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SRLP and Laverne Cox
August 27, 2014 8:25 AM   Subscribe

Last week, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project uploaded a YouTube video of Laverne Cox reading a letter written by a New York State inmate named Synthia China Blast, who described living in solitary confinement for the last decade. However, that video has since, at Cox's request, been taken down. (TW: descriptions of murder, sexual violence)

After making the video, it came to light that"in 1996, Blast and Carlos Franco — both members of the Latin Kings gang — were found guilty in the 1993 rape and murder of 13-year-old Ebony Williams. According to the New York Daily News, "Bronx Prosecutor William Hrabsky said the two held the girl captive in a Hunts Point apartment, [Blast] raping her and repeatedly slashing her body. Franco was charged with killing the girl after breaking her neck."

SRLP statement on the video, and the End Solitary Campaign

In 2007, SRLP published "It's War in Here" (pdf), a report on the treatment of transgender and intersex inmates in New York's correctional facilities.

Solitary Watch: Transgender Women in New York State Prisons Face Solitary Confinement and Sexual Assault: “Sometimes I’m on my bed, I’m crying,” she told Solitary Watch. “I wake up at five o’clock in the morning thinking about it, and I say, ‘God my son is stuck in a cell for 23 hours a day,” said Scott, who seems to accept Smith’s transition but still uses male pronouns. “And I pray and ask God, ‘Please give him the grace to do it.’” Smith is in disciplinary segregation, known as the Special Housing Unit, or SHU.

In April, a 16 year-old trans girl named only in court documents as "Jane Doe" filed this affidavit, after having been transferred from DCF custody to solitary confinement in an adult prison in Connecticut, after DCF cited "an obscure statute that allows doing so when it is in the "best interest" of the child."

Trans 101
posted by roomthreeseventeen (65 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
I certainly understand and appreciate why Cox withdrew her support. That said, as horrifying as Blast's crimes are, I'm not sure if their enormity is all that relevant as an ethical point. Either there is a baseline for the human rights of prisoners, trans* and otherwise, or there is not. I am not blaming Cox herself, especially since I totally grok why it is important to choose your examples judiciously: however, I do think it is troubling to imply, even if unintentionally, that solitary confinement, discrimination, etc. really could be appropriate for people who have done sufficiently horrible things.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:33 AM on August 27 [64 favorites]


That's well said, Sticherbeast.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:36 AM on August 27 [1 favorite]


What Sticherbeast said. One of the reasons the death penalty is opposed is because it is deemed to be never morally justified or appropriate as a punishment, no matter how vilely a criminal may have behaved. We have decided that we simply do not sink to that level. Same applies here, I would have thought.
posted by Decani at 8:39 AM on August 27 [3 favorites]


The Connecticut case is horrifying. She's been a ward of the state since she was five years old; the state has been unable to protect her from years of sexual and physical abuse. Its solution is to incarcerate her, absent any charge or conviction, because they failed her in every way possible. WHAT. THE. FUCK.
posted by rtha at 8:43 AM on August 27 [9 favorites]


Yes, Sticherbeast said what I was going to say. Either we're opposed to the abusive overuse of solitary confinement in prisons or we're not. It doesn't make much sense to say "it's only wrong when it's used on the nice felons."
posted by yoink at 8:44 AM on August 27 [1 favorite]


Trans-Exclusionary groups use "airquote" evidence "airquote" of trans women in prison for violent sex crimes as justification to prove that we are all jacked up abusers that need therapy, not transition. It is a very good scare tactic, is not easily seen through at first as biased information, so as a weapon against trans inclusion it is highly effective at painting us all as monsters.

I have a feeling it is for that reason why Laverne withdrew her support and asked to be distanced.
posted by Annika Cicada at 8:59 AM on August 27 [11 favorites]


Oh my god, that poor little girl in the Connecticut case. I bet there are a hundred queer youth organizations who would work with her to organize housing, therapy and education if she could just be gotten out of state custody. I mean hell, she can come sleep on my sofa.
posted by Frowner at 9:00 AM on August 27 [4 favorites]


I'm with Sticherbeast on this one, but wouldn't you think Cox would have asked about the crimes before? The fact that she didn't almost implies to me that she also viewed it as not mattering, but then got some backlash or heat and decided to change her mind. I'm just guessing most prisons aren't filled with people whose backstory would make for a Hallmark movie, so the idea you would find someone that hits that sweet spot of deserving of support but not too heinous to support is a bit disingenuous.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:24 AM on August 27 [1 favorite]


The girl in connecticut's story is even worse when you realize that a bunch of people who are qualified foster parents have stepped forward to offer to adopt the girl in connecticut. All of their offers were refused. (third paragraph from the bottom).
posted by zug at 9:32 AM on August 27


The most recent updates are that girl in CT was moved from the adult women's prison to the facility for adolescent girls, but she was accused of assaulting a staff member and was moved to separate confinement in the the facility for adolescent boys now, because the girls facility is low security.
posted by smackfu at 9:41 AM on August 27


Synthia-China Blast did not kill or rape anyone.
Synthia says she started to dress in “drags” on the sly and spent her time at Escuelita, a Manhattan gay club she’d discovered. Then, in August 1993, she says someone from the gang paged her and told her to report immediately: “I had to take off my makeup, pick up my van, and go clean up an apartment in the Bronx.” In her haste, she left her skirt on.

“When I got there, there was blood all over the floor. I don’t know if I was just stupid or I’d seen a lot of The A-Team, but I just started cutting off the bloody carpet and put it in plastic bags. The body was already in a box,” Synthia says. She claims that she and a few other jittery gang members then dropped the box off in a Bronx underpass and later set it on fire. The victim turned out to be a 13-year-old runaway named Ebony Nicole Williams.

