Halifax Dyke & Trans March
Dyke and Trans March Speaking Notes What's at Stake in the Fight For a World Without Prisons
The following is the written text of a speech I delivered at this year's Dyke and Trans March.
Today, I'm going to talk about something we talk about a lot at marches and protests: justice for our communities. I'm also going to talk about something we don't talk about very much; I'm going to talk about prisons. I'm going to talk about how queer and trans people are often criminalized and about what it's like to be behind the walls of a prison when you're a woman, or when you're queer, or when you're trans or gender non-conforming. I'm going to talk about how prisons don't mean justice for our communities, and they definitely don't mean liberation for queer and trans people. Struggles for equality, justice, and dignity for queer and trans people continue to be waged.
Sometimes, it can seem like the law and the police have the answer. If bashing was a hate crime and penalities were stiffer, maybe we would see fewer of our people experiencing violence. But we need to think about who derives safety from the police, and how systemic violence including sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, anti-poor ideologies, and colonialism is maintained and defended by the police. When familes are evicted from their homes, it's the police that do the evicting. When aboriginal women and sex workers face violence, rape, and murder, RCMP officers make jokes behind closed doors. When people with HIV and AIDS don't disclose, the police are there to lock them up. When queer people come to Canada, fleeing homophobia, the government can say they're lying and deport them. When migrant women without immigration status seek solace from sexual violence, rape, or domestic violence, Canada Border Service Agents wait for them outside shelters to detain and deport them.
All around us, there are ways that the criminal legal system defends and perpetrates violence against our communities, and against other marginalized communities - especially racialized communities, migrant populations, and indegenous peoples. Issues of violence and marginalization are so messily intertwined. When we think about homophobic and transphobic bullying, we should also think about all the young people who've fled dangerous homes and dangerous schools and are living on the edge. Maybe they're selling drugs or shoplifting to get by. And because homophobia and transphobia and discrimination against youth permeate through our society, a young queer gets stopped and the police search them, and it's illegal, but it happens, and there holding and then they're in Waterville, and when they get out they still don't have any supports, only now their resume shows a mysterious two year disappearance.
When we think about violence against women, we should also think about the trans woman doing sex work who gets picked up in a sweep. And because she hasn't had Sex Reassignment Surgery and can't afford hormones right now, she's placed in a men's prison. She's strip searched by men. She's denied a bra. She is put in segregation because her "safety" is a concern because she's a woman in a man's prison. These issues are issues in our communities and we need to treat them that way. We know that trans people. queer women, and gender non-conforming people still face barriers to gainful employment, to living wages, to work that respects our indentities. We still struggle to find supportive, knowledgeable health care professionals, and we face disproportionate levels of incarceration, criminalization, and struggles with addictions. In our prisons, people who have faced homophobia and transphobia and sexism their whole lives are punished for it. They're re-traumatized, and they're denied the most basic of rights.
The policing of gender is nowhere as strong than behind prison walls. There are men's prisons and women's prisons. There is no gender spectrum in the prison system. There are no gender neutral bathrooms, no spaces for the people who live outside the bound of those two very small boxes: M and F. In 1993, a trans woman incarcerated for life, Synthia Kavanagh, filed three complainted with the Human Rights Tribunal of Canada for her incarceration in a male prison. Eight years later, the human rights tribunal found in response to her case: · Trans people can be housed by their assigned sex and not their gender identity if they have not had sex reassignment surgery. Despite this, the the Correctional Service of Canada needs to do everything possible to accommodate transgendered people in prison, such as protecting them from sexual attacks and harassment. · Trans people and their housing needs should be assessed individually in consultation with a physician expert in the treatment of gender dysphoria. Policy should permit incarcerated individuals who had completed the qualifying period for sex reassignment surgery before going to jail to have the necessary surgery while in prison, if surgery was recommended by their physicians. CSC is expected to cover the costs of SRS if it is recommended by their physicians.
In 2010, Vic Toews, then Minister of Public Safety halted this coverage despite a federal court ruling that says SRS should be covered. This decision ensures that trans and gender non-conforming people, particularly trans women, continue to be subjected to transphobic violence in the prison system including trans women being strip searched by male employees and being housed with men, trans people being denied gender aprorpiate health care, and often being housed in protective custody or segregation in order to address violence from the general population. But what if you're not trans in the way that the medical system determines, maybe you're not trans at all, but you're gender non-conforming - you don't adhere to strict gender roles.
I know there are probably several dykes here today who love their boxer briefs. If you're a woman in prison and you like boxer briefs - too bad. Boxer briefs are men's underwear, and cross dressing is against prison policy. Maybe this seems so small, but not even being able to have the comfort of apropriate underwear is emblamatic of a system that aims to control your every move. And on top of all this - sex, consensual sex between inmates or even with yourself - is against the rules. No sex with other folks in prison. No jerking off. No reading or looking at porn. Sex is forbidden. Rape, though - rape happens. And while rape in Canadian prisons is less common than our neighbours to the south, why would we even use that as a relative measure. One rape in prison is too many. And when we talk about sexualized violence - we don't talk about prison rape. In fact, the Correctional Service of Canada and Statistics Canada don't even have figures on sexual victimization in prisons. Talking about prisons and policing means talking not only about "our people," queers, trans folks, people who don't fit in to rigid roles of the gender binary and heterosexuality, but also the people who have hurt us and hurt our communities - homophobic people, people who bash gays, people who commit violence against women, rapists.
I can't believe in a world that addresses problems by tearing people from their communities, by putting people in cages, by subjecting people to more and more violence, and so my understanding of justice has to mean justice for those people too. There are lots of things that you can do to challenge the prison system and policing in our society. Look around you, and see how surveillance and policing is becoming integrated more and more into our lives. Maybe you've seen the body scanners at the airport. Those scanners can out trans folks in the interest of supposed safety. Take interest in the security measures used at your kids schools, how searches and surveillance are being normalized. Speak out against treating youth like criminals. Stand up against prison expansion in your community. If you're a member of a union - try and talk to your co-workers about standing up against building more prisons, even if it means a few more jobs. Get to know your neighbours. Build community wherever you can. Speak out against government policies and laws that criminalize the poor, that criminalize people living with HIV and AIDS, that subject people changing their names to fingerprinting, that cut our public services. Defend programs in your community for youth, for aboriginal people, for people living with addictions, for those experiencing mental health issues.
There are a million ways to fight for a world without prisons and if we are committed to a project of collective liberation - for people of all sexualities and all genders - then prisons are our enemy. Prisons are the frontline of the battle to maintain the rigid M and F, to maintain the idea of the "man and women and baby make three" family. Everyday, as we speak, behind prison walls gender roles are heavily policed, and straying from those roles can lead to segregation or beatings, rape is used as a tool to maintain cisgendered and hetero supremacy, and more and more of our queer and trans siblings are being mistreated. And you know, we don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about folks in prison. We don't spend time thinking about how we can reach through those prison walls to say - we're here. Even if you can't see us, we are here and we think that addressing social problems with violence and with cages is the greatest injustice.
Kaley Kennedy is a young queer lady and prisoner justice activist. She has written on and spoken about the realities of Canadian prisons for a variety of audiences.