Imara Jones: Hey, fam! It’s me, Imara Jones. Welcome to the TransLash Podcast, a show where we share trans stories to save trans lives.
Well, we certainly entered into Black History Month with a bang. This podcast, thanks to all of your support, received a GLAAD nomination for best podcast. The awards will be held this spring, but either way, we feel so gratified at all of your support and listening. That’s made it possible for us to be in contention for this top award. Thank you so much.
Well, as I mentioned, we’re fully into Black History Month and what that means is that we have to look into the issues that are extremely relevant for Black trans people in this moment. And there is none other that is nearly as high as that of the issue of mass incarceration and what we call the criminal justice system. As we know in recent years, there’s been a growing focus on the fact that there cannot be liberation for Black trans people without substantial reform of the criminal justice system. As a matter of fact, one out of three Black people according to the National Center for Trans Equality has been jailed or incarcerated at some point in their life, and we know that that type of incarceration or jailing has a massive impact on the life chances, mental health, and long-term stability and prosperity that individuals who have contact with it.
That’s why I’m thrilled to be talking to 2 people today who are working on the front lines of substantial change advocating for abolition, or criminal justice reform, de-incarceration, or the end of mass incarceration, whatever you call it, 2 people who are devoting their lives to Bringing about the change and re-imagination that we need. Now incidentally, we know that the criminal justice system is in many ways tied to the system of enslavement and ongoing persecution of black people. We can read about those connections in the TransLash guide to Black History Month on translash.org.
First, I’m joined by Ashley Diamond to discuss her experience in the carceral system and her fight for justice for all trans people even while behind bars.
Ashley Diamond: I just want people to know that I’m so much more than what they think. And for me to be able to take this pain and try to turn it into something good, it’s the best thing that could possibly come from this.
Imara: Then I’ll talk with Toni-Michelle Williams about her work to fundamentally reimagine what public safety means for Black trans people and how to guarantee it.
Toni-Michelle Williams: I know and I have clear visions, too about how we can support each other, and save each other, and keep each other safe without police. And in fact, we’ve been doing it for quite some time.
Imara: I can’t wait to get to these important and difficult conversations. But just a note, this episode contains references to physical and sexual assault, as well as other types of traumas. So, please do what you need to do to take care of yourself. Despite the fact that these conversations are rough though, they’re vital for us to have. And with that, let’s start off as always, with some Trans Joy.
Ashley Diamond made national headlines in 2016 after her landmark victory against the Georgia Department of Corrections, but it takes a village to make these victories happen. That’s why I wanted to highlight the work of one of the many members of Ashley’s legal team, who had been working tirelessly behind the scenes. Chinyere Ezie is a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights where she advocates for racial and gender justice, LGBTQ rights, and fearlessly challenges governmental abuses of power. She has also served as a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center where she defended LGBTQ Southerners like Ashley Diamond.
Here’s Chinyere to tell us more about her experience working on Ashley’s case.
Chinyere Ezie: Even though Ashley’s advocacy has been about, again, some of the worst things that humans can experience. You know, sexual abuse, having your basic dignity ignored. I think there have been all these profound moments of joy on our case and our casework together that have been just brought about by connection. Very early on Ashley transcended being a client and became akin to my sister and there is joy in a collective struggle when you’re linking arms with people who you trust and believe, you know, share your vision for a better world and a world where more is possible. And I think that those moments of connection really have buoyed both Ashley and myself in our years of working together.
Imara: Chinyere Ezie, you and all the other members of Ashley Diamond’s legal team are Trans Joy.
I’m so honored to be speaking with trans rights protagonist, Ashley Diamond. Ashley was first incarcerated in a maximum-security prison for men in 2012 for pawning a saw stolen by her then-boyfriend. During her 3 years there, she experienced sexual assault, was denied access to hormone therapy, and was punished for her gender expression with solitary confinement. Ashley teamed up with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center to sue the Georgia Department of Corrections for better treatment of incarcerated trans people, including gender-appropriate placement and medically necessary care. With the support of the US Department of Justice, Ashley, and her lawyers reached a landmark settlement that led to statewide and national reforms for trans people in prison.
Ashley was released in 2015 but was re-imprisoned at a men’s facility, only a few years later after a minor, technical violation of her parole, by traveling out of state to get medical treatment. She and other allies launched the Free Ashley Diamond campaign in response to raise awareness about her continued imprisonment and experiences of discrimination, as well as the prison industrial complex at large.
But Ashley is so much more than her greatest traumas. She is a complex person with hopes and dreams and people who love her. She is also a talented singer and does an outstanding Whitney Houston impersonation, which we got to get our hands on. Ashley, I’m so truly grateful for you, to take the time with me today. Thank you so much.
Ashley: Thank you so much for having me. It’s like therapy every time I get a chance to, you know, speak about these things. So it’s great to be here, and I appreciate it again.
