Gender Bound: Prisons and the Emergence of Modern Gender

My dissertation examines the production of gender categories in the criminal justice system, a site where gender regulation intersects with racialized control to produce complex inequalities.  The project draws on 20 months of ethnography in transgender prisoner advocacy organizations, data from governmental and social movement archives (1941-2018), and 141 interviews with formerly incarcerated transgender people, advocates, former prison staff, and policymakers.  Criminal justice scholars tend to naturalize binary gender categories, treating the study of gender as the study of women and/or men.  Yet, gender categories are not static.  Carceral capacity determines how prison administrators place individuals in gender categories and deal with outliers.  Shifts in the nature and scale of imprisonment over the past 75 have therefore led prison administrators to regulate gender-nonconformity in four successive ways: containment, treatment, risk management, and ultimately bureaucratic assimilation.  Individual trans prisoners navigate this regulatory infrastructure pragmatically and develop survival strategies based on their embodied, social, and economic resources.  At the level of collective action, trans organizing– within and across prison walls– has remade prison gender rules, but also used the specificity of trans suffering in prison to launch a radical critique of state punishment. In sum, contestation over the materiality of punishment shapes the construction of prison gender categories at the individual, interpersonal, and institutional level.  

Categorical Exclusions: How Racialized Gender Regulation Reproduces Reentry Hardship

This article was published in Social Problems and received the 2020 Arlene Kaplan Daniels Paper Award for the best paper on women and social justice from the Society for the Study of Social Problems.

Since gender organizes key reentry services such as housing, formerly incarcerated people seeking resources must successfully inhabit a gender category. Drawing on seven months of ethnography and 79 interviews with service providers and formerly incarcerated transgender people, I show that these organizational practices of gender categorization are racialized and impact resource access. Most gender-segregated housing programs rely on biology-based definitions of gender. These gender rules create workable options for trans men to stay with women, but bar trans women from the women’s spaces they prefer. Once in gendered housing programs, clients need to navigate gender assessment in interactions. Trans men employed several strategies to establish gendered selves who were easily categorized as either male or female, which allowed them to access stable housing. Gender sanctioning posed a major problem for black trans women. Black trans women were highly scrutinized in women’s programs, characterized as illegitimate based on biological definitions of gender, and harassed for any perceived deviation from gender norms. When harassment escalated into conflict, they were expelled from programs. Regulation of black trans women’s womanhood led to systematic material deprivation. By understanding the connections between categorical exclusions and exclusion from resources we can better understand the reproduction of reentry hardship and inequality more broadly.

Parole Boards and Logics of Criminalized Masculinity

In a paper published in Theoretical Criminology (2020), “‘You’re still an angry man’: Parole boards and logics of criminalized masculinity,” Isaac Dalke and I analyze the racialized gender narratives deployed in parole hearings.  Drawing on 109 California parole hearings, we show how parole commissioners use logics of deserving and dangerous masculinity to assert a boundary between men deemed ready for social reintegration and men relegated to captivity. Parole commissioners proclaim the normative masculinity of parole grantees and cite deviant masculinity to justify denials.  We argue that masculinities provide culturally resonant ways to differentiate between individual men, reifying prisoners’ exclusion from the social order and masking the criminal justice system’s structural role in reinforcing racial domination.

The Social Organization of Sexual Assault

Rather than theorizing sexual assault through a lens of sociopathy, I employ sociological and ecological understandings that push beyond the single dimension of gender and the framework of gender and power. With Shamus Khan, Claude Ann Mellins, and Jennifer S. Hirsch, I have published a paper in the Annual Review of Criminology that critically assesses the existing literature on sexual assault and suggests directions for future research. I am currently writing an empirical paper that uses an ecological approach to theorize how incarcerated trans women understand and navigate violence.

Trans Women and Femmes of Color at Work

Like the criminal justice system, the labor market is a primary mechanism for the reproduction of inequality.  But unlike the criminal justice system, the labor market can also facilitate social mobility.  To understand how the labor market was maintaining or mitigating the structural exclusion of trans women and femmes of color, Woods Ervin and I conducted work history interviews with 23 transgender women and femmes of color in 5 U.S. cities.  We discovered that the 2015 “Transgender Tipping Point,” mostly considered a cultural moment of increased transgender visibility, corresponded with material gains: improved employment status for the people in our sample after 2015.  Yet, challenges remain.  Because trans women and femmes of color gained access to stable jobs primarily in advocacy and social services, their employment “success” required them to take on emotionally taxing work.  Trans women and femmes of color reported being hired by queer people, but facing ongoing hiring discrimination by straight, cisgender people.  Trans women of color regularly lost jobs and, in the face of unaddressed workplace harassment, left jobs of their own accord.  In June, 2020 we released a report, policy brief, and infographic with this data, all of which have been widely circulated. We are currently writing an academic paper based on the data.

Transgender Kinship Organizations

In a paper forthcoming at Organization, “Labor of Love: The Formalization of Care in Transgender Kinship Organizations” I examine a shift in the organization of care for collective trans survival. Historically, trans communities have relied on informal networks of care and chosen family to deal with the deadly combination of state violence and state neglect.  The rapid rise of trans nonprofits means that more trans people now receive resources and support from formal transgender organizations, with responsibility for providing this support concentrated in the hands of a few trans staff members.  But these nonprofits don’t look like traditional social service organizations.  Instead, they are what I call “transgender kinship organizations,” organizations that incorporate norms, networks, and resources from kinship systems into a formal organization providing regular social services to the public.  Drawing on 7 months of ethnography and 36 interviews, I explore how transgender kinship organizations function, develop, and impact broader transgender community. On the one hand, trans kinship organizations are highly responsive to crisis, are able to leverage personal and organizational resources, and are therefore capable of providing personalized rapid-response care to very precarious trans people.  On the other hand, subsuming kinship within a nonprofit transforms relationships of mutual care into unidirectional service relationships and relationships of chosen family into work-based hierarchies.  This account of kinship organizations contributes to the theory on organizational development and provides new conceptual tools for analyzing boundaries between organizations and communities.