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Dee's Triumph: One of the Most Important Trans Victories You Never Heard Of

Chase Strangio,
Deputy Director for Transgender Justice, ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project
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June 6, 2014

On August 21, 1989, Dee Farmer, a black, transgender woman, sued prison officials for the “mental anguish, psychological damage, humil[i]ation, swollen face, cuts and bruises to her mouth and lips and a cut on her back, as well as some bleeding” that resulted from being raped in her prison cell in the general population of a maximum security federal prison.

Though she did not have a lawyer and inevitably risked retaliation for speaking out about what happened to her, Dee stood up for her right to survive.

By doing so, she changed the legal landscape for prison assault cases and the public dialogue about rape in prison.

It took almost five years for Dee’s case to make it to the Supreme Court and by that time she was represented by the ACLU. We supported her in telling her story, and at oral argument, we made sure that Dee’s gender and experience were presented to the Court with the dignity that she deserved.

Twenty years ago today, on June 6, 1994, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Farmer v. Brennan, that Dee Farmer’s case against the prison could move forward and she could seek damages from the officials responsible for placing her in the general population of the maximum security U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, where she was assaulted. Tens of thousands of subsequent court decisions have cited Dee’s case and the legal standard it established.

Nine years later in 2003, Congress passed, and President George W. Bush signed, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, referencing Farmer v. Brennan in congressional findings about the epidemic of sexual violence in prison. And nine years after that, the Department of Justice disseminated (at long last) regulations implementing PREA in May of 2012. These regulations include key protections for transgender people who are so often subjected to abusive searches for the sole purpose of “observing” their genitals and prolonged (sometimes for decades) isolation for “protection.”

So much has changed, at least in part, because Dee decided to fight the injustice of what happened to her. But 20 years later, much work remains because the epidemic of sexual violence in prison persists.

A study of sexual assault in California prisons published in 2007 found that transgender women housed in men’s prisons were 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than non-transgender prisoners, with 59 percent of transgender-study respondents reporting being sexually assaulted in just one California correctional facility. And with the underreporting of sexual violence in prisons, that number is likely higher. We also hear daily of the abusive searches, endemic harassment, physical assaults, denial of basic health care, prolonged isolation and violent housing placements that transgender people endure in prisons, jails, juvenile justice facilities, immigration detention centers and lock-ups across the country.

Dee took on a formidable opponent in the Bureau of Prisons to stand up against the abuse she experienced. She bravely fought for a more just world. We owe it to her and the many other survivors of prison whose names and stories we do not know, to continue working toward justice.

Join us on November 14, 2014 to reflect on the twenty years since Farmer v. Brennan and continue to build a movement for justice for the next twenty.

And tonight, if you are enjoying the magnificent Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset on the Season 2 premiere of Orange is the New Black, pause for a moment to think of Dee, and of the many other transgender women currently in prison who are facing the relentless fear that they won’t survive.

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