Just four years ago, society had got the best of Monica James. Her more-than-40-year battle to just survive as a transgender woman of color on the streets of Chicago was one that had left her physically broken and mentally depleted. The last of her will to fight was gone and there was absolutely nothing she could scrape up from her once audacious determination to find her own path.
At the time, James was sitting in a Cook County courtroom alongside her attorney and Owen Daniel-McCarter of the Transformative Justice Law Project ( TJLP ) while all the venom and callow disregard for her identity was allegedly manifested in a States Attorney who was salivating in a desire to put the final nails in her coffin with a 20-to-80-year prison sentence for an incident involving a plainclothes police officer.
Instead, on Nov. 9, 2014, James boarded a plane bound for Geneva, Switzerland. There, she was slated to address three different committees at the United Nations on her life experiences with the legal and correctional systems of the state of Illinois and upon the horrific violence inflicted both inside and outside of the courtroom and prison complex on transgender women of color in a cycle that has become as equally routine as it is willfully ignored.
Jameswho has rarely known life outside of the eight-by-12-foot concrete enclosure of a prison cellwill spend her first time outside of the United States with opportunities to surround herself with the seemingly endless majesty of the Swiss Alps. The heights to which they reach are ones she now believes she is more than capable of matching. She is not alone in this opinion. A gofundme campaign launched in October with the goal of covering her travel expenses steadily grew in donations each day. During an interview with Windy City Times Nov. 8, James was informed that it had surpassed $5,000.00.
Born in Garfield Park, at the age of 12 she relocated with her family to the South side neighborhood of Roseland. During the year she spent as a Freshman at Corliss High School, James said she identified as queer and so was physically assaulted by men from within the school and the community. "Boys would invite me to come to an event or to one of their houses," she recalled. "Then five or six of them would come out and they would jump me. I've had my ribs fractured, my arms broken. I've had my face hit with a brick. I still have that scar today along with a thousand other scars that I accumulated along the course of my life."
James survived those early years through the music of Miles Davis and songs such as Whitney Houston's "I Believe in You and Me."
"It's my go-to song," she said with a smile. "I was just listening to it last night and it always lifts me and filters me."
Her home life certainly offered little respite. Although James described him as loving and supportive, her father was a survivor of racial segregation, profiling and brutality. He would often show a violent streakaccumulated during those yearsin attacks upon her mother that James remembers as far back as the age of five.
During her sophomore year and to at least gain some sense of stability, James moved to Rogers Park to live with her Aunt and attended Sullivan High School. The diversity the school offered seemed to change her life for the better. "It was great," she said. "It was safe and I felt like I was finding myself. I got engaged with the activities at Sullivan; I was a part of the modern dance team, I ran track and field, I even performed on the pom-pom team a couple of times."
It was an experience that was robbed from her in 1989 when, as a senior, she came out as transgender. "I was told by the principal and my dance teacher that I was no longer welcome in the school," she remembered. "They said that I was a distraction to all the other students. It was crushinglike a dagger in my heart because I had worked so hard to align myself with being a student and being as bold and honest as I possibly could."
James said that her aunt subsequently asked her to leave her home. "She told me that I shouldn't have gone to school dressed like that. That was it. I was left to the streets. There was something about being a trans* woman of color then that was taboo in the African American community. It's worse today because now they not only totally disregard you but they will humiliate, taunt and hurt you right in your face with no repercussions and no remorse"
Terrified, confused and with no idea as to what to do with her life without an education, James became a part of an underground LGBT community. "I was the younger person in an older group whose lives were in the sex trade," she said. "It was their means of survival and so it became mine. All I really wanted was love and support and some direction."
She quickly became a victim of police profiling, maintaining that she was stopped when walking to the bus or L stop, to and from the grocery store or leaving a bar. "If I did anything against that officer's liking, I would be physically attacked," she said. "It didn't take much to cross that line and find yourself busted up and in the hospital. After they attacked you, they would say you assaulted them and then you were on your way to the county jail."
