On the eighth floor of the Durham courthouse, a beige tower that is home to the county’s criminal justice system, you will find the office of District Attorney Satana Deberry. With colorful pillows and local art on every wall, her office seems out of place in the drab building. But Deberry, a black queer woman, hasn’t been a typical prosecutor.
She oversees a system that often entangles people that look just like her. But she is the one running it – and trying to change it.
Studies have found that LGBTQ people, like people of color, are disproportionately harmed by our justice system. Deberry, elected in 2018 on a mandate of criminal justice reform, has brought a unique understanding of the LGBTQ community to the DA’s office.
In an interview for Pride Month, she spoke with The 9th Street Journal about her life as a queer woman and her feelings about representation and justice.
We all have idols that shape us. In a framed photo tucked in the corner of her office, Deberry memorializes hers: Barbara Jordan.
Jordan, a “towering figure” in the 1970s, was one of the first black women to serve in the Texas State Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. She, like Deberry, was unafraid to challenge the status quo.
During President Richard Nixon’s impeachment hearing, Jordan famously declared: “If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder.”
While she never publicly revealed her sexuality, Jordan lived with a partner for 20 years until she died in 1996.
“I wanted to be Barbara Jordan,” said Deberry. “Barbara Jordan was the first black woman that I saw that I knew.”
Building a Life
With Barbara Jordan in mind, young Deberry chased excellence in school. She decided good grades would be her path out of Hamlet, N.C. – a town of 6,000 between Charlotte and Fayetteville. It worked. Her determination and focus on academics carried her all the way to Princeton and through law school at Duke University. To this day, she still doesn’t “see light blue.”
She was always focused on her studies, so it wasn’t until her mid to late 20s, after graduating from law school, that Deberry began to understand her own sexuality. “It started to occur to me that I had to build a life. And how was I going to build that life?”
She realized there was only one option. “It was never a case that I wasn’t going to be out. Because that’s just not who I am,” she said.
The core values of openness and transparency that she brings to her office stem from her own disposition. “I’m always trying to be my best self. And so, I don’t really think of being myself as being brave. I mean, that’s what we’re all doing.”
When she came out, her parents were not surprised. “We already knew that,” they told her matter-of-factly, “so you should probably tell us something new.”
Her parents were supportive, but for her mother, queer life was associated with tragedy. Deberry’s aunt, who today would likely identify as trans, lived a dangerous life and was ultimately killed. “I think for my parents, especially for my mother, that was the only kind of life you could have as a queer person . . . on the edges of society.”
Deberry worked for a few years as a criminal lawyer before taking jobs at various non-profit groups like Self-Help and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Then from 2013 to 2018, she served as the head of N.C. Housing Coalition – all while raising three daughters as a single mother.
In 2018, she was elected the county’s chief prosecutor by promising bold reform. Rejecting the hard-line approach of many district attorneys, she vowed to put less emphasis on non-violent crime and said she would address racial bias in the system.
Black women account for a tiny share of the nation’s DAs. In 2014, 79% percent of elected prosecutors were white men, and only 1% were women of color.
Talking to Deberry, who sports hoop earrings and blue Adidas tennis shoes, it becomes clear that she has not made it to the eighth floor in spite of her intersecting identities, but rather because of them. “Because I come at this from a cultural position of traditionally being powerless, I feel like I understand what’s at stake in a different way,” she said.
DAs wield tremendous power in deciding which criminal cases get prosecuted. Unlike many prosecutors, her identity as a black, queer woman overlaps with many of those likely to be involved in our imbalanced criminal justice system.
She says she brings her unique perspective to her work. “There are just experiences in my life, certainly as a queer person, that inform the decisions I make and the policies that we implement here.”
‘The worst day of their lives’
During her time as DA, she has limited the use of cash bail, has scaled back prosecution of school-based offenses, and has focused on prosecuting violent crimes rather than low-level drug possession charges. She says these policies work to reduce the jail population and keep vulnerable people out of the criminal justice system.
She also recognizes the way the system harms LGBTQ people.
According to the most recent National Inmate Survey, lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are three-times as likely to be incarcerated, and a third of all women in prison identify as queer. Studies show transgender people are more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. This rate is even higher for LGBTQ youth, who make up 20% of the juvenile justice system.
LGBTQ people also are disproportionately victims of violent crime. The Williams Institute found they were four-times as likely to experience violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault.
Deberry knows the statistics – and the challenges they reflect. “The dirty little secret of the criminal justice system is that not only are all the defendants poor black and brown people, but all the victims are as well,” she said. “So being poor, being black, being brown, being LGBTQ, all of those things put you in a situation in this country of just having access to fewer resources.”
To combat these disparities, her office uses a broader definition of domestic violence than the state government, to include same-sex dating couples. Her office also recognizes people by their chosen gender identity, a respect not common in the criminal justice system. And their special victims unit, which focuses on sexual assault, now handles cases in which someone is targeted due to race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender presentation. “If that is part of the crime, we talk about it,” Deberry said.
She wants to bring humanity to a system that can be insensitive and biased.
“The way that the system acts is to reduce people to the worst day of their lives” said Deberry, “and there’s so much focus on that particular act that we don’t spend a lot of time focused on the person.”
If Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy
For Deberry, her choice of the word queer reflects her belief that sexuality and identity are about more than who you love. “For me, queer is about culture, and about a worldview.”
As Deberry has gotten older (she is now 52), she has noticed that her queerness has ruffled fewer feathers. “It’s been interesting to me how little it comes up in this role,” she said. Most people just don’t know or don’t ask – she is not sure which.
“I think that the real stick in the system is that I’m a black woman. I think that is what really pisses people off.”
But to Deberry, her work is all part of a larger goal. “When you’re growing up in a black family, there’s a saying, ‘If Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy.’ And really the truth of the world is that if, black women, black queer women, and black trans women are safe, then everybody is safe.”
She is working to create that world for her three daughters – two are 16 and one is 19 – who predominantly communicate in TikToks and GIFs. They, too, have offered Deberry a window into the evolving queer community.
“For my kids’ friends, they just try on a lot more things. They have friends who are pan, and friends who are trans, and friends who are nonbinary. They have friends who have already transitioned genders,” said Deberry “In that sense, I think those kids are brave.”
The life she has led was not one that many people could have envisioned when she was first coming out, she said. But today, “you get to be anybody as a queer woman.”
This is what pride means for her:
“Representation matters. And, you know, you hear people say, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’ I don’t necessarily believe that, but I do know that somewhere out there, seeing me is meaningful to somebody – just like seeing Barbara Jordan was meaningful to me. And so that’s really what pride means for me. That you get to see the full range of who you get to possibly be.”
At top, photo of Satana Deberry by Becca Schneid, The 9th Street Journal