[...]

During the trial, witnesses testified that Synthia and Carlos Franco, another Latin King member, committed the murder. They also claimed that Synthia had raped the girl, until one person let it slip that she had been wearing a skirt that night. “They had to switch their story in the trial because how do you tell the jury that he had on a dress and then he was raping a girl?” Synthia says. “I’ve never had sex with a female in my life.”
She helped dispose of the body under threat of murder had she not immediately consented to help that night (observe that a Terminate on Sight order was placed on her for not immediately taking the rap quietly; this is the kind of environment she grew up in). The rape claims were dropped. And she was only convicted of murder in the first place because, having been positioned as someone able to take the fall, she took it.

Don't forget that a statement from a prosecutor is a statement from a prosecutor.

I understand why Laverne Cox took down the video but I wish she hadn't. Not only is Synthia a victim of the profoundly dehumanising, degendering, and downright dangerous and abusive conditions trans women of colour prisoners are subjected to, but she is also a perfect example of the way trans women of colour in the USA are denied opportunity at every turn, forced to do anything just to literally survive, and then disproportionately punished for whatever crimes they do commit to survive.

Defend trans women.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 9:47 AM on August 27 [24 favorites]


I saw this last night and I'm really disappointed in Cox for this. You'd think that someone starring in OitNB and working for our rights as prisoners would know full well that not every trans inmate is CeCe McDonald and also that that's the point. The eighth amendment cannot be applied only to people you deem worthy of its protection.
posted by Corinth at 9:50 AM on August 27 [1 favorite]


I mean, even if Synthia was a murderer and a rapist she should still not be subjected to the sort of cruel and unusual punishment that is routinely meted out against trans women of colour in the prison system.

But there are two victims in this case: Ebony Nicole Williams, a teenage girl who was murdered, and Synthia-China Blast, a teenage girl who was given no choice but to help hide the body and was convicted of a crime she did not commit.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 10:02 AM on August 27 [5 favorites]


But there are two victims in this case: Ebony Nicole Williams, a teenage girl who was murdered, and Synthia-China Blast, a teenage girl who was given no choice but to help hide the body and was convicted of a crime she did not commit.

I don't think we know one way or the other what Synthia did. But it doesn't matter. Like, at all.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:05 AM on August 27 [2 favorites]


i don't see an inconsistency here. cox can advocate for a cause she believes in and still choose not to advocate on a personal basis (connecting her name with another person's) for someone whose supposed crimes she finds personally objectionable. it doesn't mean she doesn't think that person should be treated fairly. and realistically, given that sexual abuse is a central topic in trans issues, in this case her advocacy for this person could undermine her larger purpose.

we all have personal boundaries we don't want to cross when it comes to volunteering ourselves, and i think we should respect cox's as we would anyone else's.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 10:11 AM on August 27 [2 favorites]


I can respect her boundaries while also losing respect for her boundaries being predictably patriarchal. People like Synthia or Michelle Kosilek are the people we need to structure our efforts to support - this is a case where guaranteeing that the most hated and oppressed of us have their rights respected is the only way to guarantee that all of us have our rights respected. There's no other way to send the message that acknowleding someone's identity and providing them with constitutionally-mandated fair treatment and health care cannot be contingent on how much you like them.

I did not think that Laverne Cox was the kind of person to pick and choose "good ones" and "bad ones," and I find the fact that she withdrew her support for Synthia's statement (which had absolutely nothing to do with what she was sent to prison for and everything to do with how our society treats black trans women) to be surprising and distasteful.
posted by Corinth at 10:26 AM on August 27 [5 favorites]


I recently learned that someone I respected a lot as a an anti-prison-pipeline activist had declined to make a statement about Cece MacDonald when the support committee (here in MPLS) had asked her to. I was really disappointed.

At the same time, I want to recognize that Laverne Cox is under a huge, ridiculous amount of pressure to be "the face" for trans women, especially trans women of color, and I could see how that would push someone to bad decisions - just as the important black activist who would not speak out about CeCe's case was also under a lot of political pressure. Both she and Laverne Cox are, I think, pressured to "be perfect" under some weird respectability-politics liberal assimilationist logic, not least because they are dependent on liberals (both white and POC) as allies. I think that the only thing that will help is to try to open up other, more radical ways of being so that there's room for people like Laverne Cox to make other choices. (And also, of course, to fight the idea that there is "the face" of any marginalized group.)

