Toward Self-Determination

An interview with trans activist Monica James

With her work existing at the intersection of prison abolition and transgender rights, Monica James visited Geneva this month to address the United Nations Committee Against Torture on the criminalization of transgender women of color. There, she spoke alongside members of the Transformative Justice Law Project (TJLP) of Illinois, United States Human Rights Network, and the Women’s All Points Bulletin. Her trip was made possible through a crowdsourcing campaign that raised over five thousand dollars. James, herself a transgender woman and activist born and raised on the South and West Sides, works with the TJLP to help low-income and homeless transgender people access fair legal counsel and adequate healthcare. I met with Monica James to discuss her activism, her upbringing, and her trip to Geneva—her first time entering an airplane.

What activist work do you do?

I am a prison abolitionist, as well as [an activist] working with gender self-determination and transformative justice law.

In prison abolition, what we hope to achieve is to go inside the prison system and empower people who find themselves targeted by police or by the state. That targeting leads to harassment, and [harassment] leads to a verbal altercation, and that verbal altercation has a way of spinning out of control and the trans person is left criminalized for, like, aggravated battery, or criminal transmission of HIV and AIDS because someone may have gotten bitten or scratched. Just by walking trans, they are profiled and targeted based upon their gender.

As far as transformative justice, we try to work side-by-side with politicians, lawmakers, state’s attorneys, public defenders, and other private lawyers to [inform] them of the experiences of trans people in a way that better aligns them in their mitigation and litigation for the innocence of a trans defendant or victim. Once you get inside and empower a person with the skills and tools that they need to better understand society, better understand their rights, their dignity is rebuilt.

In gender self-determination, our goal is to affirm everyone in their desired gender expression. We have a “Name Change Mobilization” every last Friday of the month. It’s a lengthy process, but so far we have had great success with assisting trans-identified individuals as well as gender-nonconforming individuals with a name change that aligns with their gender expression.

In doing so, this allows them to not run into so many barriers when it comes to entering mainstream society in search of housing, access to healthcare, employment, as well as providing a safe passage for them. Name change also leads to gender marker change for some. We also provide an outlet toward doctors who are trans-inclusive and trans-affirming, and have great experience with gender hormone replacement therapy, which is part of transitioning.

How have your own experiences led you to your activist work?

In 2007, I was a part of the black market as a trans woman of color coming from a poor legacy, a legacy of poverty. I was not equipped with the tools necessary for me to move ahead in society. My gender presented different barriers for me, which denied me access into mainstream society as early as my senior year in high school—I came out, I was kicked out of high school.

From there, I found myself working in the sex trade, and from working in the sex trade I was introduced to drugs, and from being introduced to drugs, I had to find a means to support that drug habit. And retail theft became part of my means of survival. I would go into the stores and steal high-end marketed clothing and sell that clothing to various people for half the ticket price. That was part of my living.

And one day in August of 2007, I was committing a retail theft, and there was an off-duty police officer in the store. I was at a store located in the heart of Boystown and this off-duty police officer approached me, and insisted that I return back to the store. I was reluctant to turn back to the store, so he slung me out in the middle of the streets. And from there, he attacked me in the middle of the streets with a gun. He literally beat me with the butt of his gun.

From there, it was an all-out fight. Sometimes I like to think of it as an all-out brawl, because it lasted more than thirty minutes. In that altercation, there was a gun shot that went off…I was faced with the possibility of being criminalized for twenty to eighty years for attempted murder of an off-duty police officer, aggravated battery, discharge of a firearm, some kind of bodily harm to a police officer. The charges just went on and on and on.

The fact that I was attacked by this police officer led people in organizations such as the TJLP to believe that I was profiled, and had I not been a woman of color, had I not been a transgender woman that was identified as [such], I probably would not have had that experience. They felt the need to come to my side and advocate with me and in doing so, they gave me the strength to stand up and fight for my rights.

If you’re innocent, there shouldn’t be a problem with you getting up and telling your story. There shouldn’t be a problem with you feeling comfortable with sharing your experience. People started to funnel me in different works, different pieces—academic pieces. Things based on the Black Power movement, with people like Assata [Shakur], Angela Davis, Huey Newton. One day I received a book by Assata, and her story just evoked a sense of dignity and pride in me, and I found the strength to stand up and go to trial.