Imara: Thank you. So, first of all, Ashley, tell us about you as a young person. Where did you grow up and what were your hopes and dreams? What did you see for yourself as a child?
Ashley: When I was growing up, I remember being five years old and I used to watch a cartoon called Jem- Jem and the Holograms. And of course, I identified with Jem right away. And I was a normal kid except for the fact that at a very young age, I knew that I was different. I remember marching into the living room and telling my family, “I’m different than everybody else.”
And they’re like, “What do you mean?”
I was like, “I’m a girl, but no one knows it.” And so you can imagine what that was like. My mom was in the military, so she traveled a lot. And my father was a construction worker and his father was a pastor. So I had very strong Southern Baptist roots. When I was a child, I didn’t, you know, you don’t know the difference between gender and this and that, I just wanted to be free. And I knew that me being free will involve me becoming myself. And so as time went on, that’s what I wanted to do and I wanted the normal things. I just wanted a boyfriend, and good friends and I wanted to be a singer and you know, I just had very simple plans. But as I got older life got very complicated. And, you know, I can remember my father telling me, “Life is going to be so hard for you,” and that was one of the reasons he had such a hard time dealing with transition but he was right. It’s been very hard, but you know, I had the normal dreams and aspirations that any little girl does.
Imara: When did it get complicated for you? When did you come out of this stage of self-expression and innocence as you say? And when did you first realize, “Oh, wow. The fact that I am trans…” I don’t know if he even had that language. But whenever this happens…[crosstalk]
Ashley: Yeah. Back then, it was transsexualism.
Ashley: And I’ll give you a little back data on that. I remember as I was going through high school, I really struggled and I tried to commit suicide. And so, I was hospitalized in an institution. And when I was there, I met the doctor, and he kind of clarified what I was going through and he said that there was a cure and the cure would be for me to take a female hormone regimen and for me to live out the gender in which I was, or thought I was. And so, that’s what I began to do.
I moved in with a privileged white family who took me in because my family really, once I started really transitioning, they really struggled with that. And so- but this other family allowed me to be myself and to do things that, you know, any normal kid would want to do. Sports, all of those things. It was a dark time because I think what a lot of people don’t get is like, nobody aspires or wishes to be, I don’t want to say ‘different’, but w-what some would consider ‘affliction.’ No one wants to welcome these problems into life about not being accepted and not being liked by your family and not… I mean, no one would wish for that. And it’s disturbing because there are so many people that refer to this as a lifestyle. And I just totally think that it’s not. I think that there needs to be more work done in educating people on that because, as you can see with where it’s going with, you know, the laws and with how early kids can start transition and all of these things, I think it’s becoming complicated because we’re not really understanding that this is just something that naturally just happens. Like, I don’t think that you ask for it. I don’t think that you plan it. I think that it is just what it is.
And so… With my real name being Ashley because my mom named me for Ashley Wilkes from Gone With the Wind. So, it just so happened to be perfect. Because, Ashley Diamond, is my real name. There were things that I knew lined up to make me who I am. And I knew that it was the right thing to do.
Imara: There’s so much [inaudible] and your mom, naming you Ashley Wilkes, or after Ashley Wilkes from Gone with the Wind. One of the things I always thought from that movie is that Ashley was queer. So there’s something, [crosstalk]
Ashley: I did too! Oh, my God! [crosstalk] Yes, and he was so cute.
Imara: There’s something in it. I was like… Yeah. I was like, “Yeah. There’s a reason why he isn’t that interested in Scarlet.” Because that Scarlet is [crosstalk]
Ashley: And that’s why I thought [crosstalk]
Imara: Right. So you begin to transition and to live with this family and to be in a more stable environment. When did you meet the boyfriend that would actually end up helping to upend your life? When did- when did that happen?
Ashley: Again, growing up in a very small town, Rome, Georgia, you know, everybody knows everybody. I found my first boyfriend. He was actually my high school sweetheart. We were together for many years, about 9 years and one day, he, you know, become a bit of a rebel. He was a bad boy, so to speak. He was spoiled and came from a good family and he also had me so convinced that he was the only person that would ever love me. And girls, don’t ever fall for that, but yeah, I totally like believed that he was the only person that really would accept me for who I was. And he always reminded me of that.
Yeah, that was a difficult thing. So he had a couple of friends, I think they were, you know, doing what bad boys do, and they needed a saw pawned. And so he was like, “Do you have your ID?”
And I was like, “Yeah.”
He’s like, “Well, none of us have ID. Would you go pawn it?”
And so, gladly, I walked in the store. I let them photograph me. I showed my ID because I’m not thinking I’m doing anything illegal. I think I’m doing, you know, my boyfriend a favor.
