"We are living in a moment when many people's very survival is criminalized." -- Reina Gossett
The first time I heard Reina Gossett speak, she took my breath away. Having just finished my first year of law school, I was caught up in the type of reform narratives that are cognizable to our legal system. Ideas of formal equality, rights, democracy, and participation had already started to replace my notions of justice, resistance and revolution.
It was 2008 and Reina was speaking about trans justice at Columbia School of Public Health. In what I have come to learn is typical of Reina, in that speech she wove together stories of resistance from the past and present and connected truly transformative visions of justice to concrete steps people could take in their lives and work. She spoke of love and reflection in ways that I have come to rely on; about being patient with one another and honoring those who lived and died their truths and whose names we erase from our history books and movement narratives.
Six years later I have continued to learn so much from Reina as both a colleague and a friend. We worked together at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a collective organization founded on the principle that justice for trans and gender non-conforming people is inextricably linked with racial and economic justice. For four and a half years, Reina served as the Membership Director at SRLP and connected SRLP staff, collective members, and the broader membership to the movement building work of the organization. She taught us all about the history that made the work we were doing possible. Today, October 30, 2014, is her last day in that position. As she leaves SRLP to embark on undoubtedly transformative journeys, I wanted to reflect and honor all that Reina has done for me and for our movements.
Reina is the type of colleague and friend who checks in on you after you have been visiting clients in prison or when your kid has been up all night screaming and you are on the verge of tears from the exhaustion. She understands that our internal resources are limited and that being good to one another and ourselves is the necessary foundation to all our work. When you forget about the implications of the compromises you are making, Reina will gently raise questions about whether we are doing more harm than good in our work. She holds us all to a standard, not grounded in righteousness but truly grounded in vision, of connecting our decisionmaking to the short and long-term impact we are having on those most impacted by the systems of policing and incarceration that serve to perpetuate white supremacy, racism and anti-blackness, in particular. When my impulse as a lawyer might be to settle for a particular reform, Reina will give me materials to read, she will offer lessons from history, her own and the histories of other trans people, mostly trans women of color, who are our pioneers in this work. She won't say, "you have failed by making this mistake" or "you aren't a true radical because you don't see it this way." Instead, Reina's type of justice is about asking questions and dismantling the assumptions that guide our work and our interactions with each other.
Under increasingly corporatized and mechanized working conditions in non-profits and for-profits alike, that kind of patience and reflection is almost impossible to come by and should not go without mention.
In addition to her work at SRLP, Reina has been a leader at other transformative organizations including Queers for Economic Justice and Critical Resistance. She speaks regularly about trans justice, trans history and survival and has been instrumental in centering the work and thinking of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two trans women of color who were both leaders at Stonewall and caretakers of so many for decades, in our current movements.
I tend to rely on statistics like the fact that 47 percent of black trans women have been incarcerated at some point in their lives or the fact that trans women are 49 times more likely to be living with HIV than their cisgender counterparts to tell a story about injustice. Reina knows those statistics too, but tells more nuanced and complex stories about survival, incarceration and resistance.
As one example, on April 14, 2014, Reina organized a conversation with Dean Spade and CeCe McDonald at the New School in New York City as part of her residency at the Barnard Center for Research on Women. That conversation, "'I Use My Love to Guide Me': Surviving and Thriving in the Face of Impossible Situations," highlighted CeCe's story of resisting violence and then going to prison as punishment for surviving. Reina, Dean and CeCe challenged audience and community members to re-think what justice means in our criminal punishment systems using not only statistics but also in light of the histories of slavery, Jim Crow and colonialism that have organized and maintained our so-called justice system.
Of Jane Doe, the now-17-year-old transgender girl of color who has spent nearly a year in isolation in Connecticut prisons and juvenile detention centers without ever having been convicted of her crime, Reina wrote:
"[T]oday I'm witnessing the movement to free Jane Doe through a lens that no one should be incarcerated, that the call for Justice for Jane is a call to abolish the whole system and continue to grow alternatives. A system that incarcerates a 16-year-old trans girl of color is not broke, it's actually working exactly how it was designed. A system that punishes the resilience that it takes to survive a lifetime of trauma is precisely this system that descends from chattel slavery, convict leasing, and Jim Crow with the goal of maintaining the mechanisms of white supremacy that have built this criminal injustice system."
Reina tells stories that are too often forgotten, reminds us of truths that, particularly for white people like me, are easy to ignore, and holds up our communities with love and beauty.
As Reina leaves her staff position at SRLP just as the media is celebrating the "coming out" of Tim Cook, Apple's white, billionaire CEO, it seems to me the most apt time to center Reina and her work in our conversations about leaders and transformation for LGBT people. Tim Cook's coming out has been hailed by many as a revolutionary moment. How easy it is to hold-up the already famous and powerful who safely maintain the status quo of our power structures but through their identities as gay people become symbols of justice. Reina and I both love our iPhones to be sure but the CEO of Apple being gay does not a revolution make. It will never be our identities that consolidate resistance to the status quo but our visions for change and justice combined with our love and patience that will allow us to imagine true transformation. Reina taught me that. She also taught me that we must always center the stories of the people who came before us, who have lifted us up and inspired of us, some of whom we know of and many more whose names we will never know.
It is my hope that can all take a moment to pause to reflect on and appreciate Reina as she has done for so many of us.
I encourage you to start now.