It's not just an individual choice by LC - or anyone. It's whole narrative where LC has power only if she's perfect, and she can only be perfect if she never, ever supports a "bad" person. The story of transness is already so complex to your average cis American that when you add in any kind of other complexity, it just turns into "blah blah garbage criminal freak people" in their heads.

~~~
On another note, it is so weird to me that Americans can watch all these television shows about gangs and criminals and have no trouble sympathizing with those characters, yet it apparently just blows people's minds that a girl who grows up in a poor and criminal milieu might not act like Sandra Dee, and that such a girl might easily be pressured into taking part in some bad stuff because that's the milieu and she doesn't have a lot of choices. This is not any more sophisticated than events in The Sopranos or The Wire or any movie about organized crime, and it's not any weirder than the idea that if you grow up among preppies and attend Miss Porter's, you're going to know your way around the world of advisory boards and gala fund raisers.
posted by Frowner at 10:40 AM on August 27 [13 favorites]


Yeah, it's worth remembering that there are a bunch of loud terfs waiting for something awful to pin to Laverne Cox -- her popularity is a threat to their message of "trans women are dangerous male predators" -- and lo and behold they seized on Synthia's case as a way of painting Laverne as "pro rape."

(While terfs are loud and obnoxious they are also losing, and therefore liable to make up greater and greater lies to discredit trans women. Reassure your local feminist groups that they do not have to give floor time to these dangerous bigots.)
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 10:52 AM on August 27 [5 favorites]


Heroic criminals on TV only kill/hurt bad people.
posted by smackfu at 10:53 AM on August 27


But Laverne has been so good about being intersectional and almost radical (for a celebrity) so far - pushing back against the mainstream media's genital obsession, being unabashedly focused on people of color, and even daring to talk about trans prisoners in the first place. She quotes bell hooks. She's by no means "perfect" in the eyes of the white, cis establishment - the same establishment that sent CeCe McDonald away for defending herself from a deadly hate crime, about which Laverne is making a boat-rocking documentary. Laverne generally hasn't been playing by their rules, which is why she's been so effective. But it's also why I'm so disappointed.
posted by Corinth at 10:53 AM on August 27 [2 favorites]


Yeah, it's worth remembering that there are a bunch of loud terfs waiting for something awful to pin to Laverne Cox -- her popularity is a threat to their message of "trans women are dangerous male predators" -- and lo and behold they seized on Synthia's case as a way of painting Laverne as "pro rape."

I don't think anyone should live their convictions based on what their critics say.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:01 AM on August 27


Mostly intended in the spirit of "fact check anything you see widely spread about a trans woman."
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 11:11 AM on August 27 [1 favorite]


But the thing about CeCe McDonald is that it is possible to say "here is a nice college girl who was in the process of triumphing over adversity when she got jumped by a bunch of white trash racist nazi-sympathizers", and even the TERFs and anti-crime liberals have to deal with that narrative. While I was actually around - and did a very, very teeny-tiny bit of work for - CeCe's support committee and I recognize how incredibly difficult it was to deal with media bias, it's a different kind of story than Synthia-China Blast's is. Which is pretty awful in itself, since basically it's just "here is a complicated person with a difficult and violent life who got into some complicated stuff", and that should not be too difficult for anyone to understand.

I don't think anyone should live their convictions based on what their critics say.

The thing is, Laverne Cox isn't really living her life based on what her critics say - I mean, have you seen her critics? I am really in awe of her for being an out, visible trans woman of color who speaks in sophisticated ways about race and gender. If anything, I think the problem is that she's having to live her life according to what her allies say - playing to the center of the "I am sympathetic to trans women provided that they are dazzlingly beautiful, ultra-feminine, nicely-spoken and have a super narrative about rising above bad circumstances" crowd. I think that the crowd of trans allies is really small, despite the immense changes in popular ideas about transness in the past few years, and the popular notion of transness is not very sophisticated.

I mean, I too wish she'd be different. But this isn't a movie - speaking truth to power and staying true to your ideals and always taking the high road are just as likely to lead to your utter ruin and marginalization as they are to triumph. There are lots and lots and lots of radical activists of one stripe and another who were brave and true and smart and got smashed. Marsha P. Johnson ended up in the river.
posted by Frowner at 11:11 AM on August 27 [2 favorites]


But Laverne has been so good about being intersectional and almost radical (for a celebrity) so far - pushing back against the mainstream media's genital obsession, being unabashedly focused on people of color, and even daring to talk about trans prisoners in the first place. She quotes bell hooks. She's by no means "perfect" in the eyes of the white, cis establishment - the same establishment that sent CeCe McDonald away for defending herself from a deadly hate crime, about which Laverne is making a boat-rocking documentary. Laverne generally hasn't been playing by their rules, which is why she's been so effective. But it's also why I'm so disappointed.

she's made a series of decisions that make her very effective, so it seems that she's more qualified than any of us to judge them as they come along. i'll never understand why we come to admire people for being who they are and then proceed to question the choices they make starting like five minutes after we discover them.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 11:23 AM on August 27 [1 favorite]


For a bit of context on trans women of colour and their interaction with the US incarceration system, see pages 158 to 172 of this PDF document: Injustice at Every Turn, a Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 11:34 AM on August 27 [2 favorites]


I don't think that there is a thing wrong with supporting a cause but not wanting to associate with a particular person being harmed by the thing you are trying to address because you find them or their story odious. There is nothing inconsistent about it at all. I'm not even sure I can understand the position that it is problematic or hypocritical.

But there are two victims in this case: Ebony Nicole Williams, a teenage girl who was murdered, and Synthia-China Blast, a teenage girl who was given no choice but to help hide the body and was convicted of a crime she did not commit.