We wasn’t very successful with that trial, and one of the reasons why we wasn’t successful was because I was trans, and my whole defense team was gender-variant-identified. Because of that, the state’s attorney said to the jury, “How does this person ever expect us to believe anything they say, if they’re already presenting us with a lie? We know that they were born one gender, and here they are representing another gender. And for that, I ask that you find these people capable of lying.”

And with that testimony—you know, I have had dirt kicked in my face, I have been stabbed everywhere except the bottom of my feet—I looked over at the faces of the people who were supporting me, and they were deeply hurt by that. They were wounded. That right there made me say, “You know what, I’ll defy everything that you said about us.” And in doing that, I rebuilt my life. I restructured my life.

And now today, I know the struggles the people we serve are going through. I can see those struggles, because in my forty-three years of living, I’ve had every single one of those struggles, if not five times over, because of my long, extended period in that underground world. And so getting out and telling my story with people who are still in the grips of it is very therapeutic for me.

How do you think your identity and identity politics influence the way you see the world?

My identity and my politics influence me to see the world the way that I do because I actually lived it. I know what it’s like to have been kicked out of school because I was identified as queer, or trans. I know what it’s like to be assaulted by peers because I was queer. I know what it’s like to have my resume or job application balled up because I identified as queer. I know what it’s like to go and be housed in a prison of 1,499 men and be the only trans woman there.

At the end of the day, police presence—a strong police presence—is nothing but a militia. They’re creating all this ruckus in our lives so that we can never come together and form strong, safe communities without being policed and controlled by an agency of militants. When they come, they come with hostility. They come with the intent of controlling. And in controlling, there’s a lot of aggression that has to be displayed, and some of that aggression is false, because you find out that behind that uniform is a great person. And a great person can’t be that great person when they’re amongst that whole multitude. And the “serve and protect” aspects of it are so thrown out the window that society today is lawless. A moment without the fight is a moment in, like, heaven. It’s like a shopping spree.

Growing up, what was your process of coming to terms with your identity?

It took me years. For years and years and years, I was walking in a lie, you know. I was living a lie. It was visible that I was queer or had the possibility of being queer, but out of fear I would always reject it. Like, “I know I’m not queer, I know I’m not gay. I’m just really nice.” But all in all, I knew that I was gay and I was gay.

So…yeah, I had my experience. My senior year, a period during my summer vacation, I just started going out with different friends that I had met and on Fridays and Saturdays we would get together and dress up, and we would go out. And by the time the school year started back, I was hooked. I felt free, I felt liberated. I took it to school and I was kicked out of school my senior year, that first day. And it was one of the most devastating blows that I ever felt. Because in that moment I realized that I didn’t belong, and now I needed to find a place where I belonged. And that place that I found where I belonged was with an older community that had been beaten, worn, rejected, alienated, ostracized, and criticized for who they are.

I found myself in a way that I became proud of who I am. That feels good to me. I don’t need surgeries to solidify who I am.

What were you doing in Geneva?

I’ve never had a feeling that was close to the experience that I felt in Geneva. For that moment in Geneva, I knew that the lights were on me, but I was totally selfless the whole time that I was in that light. And I made it a point to be selfless, because I felt like I had been blessed with so many opportunities that it was time for me to create space for others to be able to come forth and share their stories, and for others to find their safe space.

And so in my address to the UN, I talked about passability. Passability is when a trans person or a gender nonconforming person or a queer-identified person is able to walk into mainstream society without being identified as such. In our community, we call it clocked. It’s when a person can walk in society without being clocked. I talked about prison abolition, how trans women of color are profiled and targeted by law enforcement, by the state, how they are victims but [portrayed] to be the villains.

I talked about criminalization, how they are forced into stints of isolation, and how isolation brings about deterioration of a human being, how isolation brings about suicide ideations. And it was highlighted by the United Nations that, yes, anything beyond fifty days of isolation, you have killed that human being. Once you kill that human being, they have nothing left.

So I talked about all those things and how they lead into things like homelessness, because we now know the LGBTQ community is leading the numbers in so many casualties. A few trans women had been there prior to my visit there, and they wasn’t successful. I learned that for fifteen years they had been trying to get trans issues on the table, and just when I showed up was when we got these issues on the table, so I was really elated by that.

There was a sense of power that came out of that situation, as a woman that came from the trenches of the trenches, had this long history of negative light shined upon her…and to be standing in front of a committee of such power, and having their utmost respect and attention for what I had to say, it was empowering. It was empowering because I never, in a whole million years, dreamed that I would be speaking at the United Nations. And then not only just speaking, but having real success.

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