By Rahsaan Thomas
“I pledge to accompany any victim of crime on their healing journey,” the men in blue recite at every Restorative Justice meeting in San Quentin’s Catholic Chapel.
True commitment to that pledge was demonstrated when two transgender people were welcomed as guest speakers at the Saturday, Nov. 21, Restorative Justice symposium.
“My purpose here is to educate and promote togetherness in the world,” said visitor Billie Cooper, founder of Translife.
Tanesh Nutall told the large group of insiders and community members about the rejection by an aunt for being gay, a history of abusive relationships and low self-esteem. Those problems contributed to developing a drug habit supported by boosting and prostitution, and victimization at the hands of pimps.
However, Nutall said everything changed on Dec. 31, 2010, at the City of Refuge United Church of Oakland. After that night, Nutall became a transgender minister and the program manager for Translife. Nutall has been married for 10 years and kicked the crack habit six years ago.
“What if we could see each other as a spirit?” asked Nutall. “What would life be if I only saw the truth of who you are? We would live in harmony.”
Cooper talked about being 57 years old, an HIV-positive long-term survivor, care educator, peer activist and founder of Translife, among other credits.
“Courage, tolerance, acceptance and vulnerability are all components of transition,” said Cooper. “I may not look like what your mother or your aunt looks like, but I am a woman.”
The inside men’s reaction indicated respect for Cooper and Nutall’s truths.
“I am a straight man, with certain belief systems, but after hearing your speech, I am empathic towards that,” said Fateem Jackson. “I commend you on your courage in telling your truth.”
Then Jackson performed a spoken word piece on victimization.
“Today,” said Cooper, “I am feeling so much love, compassion and understanding, and I see people want to learn and people want to understand.”
Nutall said, “Don’t allow your beliefs to kill another person’s belief. If you don’t agree with their beliefs, learn to love them anyway. If you spend time with individuals you may not like, your thoughts will change. You will come to see the person’s spirit and not the flesh.”
Master of Ceremony Darnell “Moe” Washington, an African-American, talked about how sitting down and hearing each other’s stories led to his friendship with former skinhead Chris Gallo.
Sponsor Dr. Mary Elliott said, “In one day I saw the barriers come down. Sometimes all it takes is 10 minutes.”
Cooper defines transgender as someone who was born in the wrong body.
Nutall disagrees, “I was not born in the wrong body. My truth is that I am not 100 percent male or female, but I am 100 percent Tanesh.”
Transgender inmate Javis Clark said, “When referring to these ladies and ourselves—it is the power of the pronoun. Ask what we would like to be referred to as.”
Here are some reactions:
“This is the truth and I always love coming back,” said Dacher Keltner.
“I feel like it is another example of really transformative conversations that are happening inside S.Q. that are not always happening outside of S.Q.,” said Karena Montag, director of the Insight Prison Project.
“Because of the healing of the men inside, I find my own healing,” said outside guest “YoYo” Tchoukleva about why she participants in restorative justice.
“I am leaving San Quentin today with a light heart,” said Cooper. “I feel love and compassion towards everybody.”