How could you possible know that Blast is innocent. The only thing you've presented in this thread is her own statement to that effect. Sure, transwomen are discriminated against in all kinds of ways, and she may well be innocent, but I think your statement is too sure by a lot, and to list her as a victim in the same line as the person who she is convicted of raping and killing on nothing but your feelings seems like a real problem to me.
posted by OmieWise at 12:57 PM on August 27 [5 favorites]


"But there are two victims in this case: Ebony Nicole Williams, a teenage girl who was murdered, and Synthia-China Blast, a teenage girl who was given no choice but to help hide the body and was convicted of a crime she did not commit."

Can you support that statement with more than just the NY Mag story? Like, actual court documents that can give us a broader view of what the evidence said? Because asserting that Blast didn't rape or kill anyone on the basis of Blast's statements seems to be extending credulity to a tenuous point.

Blast can be a murdering, raping shitbag and still not deserve longterm solitary. But equivocating or making broad declarations in order to portray Blast as purely a victim can backfire if that's not supported by evidence.
posted by klangklangston at 1:00 PM on August 27 [3 favorites]


I don't think that there is a thing wrong with supporting a cause but not wanting to associate with a particular person being harmed by the thing you are trying to address because you find them or their story odious. There is nothing inconsistent about it at all. I'm not even sure I can understand the position that it is problematic or hypocritical.

Well, my issue is that Cox took the time to make the video. She could have done a Google search to find out what the story was with this woman's incarceration.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:02 PM on August 27


Sure. But assume she's pretty busy being a famous actress and on magazine covers and all, and that someone brought it to her without doing the proper vetting. I don't think she has to live with having posted it if she learns something later that makes her want to retract the video.

I agree that it's not optimal, but I don't think that it's bad in any fundamental way.
posted by OmieWise at 1:08 PM on August 27


"there are two victims": even if she did participate in the killing, Synthia is a victim of the circumstances she was forced to live in, as a teenage trans woman of colour, for whom gang violence and the threat of violence was a part of her daily life. Remember she was a teenager.

From my original link:
On October 16, 1996, 22-year-old Luis Morales—Synthia—was convicted of murder and manslaughter.
She was not convicted of rape.

From this post:
- Synthia was charged with “second-degree murder, first-degree manslaughter and reckless endangerment.” She was convicted of the second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter charges.

- Synthia was likely charged due to being an accessory to the disposal and burning of Ebony Williams’s body. Depending on the jury, one can be charged for murder without doing the killing, but being an accessory to its cover-up. Sometimes this will result in a full murder charge or an “accessory to murder” charge. She was apart of this crime, and as such, was legally held responsible to the full extent of the law. Ebony Nicole Williams received justice with this conviction. What is being scrutinized is whether or not Synthia took part in the killing or was an accessory to the clean-up. Both are terrible acts that deserve punishment.

- In gang culture, especially if you come from a poor or working class background, if you are asked to help clean up a crime scene and you refuse, then you are killed. I have lost friends and classmates in my neighborhood for this very reason. Gang violence in Black and Brown low-income communities is a result of white supremacy and extreme poverty that funnels these people through private prisons. The private prisons make profits off of imprisoned people on heightened charges, false charges, and legitimate charges. The prison industrial complex creates these desperate circumstances that cause Black and Brown people to result to violence against other Black and Brown people in their communities. There are thousands of Black and Brown people in prison despite being innocent, and thousands of Black and Brown people who are dead because they were victims of gang violence. All of this is a result from centuries of brutality and disenfranchisement of Black and Brown communities because of white supremacist colonialism. This does not justify Synthia’s or anyone’s role in Ebony Williams’s death and disposal. It provides context to how these tragedies happen.

(I'm not going to blockquote the whole thing, but there's more.)
I rely for my perspective on the research of women of colour who have reason to doubt the popularly-presented slant on this case. Rather than continue to paraphrase them it seemed best to link one of the posts in question.

And by the way, and sincerely, if you can find me a respectable mainstream media news article that discusses honestly and even-handedly the life conditions of young poor trans women of colour in the mid-1990s, and their interaction with law enforcement and gang violence, I would delighted.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 1:24 PM on August 27 [6 favorites]


The link that ArmyOfKittens posted provides a lot more thoughtful analysis and brought home for me the ways in which Synthia was almost certainly victimized.
posted by Frowner at 1:34 PM on August 27


"there are two victims": even if she did participate in the killing, Synthia is a victim of the circumstances she was forced to live in, as a teenage trans woman of colour, for whom gang violence and the threat of violence was a part of her daily life. Remember she was a teenager.

Sure, I get that. I really do. And it excuses a lot in the moral universe. But when you list her as one of two victims, the other of whom she was convicted of killing, I think you're taking a step too far. Unless your point is (and I'm not trying to be mocking here) that anyone in her position with her axes of oppression cannot be held accountable for their actions and must always be considered a victim rather than a perpetrator. I can't agree with that, and I'm not sure if that's what you are saying, but I think that's the only way it makes sense to list her as essentially a co-victim of the girl she was convicted of helping to murder.
posted by OmieWise at 1:36 PM on August 27 [4 favorites]


Her status as a victim is an important and interesting issue in its own right, but it is also irrelevant to the issue of the abuse of solitary confinement and the abuse of trans* inmates. Even if she was as culpably guilty as any inmate who had ever served time, these issues would remain the same.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:43 PM on August 27 [8 favorites]


