— 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.” Continue reading