Transcending Gender in Prison

Powerful moment yesterday. Drove 2 hours past Sacramento to do a 7 hour GRIP intensive in Mule Creek State Prison.


It was the first time we welcomed a transgendered woman (prisoner) to our GRIP class. An African American woman with spunky beads in her hair, she sat up straight, gave a big smile when she walked in, and was not shy when she spoke. I noticed she was respected by a lot of the other prisoners in the room.


We made it a point to speak to the gifts and wisdom she could share with the rest of us, especially as a woman. Jacques as primary facilitator apologized for, or rather acknowledged, that most of the program is oriented and geared towards men, using male pronouns, speaking to male psychology, and understanding the male role belief system in order to help them transform rage into power. It is, admittedly, a program for men. At least at this moment.


Jacques then apologized in advance if he made generalizations or slip-ups in regards to languaging or assumptions. The inmate, K, smiled and said, “that’s ok, its what men do.” Everyone in the room had a good laugh.


But beneath the laughter hung a very painful history. Transgendered people have suffered some of the most violent and abusive injustices not just in the everyday world, but especially in prison. Very few laws have protected them, and very few are in effect even today. Case in point, K has been incarcerated for 29 years (and while we don’t know how long she has identified and dressed as a woman, I imagine it is likely its been the entire time she has been incarcerated) and she has been forced to live with and amongst men, even while identifying and living as a woman.


She spoke about her resiliency. She said she has been locked up in Pelican Bay Prison (notoriously brutal) on a maximum security yard 2 different times, many other prisons, and has been attacked, brutalized, teased, denied civil liberties, and everything under the sun for living her truth and living proudly as a woman. I was struck silent by her courage and her resilience and her power.


Then a man sitting a few chairs over from her spoke up. He was a white man with tattoos coming up his neck to his jawline, and a mustache. He was a leader in the prison, clearly charismatic, and spoke fast and intensely, his lean wiry muscles whipping his head around as he spoke. “I just gotta say, I grew up in Torrence, in LA, and ran with the skinheads. I was a skinhead, that’s who I had been my whole life. I had never met any homosexuals, transgendered folks or nothin’. I had all sorts of ideas about them and my hatred knew no bounds. Everyone knew me, I was a real dick. So when I finally got here to Mule Creek, I was having a shitty time, and having a really shitty day, and then here was this girl K who came over and asked if I was ok and if I needed someone to talk to. I was like what the hell is going on here? Who was this person and why is she trying to talk to me? But then I gradually opened up, and came to realize she is an awesome person, totally funny, and someone I really get along with. And now here I am, an ex-skinhead, and I have a black transgendered friend!”


He leaned over and fist-bumped with her, both smiling and laughing. Everyone in the room was laughing too, relieved, and relaxed. There was a palpable shift in the energy of the room. I realized its so important to talk about these things, and not to ignore or not acknowledge the important elements of race, gender, privilege in any space, even if its uncomfortable to talk about. And I know it will not be easy to incorporate her into the program without hiccups or bumps. But we have the intentions, and she meant it when she said she felt welcomed and excited for this yearlong program.
It hit me that even in prison, there are so many levels, hierarchies, of privilege that still exist. And being a black transgendered woman in a white-male run prison operating within a structurally racist and patriarchal paradigm has got to be at the very bottom of that hierarchy.


I am looking forward to getting to know K better, and learn from her. I can already tell that the grit, resilience, and wisdom she has gained through her struggles will enrich and support all of us as we embark on this yearlong journey. Feeling touched, challenged, and inspired.

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