Commentary
By Austen Hartke 5-30-2018

“Out of sight, out of mind.” For many of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States today, this idiom is a reality. For transgender inmates, who disproportionately experience the negative side of visibility, the situation has gotten even worse.

Earlier this month, the Federal Bureau of Prisons released a revised edition of the Transgender Offenders Manual that rolls back protections for transgender inmates in federal facilities. This manual was originally written to protect trans people by making it possible to house them according to their gender identity. Major revisions, however, recommend that prison officials use “biological sex as the initial determination” for housing designation, and state that transfer to “a facility of the inmate’s identified gender would be appropriate only in rare cases.”

In order to understand why this change is such a big deal, we have to look back at why the Transgender Offenders Manual was written in the first place. During the last year of the Obama Administration, organizations like The National Prison Rape Elimination Act Resource Center began speaking up for transgender prisoners. They found that one-in-three transgender inmates experience sexual victimization while incarcerated, and confirmed the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey report that the rate of sexual assault for transgender prisoners is five-to-six times higher than the country’s average.

In response to these horrific numbers, new guidance was put forward that required prison officials to decide on housing for a transgender inmate on a case-by-case basis, rather than ruling immediately based on the inmate’s genitalia. For many trans inmates, placing them in housing with others who shared their gender identity reduced the risk of sexual violence.

Just days after this Prison Rape Elimination Act guidance was adopted in January 2017, three cisgender women in a prison in Fort Worth, Texas, filed a lawsuit alleging that the presence of trans women in their facility put them in danger. While it may be possible that this is a rare case, in which a trans inmate really does pose a danger to others, suspicions rose when the Alliance Defending Freedom immediately backed the lawsuit.

The ADF, a conservative Christian organization categorized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, sports a powerful public policy branch called the Family Research Council, which has been behind many of the recent “bathroom bills,” as well as the reversal of Justice Department guidance on protection for transgender students in public schools. The head of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins, who was recently chosen to lead the White House’s U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, has been an advisor to the Trump Administration and was one of the architects behind the “transgender military ban.

The ADF used the case settlement to prompt the change in the Bureau of Prisons manual.

Interestingly enough, the three women who originated the lawsuit did not like the results, and removed themselves from the case, claiming “ADF lawyers have completely violated their ethical responsibilities to the 3 initial Plaintiffs in this case by putting their loyalties to one of the Defendants, Attorney General Sessions, over the interest of their clients … Our preliminary injunction requested that the male inmates [sic] be removed from women's prison. The new policy change does nothing to address the requested relief.’

This prioritization of partisan results makes it much harder to believe that the ADF and the Family Research Council care about the safety of women in prison.

Fear mongers profit by dividing us. What if our cultural question was not, “Who deserves to be safer in our prisons — cisgender women or transgender women?” What if it was instead, “How do we reform our criminal justice system so that all people can be safe?”

When Christians observe institutional violence or a lack of attention to justice from the state, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested that we have several options. One option is to care for those who have been crushed — those who have been wrongly accused, who have been held without a trial, those who have been the victims of racial profiling, those who can’t afford bail to go home and care for their families. Another option, Bonhoeffer wrote, is “not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.”

Christian ministries have been a part of the prison reform movement for decades, and Barna polls like the one conducted by Prison Fellowship tell us that 89 percent of practicing Christians agreed with the statement, “It’s important that prison conditions are safe and humane, specifically because I believe every person has intrinsic value and worth.”

Our Christian belief that every single person bears the image of God within them informs the actions we take to support each other.

But groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council are nowhere to be found when it comes to fighting for safe and humane conditions for transgender people, and other LGBQ+ populations who experience higher rates of arrest and incarceration because of homophobic and transphobic biases. Somehow, the faith which imagines Jesus as the one we visit in prison becomes less appealing when the actual person behind bars is a trans woman.

What kind of accountability do LGBTQ-affirming Christians have to fight for the rights of incarcerated transgender people today? Will we let our incarcerated transgender siblings be out of sight and out of mind?

I hope not. Instead, let us “continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” (Heb. 13:3)

Austen Hartke is a writer, speaker, and creator of the YouTube series “Transgender and Christian,” which seeks to understand and share parts of the Bible that relate to gender identity and the lives of transgender individuals. Austen is a graduate of Luther Seminary’s Master of Arts program in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Studies, and is the winner of the 2010 John Milton Prize in Old Testament Writing from the same institution.

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