not a balance struck in the interests of pregnant women. But then, perhaps the interests of pregnant women and those of pregnant prisoners are not the same. Does “security” define reconstitute pregnant women prisoners as other than human? Is that the “balance”? What is the name of the different space created by shackled pregnant women walking, stumbling, falling?

In a couple weeks, the Governor of California will have the opportunity to strike a new balance, limiting the use of restraints on pregnant women who are prisoners.

In Texas this month, the ACLU and the Texas Jail Project have charged the Dallas County jail and others in the state with shackling prisoners during labor and delivery.

This week, the U.S. government submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council. This is the first time the US has ever reported on its own human rights situation. Prison is included in the report. It appears in Chapter III, “A Commitment to Freedom, Equality, Dignity.” Prison is in the third section, Dignity. There are safeguards for dignity in law enforcement and criminal justice, dignity and incarceration, dignity and criminal sanctions, dignity and juvenile offenders. Dignity abounds. There is no mention of dignity and women. There is no mention of the shackling of pregnant women prisoners.

It is August in America. Pregnant women prisoners across the country are being shackled. Even though they do not appear in the report on human rights, they are still human, they are still women … aren’t they?

 

(Image Credit: RadicalDoula.com)

Nascent Collectivities: Transnational Abandonment, I

On November 20th 2008, as reported by George Washington University’s student newspaper, the Hatchet, a Latino worker installing windows in a GW residence hall was killed after a fall from the 7th floor. The worker, Rosaulino Montano, worked for Engineered Construction Products, a window subcontractor for primary contractor Clark Construction. His death was featured in one article in the Hatchet, which also reported that the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) was investigating the incident. The coverage of Montano’s life and his relationship to the university was brief. The Hatchet reported that he lived in Virginia and had several children. The conditions of his work, the events of the accident, and the relationship of the university to Clark Construction or Engineered Construction Products were not examined although the article did note that he was subcontracted to work at GW. There have been no follow up articles.

OSHA reported that sanctions had been imposed on the firm that had hired Montano. The firm “…received one serious violation for violating OSHA’s fall protection standard (1926.501(b)(1)) and a monetary penalty of $2,500.  This was the only citation and penalty issued in relation to Mr. Rosaulino Montano, 46, fatal injury.   No other employer …was deemed responsible for ensuring safety at the site.”

A brief Hatchet article dutifully marks Montano’s death: “A man fell to his death while installing a window on the seventh floor of the new GW residence hall.” It is reported that he “lost his balance” and “died instantly after he fell out of the window and hit the concrete below.” The article gives a few details about his life. Through a statement by a university spokeswoman, his family is mentioned. After this brief enunciation of concern and regret for loss of life, there is no further curiosity about his life or the manner of his death.

The language of the Hatchet article evokes personal feeling and sympathy or charity (he lived in Woodbridge and had several children) yet the structural contexts of his death aren’t explored. There is little investigation of his employment status, no investigation of what it means to be subcontracted, and no investigation of the routes, economic or otherwise, through which he came to work at the university.

The relationship between Montano and the university community is thin. His life and his death have little content or detail, and no noteworthy or substantial legal, social, economic, or emotional connection to the university community. While there are a few modes of identification, his ties to the university community are tenuous. University business continues, there is no memorial service, there are no statements of regret by university officials, and there is little coverage or desire for information about his life. The conditions of his employment, the conditions of his work, the details of the accident which killed him, and the routes through which he came to work at the university are not visible in accounts of his death.

Short lived regret and sympathy doesn’t pursue what happened to Montano’s family; they are abandoned to depoliticized charitable discourse. It doesn’t pursue the role of the state, the economic arrangement between subcontracted company and the university, the citizen status of the worker, or the relationship between his labor and the life and well-being of the university community.

Giorgio Agamben has something to say about the biopolitics of life and the institutional role of universities in neoliberalism that might help us understand `what happened to Rosaulino Montano”:

If the exception is the structure of sovereignty, the sovereignty is not an exclusively political concept, an exclusively juridical category, a power external to law … or the supreme rule of the juridical order …: it is the originary structure in which law refers to life and includes it in itself by suspending it. . . . (W)e shall give the name ban … to this potentiality … of the law to maintain itself in its own privation, to apply in no longer applying. The relation of exception is a relation of ban. He who has been banned is not, in fact, simply set outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather abandoned by it, that is, exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguished. It is literally not possible to say whether the one who has been banned is outside or inside the juridical order. . . . It is in this sense that that paradox of sovereignty can take the form `There is nothing outside the law.’ The originary relation of law to life is not application but Abandonment” (Agamben’s italics).

