Advocates Resist Trump by Honoring the Dignity of Transgender Prisoners

The policy team behind SB 310.

For many of us already engaged in the fight for justice, safety and equity for TLGB people, this past November’s election signaled a major setback in our work. Throughout the Obama administration, we saw the ways that the work we have done in our communities truly could impact the federal government’s policies. Over the past several months, TLGB people’s fear has grown as Trump’s platform of homophobic and transphobic policy, increased incarceration, increased military spending, decreased housing, and social service funding has begun to be actualized.

Transgender people throughout history have always been the last in the TLGB alphabet soup to gain formal legal protections and recognition as well as the first to be denied a seat at the table. Through the rise of visibility of transgender people in popular culture, referred to by TIME magazine as the “Trans Tipping Point,” to the increase in state-based anti-discrimination policy for transgender people accessing housing, the momentum to honor the dignity and humanity of transgender has grown. However, as we can learn from looking back at all civil rights movements through the history of the United States, the gaining of people’s rights is always a struggle, and we as transgender people know this more than most.

While the sentiments surrounding the Trump administration aren’t new, their platform of bigotry has created renewed legitimacy and opportunities for the already well-resourced and politically-connected Christian Right. Last year we saw this very clearly in Charlotte, North Carolina with the passing of HB 2, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. HB 2 effectively made it impossible for transgender people to use public restrooms unless they entered a restroom designated for the sex they were assigned at birth. This law initially passed despite powerful efforts from the transgender community to communicate the ways in which entering a restroom designated for someone of a different gender increases transgender people’s risk of verbal and physical violence. Though HB 2 was finally repealed and replaced with a compromise bill that restricts anti-discrimination ordinances, it paved the way for other insidious bills, like HB 11-11 in Tennessee. HB 11-11 was recently signed into law and requires that “undefined words be given their natural and ordinary meaning, without forced or subtle construction that would limit or extend the meaning of the language.” This purposefully vague bill sounds harmless on its surface, but is an entry point for the Christian Right to break down protections for transgender people. Legal experts fear how this bill will be used to interrogate words like “wife” or “father” or “woman” in the legislature.

It is clear that a new conservative legislative power is gaining strength across the country which must be met by a unified resistance. While the left’s reluctance to utilize legislative politics is understandable, there is a clear moment emerging which calls for strong and effective local, state and federal policy that rejects discrimination of transgender people. Of course, policy work is only as effective as the movement behind it.

Policies that are not based in the realities of people that they will impact are sure to be ineffective and misguided. When policies are guided by the people most impacted, they can give a moment of relief to people experiencing incredible daily violence and unsafe living conditions. Beyond that, our ability to pass strong policy can also have the potential to push back the pendulum of conservatism that is literally shortening the lifespan for TLGB people.

One of the ways that transgender people have been denied very basic dignity is through the government-imposed roadblocks to legally changing our names and gender markers. Knowing that we deserve the dignity to be addressed by our correct name and gender, a coalition of organizations including the Transgender Gender-Variant Intersex Justice Project, the Transgender Law Center, St. James Infirmary and the Western Regional Advocacy Project formed to address these issues.

Art by Wriply M. Bennet

In response to the continued criminalization of transgender people, this coalition wrote SB 310, the Name and Dignity Act, a bill currently moving through the California Legislature. If passed, SB 310 will make it possible for transgender people inside prison and jails to legally change their name and gender marker. This would provide some dignity for transgender prisoners, by requiring the prison system to address them by the name and gender that they identify with, and by easing the reentry process through gaining accurate identification documents before being released from prison. As the number of transgender people entering the criminal justice system continues to increase then the importance of protecting transgender prisoners grows as well.

These are troubling times for TLGB people, and we are just seeing the beginning of the repression to come. Now, more than ever, we must pay attention to how the Christian Right moves, respond thoughtfully and carefully, invest in each others safety and protect those most among us who are most at risk for violence, incarceration, deportation and premature death.

Now is the time to act to protect the rights of transgender people. SB 310, the Name and Dignity Act, needs your support! The bill has passed through the Senate and is now moving into the Assembly. Please write, tweet at, or call your district’s Assemblymember and Jerry Brown, the CA Governor, today and ask that they give incarcerated transgender people a moment of dignity while incarcerated, and make the reentry process more successful. It is imperative that California supports SB 310, the Name and Dignity Act, and be bold in our resistance to this new wave of Conservatism.