The treatment of transgender inmates — and the response of the deputy sheriff’s union — becomes an issue in the race between incumbent Ross Mirkarimi and challenger Vicki Hennessy

The Chronicle’s video-recorded debate for Sheriff revealed troubling fissures.

By Gabriel Haaland

OCTOBER 7, 2015 — Late in the Chronicle’s debate between the candidates for sheriff, incumbent Ross Mirkarimi spoke up about transphobia, which has emerged as an issue in the race. The sheriff noted that his ground-breaking policy of allowing transgender inmates to live in facilities with others of their identified gender, wasn’t entirely popular with the union representing the deputies.

The challenger, Vicki Hennessy, argued that the sheriff needed to do more to reach out to his deputies. Mirkarimi pointed out that in some cases, that would be a “recipe for paralysis.” One example is his policy on transgender prisoners.

The relevant exchange between Mirkarimi and his challenger, Vicki Hennessy, begins at 41:15.

In characterizing comments from the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association as transphobic, Sheriff Mirkarimi was referring to quotes like this from Eugene Cerbone, president of the deputy sheriff’s union, included in a Bay Area Reporter article this summer:

One problem Cerbone has is that he doesn’t consider people who have not had surgery to be transgender. “Transgender is you have the surgery,” he said. “What I know of someone who’s actually transgendered [sic] is they’ve had the complete change.”

Asked about people who would find such a comment offensive, Cerbone said, “I’m not talking about civilian life, I’m talking about in a custody setting,” which is “a completely different thing. Custody is where we don’t have men and women together,” and where “over the years,” jail staff “have basically had everything based on what your genitalia was, not what you were perceived to be.”

Cerbone added, “If they’re really what I would consider transgender, where the change is done,” he “wouldn’t have any issues” with the proposed changes.

I don’t know what was in Cerbone’s heart when he made these statements, but I know the statements themselves are transphobic. Thanks to a lot of hard work over the last 15 years, San Francisco has moved well beyond such a limited definition of “transgender.” No agency in the city uses a person’s surgical status to determine their gender, and the Sheriff’s Department shouldn’t either.

What really makes me mad, though, is that Cerbone is portraying this as a union position. Transphobia is not a union value. Union workers aren’t separate from transgender people or inmates. We are them and they are us. Unions are strongest when they stand with everyone in our communities.

Union workers in the Sheriff’s Department are strongest when they prioritize the dignity and safety of the people in their care. A core part of respecting transgender inmates is recognizing their gender identity as their gender and, when appropriate, housing them according to it. If leadership in a particular union can’t represent this ideal, it is up to individual union members to do so. That is how unions work.

Gabriel Haaland is a member and former co-vice-president of Pride at Work, a constituency group of the AFL-CIO that works to mobilize mutual support between organized labor and the LGBT community.