Philly orgs to co-host event in support of Black trans people who are incarcerated

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“If the everyday prisoner is experiencing something that is horrifying, Black trans people are experiencing it 10 times more because of our identities and because of vitriol and hate,” said Phoebe VanCleefe, a Black trans woman who has experienced incarceration. VanCleefe is the director of the organization Bantu Safe Haven, a local nonprofit with a mission to cultivate “safety, self determination and joy for Black trans people,” she said.

The team at Bantu, Philly Trans March (PTM), and Hearts on a Wire, an inside/outside organization that advocates for trans people in Pa. prisons, are collaborating to produce the event Black Trans August, an offshoot of Black August — a yearly commemoration of “Black freedom fighters, political prisoners and resistance against systemic oppression,” according to the event description on PTM’s Facebook page

Black Trans August is scheduled for Aug. 27 at 2 p.m. at Las Parcelas Garden in Philadelphia. Attendees of the event will be able to write letters to people who are incarcerated, do crafts, and engage in discussion about how incarceration impacts the Black trans community. Members of Bantu will also be distributing safety kits at the event.

“We’ll also have just community,” VanCleefe said. “That’s really going to be our focus.”

When it comes to fighting for trans rights, the issue of how Black trans communities are impacted by incarceration rarely gets discussed or included in support initiatives, both VanCleefe and PTM organizer Bri Golphin said.

“Black August in general, the commemoration is great in itself, but oftentimes, it never really centers on gender-oppressed folks,” Golphin said. “If they do center gender-oppressed folks, it’s often never trans people.” 

Black trans people who are incarcerated often experience horrific treatment while in prison, according to the report “This is a Prison, Glitter is not Allowed: Experiences of Trans and Gender Variant People in Pennsylvania’s Prison Systems,” created by the Hearts on a Wire Collective and written by Pascal Emmer, Adrian Lowe and R. Barrett Marshall. It is based on data from survey responses from 59 trans and gender variant (T/GV) people who were inside or recently released from 12 prison facilities in Pennsylvania from April to August, 2009. Most of the survey respondents identified as people of color, and 42.3% of respondents were charged with financial offenses, such as sex work. 

Among many issues related to T/GV people who are incarcerated, the report covers accounts of discrimination and violence that T/GV people experienced in Pennsylvania prisons. In terms of discrimination, respondents reported being alienated from communities formed by inmates, and even from institutionally permitted communities like church services. 

When it came to abuse that T/GV people faced in prison, 47 of the 59 of respondents reported that prison staff verbally harassed them because of their gender; 26 reported that staff sexually harassed them; 16 reported physical assault by staff, that inmates physically assaulted them but were encouraged or permitted by staff and that prison staff sexually assaulted them; and 11 reported that they were sexually assaulted by inmates who were encouraged or permitted by staff. 

“I think when you are a people at so many different margins of oppression — the things that Black folks normally experience, which unfortunately is imprisonment, can be that much more daunting and horrifying,” VanCleefe said. “There’s so many different things that happen within the prison system that don’t ever actually get reported. Those people don’t ever actually get support in any way.”

Golphin brought up the issue that many Black trans folks who are arrested are not given the chance to make bail because they have so few resources. Many Black trans folks are arrested for doing street survival sex work.  

“One: sex work needs to be decriminalized,” Golphin said. “Two: a lot of these trans folks are doing what they have to do because there are still no opportunities for them, especially when it comes to housing resources. We do have Ark of Safety, we have Morris Home, but Philly’s a big city — we’re the fifth largest and the poorest city in the country. There’s only so much that these programs can do; they can’t accommodate thousands upon thousands of trans people in a community.”

Allies and accomplices who want to support Black trans people who are incarcerated can do so in a variety of ways, Golphin and VanCleefe said, such as giving money to organizations that directly support Black trans people in prisons, including Bantu. Recruiters, business owners or people who work in workforce development should hire Black trans people who are formerly incarcerated. 

“The workforce development as it relates to the trans community could improve an awful lot,” Golphin said. “We do have TransWork, but there’s only so much that TransWork can do. We have these resources, but they need more because there are thousands of us in the community.” 

Other ways to help include keeping tabs on Hearts on a Wire’s advocacy work and getting involved; donating money to people who are currently incarcerated so they have more funds in their commissary; and supporting both the Philadelphia Bail Fund and the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, which work together.

“A lot of times, the Black community cannot afford bail,” Golphin added. “I’ve heard horror stories as to what happens to trans folks who go to jail, specifically the local jails in Philly, and it’s not a great experience. So getting them out is the best possible solution.” 

Additionally, landlords or people involved in housing rights advocacy can help formerly incarcerated Black trans people find housing. 

Golphin also spoke of the need for many reentry programs to be much more inclusive of LGBTQ+ communities, and to have trans-specific expungement clinics so trans folks can feel a sense of privacy when they’re explaining sensitive legal issues pertaining to their identity. 

Lastly, Golphin said, accomplices can help by advocating for trans people to receive gender-affirming health care, such as hormones, while they’re inside the prisons. 

“I was incarcerated years back, but that experience was absolutely horrifying,” VanCleefe said. “I think that the bare minimum that we can do is make sure that people know that they’re not alone and that they’re worthy of support.”

Black Trans August is scheduled for Aug. 27 at 2 p.m. at Las Parcelas Garden, 2248 Palethorp St. For more information, visit

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