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Minority Transgender People and the Legal System: Addressing the Failure to Provide Equality

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On Transgender Day of Remembrance, which took place Nov. 20, 2012, I sat down and wrote letters to all my sisters and brothers in the prison system throughout the United States. Since writing my book and describing the injustices I faced within the legal system, I have received letters from transgender inmates within the U.S. prison and jail system asking for help. Their individual stories are very sad and disheartening. The legal system does not provide equal rights for transgender persons.

I remembered all the transgender people who have passed on, and I also remembered the transgender people whom most have forgotten about since they were incarcerated. Minority transgender people often have little to no family or financial support. Once they are arrested for midemeanors (such as prostitution or soliciting) or felonies (such as assault or murder), they are booked and detained according to their birth gender, not the gender with which they identify. (Los Angeles is the first city jail system in the country to house transgender people in a separate unit for up to three days until they are arraigned in court.) The public defender within the District Attorney's office usually advises the transgender person to take a plea regardless of innocence or guilt. With no money to hire outside attorneys, the transgender person takes a plea and is sentenced to county jail or state prison.

Within the jail system the transgender inmate is housed according to his or her birth gender and on some occasions put in solitary confinement. Currently, the fight within the jail systems is over whether the state should provide transgender inmates with their hormone regimen and provide sex reassignment surgery (SRS) to those who seek surgery. The question becomes: What is the responsibility of the state to its transgender prisoners?

Los Angeles County has just elected Jackie Lacey as District Attorney, the first African American and the first woman to hold this job. I contacted her office and asked what she will do about the inequalities that transgender inmates face and was told that she is a fair and impartial prosecutor and seeks only justice and fair sentencing for all persons regardless of race, sex or gender identity. If people within the legal system would recognize that transgender people are people first, with human rights and civil liberties, there would be less inequality. Every week I get a call from a transgender individual who has been arrested and needs help, advice and assistance within the legal system.

Most minority transgender people within the United States are just trying to survive and be who they are. Like anyone else, most transgender people are good, descent people trying to make it but need the chance and opportunity to do so in a fair society. Dr. Marc Weiss, a former professor at Columbia University and a former employee within President Clinton's administration, wrote the following statement in the foreword to my memoir I Rise:

The main thing I have learned from these profound lifelong experiences is that people, everyone, everywhere, is basically the same. We all care about one vital concern: our own livelihood and well-being, and the livelihood and well-being of our loved ones. And so it is with deep appreciation that I have learned from my charming and talented friend, Toni Newman, that transgender people, in spite of their relatively atypical appearances and lifestyles, are precisely the same as every other human being throughout the world, in terms of their fundamental humanity and dignity.