The thing that squicks me out the most is that Laverne made the video and then had it pulled, which is worse than not making the video at all when it comes to the implications about what Synthia deserves in terms of justice and in terms of having her voice heard. If even Laverne Cox rethinks her decision to read a letter from a young incarcerated trans woman of color about her abhorrent treatment, that rethinking makes it look like the status quo of heaping extra punishment and hate on certain kinds of prisoners should be maintained. Whether you want to argue about whether Synthia is a victim of her environment in the 90s or not, she's plainly a victim of the way that the American justice system treats black trans women.
posted by Corinth at 2:23 PM on August 27 [6 favorites]


I'm just guessing most prisons aren't filled with people whose backstory would make for a Hallmark movie, so the idea you would find someone that hits that sweet spot of deserving of support but not too heinous to support is a bit disingenuous.

Why do you guess this? Are you saying that most people who are in prison deserve to be there because they are bad people who have done bad things? What do you base this assumption on?

You say you are with Sticherbeast on this, but I think you may have missed his point.
posted by jammy at 4:17 PM on August 27


My interpretation of cjorgensen's comment is that when you advocate for the humane treatment of trans people in prison, that set is going to include both sympathetic* and unsympathetic prisoners - not every case is going to be "rah rah free CeCe." It's somewhat surprising that this isn't something that Laverne has considered and accepted before now, given her previous work and fierce intersectional activism. So exactly in line with Stitcherbeast.

*to those who have the capacity to feel sympathy for trans people at all, which is not that large of a set
posted by Corinth at 4:35 PM on August 27 [2 favorites]


that rethinking makes it look like the status quo of heaping extra punishment and hate on certain kinds of prisoners should be maintained

Wouldn't it be entirely possible to simply say, "I support child murderers/rapists being held in solitary, even for many years, on the basis of their child murder/rape" while also saying "I do not support trans women being held in solitary just for being trans?" Because while I understand that some people oppose solitary purely on humanitarian grounds for everyone, that is also not everyone's position. Some people genuinely do support solitary for the worst of the worst criminals - which child rape/murder do fall into. (And yes, I understand that she says she didn't do it, but really, what would you expect her to say?)
posted by corb at 5:52 PM on August 27


corb, if you're comfortable sentencing all 15 year-olds to a lifetime of solitary confinement instead of just nonwhite trans girls, maybe make your own FPP about that utopia? This one is about the whole host unconstitutional horrors that trans women of color are singled out for in American prisons regardless of whether you think they deserve it or not.

"What would you expect her to say?"

I'd expect a prosecutor to say she did it and I'd expect a trans woman of color to say she didn't and I'd expect the trans women of color to get convicted and sent away to abuse in men's prisons every time because that's how this works over and over forever.
posted by Corinth at 9:27 PM on August 27 [4 favorites]


Wouldn't it be entirely possible to simply say, "I support child murderers/rapists being held in solitary, even for many years, on the basis of their child murder/rape" while also saying "I do not support trans women being held in solitary just for being trans?" Because while I understand that some people oppose solitary purely on humanitarian grounds for everyone, that is also not everyone's position. Some people genuinely do support solitary for the worst of the worst criminals - which child rape/murder do fall into. (And yes, I understand that she says she didn't do it, but really, what would you expect her to say?)

Well the thing is, Blast isn't being held in solitary on the basis of their conviction for child murder (the rape accusation didn't stick) - she's being held in solitary on the basis of her being trans. Any way you look at it, and injustice is being done here: a trans woman convicted of murder is being held in solitary, other people convicted of murder are not routinely held in solitary.

If you support solitary for child murder, then I disagree profoundly with you, but that's neither here nor there - what is under discussion is not an example of that. It is an example of transphobic discrimination, and supporting what is happening here is supporting that.
posted by Dysk at 6:19 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


Have they said, specifically, that she's in jail for being trans? I can't watch video right now, so I've had to rely on the text bits and comments to get what's going on. If so, then that is bullshit even if she is a reprehensible human being.
posted by corb at 11:32 AM on August 28


I understand the need for removing a viable, immediate threat from the population (we do this, for example, with mentally ill patients who become violent, or even children who act out in the firm of brief time-outs). I am wholeheartedly against systemic longterm solitary confinement for anyone, though. I feel it is inhumane treatment, and the studies certainly seem to back me up. People treated as though they are less than human are in very real danger of succumbing to that belief.

I understand, too, why activists for the rights of transgendered individuals are reacting so strongly to this news. It is very easy for bigots who already treat trans* people as if they are somehow lesser to use situations like these to justify their actions? Laverne Cox, a spokesperson with some influence by virtue of her celebrity now, is threatening to them, and that's why they are focussing on the heinous nature of Synthia Blast's crimes.

But saying "Synthia didn't rape or murder anyone" is not okay, even so. Just because you hope, or want, or even need on some level to believe the best is true doesn't make it true. There's quite a bit of propaganda being pushed here, and not just by the bigots. Instead of being disingenuous and omitting or bending the facts, let's look at them head on.

Fact: Synthia China-Blast identified as a male at the time of the crime and trial, going by the birth name of Luis Morales. Luis Morales was convicted for the murder and manslaughter of a 13 year-old girl named Ebony Nicole Williams in 1994 along with a man named Carlos Franco.

Fact: Police had planned to charge Morales with rape as well as murder. However, the body of the victim, a habitual runaway whose disappearance was not even reported until ten days after she went missing, was so badly burned that she was only identifiable through her dental records. The victim's body was set on fire after her murder, destroying any physical evidence that might have indicated whether or not she was raped.Thus, the rape charges were dropped.
Fact: Luis Morales had been charged with arson previously, after setting a fire which directly resulted in the death of six people. Morales, 16 at the time, admitted to the arson but denied knowing people were in the building. Morales was acquitted of all charges after a pivotal witness recanted mid-trial.

Fact: in 1999, Luis Morales began taking hormonal therapy after being diagnosed as gender dysmorphic. She now identifies as Synthia China-Black.