Ashley: Well, a few weeks later, there was a warrant for my arrest. I was arrested, put in the Floyd County jail. Oh my God, I don’t even want to tell you what that’s like. Mayberry meets chainsaw is what the Floyd County Jail is like. But it was surreal because that’s when I realized that I was in trouble. And as someone who had never been in trouble before, I started to really get scared.
Ashley: And they were not giving me hormone therapy there. It was really bad, so I took the case to trial and because there was a mistrial they said, “Listen, we don’t have to do another trial. That could take 6 more months but you’d have to stay in jail.”
I was like, “Oh, no no no. I’ve got to get out of here.”
And so they were like, “Well, we’ll offer you a plea deal. We’ll just give you probation and you can walk out the door.”
And I was like, “Yeah,” not knowing, not realizing that that is the machine, that is the trap that gets us all. I accepted the probation. Went a few years, never any problems, and for some reason, they revoke that probation and that is why I went to prison and even the judge was like, “Oh you’re a great person,” all this. “You just need to find somewhere where your lifestyle is accepted.” And, “Here’s 12 years have a good life.”
I can’t even begin to tell you what that’s like. As just any human being, knowing that you’re about to face 12 years of your life being in prison for a saw on top of that. It was one of those situations.
Imara: Yeah, I mean I think that you know, so many people, and this continues to shock me, believe that the criminal justice system is like Law and Order, right? And then it all lines up in a certain way and that everyone is acting within the highest ideals of the system. And that it’s just basically getting “the bad guys”. And I think that one of the things that your case is so instructive upon is the way in which who we are as people, that is to say how the system sees and values our lives, determines how it interacts with us.
Ashley: Beautifully said.
Imara: Like, I’m going to borrow that, because that is the key and that is one of the things that I am determined to show. I believe- I’m one of these people who, you know, believe that you have to show people in action and in truth and in your life. And that is why I open up so much because people really need to understand that you get prejudged and they base serious things, not even knowing you, just because of what their fears or what their ideals of you being. And that is certainly a mis-justice. It is such a mis-justice. Because even though I have a 7th-grade education I have worked very hard to educate myself and to be a better person and a member of society. And you know, sometimes it is just rejected all the way out. And I think that’s unfortunate.
Like, it is one thing for people to say, “Oh, I don’t agree with you,” you know, “doing this or that.” That is fine. But when it comes down to you being mistreated, physically abused, to verbal abuse, like, there has to be some fine line. And unfortunately, legislation is not getting it. People are not getting it and it’s frustrating.
Imara: And so the judge says, you know, basically, “You’re not really accepted here. So 12 years, here you go. And maybe after the 12 years, you can go somewhere and put it back together.” So you’re in the Georgia Department of Corrections system. And I’m wondering if you can take us into the world of what it is like to be black and trans and that system because first of all…
So we already know that like being black in the carceral system in a state that is, you know, known for having a very harsh penal system is already going to be a frightening and terrible experience, but then for someone who is black and trans, that’s even deeper. Can you just take us into what it means to be black and trans in a carceral system?
Ashley: I can honestly tell you that it was a nightmare. Like, I think that people have this idea, you know, that prison is like… People say, “Oh they work out. They have weights. They have all these things.” No, no, no, no, no. I don’t think people really understand and it’s not supposed to be comfortable, I understand that. But from the moment I was there, I was stripped naked in front of other men, with breasts and everything and long hair. It was a humiliating and degrading experience. When I remember being on the bus and them calling my name and I stood up and their words were exactly, “What the fuck?” and I knew then that it was going to be hard.
I can remember getting in there and them saying, “What is your name?”
And I’d be like, “Ashley.”
And they’d be like, “Don’t start that shit.”
I’d be like, “Well, you said[?], go by your last name.” I’d be like, “Diamond.”
They’d be like, “Uh-uh. Not one of those.”
Like I even couldn’t use my name because people just didn’t like it. They felt like it was made up or they just felt like it was inappropriate. I was literally told by the state of Georgia that I’m a man and they’re going to make a man out of me. And that’s what they did or tried to do.
Let’s see. If you are a 135-pound transwoman with breasts and they put you in a cell with a 240-pound guy who’s not had sex with somebody since the last person he raped and killed. Like, I don’t understand what people think is going to happen. Literally, the worst happened and it happened frequently. There was always someone trying to touch me or manipulate me. There are a lot of smart people in prison, unfortunately. There are a lot of intelligent people there and they- it gets tricky. And me being so, I guess with the word for it was ‘green’, my goal was I need to do the best thing I can.
