Awful but true, trans rights are still being debated. Bathrooms, showers, and changing rooms have become political footballs for right wing conservatives push for legalized transphobia an discrimination against trans people. People still argue that genitalia and DNA determine gender, ignoring social scientists, psychologists, and trans activists who insist that gender and sex are two different, though sometimes, related ideas. The importance of this debate is that there are institutions that are gendered, and if a trans woman is placed in a cis male-dominant situation, often her safety is at peril. No where is this most true than prison.
Writer Kristin Schreier Lyseggen takes on the unenviable task of telling the story of trans women who are locked up in men’s prisons. Though a journalist, she eschews objectiveness, allowing for her emotional reaction to her subjects to shine through – this choice is compelling, and her indignation at the treatment the women face makes the book a rallying cry for the dignity of some of society’s most vulnerable members.
Lyseggen’s work takes her throughout the country, and even Thailand. The prisons she visits are grim, as are the stories of these women. The stories are filled with difficult histories that include violence, rape, sexual abuse, and homelessness. Predictably, The Women of San Quentin is a serious read, but it’s not hopeless. The women are participating in this project, and Lyseggen puts their voices up front and center.
Not just an indictment on transphobia, Lyseggen’s work also takes a hard look at our penal system. The subjects featured are women of color, and a large part of The Women of San Quentin takes on the idea of intersectionality. Socio-economic conditions also play a huge part in how these women’s lives became so difficult.
Of course, the biggest struggle for the book’s subjects is prison life itself. The women featured each have accounts of transphobic attacks that took place in the jails. But some of these women were able to take their experiences and work for social betterment. Janetta Johnson who suffered seemingly insurmountable issues and problems, but managed to become a leading activist after being released from jail. After her time in jail, Tanesh Nutall found satisfying work at a San Francisco AIDS agency and homeless shelter, and was able to build a life, marrying a man and having grandchildren.
One of Lyseggen’s biggest strengths as a chronicler is that her presence in each woman’s story doesn’t feel intrusive or self-serving – this is nothing like the fictional The Help, that has a cis white woman who “rescues” black women, or grants them their voice. She writes of her frustrations with the prison systems – particularly when it comes to visitation or contacts – but the spotlight remains firmly on each subject. And Lyseggen is very compassionate about the women she’s interviewing, but she doesn’t shy away from their troubles. Donna Langan for example, has a fascinating and compelling story of a past of right-wing extremism and racist violence before her incarceration. But Lyseggen doesn’t judge, nor does she excuse – that’s not her role, nor is are the women’s crimes the point of the book.
Because regardless of how people feel about the criminal justice system and the prison system, prisoners who are trans are becoming more vocal and visible. The most famous example being, of course, Chelsea Manning, and her presence is felt throughout these women’s stories. Manning’s treatment is depressingly consistent among the women in the book: abusive guards, restriction of privileges, retaliation for complaints. It’s because of Manning’s high-profile crime that her story is known – and the women in Lyseggen’s book understand that due to their race, poverty, and gender identity, they’ll never have the attention. And one of the takeaways from the book is the despite troubling obstacles and institutional discrimination and oppression, these women are more than capable of telling their story.
Click here to buy Kristin Schreier Lyseggen’s The Women of San Quentin: Soul Murder of Transgender Women in Male Prisons on amazon.com.