The Crusader Online

November 09, 2012
Vol. 54 No. 9

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Social patterns found in transgender prisoners

The Crusader/Katie Auchenbach
LIVING IN A MAN'S WORLD - University of California-Irvine professor, Valerie Jennes discussed her research of transgender males in the California prison system.
Susquehanna welcomed Valerie Jenness, from the University of California-Irvine's, who spoke on transgender prisoners in male prisons.

The lecture, "Agnes Goes to Prison: Transgender Prisoners in Prisons for Men and the Olympics of Gender Authenticity," focused on Jenness' research on transgender men California prisons.

Jenness is the author of three books including "Making Hate a Crime: From Social Movement to Law Enforcement Practice" and a vast array of articles published in top-tier academic journals.

She then explained what led her into research on transgender men. She said that she was given access to the male prisons in California to conduct research primarily on sexual assault that had been occurring amongst the inmates.

After conducting interviews with some of the inmates, she realized that the transgender population within these prisons was a more vulnerable group than other men.

"With the growing awareness of transgender people in the U.S. and high profile court cases brought forth by transgender inmates, such as Giraldo v. the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, it was necessary to look further into transgenders in male prisons and the sexual assault they are victims of," Jenness said.

With a team of eight interviewers, Jenness went into 27 prisons through California to conduct 315 face-to-face interviews with transgender prisoners, out of the 750 transgender prisoners we have in male prisons nationally.

She shared her findings with the audience and even quotes from some of the prisoners she interviewed.

She noticed, during her interviews, a variation within the transgender population in regards to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender presentation.

Many of the prisoners she spoke to said that they plan to continue their female presentation of themselves when they are released from prison, and some presented themselves as female even before they came to prison.

A surprising revelation that Jenness found was that many of the transgender prisoners feel more feminine while in prison, rather than outside of prison. Jenness contributed this to the "alpha male atmosphere" created while in prison because men are forced to "man up or be a man" while there.

"They are males who are here and want sex. It's like a guy who goes to the strip club. I'm the entertainment and the meat," said one transgender during an interview with Jenness.

Jenness posed a question: "Prison is one of the most sex-segregated places. So what happens when you have people that don't fit in a sex-segregated place?"

She talked about Italy's attempt to remedy this problem by creating a prison that was specifically for transgender prisoners. But Jenness disagreed on the idea of a similar action being taken in the United States.

"The prisoners that I interviewed write me and tell me not to recommend separating them from other men. They feel that the idea is great in the sense that it creates a sisterhood among us but not good because that would create more competition for attention amongst them," Jenness said.

She went on to say that despite safety concerns and sexual assault, transgendered males prefer to be in a men's prison, mainly for the validation of being considered and treated as female.

In addition to her talk on transgender prisoners, Jenness spent two days on campus as a guest lecturer in such courses as Psychology of Gender and Crime and Justice.
Michael Smyth, assistant professor of sociology and director of the Arlin M. Adams Center for Law and Society at Susquehanna, said he is "pleased to present a scholar of this stature to the Susquehanna community. I imagine that exposure to Jenness' research will be a unique and broadening experience for all concerned."


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