I fought my case the whole time but they would always constantly set me into these scenarios. Like, if I ask for protective custody, I go to protective custody but I’m in there with the leader of a gang, you know. I can remember one time sliding a note to one of the ladies telling her that I had been assaulted and like, they balled it up and threw it in the trash. I don’t think people really understand. I don’t care whether you agree if I’m a woman or not. I don’t think that putting someone with breasts and hips into a setting with all men and think that nothing is going to happen and that no one is going to try to do anything. And that’s always what they did. I just wanted to be safe and they failed me miserably, time and time again. And unfortunately, it wasn’t just due to systematic practices. Because guess what, the Department of Corrections has had a policy for over 30 years for how they treat transsexuals. There was a protocol in place, it just was never followed with me.
Imara: When you were sent to solitary, did you feel that that was a part of the penalty that like, being isolated…?
Ashley: I requested it at times.
Ashley: There were times that I requested it for safety because they were just not providing any. And then when I realized that solitary wasn’t safe either, you know, I was diagnosed with PTSD after that. When I realized that it wasn’t safe and that it wasn’t a good place to be, you know, I don’t think people understand you’re not allowed to talk to your family, even though you’re there for protection. I can’t talk to my family. I can’t receive mail. I can’t do anything. I’m just sitting in a 6×8 cell staring at the wall and a hole in the floor to use the potty in. And it’s almost as if I were double punishing myself by just asking for help.
Imara: Can you tell us what made you decide that you were going to fight back? You launched 2 lawsuits that have had massive impacts in terms of the treatment of trans people in jail. And even though the second one was one you decided not to pursue also still did the same of advancing this particular issue. So I’m just wondering when in this experience did you say, “You know what, I’m going to sue for the things that I need. I’m going to essentially sue to have me recognized.”
Ashley: It was about what was right. I have always been a defender of the weak and what is right. Even though I’m frail and fragile myself, I always had. So I think that what it was, it was just me deciding that enough was enough. And you got to understand there were so many young girls and young LGBT boys there that were there for foolish things and they were victimized too. And like, these people look up to me and it was something I didn’t take lightly and I had to fight.
So I had to figure out. I knew that verbally and having people call was not gonna do anything. I knew that I legally had to take some action because I’ve represented myself many times and, you know, I know Mark Twain says, “A person who represents himself has a fool for a client,” but it was starting to pay off because I would stick to the facts. You know, it’s one thing to go out and have a lawyer and tell him your story and then they fight it. But it’s quite another when you’re fighting it because I really put my heart and soul into my complaints and um, shepardizing cases and citations and things like that are never, never easy to do anyway.
So, you know, once I had the technical aspect, I literally, between you and I, knew the only way to beat this was to get legal legislation. And to be honest with you, I did not expect it to go well, because I knew where people were, but I knew that I had a legal right not to be treated this way. I knew that much, and I knew that it was disgusting. And so I decided to fight and I filed my complaint and what was amazing is that filing the complaint process[?], I made it through all the hurdles and then the judge, you know, let my case go forward then I teamed up with lawyers, the SPLC, David Dinelli whom I love very much, and Chinyere became my lawyers and we fought. And literally, let me tell you, it was always something. I would get drugged to the whole… It was really bad.
I’m sorry that people like, I don’t have a camera to show you like the pictures but this was regulated abuse because it was okay. And that’s what people will say, “Well, you’re the one that chose that, that’s what you deserve. You’re the one that do that. And that’s what you deserve,” you know. I don’t feel that way. I don’t care who you are, you don’t deserve to be raped, you don’t deserve to be mistreated, you don’t deserve to be grabbed on, you don’t deserve to be called out of your name.
Let’s talk about how the department didn’t rehabilitate me. They didn’t do anything for me.
Imara: One of the things that you are getting to in this is the toll of just the many layers of marginalization and trauma and attack, and that have been visited upon you and that you continue to experience and the toll that they take on us. And you’ve been involved in so many fights. I mean, it’s countless fights, not only these legal ones but all the interpersonal ones that you’ve taken us through, and I think that it just helps to clarify why in your second case the one where you were suing to no longer have trans people to be housed in facilities that don’t match our gender. Why there was a decision not to continue to pursue that case? You’d already want to a landmark case. You were out of prison already because this case is proceeding right now and you decided not to go forward with it in part because of the toll that these fights take on you. And I’m wondering if you can just talk a little bit about that decision. Your instinct is to fight, but what went into the decision to say, “You know, the second lawsuit, we’re not going to do this right now.”
Ashley: To be honest with you, a lot of that was because of spiritual guidance. When there’s nobody, you have to find something to hold onto. You have to. And I found something. God was incredible with how he spoke to me. And I know a lot of people are not gonna like this, but it is the truth. I literally asked him. I said, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” I was crying all the time. Like, I literally have lost 30 pounds from just the stress from all of this. And not to mention, always having to talk about it, always being reminded of it. It was doing me more harm than good and I said, “You know what, these people you can’t fight no matter what I did even if we won another landmark case.”
