Last week marked Minneapolis’ Second Annual Trans* Equity Summit. Presented in collaboration with the City of Minneapolis, this year’s summit brought together local transgender rights activists and city officials to discuss how the criminal justice system impacts transg people. I am very glad that I was able to be part of this productive afternoon – listening to strong trans voices telling their own stories with powerful moments of truth-telling that combated the criminalization of trans communities, especially those of color. Given the lack of media presence, below is a recap of the event.
In her opening remarks Andrea Jenkins, who organized the summit, emphasized that, “for trans people simply telling our stories is a political act.” Jenkins, who has been a tireless transgender rights activist and Minneapolis City Council policy aide for more than 12 years, is currently a Transgender Oral Historian for the University of Minnesota Libraries Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection, where she is curating oral histories of trans people in Minneapolis, Chicago, and rural areas of the Midwest.
Despite unprecedented civil rights gains for gay and lesbian U.S. citizens in recent years (most prominently with the Supreme Court’s nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage in June 2015), trans and gender-nonconforming communities still remain on the margins of society and are disproportionately impacted by discrimination, harassment, and violence. As of September this year, twenty trans women have been murdered. Not every trans person is endowed with the privileges of a Caitlyn Jenner – whether it is access to healthcare, wealth, or white celebrity status. There is a host of differently lived realities and experiences of trans people – they all deserve to be heard and valued.
As Andrea Jenkins aptly noted about the discrimination trans people endure: “We still face enormous obstacles finding housing, walking down the street without risking our safety and our lives. We need the dignity that all people deserve. The absence of knowledge about trans people’s lives has real consequences, everyday policy makers across the country are making decisions about trans peoples’ lives with little knowledge about us. With only rumors and mass media for reference about us, legislators are passing bills about who can discriminate against us and when; about what health care we deserve and what bathrooms we can use.”
The highlight of the summit was an hour-long panel discussion comprising CeCe McDonald, Reverend Dr. Barbara Holmes, Roxanne Anderson, and Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau.
Humbly, moderator Jason Sole, a former drug dealer and gang member who spent significant time in correctional facilities before becoming an educator and author of From Prison to PhD, opened the panel by apologizing for his ignorance of LGBT folks’ encounters with the criminal justice system due to his socialization as an “alpha male.” The panel then delved into a discussion of how trans people have historically been treated by the justice system.
CeCe McDonald vividly recounted her youth growing up in Chicago, where she was surrounded by violence not just from her own community, but by police officers who were supposed to protect her. Since moving to Minneapolis, McDonald has felt constantly criminalized and surveilled, where simply waiting at the bus stop meant that she was under suspicion of being a sex worker. Given the stereotypes and stigmas that society puts on trans women, McDonald reflected that in some ways her life was easier when she identified as a “gay boy.”
Remembering the horrific night of the assault at the Schooner Tavern back in June 2012, McDonald recalled how some folks were questioning her decision to walk to a grocery store at midnight, without understanding that if she went in the afternoon, she was frequently scrutinized, taunted, and discriminated against: “I felt that [this] was a time for me to be myself. … You shouldn’t have to have a schedule on your life. … I need you to understand me as a human. … I don’t just want to be tolerated in society, I want to be accepted, and loved, and understood.”
Similarly Roxanne Anderson, community activist, co-owner of Café Southside, and director of RARE Productions, recounted her experiences being profiled and criminalized as a pimp for offering a trans woman a ride because she is oftentimes perceived as a black male.
“How do we create a culture of safety for transgender people … because right now it’s a culture of cruelty” ~ Jason Sole
Rev. Dr. Barbara Holmes, President of the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, specifically addressed the systemic nature of racial injustice: “The criminal justice system is not an accident. We are told we are born into neutral space – we are not. We are being socialized by the news; we are being socialized by the entertainment programs to believe that some people are more criminal than others and that some people deserve privilege and others don’t.”
“One thing I will say about the prison-industrial-complex: we need to blow that whole thing up” ~ Andrea Jenkins
The most powerful moment of the summit was undoubtedly when Janeé Harteau, who became Minneapolis’ first female, openly gay chief in 2012, indicated that she was here with an open mind and ready to listen, especially since last year’s summit had generated much anger and frustration about local law enforcement representatives who had tactlessly showed up in uniform, making many participants very uncomfortable. Harteau: “I’m not here in uniform today. If I was in uniform at a lot of people would be offended. … I can’t disagree with anything you said CeCe and so on behalf of the law enforcement community, I apologize for your experiences.”
