In all the debate about breastfeeding and parenting, I know some choices will work for some mothers and not for others. But it is critical that as a society, we have the policies and infrastructure in place to support those decisions.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in the back of a rental car on the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, heading towards a gap in the border fence near a sanctuary that a local organizer insisted we MUST see. My colleagues and I were on a field visit to do campaign planning and technical support on reproductive justice, organizing with our local activists that are part of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH). As we approached the visually painful 18-foot steel fence in the Sabal Palm Sanctuary section of the border, I pulled up a jacket over my chest as the border patrol agent was peeking into our vehicle. I was pumping in the backseat, with my battery-powered Medela pump making that familiar ‘whish-whish’ sound. My nerves calmed once the border patrol agent let us pass without questioning what the heck I was doing attached to that machine.
As a new mom to a 9-month-old and a new Executive Director for a national reproductive justice organization, I find myself in precarious situations when on work travel. Do I bring my son? Can I find childcare? If not, who will care for my child while I am away? Where will I pump? Where do I store the milk? The quandary leaves me scrambling for resources that range from the kindness of friends, strangers and colleagues, to extra cash to cover overtime childcare costs. Both my partner and I have careers that require a high percentage of travel, leading to a decision to either pump or breastfeed on the road. Since I started my new role in mid-October, fresh off the return from parental leave, I have traveled 21 times to seven cities ranging from Washington, DC to Oakland, California. My son has joined me on a dozen of those trips; some have been quite exciting (White House Holiday Party where, at 4 months old, he was held by the President and First Lady) and others a unique experience (staying at a day-care in the Bay Area with a friend’s son for two days where only Chinese was spoken). At one meeting that provided on-site childcare, my child rotated to almost every lap of each of my colleagues, often chiming in the dialogue with a gurgle or a defiant ‘bah bah bah.’ I’ve nursed on trains, planes and automobiles… one time, performing acrobatic-like maneuvers to wiggle out of a back zippered dress on a shuttle flight in order to position my son to my breast, all while attempting to be “discreet.” I felt the stares of men in suits on that typically infant-free business flight from New York to Washington, DC. Despite the endless stories and struggles of traveling with my infant, I have felt very empowered that, as a new mom, I could ‘juggle it all’—a career I love and am passionate about, a positive and fulfilling personal life, and attempt at being the best parent I could to my precious little baby. But this is not without the anxiety and difficult decision-making that put me at odds with my independent style; I’ve had to plead for help and support in ways I have never done before.
In all the recent debate about attachment parenting, feminism and ‘extended’ nursing, including a New York Times ‘Room for Debate’ feature and a provocative Time magazine cover article, no one talks about the flip side of being a nursing working mama… pumping. During the daily grind, I have to figure out ways to squeeze in three pump sessions a day (or more if traveling without my son), often excusing myself from meetings to seek a private refuge and attach myself to that darn pump. In addition to pumping in the back seat of a car at the Texas-Mexico border, I’ve pumped at countless random locations, including the U.S. Capitol, bathrooms at bars, funder’s offices, empty conference rooms, cramped Amtrak and airplane restrooms, closets, hotel rooms, and the ladies room at a sports arena during a Miami Heat basketball game. With a horrific gasp, I’ve spilled milk on my office carpet, a hotel bed and a conference room table. While on the pump, I’ve practiced speeches, joined conference calls, responded to emails or looked at photos of my baby (I am told it is supposed to help the ‘let down’… it doesn’t for me). And speaking of ‘let down,’ how about the race to work with your heavy breast pump bag in tow (and its serpent-like tubing parts), getting the pumps in throughout the day, and the rush home to see your baby and find out what you pumped is just not enough for the next day. My partner would be the bearer of good or bad news, as he applied his biomedical engineering degree to measure the liquid gold to the milligram. Yes, pumping is the very un-glamorous side of the decision to breastfeed.
But while it comes with the territory and along with the decision to breastfeed (or not), it should be supported. In all the debate about breastfeeding, I feel that it is a personal choice that may or may not work for all mothers; however, it is critical that as a society, we have the policies and infrastructure in place to support those decisions. We should not be relegated to a bathroom or closet because society has not deemed it critical to create private nursing or pumping spaces in public locations. We should not have to feel the burning judgmental stares because we decide to breastfeed on a plane, or anywhere in public. We should not have to hear the banter of folks who are uncomfortable with the idea of mothers continuing to nurse when children are ‘too old.’ We should not have to hear the denigration of mothers who are unable or uninterested in nursing at all. On this mama’s day, we — as a society — need to respect and support the decisions that women and families make when raising their children. We also need to serve as advocates for change at the political and societal level so that the U.S. is no longer one of the lowest-scoring industrialized countries to be a mom, with a dismal breastfeeding policy score of ‘poor’ and the only developed country to not guarantee paid parental leave. Until then, I will continue to keep track of my random nursing and pumping adventures, hoping for one day to turn this randomness into acceptance.