I’m so happy for the strides that I’ve been able to make for my people and there have been many, and I know a lot of people see this as a cop-out but it’s not, it was simply because the spirit told me to stop. That my life was valuable, that the best way for me to let people see that is to take the high ground, and to heal myself, and to be better and stronger because they know what they did. And to me, 250 more thousand dollars is not going to solve that problem.
Imara: Yeah, during your first years of incarceration, you sued to be able to have access to gender-affirming care. That went through. That was a breakthrough case. Then in this second re-incarceration over this minor infraction. This is when you were then suing again to not be included in a men’s facility and that case was moving forward and this is the one where you just decided as you just told us not to pursue because of the guidance that you were receiving and then it’s just what didn’t feel right in your spirit. And I think, you know when you mention the settlement that the state gave you, yeah. I mean, there’s some things that past a certain point, compensation can’t straighten out, but you’ve decided to free yourself actually from this hellish period of contact with the carceral system. And I’m wondering if any of the dreams that you had that we began with are re-emerging.
Ashley: Now, I’m very excited because the best way for me to tell stories is through my songs and my music. And so I am… In fact, Elliot Page, who was a big supporter of the Free Ashley Diamond campaign. I’m recording a single now called Ouch, Elliot, which is a version of my story. It touches base on suicide and a lot of things. It’s an inspirational song. I think people are going to like it. I did record a song while I was in prison. I was fortunate enough then to bring the recording equipment there. That is definitely a single that I’m going to be releasing as well. Working on this book, The Memoirs of a Chain Gang Sissy. It’s my book. It’s my story. Talks about the whole prison system. My experience with everything and everybody that was involved with this case and just really gives you an inside look at the life of a trans person, much less a trans person who did this. Because it’s not too shabby that, you know, be backed by the justice department twice. I think that that is a pretty good accolade.
But I just want people to know that I’m so much more than what they think. And for me to be able to take this pain and try to turn it into something good is the best thing that could possibly come from this. So I’m just looking forward to be speaking in Texas next week, and then I’ll be back in New York. So, the motivational speaking, and the music, and the writing is what is really going to keep me going. It’s going to be my bread and butter and it’s also going to be the tools in which I can give the world back long after I’m gone.
So people say, “Hey,” you know. I still get letters from so many teens and college kids and- and pastors, and everyone. It’s just amazing to have that support. Everybody from Jaxon Willard to Laverne Cox, to Janet Mock, to Cece Winans. Like, I’m very, very lucky that I have the platform that I have. I just want to make sure that I am strong enough, healthy enough, and well enough to do what is necessary. And I also want to show people that it is possible to turn things around. I know it’s not normal to get out of prison and think you’re going to become a best-selling pop star. But why not?
Ashley: I mean, why not?
Imara: Well, Shea Diamond did. So, like I think [crosstalk]
Ashley: Exactly. Exactly my point.
Imara: Yes, she very much did and is now… Same with Sam Smith and Cyndi Lauper, and a whole bunch of other people. My last question is I’m wondering if you still watch Jem and the Holograms.
Ashley: I do. I have every episode. Literally, it is frozen on the TV right now. I have every doll. I would love to send you pictures of my collections of Jem stuff. The writer of Jem actually messaged me, and it was so touching to have Christy Marx, oh my God, like, the writer, the creator reach out to me on email. So, yes, in fact, to be honest, I’m trying to get Marvel to do a Jem movie. And I’m trying to play the character. So I have this campaign on Twitter where I’m like, “Okay, Marvel. It’s time to do this and let’s do it right.”
I know a lot of people would be like, “A black Jem?” Why not? Of course, I am Jem.
Imara: Well, I think that if the person who created the series reached out to you, that’s a really good sign, and [crosstalk]
Ashley: It is. It really is though. Thank you. Yeah, it is.
Imara: And I think that the fact that you throughout everything have been able to preserve that little girl inside of you throughout everything is probably a part of your magic and helped you survive, and helped you fight, and helped you build a better world for trans people who you may never meet or who may never know that they have access to certain things in prison because of the fact that you fought. So I know that I speak for everyone when we say thank you.
Ashley: I appreciate you. And thank you for being my sister. Thank you for being an ally and thank you for helping me tell the story the right way. I so appreciate it.
Imara: You’re welcome. And please come back to talk about your book when it [crosstalk]
Ashley: I will. I’ll be glad to. As soon as the record is done, I will also come back and we’ll talk about that too because I want it played.
Imara: Sounds good. We’re waiting. We’re waiting. Thank you so much, Ashley.
Ashley: Thank you so much, and have a blessed day.
Imara: Same to you. That was protagonist Ashley Diamond.
