Harmful misconceptions are rampant in society concerning the reality of trans women in prisons. For example, if one searches the term “trans inmates” in Vanier’s database, the first five results will be about “male prisoners self-identifying as females,” who have supposedly raped female guards in female prisons. These articles accuse trans women of pretending to be transgender in order to gain access to female prisons, only to then sexually harass guards and fellow prisoners alike. This is, unfortunately, the image a lot of people in society have of trans women in particular.
In 2008, a city in Florida passed a law that allowed trans women to use female public restrooms. “Citizens for Good Public Policy” made a TV ad that featured a young girl entering a female public restroom alone, only to be followed by a man with a scraggly beard, dark sunglasses and a baseball cap. As the door closes behind him, the screen goes dark and the message “Your City Commission made this legal. Is this what you want for Gainesville?” appears.
Why is it that every time trans rights are brought up, the fear of sexual predators is resurfaced? Well, this is because people tend to view male-bodied individuals as being a threat to women and children when they are permitted to use women-only spaces. The same (albeit, transphobic) logic can be applied to female prisons. The public perceives trans women prisoners as a threat to cis women prisoners and guards alike because they simply view them as male predators; they do not take real studies that have been made on transgender prisoners into account.
The truth is, according to a Californian study, 59% of trans women locked up in men’s prisons experience sexual abuse compared to the 4% of cis men prisoners. Furthermore, according to the 2008-2009 American National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 16% of trans individuals and 47% of black trans individuals have reported being incarcerated at some point in their lives, clearly indicating that there is a major bias within the criminal justice system; this is a reflection of society as a whole.
Trans women are quite literally “othered” within the prison system, as they do not correspond to the image society has of a human. They have the body of a man but the gender expression of a woman, making them victims of male predators all the while being depicted as predators themselves.
So, next time you read a news story about a trans person sexually assaulting a prison guard, stop and ask yourself: “Who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed in a prison context?” Prison guards subject all prisoners (but especially LGBT ones) to extremely cruel treatments, leaving many with long-term depression, anxiety, PTSD and even panic attacks.
Furthermore, trans inmates are almost always placed in the detention center of their assigned gender at birth, even if they had fully transitioned and guards only realized the person in question was transgender during the degrading strip search, during which any prosthesis is removed; if there had been any “mistake,” the prisoner is shipped to the detention center of their “biological sex.”
This isn’t to say that transgender aggressors do not exist. They do, but they are much rarer than society thinks. In 2019, 11 transgender inmates in England and Wales reported having been sexually assaulted in male prisons, whereas only 1 transgender inmate had reportedly sexually assaulted another prisoner.
In other words, think critically about every news story you read and ask yourself what the intention of the author is. Is it really to inform or is it to demonize an already marginalized group of people?
By Sophie Dufresne