Wonky Wednesday: Experiences of Transgender Women in Prison
By Chris Quach, Jaime Grant Research Fellow
This Thursday, Netflix will be premiering Orange is the New Black, an original series about a privileged woman’s run-in with the law and her experiences in a federal women’s prison. Aside from its adaptation from Piper Kerman’s bestseller memoir of the same name, OITNB is garnering much attention for its portrayal of Sophia Burset, a black transgender MTF prisoner portrayed by trans actress Laverne Cox. All too rarely do we encounter a show that offers viewers a unique look at a multidimensional transgender character, played by an actual transgender person.
In a time when only 5% of all LGBT-inclusive television hours include transgender people, I think this show provides viewers with an insightful look inside the life of a trans woman of color. But beyond that, it opens up a much-needed dialogue around the treatment of trans women in the prison system. In the joint report from the Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, sexual assault was found to be a major problem affecting trans people in prison, with 38% of black trans women reporting such assaults. In addition to this, 16% of MTF respondents reported denial of regular health care while in jail/prison, and almost a fifth (24%) reported denial of hormones.
According to Buzzfeed, OITNB even portrays this mistreatment as seen through Sophia’s eyes. She is frequently misgendered by her fellow inmates and at one point denied estrogen treatment, causing hair to start growing on her chin. By putting a face to these experiences, Laverne Cox uses Sophia to communicate the issues of many trans women to a wide non-trans audience.
The show has already received wide acclaim, rave reviews, and renewal for a second season before the series premiere has even aired. Could this mean that we may see more of Cox’s character in the weeks and months to come? I certainly hope so. Trans actors representing the actual experiences of trans people are few and far between in mainstream media, and depictions of trans people in prison are practically unheard of. Stories like these are shared by more people than we think, and it’s about time people started listening to them.