Donald Glover’s hit TV show Atlanta has inspired a new reverence for the city for which it is named, a deep appreciation for the hip-hop trio Migos, and, in the case of Wake Forest University junior Emmie Davidson, a dive into serious intersectional scholarship.
Davidson presented her research on the physical abuse of LGBTQ persons throughout the criminal justice system at Wake Forest’s sixth annual student symposium on gender and sexuality. The University’s Department of Women and Gender Studies, the School of Divinity, and the Anna Julia Cooper Center co-sponsored the symposium centered on feminist solidarities in challenging systems of oppression and privilege.
“It is important to understand how all forms of oppression are linked and how they intersect to shape socio-political landscapes and personal identities,” the organizers wrote in the call for papers released in December 2016. “In order to confront and overturn systems of oppression we must become active also by nurturing relationships with others who share our feminist goals and simultaneously work across boundaries of difference to promote change.”
Davidson spoke in a section of the daylong gathering dedicated to the sharp ends of the spectrum of the human experience: violent recognition and invisibility. Jared Crump, a graduate student in the Liberal Studies program, presented his research on femicide, encouraging the room to work together to deconstruct the notion that the gender-based killing of women is a foreign phenomenon.
Jasmine Brown, a junior, presented her findings on the colorblind and race avoidant nature of “No Child Left Behind” legislation and promotion in academia. She illuminated the ways in which need-blind funding and zero-tolerance disciplinary policies in the K-12 realm, and the status quo of tenure procedures in higher education, often ignore the needs and talents of black girls and women in particular.
Davidson’s research positioned violent recognition and invisibility as simultaneous experiences, acknowledging the violence that LGBTQ persons face both during and after incarceration. She watched a scene in Atlanta in which a black transgender woman and her male partner in a men’s jail are berated with verbal, transphobic attacks from other arrestees.
The image made Davidson so uncomfortable that she wanted to investigate the experiences of queer people in prisons and jails, particularly queer people of color. She found that non-heterosexual incarcerated people—a group transgender people may be mistakenly lumped into by the Department of Justice—face disproportionate rates of sexual violence in which both other incarcerated people and staff are the aggressors.
Transgender women of color live at an intersection of vulnerability where they are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated than white or cisgender people. After being released, black transgender women face the highest levels of fatal violence within the LGBTQ community, reported Davidson, but are less likely to turn to police for help when they feel threatened, because the police also pose a threat to their physical safety.
Being inspired by television herself, Davidson thinks the entertainment industry has a role to play in quelling stigma and violence against transgender people specifically.
“Whether you like to watch Orange Is The New Black or Atlanta, more television shows should have transgender characters,” she said. “Non-trivialized, complex characters, I might add. Media representation also motivates some people to take action, which is always necessary for social change.”