Imara: There’s a new podcast out for Black women and all those who love and care for us. “We Flesh. In This Here Space, Black Women Be.” This limited six-part series, hosted by Lisa Anderson of the Sojourner Truth Leadership Circle and artist Amikaeyla Gaston explores the fullness of Black women’s humanity with topics ranging from inspiration[?] to singing, to managing a major business. We Flesh includes incredible interviews with amazing black women such as former Black Panther Party Leader Ericka Huggins, artist Michelle Browder, and business leader and coach Susan Callender. Here in We Flesh, we be in conversation and contemplation. Here in We Flesh, we just be together. New episodes are released on Mondays. Subscribe to We Flesh wherever you get your podcasts.
Imara: I’m so excited to be in conversation with the incredible and multi-talented Toni-Michelle Williams. Toni-Michelle is an Atlanta-based performance artist, embodied leadership coach, and the co-founder and executive director of the Solutions, Not Punishment Collaborative, also known as SnapCo., “snap those two fingers together”. She served as a policy member of the Atlanta Police Use Of Force Task Force in 2020 after the murder of Rayshard Brooks and is currently co-chair of Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens’s Trans Affairs committee. Her impressive résumé includes co-leading citywide campaigns on cannabis reform, sex worker protection, police accountability, and as executive director of the Solutions, Not Punishment Collaborative. Toni-Michelle works to foster embodied leadership and political power for the Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ communities, sex workers, and people living with HIV in Atlanta. Toni-Michelle, thank you so much for joining me today.
Toni-Michelle: Yes. I’m so excited to be with you. I love being in conversation with you on-podcast and off, of course.
Imara: Thank you. Thank you so much and I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about why you think that Georgia, Atlanta is a really important site of organizing around the end of mass incarceration abolition in Black trans people.
Toni-Michelle: So we all know Atlanta to be the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement and we’ve also seen over the past few years how Atlanta and other cities have cradled the comfort of police, and have prioritized the needs of police and their budgets over the people. Atlanta is also known to be one of the queer and black capitals of the world and definitely of the South. And so, it is really important that activists and community members are organizing each other about our lives, about the issues that are happening in the city. And more importantly, about, you know, organizing around what’s possible, right? To be offering other solutions than amping up and investing more dollars into police budgets and into training, but again into services and opportunities for leadership development that trans and the black and Latinx folks need today.
Imara: What is it about Atlanta that is making it a site of black trans organizing around abolition? What’s going on there?
Toni-Michelle: Trans organizing and opportunities for trans people to have stability, meaning that there are movements and collective efforts from organizations like SnapCo., like A Vision for Hope, like the Trans Housing Coalition, now being led by Mary Wilson, and many other efforts. Efforts that you know, are coming from the LGBTQ Advisory Board and Trans Advisory Affairs Committee that creates more opportunities for leadership development amongst trans and gender non-conforming folks.
We’ve seen that definitely over the last 10 years since SnapCo. has been in existence. But definitely this coordinated effort over the last two years since the pandemic and also since, like again, a hike of funds and investment in Black-led and Black trans-led organizations since 2020.
Imara: And what do you think it is about Atlanta that is providing like the atmosphere for what you just described in terms of Black trans-led organizations and Black trans leadership to be uplifted in this moment? Like what do you think is going on in Atlanta that is allowing all these things to begin to surface?
Toni-Michelle: The water, the sauce, the juice is visibility of black trans leaders like myself who are literally tired of waiting for elected officials to do things, tired of waiting for donors, funders to invest. Our ideology and our frameworks for Black trans feminism and also safety for just Black people in general. And so the emergence of our leadership, the visibility of Black and queer leadership is the foundation of what is possible and what is changing and what has been changing, like I said, over the last 10 years.
Imara: I’m wondering if you can just talk to us a little bit around why you think for black trans people, the issue of abolition is so essential? Why is it essential that we totally reimagine and restructure what we call the criminal justice system in a way that Black trans people are not totally marginalized or crushed by it? Like why is this something that you dedicate your life to?
Toni-Michelle: I’m abolitionist because I’m a researcher. I am a creator, and creative, I’m an artist, and I’m a person of faith. I’m also a Black person and a trans person and so I believe that transformation is possible although it takes time. I believe in the magic of Black people’s leadership, our brilliance, and our minds. And with that kind of collective understanding of who we are, I know and feel in my body and in my heart, and I see it in my colleagues’ work. I see it in the youth again of what’s possible. And we may not have space to like figure it out all at once or figure out and respond to it every time someone’s murdered, every time we lose a life, or every time someone is incarcerated, but I see the connections that we have and the connections that we make and it keeps me empowered. It keeps me, again, full of faith that new systems could be created by us and for us, that centers our restoration and that centers our joy.
And we know that the prison industrial complex does not center any of those things. It does not center the healing of the families that, you know, are impacted by murders of police violence or the communities and families that are impacted by the loss of black trans people, as we are harmed in inter-community violence. And I know, and I have clear visions too, about how we can support each other and save each other and keep each other safe without police. And in fact, we’ve been doing it for quite some time.
