Last week, ABC’s mini-series When We Rise took audiences across the country on a trip down to memory lane, where we got to re-live the struggles the LGBT community has courageously overcome in the last four decades, including the issue of extreme violence towards queer inmates in prisons throughout the U.S. and abroad.
“I’m a woman, always have been. They still put me in that man’s cell in jail. Thought I was gonna die in there,” a troubled Seville, played by transgender actress Alexandra Grey, says in an LGBT support group scene aired in the show’s last episode. “When Paul came and told me my old partner had died of AIDS, I thought to myself: ‘This is how I’m gonna die.’ So, I said to myself, if I could survive jail, I was gonna find the salvation that he couldn’t.”
In an ideal world, transgender people would serve time in prisons that match their gender identity. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. In Texas, for example, the law requires a person to be housed according to their biological gender.
“I am feminine, a feminine person, a transgender woman,” Tyniesha Stephens, a transgender inmate serving time for prostitution in an all-male jail told TPM news. “And some guys look at me, you know, with that eye. I feel very uncomfortable.”
She added, “There would also be officers in there who had grudges against gay people and they would just come in here and tear up our stuff for no reason. They would come in and talk to us like we’re animals and handle us like we’re animals. It was unfair and unjust.”
In the United States of America, the rules vary from state to state. However, the director of policy for the Washington-based National Center for Transgender Equality, Harper Jean Tobin, argues that: “Transgender women have to be eligible for women’s housing. That is where they will be safest. These are women who are psychologically women.”
Netflix’s original series, Orange is the New Black, was the first TV show to develop a powerful narrative featuring a lovable transgender character, Sophia Burset, played by transgender actress Laverne Cox.
“What I think is so brilliant about Sophia’s story line and that particular moment [Burset being placed in solitary confinement] is that it shows the truth of the experience that a lot of transgender folks have in prison every single day,” Cox said during an interview with Vulture back in 2015. “Far too often, trans people who are incarcerated are place in solitary confinement allegedly for ‘our protection.’ And sometimes trans women are placed in men’s prisons, where they put us in solitary confinement, which is cruel and unusual punishment allegedly for our protection.”
She continued, “So when writers came up with this, it’s from reality. This is what happens to many transgender people who are incarcerated every single day. I’m executive-producing a documentary called Free CeCe about CeCe McDonald, who’s an African-American transgender woman who spent 19 months of a 41-month prison sentence in a men’s prison for defending herself against a racist and transphobic attack. And three different times when she was incarcerated, she experienced being placed in solitary confinement allegedly for her protection. She fought to get herself taken out of solitary, but this is just the reality for a lot of transgender people all over the country today.”
Gay and lesbian inmates are also victims of said violence and discrimination in other parts of the country as explained by Cox’s co-star, Lea DeLaria.
“You know that thing when Michael Harney’s character, Healy, says to Piper that if it was up to him he’d put all the dykes into one section of the prison,” DeLaria described during a dinner party filmed for Chelsea Handler’s show, Chelsea. “I was reading an article about that. They were saying all the things that Orange gets right, and that was one of them…that there is a prison in Georgia where they do that. I lost my fucking mind. I went insane about that. They segregate the lesbians from the population.”