Fact: In 2004, China Synthia-Black admitted to dumping Ebony Williams' body and setting fire to the corpse.
posted by misha at 11:52 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


corb, don't be facetious. She's in jail for being involved in the murder of a young girl in some capacity as to render her legally culpable. To me, that suggests that clearly, she should spend some time in jail. What a murder charge isn't punished by is solitary. What being trans in jail is punished by is solitary.

She is not in solitary for murder. Jail, yes. Solitary, no.
posted by Dysk at 12:13 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Sorry, I meant solitary. What is the prison saying?
posted by corb at 12:21 PM on August 28


Other issues aside, a news article (like the one Misha cited) using someone's birth name and referring to them as male does not mean, at ALL, that they were using that name and identified as male at the time that the article was written. Mis-gendering and using the wrong name/pronoun for trans people in news reports is a rampant problem even today. (I imagine part of this is because it's often difficult for people to change their legal name - it costs money and takes a good bit of time. Changing the gender marker on a drivers license/ID is even more difficult.) When someone started hormone therapy and/or got an official medical diagnosis are also not good indicators of when they actually began identifying as different gender because appropriate trans medical care and hormones are not easy to access.
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:59 PM on August 28 [6 favorites]


Fact: Police had planned to charge Morales with rape as well as murder. However,

However, there was no actual evidence, so the fact is that prosecutors could not bring a charge for a crime because when there's no evidence to support it, that is how the system is supposed to work. What is the "fact" you are attempting to illuminate here, exactly?

Fact: Luis Morales had been charged with arson previously, after setting a fire which directly resulted in the death of six people. Morales, 16 at the time, admitted to the arson but denied knowing people were in the building. Morales was acquitted of all charges after a pivotal witness recanted mid-trial.


Nothing in the second link (the one alleging an admission of guilt) says anything about a confession; the first link is to this thread.
posted by rtha at 2:23 PM on August 28 [3 favorites]


a news article (like the one Misha cited) using someone's birth name and referring to them as male does not mean, at ALL, that they were using that name and identified as male at the time that the article was written.

That's a very good point, and I would not have made the distinctions that I did, but in this specific case I maintain that Luis Morales identified as a male then because the facts support that conclusion. Yes, newspapers et al misgender. But even putting aside the fact that his loved ones (his girlfriend, brother and mother) also referred to Luis Morales with the male pronoun, you cannot get beyond the fact that Luis Morales refers to himself as a man. He specifically states at his trial that he will take his punishment "like a man", even!

In researching this, honestly, there are contradictions popping up all over the place. For instance, the idea that Synthia China-Blast is in solitary because she's a trans woman is hardly a leap for most of us to make. We know that stuff happens. We can see that kind of abuse in the story of the 16 year-old trans girl who filed the affidavit.

But when you look at Synthia China-Blast specifically, she is like the exception to the rule.

Has she been put in solitary since openly identifying as a trans woman? Signs point to nope, not at all. We know that at the very least, years after starting hormonal therapy and legally changing her name (actions which I think we can all agree put any ambiguity about how Synthia self-identified to bed, anyway), Synthia had an intimate relationship with Eddie Seda. There is no indication that she had ever spent a day in solitary confinement prior to that relationship, and certainly not during it.

In 2007, Synthia China-Black filed a suit regarding religious rights (specifically the right/ability to to obtain objects like tarot cards, incense, sage and smudge pots to practice Santeria. Synthia also identifies as a high priestess of Santeria). Synthia China-Blast was almost certainly not in solitary confinement at that time, either, as this was a dual suit, filed along with another inmate, a male (Synthia was in an all-male prison, in the process of transitioning, and the court notes her desire to be referred to in the feminine pronoun, though I detected one instance of misgendering).

In 2011, samples of Synthia's prose were published on another inmate's blog. The blog's focus was the struggle for justice for trans people, even more specifically mtf trans women. Synthia says in one piece that she is considering a name change to Jennifer Nina-Pandora because she has been misgendered as "Mr. Blast". Donna, the blog's owner, makes a point of saying she knows Synthia very well, considers her a friend, and the earlier NY piece cast Synthia in a bad light. Nowhere in Synthia's or Donna's contributions does either woman mention solitary confinement, though it would be extremely pertinent given to the focus of the blog.

I could go on, but I think you can see why I am skeptical about Synthia's solitary confinement claim. It's just not credible.

[rtha, I am sorry about messing up the links; I have been researching this story all day and have been going through a LOT of links. Will try to locate the one with the admission.]
posted by misha at 4:46 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


I've left this alone for two days because I honestly don't really get what you're driving at. You don't just want to semantically pick apart when you're allowed to refer to this particular trans woman as a man, you also want to say that she really isn't treated worse for being a trans woman of color in a men's prison? The solitary confinement thing is terrible, but it is not the sole component of her poor treatment, so even if you were able to somehow prove that a white cis dude in her same situation would also be in solitary, so what? This just isn't stuff that's worth engaging with anyone on.
posted by Corinth at 12:19 PM on August 30 [2 favorites]


Wait, what?

I didn't semantically pick apart anything. I just responded when someone else questioned whether I was misgendering, to clarify that since Luis Morales called himself a man, I went with the way he chose to self-identify.

For me, personally, there are a couple issues being addressed in this thread. The first is that solitary confinement is inhumane, for everyone. The second is the argument that transgender prisoners are subjected to solitary confinement more often simply because the penal system punishes them for being trans.

The first issue is just as important to me as the second is, but I can certainly understand that for the trans community, the second issue is much more personal and relevant to their own lives. So we have mostly been discussing that in this thread, and more specifically Synthia China-Blast's case, because of Laverne Cox's involvement with that.