Imara: So, when you were talking to city council members in Atlanta, for example, many of whom are black or black leadership in Atlanta and they say to you things like,
“Toni-Michelle, why do you have to bring the trans thing into this? You know, this is already an issue for all of our people. We can look all around us. There’s so many instances of this happening and why have you got to come to me and talk about trans and why have you got to be talking about black trans people in this?” What do you say to them?
Toni-Michelle: It’s complicated, and I do think that there is a lot more space for people in the city of Atlanta to discuss and talk about LGBTQ issues. And that also is mostly relevant to again leadership and who’s in positions of leadership. I think that most often the question or conversation in Atlanta now that Atlanta is split in race and ideology because of race and primarily experience, right? Which we know experience informs frameworks and ideologies. That is actually like, why does everything actually have to be a race issue? Why does everything have to be made into a black issue? And that is scary to me as a person- black person being born and raised in Atlanta, a gritty baby[?]. And so it scares me to know that that is a question and it’s irritating because there’s more space at the table for people to challenge how black people talk about race and how we center race, and how we center our issues and more importantly, our needs inside of the city of Atlanta.
And so, you know, we have a huge housing crisis, that’s impacting black people, young people, LGBTQ folks, folks living with HIV across the city and it is frustrating to the core that the housing crisis is not a priority but yet the comfort and expansion of large institutions like Georgia State or Georgia Tech, right? Big businesses, you know, feel like the priority in the city.
Imara: Yeah, I’m just so that everybody knows gritty baby is one of the ways that people Atlanta signify whether or not they are legit from Atlanta [laughter] or from somewhere else.
So you’re saying that in general, there is no quarrel or there’s no, like confusion around you bringing black trans issues that it’s now more racialized than it is about gender and gender identity? Or are you saying that sometimes it just depends on if you’re talking about the state or the local level or- or who you’re speaking to?
Toni-Michelle: Yeah, it’s definitely absolutely not true at the state level. It is absolutely about marginalizing trans people and the people who support transness and trans youth, right? It has been obvious around the country in the last year and a half. I’m sorry, I don’t want to take away from that fight and the fights for reproductive justice and right- and economic justice on the state level. But in the city, there is this capitalistic mentality that when talking about race and when talking about the needs of black people, inclusive of all black people, particularly those who are homeless and who do not have access to salaries, that are more than 46k or 50k a year, that those issues, those people, those experiences of incarcerated folks are not prioritized by other black people. Let alone, the city council at large.
Imara: So, let’s talk about some of the innovations that you have for creating a totally different relationship and structure of what we call the criminal justice system with black trans people. What are some of the leading initiatives that you’ve been pushing through SnapCo., and through your leadership of the Trans Affairs Committee of the current mayor?
Toni-Michelle: Yes, so I will only just speak primarily on SnapCo. I am not positioned to speak on behalf of the LGBTQ board. So I’ll share that clearly for the record. Uh, just back up, for folks who don’t know, SnapCo. is a black Trans and queer-led organization, dedicated to supporting community, and building political power, and creating alternatives to policing that centers our safety and of course, our resilience while offering more leadership development opportunities to help us inside of that creativity and that innovation.
Last year, we released a report called “Deeper than Visibility” where after the murder of Rayshard Brooks, we SnapCo., our members went door to door and into community to talk about over-policing in Atlanta and how the murder of Rayshard, you know, impacted folks. And we found interesting things, we found things that we know that for black people are already true and queer folks that, you know, we don’t trust the police. Many of us don’t even think that the police are useful because we know that they come into situations after the fact, right? And we also know that oftentimes, when we call police for support and black and/or trans folks are arrested instead. We found that in this recent report but also found that in our first report that we did called “The Most Dangerous Thing Out Here Is The Police” with 36% percent of our respondents actually identified as folks who call police for help and were arrested instead.
And so in the city of Atlanta, we know that those things are happening and have happened and are probably still happening in our city. And so because of that, we created this report that really outlines a timeline, a history of policing in Atlanta. You know, we talked about, you know, Atlanta being the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. We also talked about Atlanta having, you know, black leadership and queer leadership. And so we thought and know that it’s important to talk about how we got there, right? Why and when did Atlanta become such a black city and what were some of the decisions that were made amongst black leadership that have led us to this junction today?
All of that juicy stuff we put in the report and we also added to the report some possibility models. In one possibility model of an alternative is what we’re really, really excited about this year, which is our Black and Trans Safety Initiative. Inside of our Black and Trans Safety Initiative, there are 3 parts. There is our partnership with the citizen app that we were able to provide premium subscriptions to black and trans people who are inside of our base so that they can navigate the subscription or this app without calling the police. And of course, we know that the app is designed to support you in escalating to calling the police if you need but for, you know, instance a black trans girl, even like myself if I’m on MARTA, which is Atlanta’s public transit system, that if I’m on MARTA and I don’t feel safe, you know, and none of my friends are answering the phone, that I have this app that I can literally play press this button and within 3-5 seconds, there’s a person, an agent that can literally just be on the phone with me and talk to me and be present with me while I’m navigating moving on the bus and on the train.