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A new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) documents the deaths of 18 migrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody from mid-2012 to mid-2015. In some cases, the deaths were likely preventable and the result of “substandard medical care and violations of applicable detention standards.”
These are notthe only deaths that occurred, however. ICE acknowledges on its website that31 deaths have occurred between May 2012 and mid-June of this year. It is unclear whether ICE intends to release information about the additional 13 deaths that have occurred.
Even so, these new findings add to a growing body of evidenceshowing what HRW calls “egregious violations” of medical care standards in detention centers. A February report found such violations contributed to at least eight in-custody deaths over a two-year period.
The public is just beginning to learn more about the deeply rooted problem, Clara Long, a researcher with Human Rights Watch and the lead researcher on the report, explained to Rewire. Long referenced an ongoing investigation by reporter Seth Freed Wesslerat theNation, which explores the numerous deaths that have occurred inside immigrant-only prisons.
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Though the death reviews released by ICE provide further insight into the conditions inside detention centers, the bigger concern among researchers and advocates is what they don’t know. For example, HRW worked with two independent medical experts to review the 18 death reviews released by ICE. The experts concluded that substandard medical care “probably contributed to the deaths of seven of the 18 detainees, while potentially putting many other detainees in danger as well.” Long told Rewire that the information provided by ICE simply wasn’t enough for their independent medical experts to determine that all 18 deaths were related to inadequate medical care, but that it was “likely.”
So there is the larger, systemic issue of inadequate medical care. Researchers at HRW also don’t know exactly how ICE collects information or why the agency releases information when it does. There’s also the core of the issue, as Long noted to Rewire: that the United States “unnecessarily” detains undocumented immigrants in “disturbing conditions” for prolonged periods of time.
Major Failures Lead to Death
The new HRW report identified two of the most dangerous ways ICE is failing migrants in detention: not following up on symptoms that require assistance and not responding quickly to emergencies. Both failures are illustrated by the case of 34-year-old Manuel Cota-Domingo, who died of heart disease, untreated diabetes, and pneumonia after being detained at the Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona.
ICE’s death review for Cota-Domingo suggests there was a language barrier and that Cota-Domingo was worried about having to pay for health care, which isn’t surprising given that detention centers make migrants pay for things like phone calls to their attorneys and family members. HRW asked Corrections Corporation of America, the company that runs the Eloy Detention Center, about potential fees for medical care, and it said there are no fees for such services at Eloy. For whatever reason, Cota-Domingo was not aware he had a legal right to access the medical care he needed.
When it became clear to his cellmate that Cota-Domingo was in serious need of medical attention and was having trouble breathing, the cellmate “banged on a wall to get a guard’s attention. His cellmate said he did that for three hours before anyone came to help,” Long said. The researcher told Rewire the death report outlines how investigators checked to see if the banging would have been audible to correctional officers. It was. “Once [the cellmate] got their attention, our medical experts said this was something that should have been followed up on immediately, but the nurse decided to wait several hours before doing anything. All of these sluggish responses went on for eight hours. This is not how you treat an emergency,” Long said.
As Human Rights Watch noted in the report, “When officers finally notified medical providers of his condition, they delayed evaluating him and finally sent him to the hospital in a van instead of an ambulance. Both medical experts concluded that the combination of these delays likely contributed to a potentially treatable condition becoming fatal.”
In other death reviews by ICE, the agency’s own records show “evidence of the misuse of isolation for people with mental disabilities, inadequate mental health evaluation and treatment, and broader medical care failures.” Tiombe Kimana Carlos, Clemente Mponda, and Jose de Jesus Deniz-Sahagun all committed suicide in ICE detention after showing signs of “serious mental health conditions.” HRW’s independent experts determined that “inadequate mental health care or the misuse of isolation may have significantly exacerbated their mental health problems.”
It’s important to note that none of the death reviews released by ICE admit any wrongdoing, and that’s primarily because they don’t seek to examine whether medical negligence was at play. The reports simply present information about the deaths.
“There is no conclusion drawn, really,” Long told Rewire. “There’s one [report] in particular that even goes beyond that; it doesn’t even take into account the quality of care that led to the death, even though it’s clearly an issue of quality of care. That raises the question: What is the report for? ICE doesn’t conclude the cause. If you read [the death reviews], you can see there’s a lot of detailed information included in them that allows someone with expertise in correctional health care and who is familiar with how these systems should work, to make an assessment about whether care contributed to death, but that’s not something ICE does—at least not in the information we are able to access.”
