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Building a Lifeline

For queer and trans prisoners who have lost familial safety nets due to abuse, neglect, or rejection, the alternative support networks created by other queer people can be life-saving.

blue paper cutout of three figures bowing their heads together and holding each other branches mushrooms and leaves grow...
Illustration by Maggie Lily

Last January, a year before the completion of his prison sentence, Sunny moved into a transitional center outside Atlanta. On the condition of good behavior, he’d be able to work outside the prison for a year, saving up funds and getting acclimated to life after release. Sunny was excited for a new start. In particular, he looked forward to starting the hormone therapy that wasn’t available to him in prison. Instead, he quickly discovered that the institutional transphobia he’d dealt with while incarcerated wasn’t much easier to fight after he got out.

Transitional centers, more commonly known as halfway houses, are traditional stopping points for ex-prisoners looking to reintegrate into society. Whether they check in voluntarily or as a condition of their release, transitional centers can provide housing, rehabilitation, and guidance for people lacking support systems outside of prison.

However, many of these re-entry programs hew closely to societal norms, making it difficult for LGBTQ ex-prisoners to find the support they need. Some halfway houses for women place an outsize value on relationships with men, making the pursuit of a male romantic partner a life goal equivalent to earning a GED. Many houses outright reject queer and trans people hoping to enter their programs. And most lack the resources and cultural competency to help people address housing and employment discrimination, process trauma associated with homophobia or transphobia, or access appropriate medical care.

Sunny was hopeful for the new opportunities available to him at the transitional center. Once there, he started seeing a psychiatrist who prescribed him testosterone. But his excitement was cut short when the center’s staff refused to allow him to take his prescription on the premises.

Having spent a decade excluded from the outside world, Sunny had no idea where to turn to for help. He resorted to taking his T shots at work, but on one occasion, a co-worker reported him for having an unauthorized visitor (a friend had picked up Sunny’s prescription and helped him to administer the shot), and Sunny was sent back to prison.

Sunny felt targeted. “Good behavior” wasn’t tied to his actual actions; it simply meant having a gender identity that was legible within the systems he was living in. When he got out of prison a year later, he was determined to establish the kind of life where he’d be able to fend for himself.

Then, unexpectedly, Sunny received a Facebook friend request from Pinky Shear. Shear is the organizer behind Freedom Overground, an Atlanta-based grassroots organization that works with trans and gender-nonconforming people affected by incarceration. She told Sunny that she was available to help with any problems he might run into as he adjusted to life on the outside. Eventually, thanks to Shear’s referrals, Sunny resumed his testosterone therapy and has recently begun looking into top surgery.

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Freedom Overground is one of a few grassroots support networks scattered throughout the country that serve trans and gender-nonconforming ex-prisoners working to rebuild their lives on the outside. These re-entry programs do not rely on punitive measures or control to get people “back on track.” Instead, they work with ex-prisoners to develop re-entry plans specific to their needs while providing unconditional access to medical providers, housing, employment opportunities, legal advice, and more.

Freedom Overground grew out of Shear’s advocacy for Ky Peterson, a black trans man who received a harsh sentence for killing his rapist in self-defense. Shear and Peterson first met while both serving sentences at Pulaski State Prison, a women’s facility in Georgia. There, officials ignored Peterson’s reports of harassment and requests for trans-specific health care. Shear, on the other hand, was the first person Peterson had ever met “who even knew the word trans.” The two quickly became close, and once Shear got out, she began sending Peterson information about his case while pressuring prison officials to improve his living conditions.

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In 2015, a lawsuit filed by a trans woman named Ashley Diamond led to changes in the Georgia prison system, allowing inmates to start hormone therapy while incarcerated. Shear kept Peterson abreast of the case as it moved through the courts. The next year, he became the first trans inmate in Georgia to start testosterone while incarcerated. Soon, Peterson’s fellow inmates were asking Shear for help as well, including resources to tap into after they were released.

Shear began to notice the systemic nature of abuses against trans or gender-nonconforming inmates, who comprise about 10 percent of the prison population at Pulaski. She started communicating with more inmates at facilities throughout the South, building a database of inmates’ narratives. The database, she stresses, is crucial for advocating for the rights of the trans and gender-nonconforming prison population. Correctional departments refuse to address rights violations because they refuse to acknowledge trans inmates’ existence.

Shear says that the thirty-three trans inmates she has interviewed have all experienced at least one instance of sexual assault (and more than 80 percent of them had experienced assault before incarceration). These experiences profoundly influence trans prisoners’ mental and physical health, which the justice system has repeatedly failed to protect.

In response, Shear hopes to present the Georgia Department of Corrections with a set of trauma-recovery guidelines for trans and gender-nonconforming prisoners. She’s worried, however, about whether she’ll even be able to complete her research, thanks to new GDOC protocols that have limited lines of communication with inmates. “If we can’t communicate with them,” she says, “we can’t find out what their needs are.” Meeting those needs would give survivors in and out of prison a better chance of healing from trauma.

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The alternative network of support provided by Freedom Overground can be vital for queer and trans people who may have lost familial safety nets due to abuse, neglect, or rejection. This support can be found in other organizations, too, like Black and Pink, a national “family” of LGBTQ prisoners and non-incarcerated allies.

V, a Black and Pink organizer who relocated to New York upon her release from a men’s correctional center in Illinois, credits the organization with helping her to access trans medical care for the first time in her life, and giving her a network through which to make friends in a brand-new city.