I don't know why you are bringing up white cis guys, but it seems like some kind of strawman slippery slope argument. And I am having trouble parsing the last bit, too, "This just isn't stuff that's worth engaging with anyone on." I wasn't really attempting to engage anyone in particular; in researching this, I found some facts that seem to contradict the claims Synthia China-Black is making about her specific situation, which is relevant to this discussion, so I put the link in my comment. That's pretty standard stuff. Do you mean you don't really care whether Synthia China-Blast was ever in solitary confinement at all?
posted by misha at 4:27 PM on August 30 [1 favorite]


since Luis Morales called himself a man, I went with the way he chose to self-identify.

That's kind of the crux of the issue here. You went with who she chose to identify, not how she chooses to identify. And you're continuing to do so.
posted by Dysk at 7:15 PM on August 30


Misha - you are coming up across highly contentious stylistic distinctions. Some trans individuals believe that gender is innate, and that even when people identified as their birth gender, they were actually their trans identification gender on the inside, thus speaking of the birth gender is insulting. Others sometimes divide time by their before transition self and their after transition self, and will gender those times differently.

Complicating all this is people who misgender on purpose, so make it hard to tell who is acting in good faith.
posted by corb at 7:27 PM on August 30 [1 favorite]


Your basis for alleging that she's not in solitary, even though we know this happens all the time to trans women in prison, is that she didn't mention it in an unrelated suit about obtaining religious items? And then that she didn't specifically mention in it a brief work of prose? And then that a blogger didn't mention it in a post about how the justice system misgenders trans people to interfere with their treatment? I hope you'll forgive me for sticking with the facts as provided by the SRLP:
The violent gender policing and various forms of trauma she experienced as a youth have only been reproduced and exacerbated while being held in various men’s prisons operated by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) over the past seventeen years.

Synthia has been placed in isolation for over a decade, for her own “protection.” But this isolation has negatively affected her mental health. Isolation has NOT protected her from prison guards who have assaulted her and destroyed her personal property on numerous occasions. Isolation has prevented her from accessing programming, from interacting with other people, from healing. Synthia fears she will not mentally or physically survive the constant physical assaults, verbal harassment and isolation. Rather than be confined to the concrete walls of her cage-like cell, she wants to prepare for her parole board hearing in four years by obtaining her GED and to complete other programs that will help her to heal from the trauma of her childhood and her time in prison. However, being forced to remain in isolation means that she will not be allowed access to any of these opportunities.
I just don't understand why anyone would A) want to do extra work to find a way to misgender someone or B) focus on questioning the near-certainty of a trans woman of color being held in solitary confinement in a men's prison as put forward by a reputable advocacy organization. Both are just such silly wastes of time.
posted by Corinth at 8:21 PM on August 30 [2 favorites]


Corinth, I am not looking for "a way to misgender" anyone, and I haven't misgendered anyone. I think Dysk is confused on that, too, so please let me clarify this.

I consistently and respectfully refer to people according to their own preference. Synthia China-Blast self-identifies as a (transgender) woman, so of course I identify her that way, too.

When she went by the name Luis Morales, though, she referred to HERSELF as a man, so I have been referring to Luis Morales--NOT SYTHIA!!--that way, too. I do know, and respect, that most transgender men and women do NOT want to be addressed by the birth gender that was erroneously assigned to them. I have just tried to go by the timeline Synthia herself set up, in her specific case.

Okay, enough about that, this thread isn't about me.

Look, people exaggerate, they manipulate the system, it happens, whether we like it or not. The SRLP put Synthia China-Blast out there in the spotlight with Laverne Cox, and it blew up in their faces because they didn't do the research. The SRLP may be reputable, but they are not immune from scrutiny, and they do make mistakes. That's why we have this thread, to discuss that situation.

When the central issue--the rights of prisoners--becomes overshadowed by the bigots saying, as they are now, "Wait a minute, that prisoner was convicted for child murder! let's petition to throw Laverne Cox off of OISTNB because she supports child murderers!", I don't see how choosing to be in denial about that particular prisoner (which, sorry, but saying Synthia China-Blast didn't kill anyone really comes across as someone with blinders on) helps anyone.

Your allies already recognize the larger issue is how the trans community is treated within the prison system overall, and that Synthia China-Black is just one example. But we are already allies. The people you need to convince are the *potential* allies out there on the net, learning about all this right now only because Laverne Cox is a celebrity who's bringing attention to the issue.

But now Laverne Cox is choosing to quietly step back in the interest of self-preservation, because she is appalled at the crimes Synthia China-Blast committed. I understand the impulse, though I am disappointed, of course, like others in this thread, as to how that might affect future advocacy for prisoners' rights.

To me, the best weapon against ignorance is always going to be information. Personally, I would WANT to be armed with more information than the bigots I'm up against, so that I could reach out to those *potential* allies. That just seems obvious to me.

Without that information, what else can you do? Right now, it seems like the accepted response has been to flood the net with the "Synthia China-Blast did not kill anyone" message. But don't you care whether that message is true?

You could say, instead, hey, it doesn't matter what Synthia Chna-Blast did, putting anyone in solitary confinement for years is not okay! And I would agree with you! But you don't have to convince me; I am already on your side. If it comes out that actually, Synthia hasn't been in solitary confinement, congratulations, your approach has just given the bigots more weapons for their arsenal. More importantly, you may have alienated those potential allies in the process. So I don't think it is a "silly" waste of time to get our facts straight, at all.

In fact, I think the best strategy is to be upfront and honest about Synthia China-Blast not being the best representative of trans prisoners (because she has serious character and credibility issues that have nothing to do with her being a trans woman), and then steer the conversation to better examples, like that of the sixteen year-old girl who was undeniably forced into solitary because she was transgender.
