In the wake of incidents like the Virginia Tech and Newtown shootings, we often hear calls for increased surveillance and involuntary treatment of people with mental illness, and general calls to further lock down our school and other public institutions. This is not surprising–for decades we have been told that locking more people up and building more walls and metal detectors and installing more cops and cameras will make us safer. The problem is, it does not work, and instead the people who are targeted are not those who are actually most dangerous, but those who are already considered “suspicious” in a racist, xenophobic, ableist, transphobic and anti-immigrant culture. We have a long history in the US of giving people involuntary medical treatment and using mental institutions to lock up people who are different or threatening to social norms. Trans and gender non-conforming people have often been targets of involuntary mental health treatment. Inside mental health facilities and adult and youth prisons, trans and gender non-conforming people have been told that their gender identities or expressions are evidence that they are not fit to be released from the facility, or that they are not complying with treatment. Trans and gender non-conforming people in prisons and jails and youth facilities, especially people of color, are often subjected to involuntary treatment including medication. People in our movement should be concerned whenever there is a proposal to solve problems by increasing the control that authorities can have over people who “look suspicious.” Since we are targets of policing, we should also always be worried when adding more cops or video cameras is proposed as a way to solve a problem.
In reality, what will make us all safer is to make voluntary mental health care and medical care free and easy to access. We need medical care and mental health care to be available in all the languages people are speaking, it needs to be anti-racist, queer-friendly and trans-affirming, and it needs to be based in respecting people seeking care, not shaming, changing or punishing them. So many people who could use mental health care do not reach out for it because they are afraid that they will be locked up involuntarily if they reach out to a provider, or because they can’t find a provider who isn’t going to enforce social norms and hierarchies on them. We will all be safer and healthier when health care is truly available to all, and when we stop using these fruitless security and lockdown responses that cause so much harm.
In the wake of the Newtown shooting, the issue of gun control is being framed in very selective ways that ignore the realities of violence in our communities. The truth is that the most deadly, in terms of numbers, gun owners are police forces and the US military. When we have a conversation about gun violence that ignores the realities of state violence, it often produces proposals that further marginalize and criminalize people of color, poor people, people with disabilities, immigrants and youth. In Washington State, we’re fighting against a new bill that would create mandatory jail time for youth caught possessing a gun. We know that mandatory jail and prison sentences are part of what has created the massive boom in US imprisonment in recent decades that have devastated communities of color. We know that jailing youth does not make our communities safer, it just damages the lives, health outcomes, and educational opportunities of young people.
As our country continues this debate about gun control, I hope that we can bring a recognition of the massive violence of criminalization and militarization to this discussion, and that we can think about safety in less sensationalist and more realistic ways. For trans communities, whose daily experiences of pathologization, violence and surveillance inform our understandings of the world, the reform proposals emerging after Newtown are of great concern.