In a world of abandonment, bodies who do not fit into regimes of life are written out of discourses of mourning, structure of feelings, knowledge systems, and world view of the university. In the rhetoric of abandonment, subcontracted means outside of a collective narrative, recognition of name, traditions, and care of a community, the feelings of community belonging, and the protections of institutions of the state. A public discourse demarcates among kin and those who are not kin, differentiating and marking out, a political space between those who are directly and deeply involved in community and the university (through a relationship to an employer, a relationship to intellectual labor, or a relationship of in loco parentis) from those who are not seen as deeply or directly involved in the work of the university. Public mourning tells us who is valuable and who is not valuable, who is intelligible and not intelligible, which subjects, which bodies, which labor, and which behaviors contribute to domains of value and utility that neoliberal universities produce. Exceptional subjects are included in relationships of ethical responsibility and are mourned. Unexceptional subjects are abandoned to discourse of charity.

The single public text of Mr. Montano’s death reveals a structure of American modernity and liberalism that makes Latino workers disappear.  The domesticated immigrant worker in the neoliberal center is identified through markers as father and family man. Work and heterosexuality has the effect of briefly making Montano’s life visible so he can be recognized, his death can be regretted, and responsibility can be directed to the subcontracted company. The events of his life and death are then quickly folded from view. Montano’s death does not become a presence which resonates after a fleeting moment when the events of his death are duly recorded and regret is expressed. He becomes in the structures of feeling of the university a ghostly presence, there but not there, a palimpsest of whom unactualized traces exist.

 

(Image Credit: Union Safety)

 

Security of Sex: New Oklahoma Abortion Law

Yesterday, October 7, 2009, the Oklahoma legislature passed a law requiring that private and identifying information be published online for women who have had abortions in state in order to deter women from having abortions.  While this is only one of a plethora of restrictions on women’s right to choose in Oklahoma, it is a particularly dangerous one.  The law has no actual scientific purpose, the manner in which the data is collected is practically unusable for any objective research, instead it is meant to shame and endanger women who seek this medical procedure. It even goes so far as to ask women why they are getting the procedure and outlaws any sex-based abortions.  Though women’s names are not published, information such as their age, race, level of education, marital status, number of previous pregnancies, and the county in which the abortion was performed.  Such information could easily identify a woman living in a smaller town.  No woman should have her medical history judged in the public square and the idea that this will deter abortions shows an unfathomable misunderstanding of pregnancy and abortion in this country.  Abortions are not sought simply by promiscuous teenagers that the overly paternalistic legislature is trying to make “take responsibility”.  You have to be 18 or have parental consent in Oklahoma anyway.  Abortions are sought by women for a wide variety of reasons including incest, rape, health of the mother, viability of the fetus or inability to care for the child.  Irrelevant of the reason, it’s private.

Likewise, the paperwork is incredibly long and puts an additional burden on already overstretched doctors and nurses at the handful of clinics in the state.  The publication of this information is a potential violation of HIPPA and the Oklahoma Constitution and while there are likely to be suits to overturn the bill, they will not be able to have an effect for some time.  The law goes into effect on November 1st.

Regardless of your feelings on the abortion debate, publishing women’s private medical history with information that could easily identify them is a gross abuse of power by the legislature.  It is not a matter of religion and scare tactics that drive women’s health procedures further underground are never for the public good.  Abortion will be reduced when the need for them is reduced through accessible and affordable contraceptives, education regarding contraceptive use and family planning as well as prevention of sexual abuse.  We need to let our legislators know that this is not acceptable.  Please look up your representatives here: http://www.lsb.state.ok.us/.  Write and call them immediately and let them know that you do not want this law.  Pass this information on to every Oklahoma voter that you know.  Below are several articles and the language of the law itself.

http://mobile.salon.com/mwt/broadsheet/feature/2009/10/07/okla_abortion/
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/08/oklahoma-abortion-law-det_n_313779.html
http://jezebel.com/5376502/new-oklahoma-law-will-put-details-of-all-abortions-online
http://www.sos.state.ok.us/documents/Legislation/52nd/2009/1R/HB/1595.pdf

(Photo Credit: Michael Cross / KOSU / NPR)

Security of Sex: Legally Bound (and Gagged)

