Jenny Swift, a woman, was found dead in her cell in an all male prison this week. That is what the headlines should have read. Jenny Swift was denied her ongoing medication and life saving medical treatment while in the care of the state.
"A friend said Swift, 49, had asked to be placed in a women's prison and had become miserable, sad and ill after being refused female hormones in HMP Doncaster."
(credit: The Guardian)
Instead headlines focused on the fact that Jenny Swift was a transgender woman, and that the life saving medication she needed was her hormone therapy. We are not discussing just another death in a prison here, and we are not discussing whether or not Jenny Swift was guilty or whether she should have been in prison. And this is NOT a discussion of mental health and suicide in prisons. This needs to be a discussion about why transgender people have their experiences ignored. Why a transgender identity is given little consideration or respect. Why a transgender person is treated as less of a human being.
Despite this being a conversation about transgender people we don't need to preface every description of Jenny with transgender. We just need to know that she was a woman, and when we drop the unnecessary adjective we come to the plain old truth which is almost too awful to believe. We come to this...
A woman was knowingly incarcerated in an all male prison. She was denied female clothes. She was denied life saving medications. She was called Sir/Mr by prison staff.
If this was not a trans woman we would be in uproar. If this was a cis woman there would be no question of the illegality. And this is where our conversation starts..
WHY IS A TRANS* WOMAN LESS OF A WOMAN THAN A CIS WOMAN?
She's not. But you would think otherwise with the way she is treated. If we really believe in equality the treatment of trans* people would not differ from that of cis people in these cases. The fact that Jenny Swift was jailed in a male prison shows us that the view that trans* people are in fact "dressing up" or "playing a role" is still a widely held view. It is one that is perpetuated by the mainstream media with everything from RuPaul's drag race to Nike adverts.
This is what needs to be addressed, and not in a week, or a few months, but now. It needs to be addressed before more of our trans* siblings are killed. It needs to be addressed now. A woman, whether trans* or not, is a woman. And she does not belong in a male prison. We need to start respecting gender identities, however they present. We need to respect all trans* identities, trans* women who don't like to shave, trans* men who hate their body hair. Trans* men who like to get their hair or nails done, trans* women who lift weights.
In a country where a trans* woman is jailed with men, we are not living in a country where trans* identities are considered equal or valuable. It may seem incidental, an accident, something you see in passing in the newspaper, but the story of Jenny Swift's death is a tale of how invisible trans* people are and how much work there is still to be done.