Trans Organizing in the Fight for Prison Justice

Post by Victoria Law

Executive Director of TGIJP, Janetta Johnson speaking to crowd at a Queers for Black Lives Matter action.

Executive Director of TGIJP, Janetta Johnson speaking to crowd at a Queers for Black Lives Matter action.

Long before CeCe McDonald, Laverne Cox or Caitlyn Jenner raised awareness about the existence of trans people, CJI has been helping grassroots organizations center the experiences of trans people in prison organizing. 

In the early 2000s, most of the country either ignored or disbelieved in the existence of trans people. People involved in prison organizing were frequently ill-equipped to address the abuses that trans people faced behind bars while organizations led by trans people were often volunteer-run with many of the volunteers lacking economic, housing, or health stability.

Despite this, noted Alex Lee, founder of the Trans Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), "People in prison had been organizing with each other for years." But that organizing wasn't readily visible to those working around prison issues or those who funded them.

In 2004, Lee received a Soros Justice fellowship to provide legal advocacy for trans women in prison and to establish TGIJP, which worked to challenge the discrimination, unjust incarceration, and the many human rights abuses committed against transgender, gender variant and intersex people. It was the first organization led by trans people who had been directly impacted by the criminal justice system. Once the fellowship ended, the fledgling TGI Justice Project turned to CJI for funding.

Early funding from CJI was critical in keeping the organization afloat. "The grant gave us people," Lee noted. The grant enabled the group to hire Miss Major, a black, formerly incarcerated trans woman who had been involved in the 1969 Stonewall uprising and become politicized while imprisoned at the infamous Attica State Prison, as its organizing director. Miss Major, who went on to become TGIJP's executive director, was not only a role model for the young trans women of color coming to the organization, but also a stabilizing force. CJI funding also enabled Miss Major and TGIJP's organizing committee to help trans women stabilize their lives so that they could be involved in organizing. Stabilizing lives is integral to movement-building, especially when working with people impacted by policing, prisons, poverty and myriad other oppressions, but this step is often dismissed by funders.

TGI Justice Project has been influential not only in the lives of the people with whom they work, but in expanding prison organizing to include fighting for trans people. The California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), another CJI grantee, has been working with people in California's women's prisons since 1995. CCWP regularly visits people in California's three women's prisons, including trans and gender non-conforming people. While CCWP had been supporting Nicky Diamond, the first trans woman to be housed in a women's prison, and Rickie Blue Sky, an indigenous trans male elder, members took the lead from TGI Justice Project and began actively working to ensure that it was including trans, gender non-conforming and intersex people in its organizing and advocacy. It devoted an issue of The Fire Inside, its quarterly newsletter mailed to nearly 3000 people in and out of prison, to pushing the framework of gender justice. The result was an increase of letters and communication from trans masculine and trans men in California's women's prisons. These connections led to stronger organizing among trans men inside prisons and people on the outside. They were able to more quickly mobilize to fight when individuals were targeted by prison staff. Now, trans and gender non-conforming people know that they can reach out to CCWP, which can organize a quick response to stop prison abuses.

CCWP's regular visits to California's women's prisons is one of the main ways that it connects with trans and gender non-conforming people inside. CJI's continued support enables CCWP to continue these visits. It also enables CCWP to continue printing and distributing The Fire Inside, and maintaining correspondence with imprisoned members. In June 2015, CCWP participated in a health fair inside the Central California Women's Facility, the world's largest women's prison. CJI's support enabled CCWP to offer four booths, each covering a different topic, including health for trans, gender non-conforming and intersex people. In a prison where gender expression is still kept under wraps, at least one hundred people visited that booth. CCWP continues to center trans people in its gender justice framework.

Organizing with trans people who have been criminalized looks very different in the South. As late as 2010, New Orleans had no dedicated space for LGBTQ youth, particularly LGBTQ youth of color. The following year, BreakOUT! was started. "We wanted to be recognized and build something we could call our own," explained founding member and co-director Wesley Ware. "For queer and trans youth organizing, having the physical space is an important component. You need to be able to know, 'This is mine.'"

But the group also faced funding challenges. Five years after Katrina had devastated the city, grants from large foundations were drying up. In addition, funders were even more reluctant to take a chance on a new group. Undaunted, however, BreakOUT! rented a space in a converted artists' loft, began organizing and, at the same time, began looking for funding.

The first grant from CJI—for nine thousand dollars—enabled BreakOUT! to pay the rent on that first space and to build its foundation. They began holding Organizing 101 sessions, drawing power maps and problem trees to analyze the social and political conditions in New Orleans. Nearly all of its members are young trans women who have been directly impacted by policing and/or incarceration. Since then, BreakOUT! has organized to end discriminatory policing of LGBTQ communities, has become an intake site for reporting complaints against police abuses and released We Deserve Better, a report for and by LGBTQ youth of color on safety and policing. With the Congress of Day Laborers, BreakOUT! members are exploring similarities on how undocumented people and LGBTQ youth are criminalized. BreakOUT! also partnered with other New Orleans groups to ensure that the experiences of trans people were included in the Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families, a 2015 report chronicling the economic and emotional costs of incarceration. Continued support from CJI has enabled the group to continue centering the leadership of formerly incarcerated trans youth as it continues to grow.

For CJI, gender and gender identity are never an afterthought when examining the criminal justice system. Instead, CJI approaches criminal justice organizing—and movement building—with an intersectional analysis that values the leadership of those most impacted.

We do this by ensuring that activists, including formerly incarcerated people, and donors partner to identify and decide on funding priorities that strengthen movement building. Rather than chasing the next sexy trend, we incorporate political education into our grant-making process. CJI is determined to bring the power to fund back into the movement and to support the less-visible steps necessary to build that movement.