The chief even actively called for the recruitment of trans people and invited CeCe to speak with new recruits during their training. Someone from the audience yelling, “Better get paid!” elicited a lot of laughter. Harteau further emphasized significant shifts in the training of officers, especially from changing the mentality of policing from being “guardians versus warriors”: focusing on de-escalation and implicit bias training, empathy, and effective communication with the communities officers are charged to protect. Additionally, the department’s search and seizure policy has changed: “who you identify yourself as determines who will do the search process.” Andrea Jenkins, who is also part of the Minneapolis Transgender Work Group, further pushed Harteau on implementing a trans training for the police department, which “for some reasons keeps stalling” to which Harteau promised her commitment but asked Jenkins to “keep on us.”
I personally think the panel could have addressed and opposed more explicitly the violence of and within the prison-industrial-complex. The solution to mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects people of color, cannot be found in in simply adding trans folks to the force and further expanding law enforcement practices. While sensitizing officers to the experiences of trans people is absolutely necessary – a much bigger concern is re-configuring what accountability is and means in our communities: “[Accountability], not just for the police, but for each other” as CeCe McDonald put it.
“I think we would be better off if we would take the category of gender identity away from pulpits and politicians, and take it back to the people. We have expanded our idea of marriage, we can expand our gender categories” ~ Rev. Dr. Holmes
Interestingly, one audience member then asked what parents can do to make sure that their kids don’t become part of the problem, but part of the solution. CeCe stressed the need to decolonize our minds from things that we’ve been taught and to educate children about differences between gender identity and sexual orientation: “Even as a trans-woman I have to deal with these misogynistic ideas about how I should be navigating life as a woman. People don’t talk about masculine trans women or feminine trans women, or the difference between sexual orientation and sexual identity. By being trans I have automatically been identified as gay by society, but that’s not how I identify. If I was gay then I would be a lesbian, and see that confuses people. … the way that society has built these ideas about gender identity and sexual orientation has limited our ideas about who we are as individuals.”
Pointedly Rev. Dr. Holmes urged us to expand our gender identities: “We made it up that there are two categories. Indigenous people have always known otherwise”
So where to go from here?
Clearly, the lack of founding and material resources remains a major issue for trans communities, which the unexpected closing of the Trans Youth Support Network (TYSN) in January 2015 only further demonstrates. For activists like Roxanne Anderson, the tokenizing work of many organizations claiming to do “big gay work” but lacking any “trans competen[cy]” remains highly problematic. Rev. Dr. Holmes stressed the importance of visibility to get money flowing in the right directions: “You can’t just be in the streets, you have to be in the courtroom; you can’t just be in the courtroom, you have to be on television. You have to be pressing on all sides.”
CeCe McDonald: “We can’t just sit in this room and absorb all this information and then go back to our lives as in if no one just spilled their hearts out, we have to actually get involved with our communities. We have to actually be adamant about how we attend events, how do we attend meetings, how do we be part of our communities, because just sitting here and talking about it, is one thing. But it’s about what are we actually doing to do something about it. How do we make allyship verb and not just a noun. We need to start showing people how we appreciate each other, how we appreciate our communities. How are we funding organizations and spaces for trans people of color? It’s not about a money grab, but about sustaining these places that are offering resources to people who can’t get them anywhere else. … It’s time that we start being doers and not just sayers.”
Overall, this was a really informative afternoon for everyone and I went home feeling inspired but also challenged: How can we as academics show more civic engagement to really foster change with our work and improve the material realities of communities that have been historically marginalized, harmed, and discriminated against? How can we become more involved in our communities beyond the ivory tower? I continue to grapple with these questions.
If you are in the area, I strongly encourage you to visit the summit’s accompanying exhibit “VisibiliT” at Intermedia Arts. Curated by Andrea Jenkins, this show documents a rich variety of stories and images from the trans community, including photography by Anna Min and Shiraz Mukarram.