ICE’s Murky Death-Review Process
In a statement to Rewire, ICE explained that when a person dies while in the agency’s custody, their “death triggers an immediate internal inquiry into the circumstances.” The summary document ICE releases to the public is “the result of exhaustive case reviews conducted by ICE’s own Office of Detention Oversight (ODO), which was established in 2009 as part of the agency’s comprehensive detention reforms,” Lori K. Haley, a spokesperson with ICE, told Rewire in a prepared statement.
In fact, the ODO was created as a direct result of a series of reforms from the Obama administration after reports of human rights abuses and deaths in detention centers. The death review it produces includes a mix of findings from ICE’s own investigators and from a Beaumont, Texas-based company called Creative Corrections.
According to its website, Creative Corrections serves “local, state and federal government agencies,” offering “training, advising, professional management and consulting services” in “correctional, law enforcement, rule of law, and judicial systems.” The company contracts include the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“From what we can see from the documents, both ICE and Creative Corrections interview various people involved, check records, do what seems to be a pretty robust investigation for the death review,” Long said. “Unfortunately, in the set of death reviews that we used for this investigation, [the public doesn’t] have access to the Creative Corrections reports or any of the exhibits that go along with them.”
As the ICE spokesperson noted, the summary documents are typically written by ICE staff. The documents released to the public do not include medical records, full reports from Creative Corrections, or any exhibits that would provide more insight into the apparent medical neglect resulting in an estimated 161 people dying in ICE custody since October 2003. Six migrants have died in ICE custody since March 2016, two of whom died at two different detention centers in the same week. The causes of these most recent deaths—and whether they can be attributed to medical neglect—is still unknown.
“If we had access to all of the information gathered during these investigations, including the reports from Creative Corrections, they would be very rich sources of information,” Long said.
Long and other researchers are also hoping for more information regarding the deaths that happen just after migrants are released from ICE custody. Teka Gulema, an Ethiopian asylum seeker detained at Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, was released from ICE custody in November 2015 while in the hospital after becoming paralyzed from a bacterial infection acquired in detention. He died in January.
“One concern we have, and it’s a very big fear, is that there are multiple reports of folks who are released from ICE custody while in critical condition,” Long said. “When they die, they are no longer counted as in-custody deaths [by ICE]. We’re worried that’s a loophole being exploited—and for obvious reasons, we don’t have a number in terms of how often this is happening.”
The researcher said she has “no idea” when or why ICE decides to release information, including death reviews.
ICE did not respond to Rewire‘s request for information about its schedule or process for releasing such information.
“Maybe they released the 18 reports because they were cleared for release. Maybe a congressional office asked for them. Maybe they decided to be transparent. It could have been a [Freedom of Information Act] request from the ACLU. I wish I knew, but we really have no idea who decides—or why they decide—to release information, especially without making anyone aware that it’s been released,” the researcher told Rewire.
In April, ICE posted a series of spreadsheets about the inner workings of the detention system on their website that Long said provided a lot of information about how detention operates. The spreadsheets were removed from the site in a matter of days, too soon for many researchers—including HRW—to download them all.
“It’s a big system. We still don’t totally know how it works, which in itself is a major problem,” Long said. “One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is to always check the ICE website. You never know what you’ll find.”
Reporting for the Nation, Michelle Chen recently noted that “migrants are warehoused under convoluted partnerships involving private vendors and state, local, and federal agencies. Homeland Security may contract out security duties to, or use facilities owned by, private vendors—dominated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group—with preordained headcount distributions ranging from 285 in Newark to more than 2,000 in San Antonio.”
Long told Rewire that 80 percent of migrants currently in detention are in what is considered “mandatory detention,” which, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, means that “non-citizens with certain criminal convictions must be detained by ICE. People who are subject to mandatory detention are not entitled to a bond hearing and must remain in detention while removal proceedings are pending against them.” This also means that those in mandatory detention aren’t allowed to have an individual assessment by ICE of their case, “so they just sit in immigration detention indefinitely,” Long said.
“This system doesn’t work. We’re detaining far too many people for far too long and not determining on an individual level if they should be detained in the first place, taking into account all of the options available,” Long said. Options include being monitored by ICE using telephonic and in-person reporting, curfews, and home visits.
Long joins a long list of undocumented community members, researchers, organizers, activists, and other advocates pushing for the Obama administration—and whoever comes after it—to see detention as a last resort, rather than the only resort.
