Transgender Awareness and the Drug War
On June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Riots marked the beginning of the modern LGBTQ movement. Forty-six years later, to the month, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, a historic victory that has opened up the way for further reforms.
Just as marijuana legalization can be considered the “face” of the drug policy reform movement, same-sex marriage has dominated public perception of the broader LGBTQ movement in recent years. However, in the same way that drug policy reformers are now able to, and must focus on a wider array of policy concerns, transgender issues have steadily gained mainstream attention and visibility.
More and more universities are moving to include gender pronouns in their everyday work, and people like Laverne Cox, Chelsea Manning, and Caitlyn Jenner have become household names. Certain policy goals have been achieved as well, such as the 2013 addition of LGBTQ-specific protections to the Violence Against Women Act, increased access to health care, and burgeoning support for trans-inclusive restroom policies
Unfortunately, increased visibility has not guaranteed all transgender individuals a better quality of life. The number of transgender homicide victims more than doubled between 2014 and 2015. Transgender individuals are also disproportionately likely to be the victims of a hate crime or an assault, and barriers to legal gender identification can cause problems in a trans person’s daily life in a number of ways
In this month’s Monthly Mosaic, SSDP DARE reflects on trans people and the drug war, and takes a look at how SSDPers can apply strategies used by LGBTQ—specifically transgender—activists to our movement.
What does it mean to be transgender?
The GLAAD Media Reference Guide on Transgender Issues offers a helpful glossary of other terms you may hear.
How is the trans community negatively impacted by drug war policies?
What does substance abuse and treatment look like in the trans community?
Transgender individuals are more likely to use drugs and alcohol, and tend to have higher rates of substance abuse than the general population. However, transgender individuals seeking help for drug use problems tend to have certain needs that not all treatment providers have the ability to meet. Unfortunately, many substance abuse counselors harbor negative attitudes toward transgender individuals, who are often blatantly turned away from drug treatment and mental health services due to discrimination.
Many substance abuse clinics refuse to accept patients who are currently on estrogen or testosterone therapy, despite recommendations that legally prescribed hormonal treatment be maintained without interruption.
How are trans people impacted by drug war enforcement?
Transgender people across the U.S. experience almost four times as much police violence as cisgender individuals, and are seven times more likely to experience physical violence in a police encounter. Those numbers are even higher for transgender people of color; as is the case with cisgender people, transgender people of color tend to encounter law enforcement more frequently.
Drug War policies have disproportionately impacted low-income trans people of color, who are systematically profiled as drug users and couriers, and receive long, mandatory sentences that have little relationship to their circumstances.
Discriminatory policing practices experienced by transgender individuals include profiling, stops and searches, and demands for identification – something many transgender individuals do not have (41% live without ID that matches their gender identity).
How are trans people impacted by the criminal justice system, once they are in the system?
The vast majority of LGBTQ prison inmates experience discrimination and verbal harassment by prison staff and more than a third are physically assaulted by prison staff. LGBTQ inmates are over 6 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population. 39.9% of transgender prison inmates and 26.8 % of transgender jail inmates reported unwanted sexual activity with other inmates or sexual activity with prison staff members (which is always considered nonconsensual under the law), in the previous year — 10 times higher than for the general prison and jail populations.
Despite repeated federal rulings making it clear that transition-related health care is medically necessary, care is often withheld from transgender individuals in law enforcement custody. 44% of transgender prison inmates reported being denied hormones while incarcerated.
Trans people are commonly placed in correctional facilities according to the sex they were assigned at birth, which further increases the risk of harassment and abuse.
Transgender inmates who are assaulted or harassed are often placed in solitary confinement, which, though intended for their protection, is in fact a severe punishment. Isolation takes an enormous psychological toll on inmates, and can put them at increased risk of assault by guards.
How can I be an ally?
What can we learn from this movement?
Remember lives lost due to discriminatory policy and attitudes. Transgender Day of Remembrance was started by transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith as a vigil to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was killed in 1998. In many ways, Transgender Day of Remembrance is similar to the drug policy reform movement’s International Overdose Awareness Day, where we honor lives lost due to punitive drug laws and the inability to access treatment
Celebrate the individuals in our community! Transgender Day of Visibility, observed on March 31 each year, is a day to show your support for the trans community. It aims to bring attention to the accomplishments of trans people around the globe while fighting transphobia by spreading knowledge of the trans community. Unlike Transgender Day of Remembrance, this is not a day for mourning, but rather a day for trans people to be empowered and get the recognition they deserve! In the drug policy community, organizations that specifically focus on harm reduction—such as the Harm Reduction Coalition and the San Francisco Drug Users’ Union—reject the victimization and marginalization of people who use drugs.
Challenge stereotypes. One of the main ways in which the LGBTQ community has been able to garner acceptance is through the entertainment industry. The Entertainment Media Program monitors entertainment media to ensure inclusive and accurate portrayals of the LGBTQ community, speaks out about why anti-LGBTQ attitudes and content have no place in the media, and works with TV and film studio executives, producers, and scriptwriters to provide script consultations and to advocate for the inclusion of LGBTQ people. Drug policy activists often challenge stereotypes surrounding drugs and drug users. The media has historically portrayed drug users as inherently criminal and unable to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. A growing coalition of organizations and activists is challenging this idea by affirming that drug users are and can be the primary agents of reducing the harms of their drug use, and should be empowered to support each other in strategies which meet their actual conditions of use.
Prioritize inclusivity. Representation, both inside a movement and in the media, plays a fundamental role in shaping public opinion. Making sure all stakeholders in a community are recognized and listened to is an ongoing struggle within all movements, including the LGBTQ and drug policy reform communities. Despite the role trans people played in the Stonewall Riots, the trans community has often voiced concerns about marginalization within the larger LGBTQ movement. Suzanne Phar coins this phenomenon as “horizontal hostility,” which is the idea that when certain groups are marginalized, the oppression that comes from dominant societal narratives is internalized and subsequently projected onto people of a similar social status. While this is an understandable and very real effect that results from the harms of discrimination, it is important for activists to unify around the shared goal of social justice for all. During the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference, several panels discussed the negotiation of class, race and gender based privilege and discrimination within the movement, such as “Moving the Movement Forward: Examining Gender in Drug Policy Reform.” At SSDP’s 2014 conference, DARE organized a “Privilege and the War on Drugs” Panel. Although not always devoid of tension, it is important to bring the rifts of the past into the open to sew together the various constituencies working for drug policy reform.
Take Action (10 points).
In an effort to be more mindful of the language, SSDP staff and Board of Directors is including preferred pronouns in our signatures. We invite SSDP chapters to do the same. For more information, check out University of Oregon Student Life or follow this link for examples of email signatures.
Host a meeting on the parallels between trans individuals and drug users, as well as the parallel struggles and accomplishments between our social movements. Use this Monthly Mosaic as a guide.
Apply strategies from “How can we learn from this movement?” section.
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