Transforming Justice: Kelani Key and Vanessa Huang

— Suzy Subways, with reporting by Pedro Soto

November 2007 • Issue 7

*Activist Snapshots #4*

On October 13 and 14, San Francisco Bay Area activists hosted Transforming Justice, the first national gathering to begin developing shared understanding and strategy to end the criminalization and imprisonment of transgender and gender non-conforming people.1 “Prisons are not where we belong, and it’s not what we deserve,” says Kelani Key, a member of the Trans/Gender Variant in Prison Committee (TIP) and an organizer for the event, which drew almost 200 people.

A Transwoman with AIDS Dies in Immigrant Detention

The intersection of these issues was made painfully clear by the death of Victoria Arellano on July 20. Arellano, a 23-year-old transwoman, was swept up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in May and denied AIDS treatment while in detention for her immigration status. Arellano repeatedly asked to see a doctor but, says Coral Lopez of Bienestar, a Latino AIDS service organization in Los Angeles, “Only once, they gave her Tylenol to reduce the fever.”

Mariana Marroquin, a transgender activist who helped organize a vigil to protest Arellano’s death, says, “To be transgender, HIV positive, and an immigrant are three factors that bring terrible discrimination. What happened to Victoria was a very bad example for transgender people. Already, they don’t want to ask for help because they are afraid of being deported or detained.”

The striking news about Arellano’s story is the depth of solidarity that the male detainees around her showed, bridging the compounded stigma of transgender and HIV status. Lopez says, “All of her fellow inmates – Latinos in majority – went on hunger strike when she was almost dead, and they were screaming, ‘Hospital! Hospital!’” Although this action did get her to the hospital, she died there.

Loved ones displayed this memorial for Victoria Arellano at a protest vigil in Los Angeles on August 27. Photo by SCHA-LA

Building Leadership Under Lockdown

Transforming Justice brought together many people who are committed to that kind of solidarity. Organizers set a precedent by not allowing the possible difficulties of bringing together those directly affected by the issues to become an excuse for excluding them. From the beginning, organizers from the Trans/Gender Variant in Prison Committee, Critical Resistance, Justice Now, the Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), and the Transgender Law Center worked to ensure the leadership and participation of people most impacted by gender oppression and prisons. Vanessa Huang of Justice Now estimates that, of the participants, “At least half have been through jails, detention centers, and prisons and/or experienced police violence, and the majority who came were trans and gender non-conforming people.”

Even people who are currently imprisoned were able to participate. “From the start, members of TIP and TGIJP visited with people inside to inform the direction of Transforming Justice,” she says. “Trans and gender non-conforming people – mostly in men’s prisons, and a few in women’s prisons – wrote letters that participants who were not in prison were encouraged to respond to.”

On the second day, participants developed political points of unity and next steps for their ongoing work together. These next steps included the creation of a shared platform of trans immigration issues, a commitment to developing ways to respond to interpersonal and anti-LGBTQ violence that do not rely on police and prisons, and the formation of a national coalition whose focus will be supporting local grassroots organizing of trans and gender non-conforming people in and returning home from prisons, jails, and detention centers.

Transforming Justice and HIV Prevention Justice

Waheedah Shabazz-El, an organizer with ACT UP Philadelphia and the Prevention Justice Mobilization, said participating in the conference deepened her understanding of how economic marginalization of trans people relates to prevention justice. “A lack of HIV interventions specifically targeted toward this community leaves them and their partners at risk, not only through unprotected sex, but in the sharing of needles when self-injecting hormones,” she says. “Syringe exchange programs would be of great benefit to the trans community, whose lack of health insurance, in many cases, forces them to inject their own medication.”

Transwomen have an HIV rate of almost 28%, and among Black transwomen the rate is 56%, according to a 2007 CDC review of multiple studies. Almost everywhere, transwomen are imprisoned with men, multiplying their risk for sexual assault and HIV, making prison an even more traumatic experience. Being denied hormones in jail can magnify the trauma.

“The framework of prevention justice does important work to enable our movements to identify key opportunities and needs for strategic collaboration,” Huang says. She recommends that HIV prevention justice activists ally with the anti-prison movement in its work to oppose new prisons, reduce the numbers of imprisoned people, and close prisons, jails, and immigrant detention centers. She also encourages AIDS activists to support the emerging conversation among many trans and anti-prison activists who are developing community-based responses to transphobic violence and other forms of interpersonal violence without relying on police and prisons.

In the spirit of Victoria Arellano and the detainees who protested on her behalf, new alliances and working relationships are being forged. “This is a critical moment for us to address the criminalization and imprisonment of our communities,” Key says. “People are finally standing up.”

1 For definitions of terms related to transgender identity, see Solidarity Project #3, “Gender and HIV Risk,” page 2.

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Filed under California, immigration/migration, Latina/o communities in the United States, police repression, prison, Solidarity Project, stigma, trans and gender non-conforming, treatment access, women

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