Daniel Clark was a 2016 national delegate for Bernie Sanders and an independent candidate for U.S. House in Iowa’s second district in 2018. -promoted by Laura Belin
Fifty-one years after the Stonewall riots, Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are names I often find myself speaking aloud, although most don’t recognize them. As a white gay cis man I know it is the sacrifices of these two brave trans women of color that paved the way for the life I live.
Much like today, back then trans people were treated as pariahs even within the LGBTQ community. Marsha and Sylvia have been credited as being some of the first to resist arrest during the nights long Stonewall Riots, yet within a few years had been pushed out of the movement they started. But today the name I keep repeating aloud is neither Marsha nor Sylvia, but Michelle. Michelle Kosilek.
Michelle Kosilek is a trans inmate serving life in prison without parole for the murder of her wife in 1990. Kosilek has fought for decades to receive the gender affirmation surgery her doctors say is medically necessary, but the Massachusetts Department of Corrections refuses to provide it, despite the fact that she has been treated for depression and multiple attempts to self-harm her genitalia.
In September 2012, a federal judge ruled that Kosilek should receive the surgery she had been prescribed. Because it was one of the first major cases of a transgender prisoner seeking medical care, the ruling became a very hot topic. But in order to talk in full about how much of a hot topic it was I have to mention a name you will recognize, Elizabeth Warren.
How can Elizabeth Warren be connected to this case? A champion of leftist politics and looked at by many as a courageous hero, what does she have to do with Kosilek? In 2012 as this case was getting a lot of air time, Elizabeth Warren was attempting to unseat Republican Senator Scott Brown. Both Warren and Brown were asked about Kosilek on the campaign trail, and both criticized the ruling. Brown called it an “outrageous abuse of taxpayer dollars,” and Warren similarly said in a radio interview, “I have to say, I don’t think it’s a good use of taxpayer dollars.”
Kosilek herself responded to Warren’s comment in a 2014 interview, calling it “disheartening” that Warren would think that her right to proper health care should be diminished because of her crime. “You don’t lose your right to humanity and dignity when you go to prison,” she said. “We don’t go to prison for punishment. We come to prison as punishment. This is what a lot of people, including our elected officials, don’t understand.”
Sofia Sepulveda, Trans-Latina, healthcare activist, and Bernie Sanders supporter reacted to hearing Warren’s words first by asking “She said that?” seemingly taken aback. “Though many trans people are ok with never having surgery, many of us struggle with depression and body dysmorphia. Suicide is higher in the trans community for having the least access to life saving treatment. SRS (Sex Reassignment Surgery) is a life saving treatment, to say otherwise is to wish us to die!” Sofia went on to say if she could speak to a Warren supporter, she would say, “That we have to really think about who to support on every election, being a woman or part of our community doesn’t mean they will fight for trans rights. Hillary said herself that ‘cis woman just don’t understand and feel uneasy with trans woman’ It is their records that speak louder. That is why I’m voting for Bernie because I know he made sure our community was protected as a mayor of Burlington during the 80’s, before it was semi acceptable to be trans.”
Shannon Grossi, a non-binary activist and Bernie supporter echoed Sofia’s statements. “It goes to show how politicians who aren’t honest will easily flip on what rights we should have based on what’s popular at the time. Which isn’t actually helpful because it’s not a personal growth of learning, but taking advantage of us for popularity votes which means she could easily go back to being against us as a president if it could help her.”
Shannon continued, “It is hugely dehumanizing personally for trans people to hear that prisoners should have rights and access to medications and surgeries just not the trans ones. And it’s always scary to think what if something happened and we end up in jail, which jail we’ll be in and how badly we could be treated just for being trans. Orange is the New Black really highlighted how it is for trans people in prison. And she was post-op, but they would randomly deny her meds and hormones and put her through that horrible ordeal. A lot of us try and be tough because we have to be. But seeing headlines like, this thing we NEED is a WASTE of money, and the surge of hate that follows it, is tough on a lot of trans people.”
In January 2019, in response to a ThinkProgress inquiry of Kosilek and Warren’s stance, a spokesperson for Warren’s presidential exploratory committee said in a statement, “Senator Warren supports access to medically necessary services, including transition-related surgeries. This includes procedures taking place at the VA, in the military, or at correctional facilities.”
Now this may be satisfactory for some, but I find this statement to be dismissive of the damage Warren has contributed to. I’m sure there are people who believe that at age 62, Warren was just not educated on the topic, and within the past eight years has changed her views at the young age of 70. That’s hard for me to believe. When you have someone with a record of taking the politically beneficial stance depending on popular opinion at the time, it is hard to say where their loyalties truly lie. I can’t help but think of the article titled, “Mayor Bernie Sanders created an 80’s trans mecca in Burlington,” in contrast to Warren’s views as recently as 2012.
As a member of the LGBTQ community, I will never forget the activists who fought for us like Marsha and Sylvia, but I’ll also remember Michelle Kosilek and her lonely and cruel fight. I will also remember the stance Warren had when Kosilek needed a champion.
I am heavily disheartened at Warren’s stance, though, since she’s someone who has made a career out of standing up for the downtrodden, and would be expected to be on the progressive side of things when it comes to both trans rights and prisoners’ rights. There’s something wrong with your character if opportunity controls your loyalty. Which is why I must stress that the T in LGBTQ has never been silent and neither should the L, the G, the B, or the Q.
Top image: Daniel Clark hugging Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Photo credit: Jesica Butler.