Disclaimer: The following piece reflects the author’s personal views only and does not reflect the positions of any organization or institution with which he is affiliated.
Kamala Harris has spent her career building the carceral state. She is a skilled prosecutor, a believer in punishment and prisons, and has specifically targeted trans people and sex workers in the past five years.
I believe that people can evolve but I don’t believe that Harris has or will.
For the past decade, I have worked with transgender people in prison, jail, and other sites of detention. Through this work, I was taught that there is no justice in a legal system built on chattel slavery, indigenous genocide, and the legacies of those foundational frameworks. Prisons cannot be reformed out of white supremacy nor can the legal system be expected to transform racism and anti-Blackness. I personally do not believe in prisons and I will never trust prosecutors whose job it is to send people to cages.
As a white person who grew up with class privilege, I had no contact with or understanding of the criminal legal system. I believed in government because I was the intended beneficiary of our government. I received the benefit of an elite public education and inherited the sense that justice came through law. I have no idea what it was like for Kamala Harris to grow up as Kamala Harris and I cannot pretend to know what set of constraints, ambitions, and needs led to her various personal and professional decisions.
What I do know is how her actions have impacted people and work that I care about. What I do know is that one chooses to become a prosecutor. Responding to those who defend Harris by suggesting she “had” to become a prosecutor, African-American studies professor and writer Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explains, “If your job requires that you destroy the lives of young black and brown people, then maybe you need to reevaluate your life choices or do your job differently.”
As a prosecutor, Harris’s work has been as an arm of the state fighting to lock people in cages and defending policies that destroyed lives and communities. Now attempting to position herself as a criminal legal system reformer and an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, Harris seeks to rewrite her past rather than own it.
But I am not buying it.
It was not that long ago that as Attorney General of California, Harris argued in court that trans people in prison should not have access to medically necessary care, that sex work should be criminalized because it facilitates the spread of HIV, and that early parole for people locked up in California’s unconstitutionally overcrowded prisons would jeopardize a critical source of (free) labor for the state.
In the case of Norsworthy v. Beard, Michelle Norsworthy, a trans woman incarcerated in California state prison, sued the state for denying her medically necessary surgical treatment for her diagnosed gender dysphoria. As attorney general, Harris defended California’s denial of treatment. Not only did the state employ an “expert” who categorically opposes the medical standard of care for transgender prisoners, but under Harris’s leadership not only defended the denial of care in court in the face of Ms. Norsworthy’s escalating distress and suicidality but then continued to appeal decisions in her favor.
In a brief signed by Harris, the state argued that the denial was warranted because any “disappointment” Ms. Norsworthy might feel at the denial could be assuaged with psychotherapy. In essence, Harris argued in court that this medical treatment was about a frivolous choice and that trans prisoners can go get therapy instead of the treatment they need. It is cruel, dangerous and unacceptable. Harris’s office went even further arguing that the state would be harmed if forced to treat Ms. Norsworthy because, among other things, her medical care would “present serious safety and administrative concerns.” Harris here signs off on the idea that merely treating a transgender prisoner with dignity — and consistent with constitutional standards — would somehow harm others and the interests of the state. She made these arguments in 2015.
Indeed, just last month when asked about whether she supports the basic, medically necessary health care for transgender people in prisons that she opposed as California attorney general, Harris offered a meandering and equivocal response. She could have simply said, “Yes, I support health care for all trans people including those in prison.” But she didn’t because, I assume, she doesn’t. And she has shown time and again that she is willing to sell out undesirable communities and bodies for political posturing.
Harris similarly presented troubling arguments to the court as attorney general in defense of criminalizing sex work. In defending the criminalization of sex work under California law in 2015, Harris’s office argued that criminalization was necessary because, among others things, “[p]rostitution is linked to the transmission of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases”; the state has an interest in “deterring the commodification of sex”; and “[p]rostitution creates a climate conducive to violence against women.” These arguments are wholly unscientific and dangerous.
By opposing health care for trans prisoners and aggressively supporting criminalization of sex work, Harris’s work has contributed to some of the most violent conditions faced by trans people, particularly trans women of color, in California and across the country. It is going to take a lot to undo that damage.
And it is simply not enough to oppose President Trump’s trans military ban and support same-sex marriage and the Equality Act. That is the floor of what it means to care about LGBTQ+ survival. Those are basic, formalistic and assimilation-driven reforms for equality and Harris is attempting to draw more mileage than she is owed, by showing up in the least controversial ways. Tweeting about trans equality does not make up for the work Harris has done diminishing survival opportunities for the most marginalized in the LGBTQ+ community.
Harris could situate herself on the national stage right now by saying something like, “I am sorry. I made mistakes that hurt people, I have grown and I will spend the rest of my career working to repair the damage I have done.” Instead, she is trying to obscure the harms she has caused and telegraphed her willingness to keep causing those harms.
For now, I am going to trust that Harris’s past tells us exactly what we need to know about her future. And that scares me.
CHASE STRANGIO is an attorney and LGBTQIA+ advocate.