We wanted that kind of like real experience, tangible solution to folks that we know who are experiencing that kind of anxiety every day. Again, these are many of our members. These are many of our young people who are, you know, not wanting to seek jobs because they don’t they’re trans and 18 and don’t feel comfortable getting on the bus, right? And so we wanted to be able to offer that source them.
Part 2 and part 3 is about expunging records for Black and trans folks across the city to support and not having such close interactions with police and also to support in gathering the right documents. And so we are leading an expungement clinic in April or being- we’re able to partner with the city of Atlanta and other organizations to provide free expungements to at least 50 people on April the 8th. And our documents clinic where we were able to collaborate with the Atlanta Legal Aid to provide free name changes to trans and queer folks so that they are in their bodies, in their IDs, in their bags, going wherever they want to go, with the IDs that represent who they are. And also to support with passports.
Imara: So you focused on this Black Trans Safety Initiative and the elements of that which are all key parts of various public safety. So for instance, if your appearance when you’re stopped doesn’t match your name or what’s on your ID, that can invite violence from police. So people don’t understand that that’s actually a form of keeping people safe. Lastly, one of the things that you said at the very beginning was that we can re-imagine a world where we all guarantee public safety ourselves. And I want to hear you talk a little bit more about that because I say that to people all the time that actually, we guarantee each other’s safety, that for most of your daily interactions, the people that keep you safe are the people around you. So what is Toni-Michelle’s broad-based vision for how to create a world of actual public safety? What does that look like, where we are guaranteeing each other safety?
Toni-Michelle: It looks like a few things. Number 1 for me, it looks like resourcing families. Resourcing families to be able to have the mental health support and the tools that are necessary in navigating hard conversations and hard moments, right? That is key. To your point, you know, safety does lie within family. Safety does lie within yourself. And the more that each individual is equipped with how to heal and how to sit with discomfort and how to push and move and navigate and facilitate hard conversations that transform energy and that transforms space. I’m a big advocate in resourcing families, black families, queer families to be able to do that healing work because justice lives there, you know. Safety like I said, it lives there. And we need to believe that and have faith more than that, but also have the skill to be able to move through that. I think that you know before parents call police if they were equipped with the skill of deep listening, right? If they were skilled with the power of presence and the same with the youth, police oftentimes wouldn’t be called. So many LGBTQ youth wouldn’t be homeless today. I think that that is important to even equip those families in schools and young people with understanding the issues of race and gender and sexuality eliminate the need to be in conflict when we have more space to ask each other questions and to work through things together. So I think that that is number one.
I also really believe… I-I envision a world where not only do we have the tools to support our mental health, to support those hard conversations, that we have the tools to navigate our own rage and our own anger. I really, really wish that for our people.
Imara: I think that’s an amazing place for us to end. And I just want to thank you so much for your ongoing leadership and vision, Toni-Michelle. And all the ways, at all the levels. Thank you so much for your time.
Toni-Michelle: Thank you so much.
Imara: That was activist and community organizer, Toni-Michelle Williams.
Imara: Thank you for joining me on the TransLash podcast. Now, listen all the way through to the end of the show for something extra. If you liked what you heard, please go to Apple podcast to rate and review us. You can also listen to TransLash wherever you get your podcast. Check us out on the web at translash.org to sign up for our weekly newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @translashmedia. Like us on Facebook and tell your friends. The TransLash podcast is produced by TransLash Media. The TransLash team includes Oliver, Ash, Klein, and Aubry Calloway, Sandra Adams is a contributing producer to the show and our sound engineer. Digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano. The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi and also courtesy of ZZK Records. The TransLash podcast is made possible by the support of Foundations and listeners like you.
Imara: So what am I looking forward to over the next couple of weeks? Well, Creating Change, which is the massive gathering, annual gathering of LGBTQ people from across the country coordinated by the National LGBTQ Task Force is occurring in person for the very first time since 2019 and it is going to be a gaggle with thousands and thousands of people who haven’t been in the same place. I’m super excited to go there and to see people that I don’t know, to see my colleagues. I’m also going to be in conversation with Alok, during a conversation and a podcast and possibly with an audience. I think those details are still being worked out. So it’s going to be a good time for me where there will be some work, a lot of learning and listening and reconnecting. So Creating Change in San Francisco, hopefully, the rain there stopped, is what I’m looking forward to. And if you’re there, be sure to come up to me and say hello.