Beware the Lily Law

Our prison system is segregated by gender, but what happens when a transgender or genderqueer individual is arrested?

This summer, I visited the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, the first penitentiary in the United States. Because Eastern State Penitentiary closed in the early 1970s, every year the site invites eight artists to create contemporary art exhibits about issues in the modern prison system. These installations are inside the penitentiary’s small cells, creating an immersive environment where visitors can contemplate the subjects of each installation.  Beware the Lily Law by film artist Michelle Handelman uses the stories of folks arrested during the Stonewall Riots to “address issues facing gay and transgender inmates” and how their treatment stems from ignorance and bigotry. [1]

When you walk into the prison cell, an image of either Becca Blackwell or Michael Lynch (both transgender performers) appears on the wall.  Blackwell sits applying make-up and Lynch stands warping a bandage around his upper body, both acts connected to the experiences of transgender individuals and ways that transgender inmates express their identity.  I watched Becca Blackwell’s monologue, the story of a transwoman (assigned male at birth but identifies as female) arrested during the Stonewall Inn raid and sent to a male prison.  Blackwell’s character began her incarceration in “protective” custody because of her feminine appearance, but when she complained of loneliness, she was placed with the general male population. Blackwell then goes on to describe being brutally rape by the male inmates and the guard’s general apathy.

Today, transgender inmates face similar treatment in prison due to a general misunderstanding of transgender concerns and prejudice against non-conforming individuals. Transgender inmates who have not undergone genital reassignment surgery are not housed in a facility that aligns with their gender identity, but rather according to their assigned sex at birth.  Federal facilities provide hormones treatment to transgender inmates at the level at admission, but this varies in state and private facilities. Because of the rampant sexual violence that transgender inmates face, they are often placed into “administrative separation,” basically solitary confinement with no access to recreation, education, and occupation opportunities. [2] [3]

True, many people, not just transgender folks, face injustice in our penal system, but the problems transgender men and woman inmates face in prison also arise in seemingly “liberal” spaces.  Similarly, the treatment of transgender individuals in these spaces is informed by ignorance and prejudice. In 2008, the New York Times Magazine profiled Rey, a transmale (assigned female at birth but identifies as male) who Barnard College tried to expel for not being a “legal woman.” Women’s colleges like Barnard feel that they are “caught between wanting to embrace a campus minority that their own interrogation of gender roles has helped to shape and defending the value of institutions centered on the distinct experience of being female.” Rey, on the other hand, chose Barnard because he viewed women’s colleges as an inclusive spaces and felt a shared kinship with ciswomen (assigned as female at birth and identifies as female).  As a radical feminist, I recognize the importance of female-exclusive spaces, but the standpoint of Barnard is based on misunderstandings and assumptions about the experiences of transgender men and women. Reading Rey’s story, I understood his genuine connection to ciswomen and how his gender non-conformity is a natural progression of the feminist movement. [4]

Likewise a few weeks ago, Piers Morgan, a “liberal” pundant who had a show on CNN, came under fire after an offensive interview with trans-activist Janet Mock.  Morgan and his “experts” (none of whom were transgender themselves) framed Mock’s identity as being born a boy, only becoming a “real woman” after surgery. Mock confronted him saying, “I was a baby. I was assigned male gender because of the appearance of my genitals. As I grew up, I discovered my girlhood, I discovered my womanhood, and I proclaimed and defined myself for myself.”  Morgan still refuses to apologize saying that the way he framed the interview was not problematic although it directly conflicted with Mock’s own identity and experience.

[1] Beware the Lily Law, Eastern State Penitentiary, accessed on March 5, 2014

[2] National Center for Lesbian Rights, “Transsexual Prisoners,” accessed on March 5, 2014

[3] Just Detention International, “Targets for Abuse: Transgender Inmates and Prisoner Rape,” March 2013, accessed on March 5, 2014

[4] New York Times Magazine, “When Girls will be Boys,” March 16, 2008, accessed on March 5, 2014

[5] Think Progress, “Janet Mock Schools Piers Morgan on How to Tell Transgender Stories,” February 6, 2014, accessed on March 5, 2014

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s