Race, gender identity, the justice system and the beating of Duanna Johnson

June 27, 2008

The slowness of Black civil rights organisations to denounce the police brutality towards Duanna Johnson in a Memphis Criminal Justice Center (link to my earlier post) has been given a thorough analysis by Monica Roberts, founder of the African-American trans* people online group Transsistahs-Transbrothas, in a couple of posts on her Transgriot blog.

In her first post Yo NAACP, NBJC…Where Y’all At?, Monica reminds us that not only was the victim African-American, but so was the nurse who attended the scene and went directly to the white attacker to see if he was OK; ignoring Ms Johnson who was handcuffed, lying on the floor and clearly in pain.

After the video footage was made public, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) declared a state of emergency about how police treat African-Americans, but, as Monica pointed out, no NAACP local, state or the national chapter spoke about either this case, or the verbal and physical hate attacks on African-American trans* people in general.

She expressed her disappointment at the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC): “I have yet to see one syllable written about it on the NBJC website, the organization that’s supposed to represent me as an African-American transperson”.

By the time of her update post (Nation’s African-American Civil Rights Groups Denounce Beating of Transgender Woman) two days later, although the NAACP remained silent, the NBJC had been joined by the Black Leadership Forum (BLF), an alliance of over thirty national African-American civil rights and social service organizations, in denouncing the incident. (Link to the statement on the NBJC website).

We are deeply troubled by the continuing pattern of incidents across the country – hate crimes, police misconduct, and racial intimidation – that are all-too-often tolerated and ignored by local law enforcement officials and courts. Moreover, despite significant progress in the treatment of LGBTQ people, the targeting of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals for police abuse and misconduct remains a persistent and widespread problem in the US.

It is also worth remembering that trans* people of colour get a ‘double whammy’ in terms of a heightened probablity of abusive behaviour being directed at them because of both race and gender identity issues. Writing in Boston’s New England Blade, the Reverend Irene Monroe says that the real story is about how the intersection of racism and transphobia triggers the violence meted out to trans* people of colour. Rev Monroe considers why this isn’t reported and believes there are at least three reasons:

  • The first reason is an unspoken ‘politics of silence’. Rev Monroe says, “All too often members of the GLBTQ press, especially of-color members, will opt not to report when we are attacked by someone else of color to ensure we don’t look like a race traitor”.
  • Another reason is the ‘politics of avoidance’, which occurs “when black media outlets opt not to cover hate crimes against its LGBTQ population for fear that the white media view violence as synonymous with people of color”.
  • The third reason suggested by Rev Monroe is that “there just aren’t enough openly GLBTQ of-color reporters”. She cites the fact that only this month, and for the first time in its history, a Boston-based African-American newspaper wrote a piece on black queer culture. “Why? Because Katherine Patrick came out. Katherine is the daughter of our governor, Deval Patrick, the second African-American elected governor in the US”.

Crimes against trans* people in general often go unnoticed, and the fact that we call Ms Johnson ‘lucky’ for surviving the attack (since violence against trans* people of colour often results in death), shows how far we still need to go as a society.

As Ms Johnson explained, Officer McRae attacked her because she refused to respond to the pejorative names he called her:

“Actually he was trying to get me to come over to where he was [to be fingerprinted], and I responded by telling him that wasn’t my name – that my mother didn’t name me a ‘faggot’ or a ‘he-she’, so he got upset and approached me. And that’s when it started.”

Some trans* people find that getting others to address them by the correct pronouns is difficult enough, but issues of race, gender identity, and sexual orientation frequently trigger a violence against trans* people of colour that the media should not let go unreported. Not reporting what is happening to members of the LGBTQ community risks leaving unchecked the violence we all risk facing. In the words of London Dexter Ward, an LAPD police officer who transitioned in 2004, “A white person who transitions to a male body just became a man. I became a Black man. I became the enemy”.

Many trans* people are routinely subjected to hate speech and street harassment, and that can sometimes be hard to take, but add racism into the mix as well as a mass media that is reluctant to report it, and the situation becomes completely unacceptable.


For further reading on the links between race, gender identity and the part they play in the levels of abuse that trans people suffer when they come into contact with the justice system, see the Amnesty International USA’s report Stonewalled: Police abuse and misconduct against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the US. (Direct link to PDF download of the full report here).


(Cross-posted at The F Word on 27 June 2008)

©2008 Helen G


One Response to “Race, gender identity, the justice system and the beating of Duanna Johnson”

  1. Mary Neal Says:

    Perhaps Black civil rights orgs. care little about rights of people who society labels “abnormal” like Duanna Johnson and my own brother, Larry Neal, a mentally ill heart patient who was secretly arrested until his death in Shelby County/Memphis Jail on 8/1/03. Search Internet for WRONGFUL DEATH OF LARRY NEAL. Unfortunately, Ms. Johnson’s beatdown is not irregular treatment of people who show “deviant” behavior — mentally ill people like my brother actually fare much worse than she did. The news of my brother’s secret incarceration and death in that facility is so SECRET that we are the only American family in the 21st century to have a family member secretly arrested and returned to his family as a corpse with no explanation, apology, arrest records, excuses, and denied any investigation. Civil rights orgs. do not respond to our requests for assistance (perhaps to protect The Cochran Firm, whom we are suing for fraud – pretending under contract to be our wrongful death attorneys, but actually working on behalf of our defendants, the jail where Duanna Johnson was beaten and my brother died years earlier). Furthermore, the story of Larry Neal’s demise is completely blocked out of mainstream media. Only online can his family tell about this tragedy — and we are blocked out of some online sites as well. See http://wrongfuldeathoflarryneal.com. I hope Duanna Johnson sees this — she needs the information there.

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