This story is part of the Marshall Project’s “We Are Witnesses: Chicago” series. In 15 direct-to-camera testimonies, this collection of videos gives voice to Chicagoans affected by the justice system. Watch the videos at themarshallproject.org/chicago.
Toni Morrison told O Magazine in 2003 that “when you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.” Channyn Lynne Parker took this advice to heart.
Parker, who worked as a social worker for two decades, spent five of those years at the Cook County Department of Corrections. She was one of the first openly trans people employed at the jail when she started in 2011. While there, she was the first person to lead Big Talk, a weekly meeting of 25 mostly black trans women in a classroom, sharing their stories of what had led them to incarceration, things like shoplifting, identity theft, and often sex work. At Big Talk, you’re not supposed to pity yourself. At Big Talk, you find healthy ways to thrive in an often oppressive world.
In the prison, Parker says, policies to protect inmates from harassment aren’t as powerful as what one officer can do. “I can still misgender you and hand you a bra at the same time,” says Parker. She’d done many of the same things members of the group had in the past; she knew it was “nothing but the roll of the dice that prevented me from being in their place.”
In 2011, the Cook County Department of Corrections bolstered protections for trans women. Sheriff Tom Dart found there was no uniformity to how trans inmates had previously been detained inside the jail. The county’s jail was one of the earliest in the nation to adopt progressive policies like mandating others use a person’s correct pronouns and providing gender-affirming undergarments. Still, trans women complained of harassment from correctional staff and other inmates. According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 37 percent of incarcerated trans people reported harassment from correctional officers. Those of color reported higher rates of harassment than white trans people. Two years later, Division Six was born at Cook County Corrections—a protective custody unit for trans women.
Parker says the measure was more of an incorrectly placed bandage than a resolution. “Having an intentional space for trans women to be and receive external support that’s geared toward the stabilization of their lives sounds like progress,” she says. “But let’s not forget the culture that the county corrections is steeped in, the officers who think [the new protective custody unit] is horrible, the people who can’t stand social workers coming in.” Some officers, she says, didn’t want social workers in the facility, especially to help those who they considered a “throwaway population.” “Macro-level change always sounds great, it catches the headlines, but we don’t think about how little this changes the lives of people daily.”
The women in Division Six were restricted to that unit and unable to participate in trade-specific classes like the beauty and barber shops. Big Talk was one way the Division Six women defined themselves beyond the crimes they had committed to survive. “There are so many societal effects that are not your fault,” Parker would tell the women, who were mostly repeat offenders. “However, your recovery is your responsibility.”
In 2016, Parker left Big Talk after Cook County Corrections restricted the group’s conversations to books approved by administration. Parker says limitations were even placed on discussions around historic events like the Stonewall riots. This censorship, she says, limited Big Talk members’ personal growth by taking away their freedom to discuss what mattered to them.
Today, Parker still assists trans women struggling with homelessness and a range of other needs. Her day job is at queer-affirming Howard Brown Health, where she’s moved to a more corporate role securing funds so social workers at the organization can continue supporting trans, queer, and gender-nonconforming folks in need. (Midway through our conversation, she gets a call from Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign asking her to moderate a forum in Chicago. Parker tells them she will if it’s held on the south side.)
“I used the parable of the pedestrian who got into an accident: one day a driver runs over a pedestrian’s foot, and the pedestrian’s foot broke. He sat and cried about it, and the doctor said, well, you’ll walk again, as long as you come to therapy,” she says, describing her work.” All he did was cry, cry, cry and said, ‘Oh, this is so unfair. This shouldn’t have happened to me.’ At the end of the day, the accident is not your fault, but the recovery is your responsibility. v