posted by misha at 2:32 AM on August 31


I think Dysk is confused on that, too, so please let me clarify this.

Don't do this. I am not fucking confused on any of it. If there is any confusion at play here it is yours about what is acceptable address.

When she went by the name Luis Morales, though, she referred to HERSELF as a man, so I have been referring to Luis Morales--NOT SYTHIA!!--that way, too. I do know, and respect, that most transgender men and women do NOT want to be addressed by the birth gender that was erroneously assigned to them. I have just tried to go by the timeline Synthia herself set up, in her specific case.

And this paragraph is an example of how you do that correctly - "SHE referred to HERSELF as a man" etc. Your previous comments are not.


Nobody has an issue referring to, for example, their mother as such even when referencing a time before their own birth, despite the fact that they were not a mother at the time, and would not have recognised themselves as such. Why? Because it's what they are. You use terms of address, names, and pronouns that reference who people are even as you might make reference to who they were. Synthia identified as a man. She went by Luis Morales. My mother was once a little girl. David Bowie was born David Robert Jones. And so on.

It's not complicated, don't pretend like you don't understand.
posted by Dysk at 3:36 AM on August 31


[Folks, this rules lawyering the misgendering problem becomes a real thorn in derailing conversations here. Misha, please go ahead and let the trans* Mefi members be your guide, or check out some of the online guides for allies and journalists, or this Guardian article, for example, and leave off the persistent arguments about why it's okay to use the wrong gender under X circumstances. Thanks. ]
posted by taz at 3:55 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]




The Chelsea Manning case is really interesting, but it does raise a question - are prisoners allowed to engage in legal actions aside from just appeals? It seems like they're not letting her change her gender (which dictates her grooming standards, though I'm confused on which courtesies she's talking about, as they are ungendered at her rank) or name - but aren't those legal processes? Couldn't a civilian judge accomplish the name change process/legal gender change?
posted by corb at 9:42 AM on September 4


The Chelsea Manning case is really interesting, but it does raise a question - are prisoners allowed to engage in legal actions aside from just appeals?

It's well-settled that prisoners have a fundamental right to access of the courts, not just for appeals. Bounds v. Smith is the big case here.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:50 AM on September 4


She has legally changed her name already. Changing your gender marker federally (passport, Social Security) and in most states (driver's license, birth certificate) requires some kind of letter from a doctor or surgeon, and there can be different requirements for different documents*. But if the government is denying her transgender-related health care she won't have had the opportunity to change her gender marker anywhere yet, as I doubt her birth state of Oklahoma is more lenient than the federal requirements.

*For example, here's my letter that was good for everything but my Louisiana birth certificate. The vague wording is intentional - "appropriate clinical treatment" is the key phrase federally (thanks Obama!) and also works with Louisiana's ambiguous wording for state ID.
posted by Corinth at 1:43 PM on September 4


The Chelsea Manning case is really interesting, but it does raise a question - are prisoners allowed to engage in legal actions aside from just appeals?

Absolutely - California prisoners sued over the appalling health care in the prison system and the system is now in receivership. Looks like Riverside County inmates just got the okay for a class action suit, too.
posted by rtha at 2:10 PM on September 4 [1 favorite]


If she's legally changed her name, then the Army is just being ridiculously pointless dicks, especially given how easy it is to change your "Army-legal" name and the fact that you can basically choose a pseudonym when you join.

I mean, we probably already knew that, but I mean, the amount this rises to the level of petty should really be acknowledged.
posted by corb at 3:24 PM on September 4


Chelsea Manning sues federal government for gender dysphoria treatment. Avoid the comments if you're trans.
posted by Corinth at 6:34 PM on September 23


So I'm reading the actual document, and things I'm noting:

1) The lawyer for Manning identifies her as a "transsexual." Any idea if that is a deliberate choice to attempt to medicalize in order to make it sound more like a negative medical condition that needs treatment?

2) Also looks like her legal name change was accomplished, "and prison records updated." - external or internal?

3) Also, if Keller is saying the USDB cannot house a feminized inmate due to risk of rape, aren't there any other military correctional facilities? It's not like women in the Army don't commit crimes.

4) It notes Ledwith is no longer commandant. Because of this?

5) There's actually some really interesting and revealing stuff in the Article 138 process and how it is being handled. They're saying that the people directly over her do not have the authority to impose her treatment, which means the "no" voices are coming from higher. As in, the Army itself is admitting this. That means if this all comes crashing down, they won't be able to blame low level commanders.
posted by corb at 10:31 AM on September 25


Oh! Also interesting news that on Aug 20, they agreed to provide her with women's undergarments.

Also that doctor is going to get into a lot of trouble for admitting that she doesn't have the competence to treat gender dysphoria, sadly, even though it's really brave and honest of her to admit.

On a hilarious side note, I actually was almost represented by her lawyer (Coombs) - there are few reliable activist lawyers and he was one of them. I'm glad to see though that she's getting reputable ACLU representation - I think the quality is likely to be far higher.
posted by corb at 10:36 AM on September 25


1) That's likely, and also any existing government references to trans people are likely to use that old terminology, so they'd probably have to use it to reference existing precedents. WPATH also tends to use it because WPATH is old and Harry Benjamin-y, so if you're appealing to their protocols you might use it for that reason as well. My stupid medical chart uses the old term too, coding for the ICD-10 rather than the DSM-V.

2) I'm not sure. Should be both, though - the name change process and result don't have anything to do with her incarceration, so the state is presumably using her current legal name. Cis inmates change their names, too, so hopefully the prison has at least followed standard procedure for this.
posted by Corinth at 5:13 PM on September 25


Why do you think the doctor would get in trouble for that, just because it bolsters Chelsea's case?
posted by Corinth at 5:15 PM on September 25


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