“We spend a lot of time talking about the disturbing conditions in detention centers—that’s what our report is about. But step one requires taking a step back and rethinking this system and how it’s unnecessary and also abuses vulnerable peoples’ rights,” Long said. “In terms of the legality of treating people this way, under U.S. and international law, people who are detained are entitled to medical treatment. The state has an obligation to provide care to this population. They are failing, and people are dying.”
Like the Negro Motorist Green Book, the Safe Bathrooms map is not so much a novelty but a vital resource to protect the safety of its users at a time when history is repeating itself in a way that is marginalizing an already vulnerable population.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) seems to think it’s a governor’s duty to classify which men and women are the “real” ones and which aren’t. Because of this, he has put the lives of all of North Carolina’s trans residents at risk by signing HB 2 into law.
Last week state legislators proposed changes to HB 2, but those changes do nothing to mitigate an unabashed blastoma of transphobia that is now lawfully spreading at a vicious pace.
In response to HB 2, droves of businesses and musicians have boycotted the state in hopes of stopping this unmitigated discrimination toward trans people from moving any further.
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People have banded together to show their support for the trans community, and businesses across the state and country have declared themselves safe havens for trans-identifying individuals by submitting to the Safe Bathrooms map.
The map’s creators—River William Luck, a trans community activist, and his partner (and as of recently, fiancée), web design specialist Emily Rae Waggoner—both live in Boston, but the fight to protect trans rights affects them on a deeply personal level: They’re both from North Carolina.
When HB 2 was signed into law, Luck says, “I was on guard, because I’ve been told I’m in the wrong bathroom my entire life as a masculine-presenting female for more than 30 years.”
Now his home state has become one big ”Do Not Enter” sign for him and his friends still there. Luck’s reaction, however, was not one of helplessness. His instinct, which he learned to follow after years of experiencing and bearing witness to bigotry, was to bind the community and help strengthen it through tangible acts of love and support.
One Reddit commenter likened the map to theNegro Motorist Green Book of the 1930s to 1960s, which was published to help Black travelers in the United States find safe passage in times when racial persecution was legal. Like the Negro Motorist Green Book, the bathrooms’ map is not so much a novelty but a vital resource to protect the safety of its users at a time when history is repeating itself in a way that is marginalizing an already vulnerable population.
Before the Safe Bathrooms map, Luck started mailing hundreds of buttons from the #IllGoWithYou campaign to friends and family back home. The #IllGoWithYou campaign was developed as a means for allies to offer solidarity and protection to transgender and non-binary individuals. By wearing a button, participants pledge to stand up and speak up during instances of harassment and physical endangerment.
“This is my way of paying it forward,” Luck says. “What I’ve done is buy a shit ton of buttons and if someone wants one, I send them one. If they can’t afford it, I send them one. If they want to know more about it, I write them a note and ask people to pick up more.”
His reasoning is simple: “I would have given anything to have seen one of these when I was in North Carolina.”
Luck’s meaningful gestures extends to the clothes he wears, as he frequently can be found sporting a t-shirt that says “No Hate in Our State” or a tank top with the words “Proud Transman” printed in bold. River models several lines of what he refers to as “activism wear,” as a product ambassador a variety of labels including a Greensboro, North Carolina-based company called Deconstructing Gender, and another called Proud Animals.
It’s actually the former that planted the seed for the Safe Bathrooms map, as Luck and Waggoner were inspired by the photos of gender-neutral bathrooms posted on the company’s Instagram account. While the two were talking to Deconstructing Gender’s founder and CEO Avery Dickerson, who was transitioning at the time, Waggoner said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a map of safe bathrooms where trans people could go without hassle?”
And so with Waggoner’s web design expertise and Luck’s social media skills, the Safe Bathrooms map came to life as a child of both necessity and wishful thinking. As they built it, the people came in droves: businesses, affected community members, and media alike.
With over 200 businesses included to date, the two have put together a functioning survival guide for trans residents and travelers who also possess bladders.
Waggoner shared one email with Rewire that she received from a man who owns an architecture firm in Maine, who requested to have his business be included on the map:
I, therefore this business, stand for equality, acceptance, and kindness to all. As a gay man, and one living with HIV for 30 years now, I know too well that indifference to discrimination, condoned cruelty, and legalized oppression are terminal illnesses. These behaviors killed the dreams, and injured the very souls of our young, and further darkened the roads the rest of us continue to travel. It must stop.
To be included on the Safe Bathrooms map, businesses need simply fill out this form and verify their trans-friendliness with a photo of a gender-neutral bathroom placard or other clear form of expression. Upon approval, businesses are represented on the map as a roll of toilet paper. For those lacking, the Safe Bathrooms website goes one step further and shows businesses where they can obtain gender-neutral bathroom signs for their private spaces.