All told, over the course of 17 years, James estimated the number of separate occasions that she spent in the maximum divisions of the Cook County Jail as being more than 100. In an incident that occurred during a strip search, James asserted that an officer beat her with a stick because she was wearing a swim suit underneath her clothes. She added that she was covered with bruises and welts over all her body.
Her humanity methodically eroded through each interaction with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, James started to self-medicate. "I started with cocaine and that led to smoking crack," she said. "Now I had to take care of an addiction."
In doing so, her means of survival switched from sex work to retail theft. This ultimately meant lengthy prison sentences. She spent 18 months in general population in a male prison in downstate Illinois where she maintained that she was raped and assaulted on a continual basis. If she defended herself, she was placed in solitary confinement or transferred to a maximum security facility to live among high profile criminals. Without any visits from family members or friends or any money given to her for basic commissary needs, James tried to attach herself to an inmate who could act as a provider of money, protection and love. Prison life became a way of life and she was never free for long.
James described a day in 2007 that led to a pivotal moment for her. She was caught stealing goods from a store in Lakeview by a plainclothes police officer. "He started whipping me with his gun," she said. "From there, an all out brawl took place on the middle of Broadway. I yelled for help, but no one was interested."
She recalled being arrested by a small army of Chicago Police Department ( CPD ) officers, slapped with an array of charges including Attempted Murder of a Police Officer and placed in the maximum security Division 11 of Cook County Jail. While incarcerated, James wrote to every LGBT advocacy group she could think of. "I would always tell them I was a transgender woman of color," she said. "I never got a response; nothing."
That was until she wrote to Daniel-McCarter. "He came to the jail and went over all the charges," James recollected. "He said, 'Monica, you are phenomenal. You have been through so much and we are going to beat this'."
Despite Daniel-McCarter both rallying the community behind James and offering invaluable information to her public defender on the life of a transgender individual, James still felt like she should accept a plea deal. "I was afraid of going to trial," she said. "I knew that, as a transgender woman of color, I didn't have much chance of it being fair. My jury would not be a jury of my peers, but they would be coming from the suburbs; all white collar and no common ground."
Daniel-McCarter encouraged her to stand up for her rights. But, at trial, James asserted that the state's attorney undercut best efforts to provide her with credibility during his arguments to the jury. "He told [them] that I was a liar because 'the defendant is standing before your very eyes claiming to be a woman, when we know good and, well, it's a man.' He had told the jury that we were all liars and deceitful because of our gender identity," James said. "I looked at Owen and I saw how badly that hit him. I've had dirt thrown in my face and my brains beat out so it didn't affect me. But the look of hurt and disgust in Owen's face, made me want to fight."
And fight they did, managing to win a partial victory when the charges were lowered to aggravated battery. James received a sentence of seven years in the Big Muddy River Correctional Facility. However, even while she was behind bars, suddenly people were interested in James' story. They wanted her to speak, and so opportunities opened up to her from within the community. With time served, she was released in 2011 and started to work with the TJLP while also contributing her story to the Joey Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie and Kay Whitlock book Queer Injustice.
She took a job as a peer leader at the TransLife Center at the Chicago House and, in September of this year, at Howard Brown Health Center. The revelation that she would be going to Geneva as a representative of the TJLP came as a complete surprise. "For a girl who just got off parole and has never been out of the country, my first trip is the grandest trip ever," James said with tears pouring down her cheeks. "I feel like Cinderella. I went through hell where no one gave a damn about me and now I am going to a place where the whole world will be listening. My message will be that, as long as the state continues to overlook profiling of people like me, we will always be a weak state. There's homeless youth on the street, there's violence on every corner that is incited by police. All I know is the mud, so my conversation will be very hard."
In all likelihood, James will listen to her go-to song the night before her first speech and revel in its words in a way she never before believed possible. "And I believe in dreams again," Houston sang. "I believe that love will never end and, like the river finds the sea/ I was lost, now I'm free."