Most people would hope that when extreme bullying occurs and is brought to the attention of authorities, the bullies in question will be punished. The opposite happened to Jewlyes Gutierrez; when she was “tormented and harassed” by other students because of her trans status, she was charged with misdemeanor battery for defending herself.
Given that the incident arose in response to intense, ongoing bullying, observers had already widely questioned the decision by Contra Costa County District Attorney Dan Cabral to charge a 16-year old transgender high school student with a misdemeanor count of battery following a schoolyard altercation between her and three other students. However, it now appears that trans teen Jewlyes Gutierrez may be able to avoid charges after all, as she enters restorative justice, a court-ordered conflict resolution program.
Jewlyes, a Hercules High School student and a young trans woman of color, had been facing ongoing harassment and bullying at school from a group of cisgender girls; when she went to the school administration to report the situation was becoming intolerable, nothing happened. Finally, one day one of these girls assaulted Jewlyes by throwing used chewing gum in her face; Jewlyes had had it, she fought back, although she ended up being ganged up on by three other girls in the fight.
“I was just sticking up for myself,” she told NBC Bay Area News, “Because you’re different, you’ll get picked on, you’ll get name calling, bullied, taunted, harassed — all those.”
In the end, no one was seriously injured, but bizarrely, the District Attorney’s office chose to press misdemeanor battery charges against Jewlyes. This seems to be quite unusual, and I can’t help but doubt whether a white, cisgender child would have been charged under similar circumstances; it seems quite unlikely. Further, why would the D.A. charge Jewlyes for battery but not, at the least, charge the two other girls who jumped in on the fight and ganged up against her?
Indeed, West Contra Costa School Board President Charles Ramsey said of the incident that it should have been a teachable moment, rather than something that went to D.A.’s office. Jewlyes’s public defender Kaylie Simon expressed a similar sentiment, stating, “When I initially received this case, I was shocked that the district attorney’s office decided to charge [her].” She elaborated by saying, “I think by charging her, it sends a message to bullies that you can bully individuals, and that adults will then further victimize the person that you’ve been tormenting,”
A petition started by Jewlyes’s sister calling for the charges to be dropped eventually reached over 200,000 signatures. However, as a result of a plea agreement between her public defender and the juvenile court judge overseeing her case, Jewlyes will now enter the restorative justice program with the aim of resolving the issue outside of the court system itself.
Jewlyes described the program herself saying, “It’s like conflict resolution to talk it out… Then, after it is over, [the charge] will hopefully be dismissed.”
In a prepared statement, Kimberly Aceves of the Contra Costa County-based RYSE Center said, “Jewlyes’ honesty, courage, and commitment to reconnecting and healing with her peers is a compelling and inspiring call for RYSE and our partners to continue to shed light on and shift the current conditions of unwelcoming and unsafe school environments that cause harm for all students, including transgender youth and youth of color.”
While the charges against Jewlyes have not yet been formally dropped, this development unquestionably represents a big step in the right direction. Meanwhile, the fact that this situation even occurred in the first place speaks to a much larger issue about the bullying that LGBT youth face in school and elsewhere, which falls particularly hard on trans youth, especially trans women of color. Indeed, according to an extensive 2011 survey from GLSEN, a full 80% of transgender youth reported feeling unsafe in their school environment.
And while it happened outside of a school context, Jewlyes’s situation is also reminiscent of the ordeal faced by trans woman of color CeCe McDonald (and many other trans women of color), which again illustrates the racist and transphobic biases that are apparent in our legal system. CeCe spent 19 months in prison for defending herself from a violently racist and transmisogynistic attack before finally being released in January.
As most of us are familiar, in June 2011 CeCe and her friends, all people of color, were walking past a bar in Minnesota when Dean Schmitz, a white man, and two white women friends of his began shouting bigoted comments. When CeCe and her friends verbally resisted this bigotry, one of the white women responded by smashing a bar glass against CeCe’s face and a fight broke out. When CeCe exited the fight, Dean Schmitz aggressively pursued her and she pulled out a pair of scissors from her purse and later stabbed him in self-defense. Schmitz later died, and CeCe was eventually charged with second-degree murder, although this was later reduced to manslaughter as part of a plea deal.
CeCe and her legal team decided to accept this deal in the aftermath of the judge’s ruling that neither Dean Schmitz’s violent criminal history nor the fact that the he had a swastika tattooed on his body could be admitted as evidence in court; however, the fact that CeCe had once written a bad check could be used to impeach her own testimony during the trial. (The prosecutor had argued that the swastika was not visible when Schmitz was chasing CeCe down; but of course a swastika clearly speaks to the motivations for the racist abuse Schmitz and his friends had used to initiate the confrontation, and it speaks to what was likely in his mind as he chased CeCe down).
During her imprisonment, CeCe was held in a men’s prison and further spent long-term periods in solitary confinement, a practice that is commonly imposed on trans women and in my view should be classified as torture.
Taken as a whole, we see from these events how trans youth, particularly trans women of color, are vulnerable to bullying and how the legal system often acts to reinforce and support this type of social poison rather than to eliminate it. For this reason, we see the need to continue supporting anti-bullying policies and legislation for schools all across the nation, as well as legislation that codifies trans-inclusion such as California’s AB-1266, and the need to stand up for vulnerable trans children who may be targeted by reactionary forces. And further we should continue supporting institutions such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project that support vulnerable trans people who may be dismissed or even targeted by the legal system that should be structured to support them.