Waggoner and Luck know personally how useful such a map can be. Waggoner says she’s had to stake out bathrooms to make sure the coast is clear, like a Secret Service member. One time, she says, “We were in a restaurant waiting to use the bathroom. We could feel the tension in the air and feel the stares. And it became very uncomfortable because people at the bar were openly just watching which bathroom River was going to go into. And we feared for his safety and our safety.”
Luck continues, “We ended up having to leave and go to a friend’s house so I could use the bathroom and detoured the whole evening plans so I could pee safe.”
Clearly the problem won’t end once HB 2 and other anti-trans laws like it are repealed. The attitudes that brought these policies into being still exist and must be dealt with. But, as Luck attests, there is a definite support system of love and acceptance in North Carolina. He found it in Greensboro as a music teacher at New Garden Friends School, a Quaker school. “They were so open and embraced diversity that I could be an out lesbian,” says Luck.
Greensboro has very distinct pockets of support, which is where a lot of the safe bathrooms appear on the map. But even in places less supportive deeper south, Waggoner notes there are still good friends to be found: “It’s been cool to see some of the small-business owners in some of the more rural towns popping up. Like in Salisbury, North Carolina. It’s really brave of them to do that—to be the first in their town to speak up and say something, and be the first on the map.”
The outpouring of support may be having an effect: University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings recently gave a statement saying that she would not enforce HB 2 or change any of the school’s current provisions. Spellings did originally plan to enforce HB 2. It wasn’t until U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch declared the state in violation of civil rights and threatened to cut up to $4.8 billion in federal funding to the school that Spellings changed her position (and McCrory sued the federal government).
Before Spellings changed her decision, students from various on-campus alliance groups held loud protests outside of buildings in which she was attending meetings, in efforts to sway her judgment. Students at schools across the state affected by the law are making their opposition known.
On a K-12 level, there are organizational efforts through nonprofit Gay-Straight Alliance groups such as Time Out Youth, which offers resources and aid to LGBTQ minors living in inclusive North Carolina and South Carolina school districts. Its website lists student rights, including the rights to gender expression, confidentiality, and respective pronoun usage, as well the right to attend school functions and report on instances of bullying (which state public schools are required by law to deal with).
Luck has spent most of his life traveling against the grain of society’s intolerance–from a misunderstood kid living with his grandparents, to a determined and proud trans man working hard to end the ritual persecution of his fellow person.
Growing up in North Carolina in a conservative Baptist household, Luck remembers being called a “tomboy” and being told “not to act like a boy” as young as 3 years old. Luck attended and was eventually kicked out of a Christian high school for identifying as a “lesbian” (this was before he identified as trans). Luck says he’s been working steadily since he was 13, when his first job was at a Chick-fil-A.
In college, Luck had a psychology professor who taught that homosexuality was a disorder.
“I remember sitting in the class waiting for someone to say something, because I didn’t want to say anything,” Luck says.
After going to the head of the psych department, and then the head of the school, Luck managed to get the homophobic lesson pulled from the syllabus.
“That was a time in my life where I realized if I didn’t say something, no one would. And so I had to. That’s when my activism really started,” Luck says.
Coming to Boston for grad school, Luck found his new home to be much less critical of his outward gender appearance, and found true love in his partner. Luck says Waggoner accepted and supported his transition every step of the way—from coming out (a second time) as transgender, to life-affirming surgeries and ongoing treatments, to his sweeping romantic proposal involving a trip to New York City, a rare Harry Potter book, and a cleverly inserted engagement ring.
Luck and Waggoner hope to expand upon all the ground they’ve covered in North Carolina and take their Safe Bathrooms map to national and international levels.
Luck says he wants to ultimately see the whole state of North Carolina become “a giant roll of toilet paper.”
“We’d [also] love for it to grow to be an international thing, especially given all the anti-LGBT sentiments in other countries. Because we’re everywhere. And everybody needs to have that access,” he says.
The two do have an app in the works to accompany their Safe Bathrooms map, which they hope to give a Yelp-like interface to allow community members to find safe bathrooms on the go, and review and share their own individual bathroom experiences.
All of this work points to a very simple goal: to make it so trans people don’t have to endure daily humiliation exercises to find a toilet that comes with no strings attached.
“The bottom line is … I’m a human being who happens to be trans. But before I would label myself trans, I would say I’m an activist, an actor, a student, an artist, a musician, a good partner, a good relative … All these other qualities that define me that have so much more weight,” says Luck.
To show support for the trans community and be included on the Safe Bathrooms map, visit SafeBathrooms.club.