On Saturday, October 1st, Occupy Wall Street NYC protestors set out to march on the Brooklyn Bridge, an action that resulted in a tense showdown between protestors and the NYPD, resulting in 700 arrests. There has been much dispute over the involvement of police who were said to have “escorted” protestors halfway over the bridge, only to meet them half way in and entrap and arrest them.
One of the most disturbing accounts to come from these subsequent arrests was the detainment and mistreatment of Justin Adkins, an activist and trans man. Justin’s account of his detainment, which you can read here, highlighted not only the all-too-common mistreatment of trans persons by police and in the prison system, but also the dire need for sensitivity training and written protocol by police departments. Persephone Magazine talked with Justin earlier this week to find out not only more about Justin’s activism, but his experience at Occupy Wall Street, as well as ways that people can be better allied with the trans community. It is a privilege to have been able to talk with him, so Persephone Magazine, please welcome Justin Adkins.
Persephone Magazine: You are involved in many roles: serving as the trans/ genderqueer chair on the board of the Consortium of Higher Education Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Professionals, chairing the Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition, the Jim Collins Foundation Advisory Board and Bennington Pride, as well as serving as the assistant director of the Multicultural Center where you coordinate LBGTQ programming. Damn. How did you initially get involved in activism?
Justin Adkins: First, I am now only on the advisory board of Berkshire Stonewall, only so much time in a day. I have always been an activist. When I was 17, I became a missionary because it was one of the only ways I knew to help people. After about 8 years of humanitarian aid-focused missions work, I came-out as a lesbian and then a few years later I came-out as trans. My passion for changing the world never left though.
As a kid, I learned about the missionary Amy Carmichael. She advocated for young children sold into sex-slavery in South India, that was what I always wanted to do. When other kids wanted to be ballerinas and firefighters, I wanted to be a missionary like Amy Carmichael. I am still a passionate advocate for human rights, that has never changed.
PM: You also run workshops that touch on everything from language to meditation. One of the ones that struck me the most was your workshop “Bully to Advocate in 5 Hard Steps,” where you speak about your experience bullying the only queer person you knew. Can you talk about the general gist of this workshop and why you created it?
JA: I created the workshop because I see so much bullying in our schools and playgrounds. I also see media figures and others say homophobic and transphobic things and they are left unchecked. If we don’t point out what is wrong how will our kids ever learn?
I also know, first hand, the effects of bullying. In junior high I became friends with this girl, Mimi Bowles. When I found out that her moms were lesbians, I joined in with all of the other kids making fun of her. I wanted to be cool and I also think that some place in my brain knew I was queer myself. Mimi identified as straight, but because of the bullying, she committed suicide a couple years after high school. Bullying has real effects. The way I treated Mimi is one of the only regrets I have in my life. If telling my story can make even one bully think before they speak, then it is a story worth telling.
PM: Your recent detainment brought to the forefront a much-needed demand for necessary training of police departments in their treatment of trans gender people. And while it’s great that these conversations are finally happening, the mistreatment of trans gender people by police is not a new thing. In what ways do you want to see police departments trained? What do you think should be required?
JA: I went public with my story because I know that it is not a new story. I also know that trans women of color are some of the most vulnerable members of our society when it comes to harassment by the police and others. I would like to see a full investigation into how I was treated, and education for the police. We should all be educated about people different from us so that we can treat everyone with respect.
PM: What has been your experience in the Occupy Wall Street movement so far? What are the things you would like people who may be on the fence about the movement to know about?
JA: The movement is one of the most inspiring things I have been part of. It is highlighting a growing economic inequality in our nation. It has given a voice to the people. People need to know that the system can change. We, the 99%, have that power. It is not just idealistic; it is a real possibility to create a new world model.
PM: In what ways can those who want to or do ally themselves with trans-activism be better allies?
JA: While I was chained to the railing in precinct 90 in Brooklyn there was this woman who advocated all night for the police to treat me humanely. She repeatedly asked, potentially putting herself at risk, for the officers to give me my own cell. When you see someone, trans or otherwise, being mistreated, stand up, as they say in NYC, “see something, say something.”
PM: What awesome work can we look forward from you in the future?
JA: LOL! It is my passion to advocate for others. I am blessed that right now when I am in a time of need for people to advocate and support me, they have. I want to just keep pluggin’ along and supporting people. I will continue to go down to NYC and occupy Wall Street as much as I am able. I will continue to be a loud voice for equality for all people. I love speaking at colleges and high schools, so look for more of that too!
To lend your support in providing support to programs such as sensitivity training for police departments, check out the following organizations: Anti-Violence Project, The Jim Collins Foundation, Queers For Economic Justice, and The Sylvia Rivera Project. You can find more information about Occupy Wall Street at Occupy Wall Street.org. To find out more on Justin, please visit his website at JustinAdkins.com.