V and I meet at a diner near Central Park on a Sunday afternoon. She’s dressed in a loose white button-up and light gray cargo shorts, with a black-and-white-patterned bandanna tied around her forehead. Her all-white outfit (or the closest thing she could come to it) is for a silent vigil for victims of Hurricane Maria, which was held outside Trump Tower earlier that day. Except V, clashing with the event’s organizers, wasn’t willing to stay silent. Staying silent “is what got us here,” she says. As a boricua herself, she’d want to be honored by making noise, by speaking out.

“I think prison gave me the anger that I needed to make me want to change the world,” she tells me.

For V, who wasn’t out as trans before entering prison, trying to transition on the inside was nearly impossible. It took years before prison officials approved her request to see a psychiatrist for gender dysphoria — usually the first step in a medical gender transition. When she arrived at the psychiatric ward, she was required to attend six months of therapy before she could even be considered for hormones. And once she’d completed all six months, she was simply told that she wasn’t “feminine” enough to be approved for further treatment.

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V is a self-described tomboy who doesn’t believe that there is one singular definition of womanhood. To most prison staff, however, “To be on hormones, you have to basically be a stereotype.” Gender transition is more often seen as a last resort than as a core part of someone’s personhood. Trans prisoners understand that the only way to get officials to take their gender identities seriously is to put their lives at risk. Officials in the men’s facility “didn’t want people looking like women,” allegedly “for our protection,” V says. Because of this, it was normal for “[trans] girls to cut themselves just to be able to get razors, bras, underwear, or makeup.”

“If we wanted to get stuff done, we would have to attempt suicide,” V says, matter-of-factly.

To put this practice of self-harm into a larger context, gender-nonconforming and trans people, especially trans women, already face heightened levels of abuse and assault in prison. Transgender women report higher rates of sexual or physical assault than the general population while incarcerated, with black trans women being the most vulnerable. Trans women are also much more likely to experience abuse or harassment at the hands of staff than from other inmates, and the denial of hormone therapy that V describes is a particularly common form of abuse.

If it wasn’t for other incarcerated trans women, V says, “I probably wouldn’t be here now.” The trans women she met behind bars, and those she read about in Black and Pink’s monthly newsletter, offered inspiration and a glimmer of hope. If those women could survive and still have the will to advocate for others, she could, too.

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The first time I visit the Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) offices, in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, I end up at the wrong building. But people in the neighborhood all know and love the organization’s executive director, Janetta Johnson, and are quick to help me find her. When I finally arrive at the right location, the offices are cramped, with motivational posters filling the walls and client files on nearly every surface. It’s a stressful time, Johnson tells me — the building is being condemned, and TGIJP has been forced to look for a new home in a city notorious for its lack of affordable real estate.

I’m here to learn about TGIJP’s Melenie Eleneke Grassroots Re-Entry Program, named after a late member of the TGIJP community. “Trans people don’t have people to come home to,” says Johnson, whose own experiences reflect those of TGIJP’s members. “We become that family.”

Johnson moved to San Francisco from Florida in 1997, when she learned about Miss Major, a black trans woman and a legendary figure from the Stonewall era of gay and trans liberation. Johnson had spent time in the criminal-justice system and was looking for a new start when a friend gave her Miss Major’s number. Two weeks later, Johnson showed up at her office — and hasn’t left since.

“I spent the first three years crying on her boobs,” Johnson says. “Miss Major was that one person that loved me and nurtured me and held me and came to me while I was dealing with trauma that I didn’t necessarily understand.”

In 2005, Miss Major joined the then-recently-founded TGIJP, eventually assuming the role of executive director. At TGIJP, she continued the work she had done for years, providing direct services to trans and queer people of color throughout the Bay Area and advocating for their rights in local and state politics. Upon her retirement in 2014, she passed the leadership reins on to Johnson.

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Drawing on her experience as one of Miss Major’s “daughters,” a term trans women use to describe the generational relationship of care and knowledge that can be passed from one trans woman to another, Johnson developed a formalized re-entry program at TGIJP that provides a salary, resources, and support to recently released clients.

Johnson recognizes that the lifetime effects of structural oppression can be fatal. That’s why one of her priorities is for members of TGIJP’s re-entry program to work toward processing and recovering from long-held traumas. TGIJP frequently works to connect clients with therapists and psychiatrists, but because many trans people have had negative interactions with mental-health providers — who often pathologize or outright dismiss their experiences — the organization also provides alternatives to traditional mental-health care. Participants work with a life coach to strategize their post-incarceration plans and improve their self-esteem. They also attend political-education classes to understand the historical oppression that may have affected their lives.

Together, the program’s members create and strengthen connections within their new community, so that they can be loved and cared for in the way that Johnson’s “mother,” Miss Major, was able to care for her. Re-entry isn’t about returning to life before prison, or conforming to a set image of the “model citizen” (one that’s largely cisgender and heterosexual); it’s about creating a system of support that may not have existed prior to incarceration.

Currently, TGIJP is working to build a new meeting space for the black trans community in the Bay Area. The Black Trans* Cultural Center will establish additional employment opportunities for members of TGIJP’s re-entry program, provide facilities for classes and events, like dinners and balls, and educate the public on the historical contributions of black trans people — of women like Miss Major and events like the Compton Cafeteria Riot. It will be a home for artistic expression, historical memory, and, most importantly, familial love.

“It’s all about investing in people,” Johnson says. “It’s time, energy, love, and really, really humanizing people.”

Kristine Mar can be reached at @exexteen.