Black Trans Lives Matter – Free Ashley Diamond

by Mindy Clegg

Ashley Diamond from around 2016

Just a note that some might find the material in my post this month upsetting and triggering, as it deals with forms of abuse.

In 2012, Ashley Diamond, convicted of burglary after her then boyfriend convinced her to pawn a stolen saw, arrived in the custody of the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) to begin serving a ten-year term. Unlike other women, Diamond was taken to a men’s penitentiary, where she suffered several years of violence, sexual assault, crass indifference to her plight, and lack of adequate medical care. After smuggling out a video, the Southern Poverty Law Center worked with Diamond to file a lawsuit against the GDC and to get her paroled and to receive compensation for the abuse she suffered.

After struggling to make ends meet and deal with the trauma she experienced, Diamond managed to get treatment in Florida, a technical violation of her parole. As of now, Ashley Diamond is right back where she started—in prison, suffering horrific abuse, and pleading for just treatment from the GDC. But why did this happen? How could this obvious ongoing human rights violation continue in full view of the public? This is primarily happening because when Ashley tells us who she is, some refuse to believe her. She’s a Black trans woman from a small-town, of a working class background. In other words, Ashley’s race, gender identity, and class led some to view her as less worthy of equity and safety.

One could be forgiven for believing that the plight of LGBQT+ people in America was largely a relic of the past. Many straight people believe that members of the gay community can live openly and freely across the country given the higher visibility of LGBQT+ issues. The Supreme Court has affirmed greater protections for the LGBQT+ community in recent years including trans people. In 2020 SCOTUS decided that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected trans people in the case RG & GR Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Opportunity Employment Opportunity Commission. Trans people are more visible in our popular culture than ever before. Until recently it was standard practice in Hollywood for cisgendered men or women to be cast as trans people. Examples include Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game (1992), Cillian Murphy in Breakfast on Pluto (2005), Felicity Huffman in Transamerica (2005), and Jared Leto in the Dallas Buyers Club (2013). This has started changing. Laverne Cox was a breakout star of Orange is the New Black and was the first trans person nominated for an Emmy. The Wachowski Sisters, directors of the Matrix film series, cast a trans performer for the role of Nomi in their show Sense8. The critical acclaimed drama Poseset in the New York City Ball scene of the 1980s and 1990s—stars primarily gay and trans performers. Trans people are running for political office, too. Caitlyn Jenner recently announced that she was throwing her hat in the ring for the upcoming recall election of California governor Gavin Newsom. President Joe Biden nominated Dr. Rachel Levine for Assistant Secretary of Health and she was confirmed by the Senate. She is the first trans person to hold a senate confirmed position in the US government. These are all positive steps forward for the affirmation of basic rights and the visibility of trans people.

This higher visibility elides the ongoing backlash against trans people. According to scholar Jules Gill-Peterson as of April there have been over 100 anti-trans laws proposed in 25 state legislatures. Some consider such legislation a mere distraction. But Gill-Peterson argues that these laws are part of a larger “Christian political project” to build “an authoritarian Christian ethno-state.” The attacks on trans youths go along with attacks on Black voting rights and the rights of women to access reproductive care. Trans youths are the canary in the coal mine for all our freedoms. In addition, there has been a sustained attack from a subset of self-described feminists known as “trans exclusionary radical feminists” or TERFs. They claim that equality for trans people are an attack on the rights of cisgendered women. Although they identify as feminists, they align with groups that oppose reproductive rights for women among other things.

This is the backdrop against which Ashley has struggled for equal treatment in the criminal justice system. Given her race and class, she already faced serious obstacles to getting equitable treatment under the law. Just the fact that she was originally sentenced to a decade for a non-violent crime speaks volumes about how broken our criminal justice system is in general. She was then housed in a men’s facility and denied ongoing treatment for gender dysphoria. Those facts should indicate to us how little “justice” is actually involved here. She is back in prison and receiving the same violent treatment for a technical parole violation. If this does not meet the criteria for cruel and unusual punishment, I’m not sure the word has meaning any more. Ashley’s case is not even unique.

While Pride Month is a time of celebration we should remember that it commemorates an uprising of marginalized people refusing to accept abusive treatment at the hands of police. Ashely’s struggle for justice should remind us that the fight for freedom for everyone is far from over. In fact, if some in our society have their way, people like Ashley will be pushed out of the public realm entirely, denied the basic rights we all expect. To paraphrase Malcolm X, the Black Trans woman is the most disrespected woman in America. As long as that is the truth, none of us are actually living in a free society.

There are organizes that work for the rights of members of the trans community, such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the Trevor Project among many other organizations. Please consider donating to these organizations or directly to Ashley’s cause.

Happy Pride!