By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
When Natalie Marie was released from prison to a halfway house in January 2012, she’d been out of society for seven years. She’d gone in knowing she was queer, but started exploring her gender identity while incarcerated in a men’s facility. Upon Marie’s release, a Bureau of Prisons staff member pointed her toward Q Center.
She visited on her first day free from prison and never really left — until the state pushed her out.
The LGBTQ community center offered her a home base and much-needed support. During the six months she spent at the Northwest Regional Reentry Center, Marie says she had to fight for fair treatment and access to medial care.
“While I was in the halfway house I was continually targeted for my gender identity. I was told how I could and could not dress, [what] functions I could participate in in the community, and finally what type of medical treatment I could receive,” Marie says. “The solace I found was in friends and staff at Q Center who supported me and empowered me.”
Q Center helped Marie connect with advocates at Basic Rights Oregon and the ACLU, who helped her file a grievance that ultimately forced the Northwest Regional Reentry Center to provide her medication.
Marie has been giving back to the center for the past 14 months. The list of roles she’s had in a little more than a year is far longer than the list of drug-related property crimes that landed her in prison for close to a decade.
She’s welcomed visitors at the reception desk and during special events (including Portland Pride). She has lifted up community members as a peer support group facilitator for the male-to-female trans group that meets at Q Center and as a cultural competency training organizer. She’s even expanded the reach of the LGBTQ community center by volunteering with its media team, serving as its volunteer coordinator, initiating discussions about diversity and inclusion, and developing the business and job skills training model for Market Q.
Q Center recognized this over-the-top dedication when it named Marie “Volunteer of the Year” at its annual fundraising gala in January. But all Marie’s contributions came to a screeching halt shortly after she learned that Q Center’s staff and volunteers would have to submit to background checks in order to comply with government grant requirements.
“Due to the nature of Q Center’s programs and services, we are obligated to follow the state of Oregon’s background check policies and procedures, as are many other nonprofit organizations throughout the state,” says Logan Lynn, Q Center public relations manager.
Open about her criminal background, and hoping to eventually leverage her volunteer work into a paid position at Q Center, Marie volunteered to get her background check out of the way early. She made a point to include the kind of supporting documentation the Oregon Department of Health and Human Services says it weighs in its decisions — the impact of several years struggling with addiction, the amount of time that’s passed, and her considerable achievements since been released.
“I also submitted a detailed explanation of how my success to date has been largely possible because of my involvement with Q Center and being able to engage in service to the community,” Marie says, adding that she can finally look at herself in the mirror and be proud of who she is — a “trans/genderqueer, Latina, radical, feminist, activist, organizer, rebel rouser, conflicted, conflict instigator, second class citizen, and queerdo.”
But it wasn’t enough. Marie failed the background check. She’s appealing the decision and hopes that community support and thorough documentation will be enough to overturn the state’s decision. In the meantime, she’s had to stop volunteering at the center.
“[I] feel hurt at the possibility that I may be kicked out of that community that I’ve given so much time, energy, and love to,” she says.
While Marie is hopeful that her appeal will be successful, she also wants to raise awareness about the barriers to equality LGBTQ people with criminal records face.
“The state of Oregon is perpetuating a system of oppression that alienates people and treats them as second-class citizens,” Marie says. “The ‘law’ is not serving justice until the laws are no longer applied disproportionately with regard to race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. They are discriminatory. Period.”
Lynn says that it’s a difficult balancing act. Q Center supports Marie to the extent that it is able, but it can’t compromise its funding sources.
“Q Center understands the complexities of these issues and we continue to challenge these policies and procedures within our capacity, while also accepting the responsibility of ensuring the safety of those most vulnerable in our care, and maintaining the fiscal integrity of the organization.”
Marie gets it. Though she doesn’t work with children or youth at Q Center, she says she understands the impulse to protect them.
“I strongly believe that as a community we have a responsibility to protect our youth, and people who abuse children are a danger,” Marie says. “I also feel that the communities/organizations that are being directly affected should have the determining voice or at least weigh heavily into the considerations … rather than having their community voice silenced by the state board’s determination.”
Stay tuned for the outcome of Natalie Marie’s appeal and continuing coverage of LGBTQ people and the prison system.