At first glance, it may seem that violence against transgender women of color targeted by the criminal justice system is far removed from the topic of reproductive health. It may seem like a matter for a blog primarily about race, gender, immigration or prisons, not one about reproductive rights. But after finding several such incidents covered in the blogosphere (here, here and here respectively), I thought I'd take this opportunity to report some of these stories in light of their connections to reproductive health issues.
Victoria Arellano (sometimes spelled Arrelano), a transwoman with AIDS, died in a California immigration facility for men in July. Reportedly a victim of inadequate medical care and neglect, she was one of three immigrants to die in federal custody in a month, as covered in Washington Post. (The two others to die in custody include a 38-year-old pregnant Mexican woman who died in a Texas facility and a man whose family "implored authorities to give him medicine for his epileptic seizures in Rhode Island.")
Mariah Lopez and Christina Sforza, two transgender women of color from New York City, were arrested and subjected to brutal treatment while in custody. Sforza reported to Amnesty International that she was attacked in a New York restaurant in July 2006 by a man wielding a lead pipe. She said she was attacked for spending too long in the women's rest room which an employee gave her permission to use. The assailant shouted verbal abuse that was picked up by other staff and customers who allegedly egged him on shouting "kill the fag." But when officers from the New York Police Department arrived they refused to allow the emergency medical services to examine her injuries and arrested her, not her attacker, Sforza says. Read their stories reported by Amnesty International.
Lopez, a young transgender Latina woman, was arrested by NYPD officers in June of 2006. While in police custody, male officers reportedly carried out repeated humiliating and unnecessary strip searches. Charged with "loitering with intent to solicit" and with "assaulting officers," Lopez claims to have pleaded guilty in order to get out of jail, where she felt a serious risk of attack and could no longer endure the psychological and emotional pressures of conditions in detention. Lopez was released in August of 2006, and her case came to hearing last week. Read her entire statement to Amnesty here.
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There are many political issues intertwined in these stories. Reproductive rights activists are often first to understand the connection between gender identity and violence. Advocates for abortion rights often cite violence against women among the social problems that limit the choices women can make about their lives and bodies. These are perennial issues for women's rights advocates, but broadening our view to include queer and trans people has proven difficult for many. Lopez states:
I was placed in a cell for several hours with no food, water or access to a bathroom. I brought this to the attention of the corrections officer; in exchange, the officer assaulted me, leaving me with severe bruising and abrasions. His justification? Claiming that I was being disruptive, all because I demanded my basic rights.
How many people, while advocating for women's human rights, have been charged with disruption and unfair treatment and suffered violence as a result? Anyone who's been to a pro-choice march or rally can tell you that violence from opponents as well as law enforcement is always a concern. What is important to note, however, these cases are not matters of violence against activists at a rally or march. These cases exemplify the very real danger faced by trans people on a daily basis – on the street or in a restaurant – by law enforcement officials and any passer-by. From Mariah Lopez's statement:
At the sixth precinct, I was verbally abused and forced to disclose my "real" gender, though my ID clearly states that I am female. I requested that officers refer to me with female pronouns, which is my legal right under the New York City Human Rights Law. They continued to abuse, harass and degrade me, referring to me as "it," "he/she" and calling me by male names rather than my own.
All three cases – Victoria Arellano's, Christina Sforza's, and Mariah Lopez's – illustrate a broader connection between the struggles faced by transgender women and the goals of the reproductive rights movement. Our goal of reproductive freedom hinges on gaining political acknowledgement that our bodies are our own. This struggle for a legitimate gender identity (some newspapers are reporting that a Victor Arellano died in custody) and the right to self-determination in the matter of gender and sexuality has always been central to the movement for reproductive rights. Gender self-determination is a central tenet of human rights, and adequate health care is a human right that many millions of us struggle to ensure for ourselves on a regular basis. Aside from those immigrants who have died while in US custody, many have been denied adequate medical care and separated from their families in immigration raids (see video footage of raids on undocumented immigrants in New Bedford here). This is a matter of protecting people and their families from violence in the form of medical neglect – something we cover regularly on this site.
These stories, perhaps disparate at first glance, are certainly a matter of concern for those of us interested in securing reproductive health for the people in this country. They are hard to distill into one blog post, but are ultimately about the need to broaden our lens to include what have been, to date, issues that escape our radar but are crucial to ensuring a comprehensive approach to reproductive justice.
To take action, see Amnesty International's Action Alert for Mariah Lopez.