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Wonky Wednesday: Experiences of Transgender Women in Prison

July 10, 2013
Netflix’s new original series, Orange is the New Black, premieres July 11.

Netflix’s new original series, Orange is the New Black, premieres July 11.

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.

Trans women of color, especially black trans women, encountered sexual assault in jail/prison in the highest numbers.

Trans women of color, especially black trans women, encountered sexual assault in jail/prison in the highest numbers.

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.

Trans women of color reported the highest rates of denial of regular health care and hormones while in prison.

Trans women of color reported the highest rates of denial of regular health care and hormones while in prison.

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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Zander Keig permalink
    July 10, 2013 8:43 pm

    Reblogged this on Zander's Blog.

  2. seth permalink
    July 24, 2013 2:25 pm

    i just started watching this show, but how is it that sophia is housed in a women’s prison, when one of the major problems with treatment of trans prisoners is their being housed in facilities for the wrong gender? does the show just overlook this?

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