In the good ‘ol US of A, we’ve been seeing some odd juggling around not just civil but human rights under the new administration. President Obama has been under fire for reneging on his campaign promise to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and for offering support of DOMA, though Obama recently issued a statement negating his previous statement. And the good news has been that there has been vigorous debate and even some voting regarding the Matthew Shepard Act.  These three issues are supposed to represent the pinnacle of LGBTQ rights in America: the right to shoot people for my country, the ability to legally enter into a heteronormative institution and the ability to put more people in jail for longer. OK.  These are considered basic civil rights that affect the entire ‘community’.   The problem is that none of these topics actually relate to the needs of the larger LGBTQ community, because is there is no community, no consensus.  The only thing uniform about this community is that there are individuals across every major racial group, ethnicity, gender, sex, religion and class that consider the ability to discriminate and even harm LGBTQ persons a necessary right.  Such universal disempowerment only exists for one other group: women.  Despite this, the larger issues affecting the LGBTQ community of domestic and sexual violence and abuse, unusually high suicide rates, under-education, harassment both generally and by police, discrimination, heteronormativity, etc. are overwhelmed by marriage, military and prison. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, the struggle for ‘equality’ looks a little different in South Africa, but only a little. Africa’s largest economy has had full legal equality for LGB persons since the ratification of the post-Apartheid constitution, gender identity and expression or transgender rights are not listed.  Despite having one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, South African LGBTQ persons are commonly subject to brutal acts of violence.  And they aren’t the only ones.  In particular, African lesbians in South Africa have been explicitly targeted for gang-rapes.  I’ve talked about this particular situation before, that women and specifically queer women are targeted is no accident.  That these acts are not causing mass outcry or even being consistently investigated is no accident.

The United States of course is no better we just have a legal term for these types of acts. Individuals who commit these ‘hate crimes’ are often portrayed as either marginal and extreme or victims themselves of an awkward circumstance, in South Africa they are generally faceless groups of males, assumedly black.  Such portrayals justify larger apathy and inaction by removing these acts from the larger debate. When violence against LGBTQ persons is mentioned as being part of larger systemic prejudices, it is usually to say that violence is caused by laws against LGBTQ persons, that it will wane once there is full legal equality.   It is the same argument that has been used for women for more than a century.  Yet, the elephant in the room is the fact that South Africa has those legal rights that the mainstream American LGBTQ organizations are hung up on and not only are LGBTQ persons in South Africa not equal, they are the subjects of intense discrimination and violence.  Full legal equality, whatever that means, will not magically create a society of equals because the issue is only in part about laws.  It’s like giving someone painkillers and saying it will cure cancer.  No amount of legal progressivism will undo the damage of a country’s President making a mockery of rape and being elected despite it.  It is primarily about power and how disempowered groups are balkanized and ranked creating a system in which low class African males in Johannesburg and minority males in California gain power through the gang-rape of lesbians.

Reliance on law, regardless of whether or not the laws are good, has not accounted for a lack of willingness to enforce.  The U.S. is established as the imprisonment capital of the world and South Africa is playing catch up.  If a state emphasizes that criminalization and long sentences equal justice but refuses to actually prosecute or even investigate acts of violence against LGBT persons, of color and women especially, then that government not only seems to condone these actions but sends the message these are just actions.  They are public services.  It’s the same message that both the Apartheid and Jim Crowe governments sent in their heydays.  Yet, now the messages are masked by so called legal progresses. The moral of the story remains the same as it has always been, ‘no one’ cares if you are poor, black, queer and/or female, no matter where you are.

(Photo Credit: DavidMixner.com)

Iowa: Gay man gets 25 years for one-time non-disclosure to a single complainant

Nick Clayton Rhoades speaks at the World AIDS Conference

Given the things I write about on this blog, I thought I was inured to outrage.

However, the 25 year jail sentence for a gay man in Iowa earlier this week for not disclosing his HIV status prior to one-time sex with a man he met online, reaches new lows in the history of criminalisation. This is a potential human rights violation almost on par with Willie Campbell’s 35 year prison sentence for spitting. (I’m thinking about the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause, a discussion of which can be found here.)

The Waterloo and Cedar Falls Courier reports that Judge Bradley Harris sentenced 34 year-old Nick Clayton Rhoades to 25 years in prison, the maximum punishment under Iowa’s draconian (and mistitled) “criminal HIV transmission” laws, following a guilty plea. There was no tranmission: the male complainant has not tested HIV-positive, and it is now almost a year since the encounter. (The subtlety seems lost on the headline writer, who erroneously states:‘Plainfield man gets 25 years for transmitting HIV’ )

Not only was there no sentence reduction due to Mr Rhoades’ plea (after all, he saved the court a lot of time and money; and let’s face it, it was one person’s word against the other, which could have gone either way with a jury), but Judge Harris additionally placed Mr Rhoades on lifetime parole and ordered him to pay court costs and restitution.

