Editor’s Note: This is part of an occasional series of NC Policy Watch blog posts examining disproportionate impacts on race — in the environment, education, the courts and other sectors — and the structural issues that lead to these inequalities.
The case of Kanautica Zayre-Brown has sparked a conversation about the treatment of transgender people in North Carolina’s prisons – and seems certain to result in a federal lawsuit.
Transgender people of all gender identities face unique struggles when dealing with law enforcement, the courts and prisons – in changing their gender marker, being identified by their proper name even after it has been legally changed, in how they are housed, where and with whom they must shower or use the restroom.
Zayre-Brown is one of many transgender women of color who disproportionately face these struggles on top of the daily complications of navigating government systems while transgender.
Nearly one in six transgender Americans — and one in two Black transgender people — has been to prison, as documented by Lambda Legal’s Protected and Served survey.
Those numbers are not a surprise for those who study health and safety outcomes among transgender people in the U.S. Transgender women consistently face poorer health outcomes, more interactions with law enforcement and experience more violence. The numbers are even more grave for transgender women of color.
The 2015 U.S. Transgender survey showed stark racial inequalities and far worse outcomes for Black transgender people than for the Black U.S. population as a whole.
Among its findings:
Last year at least 26 transgender people were murdered in the U.S., according to the Human Rights Campaign. That number is likely low – the result of both under-reporting and the frequent misgendering of transgender people killed violently. All but one of those deaths were transgender women of color.
Last week Candis Cox, a Black transgender activist who has become one of the state’s most prominent LGBTQ voices, spoke to Policy Watch about Zayre-Brown’s case and the struggles of transgender women of color in society.
Cox pointed out that despite having lived as a woman for years, having undergone hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgery and having legally changed her name, the prison system still refuses to acknowledge Zayre-Brown’s identity or even call her by her legal name.
Cases like Zayre Brown’s show that for transgender people, even “doing everything right” doesn’t guarantee your government or society will accept you for who you are, Cox said. This is especially true for transgender women of color like she and Zayre Brown, Cox said.
“A lot of these policy makers, what I see is they are okay with wrapping their head around concepts — especially when we start talking about minorities — if they are willing to play the game and ask very little of the system, contribute and be something that they can point to as some shining example that is a white-washed version of something,” Cox said.
“But when we start talking about people who are navigating the actual systems of our society — like the prison system — they’re just another black criminal,” Cox said. “They’re no longer people.”