In addition, he ordered that must Mr Rhoades must:

  • not contact the complainant for five years
  • register as a sex offender
  • and undergo a sex offender treatment programme.

“Simply because it happens regularly that people don’t disclose, doesn’t mean it’s safe,” Harris said. Despite improved treatments, he told Rhoades, contracting human immunodeficiency virus” does change your life, and you more than anyone else should know that.”

[…]

“One thing that makes this case difficult is that you don’t look dangerous; you don’t look like most of our criminals that sit here,” said Harris. “But the risk is still there, just like if you would have shot a gun.”

According to the report, Mr Rhoades met the male complainant, “in an Internet chat room” on June 26th 2008, and then went to his home to have sex.

Although the contact was consensual, the victim, who has since tested negative for HIV, said Rhoades denied he had any sexually transmitted infections. “I should have had the right to choose whether to be intimate with someone who was HIV positive,” the victim read in statement to the court. “Instead, Nick was manipulative and denied me that right. … He lied online, and he also lied to me in person when I asked him directly if he was ‘clean.’”

Rhoades said he doesn’t remember discussing his HIV status with the victim. He drank heavily and took prescription pills before having sex, a combination that he said clouded his judgement. In addition to HIV, the defendant also was being treated for herpes and genital human papillomavirus at the time of the incident, said assistant county attorney Linda Fangman.

Rhoades, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1998, was arrested in September. Living with the virus is like “carrying a concealed weapon,” he told the court, saying he felt guilty for exposing an unknowing individual to the disease.

“I always wanted to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem,” said Rhoades, who had previously participated in AIDS education efforts. “Clearly, I’ve fallen short in this case.”

Mr Rhoades sounds like a genuinely remorseful man. He believes that he should have disclosed his status, and didn’t. Even if you agree with HIV disclosure laws in general – notwithstanding arguments supporting the concept of shared responsibility of both parties under these circumstances, or the unreliability of disclosure as a way of protecting yourself from sexually transmitted infections – there really is absolutely no justification for this outrageously long prison sentence.

To put this into perspective. A year ago I reported on a 12 year HIV exposure sentence in Arkansas (where the maximum penalty is 30 years) for a man who did not disclose to his girlfriend. At the time, it was the longest sentence I’d heard of for a single complainant. This is a single act!

Notwithstanding Johnson Aziga’s likely life sentence after recently being found guilty of murder, the previous longest-ever sentence in Canada was 18 years, and that was for Carl Leone, with 15 complainants, including five who tested positive.

The longest sentence that I’m aware of in Europe has been for Christer Aggett, sentenced to 14 years in prison in Sweden, with a dozen complainants, two of whom tested positive, and half of whom were under 15.

In 2006, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the law after Adam Musser, 25, appealed his four convictions – and 25-year-prison sentences – for having unprotected sex with four different women in 2002 and not telling them he was HIV-positive.

And yet, in 2007, a woman who also pleaded guilty after not disclosing her status to a single complainant during a three month relationship, had her 25 year prison sentence suspended and received four years probation.

Since Judge Harris has also ruled that he can adjust the sentence any time within the next 12 months (and there is already a precedent to suspend sentencing), I suggest that anyone who feels as outraged as I do, contact either Judge Harris, or Mary Stegmeir (mary.stegmeir@wcfcourier.com), the journalist who reported the case at the Waterloo and Cedar Falls Courier.

About Judge Harris, from the Iowa Judicial Branch website:

District Court Judge, Bradley J. Harris: District 1B Judge Harris, Grundy Center, was appointed to the bench in 2007. He received his undergraduate degree from Loras College in 1976, and his law degree from the University of Iowa in 1980. Judge Harris is a member of the Iowa Bar Association, the Grundy County Bar Association, as well as the Iowa County Attorney Association. Prior to his appointment to the bench, he was a partner at the law firm of Kliebenstein, Heronimus, Schmidt, and Harris, and also served as the Assistant Grundy County Attorney from 1995 to 2003, and the Grundy County Attorney from 2003 to 2007. Judge Harris is married and has two children.

[Edwin J. Bernard’s blog, Criminal HIV Transmission, “focuses on prosecutions for sexual exposure to, or transmission of, HIV around the world”. HIV crimes. And where there’s crime, there’s prison. We thought the links might be interesting. Thanks to Edwin for his work, and for sharing it here.]

(Photo Credit: Frankfurter Allgemeine Gesellschaft / Peter-Philipp Schmitt)