Prison Stories

Finding Purpose as an Elderly Trans Woman in Men’s Prison

I didn’t have a mentor. I’m not going to let that happen to other trans and LGBTQ prisoners.

Illustration: Dadu Shin

EEvery morning, I try to wake up around 5 a.m. It may seem strange given the long day that lies ahead of me in prison. But I am a transgender woman assigned to a cell with a non-LGBTQ man and, thankfully, he sleeps until 7 a.m. or later. So early morning is the only time I have to sit back in peace, reflect on yesterday, and prepare myself for today.

It is also my only time to cry and to be emotional without showing weakness. I can put my bra on without stringing a curtain across the cell for a small bit of privacy.

Privacy is something many take for granted, but in a place like this, well, a girl really has none. Prisons are full of children and very young adults who lack guidance. There is no mother figure nurturing them or teaching them about respect. Many of them hold extremely misogynistic beliefs and that shows in their everyday interactions. As a woman in a men’s prison, normal activities others wouldn’t think twice about on the outside, suddenly become an exercise in creativity within these walls. It’s a consistent dance between maintaining your dignity and ensuring your safety. I’ve had 40 years behind bars to master it.

When I shower, I try to keep my back to the entrance to avoid displaying my breasts to watching eyes. While on a work site, or in the presence of my cellmate, I force myself the indignity of standing to pee. Otherwise, one of the men will assume my sitting position is an invitation to show me an erection, as if it was catnip that would cause me to suddenly fall to my knees.

As a woman in a men’s prison, normal activities others wouldn’t think twice about on the outside, suddenly become an exercise in creativity within these walls.

But what I find the most painful are the everyday pat searches. I dread the feeling of having strangers run their hands over me. I understand the need for pat searches and when they are done respectfully in line with transgender search policies laid out by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), I can tolerate them. But most searches feel like I’m being groped, violated.

Such violations are common for the LGBTQ community behind bars, and oftentimes people turn a blind eye to them. I was guilty of that for a long time, myself. Slavery, forced prostitution, drug addiction, and domestic abuse are everywhere in the LGBTQ community here. When you’re constantly surrounded by such horrors, your vision gets clouded. So, I looked away from the grotesque dysfunction among my LGBTQ brothers and sisters for a long time.

And then I saw members of my community forced and manipulated into carrying knives and getting caught just so their “men” inside could continue to abuse them. They were forced to sacrifice their potential freedom, just because their men were serving long sentences and did not want them to leave. That saddened me beyond words.

It was then that I decided I could no longer sit back and do nothing. I began to take boys and girls under my wing and try to educate them, to teach them that, even in prison, you can control many aspects of your life, that you do not have to let yourself be passed around like a bowl of party mix. In essence, I became their mother in prison.

Many young transgender women come into the prison system having never truly been able to express their womanhood in the free world. They have never had a person guide them and love them for who they were. As a result, too many feel that their only affirmation of femininity is having a man between their legs. Promiscuity tends to be the first method of showing the world that they are, in fact, passable and desirable women.

There is no shortage of men in prison willing to take advantage of a girl open to engaging in sexual activities. Boys in here couldn’t care less who services them, and where, as long as they are out of sight of the cameras and guards. And too many of the LGBTQ community inside are willing to participate, if only to feel some love and affection for a short period of time.

I understand this phase well. For the first 10 years of my incarceration, I hid my true identity and presented as a man. It finally became too much for me and I shaved from my ears to my toes and stepped out into the yard, dressed in a hidden pair of panties, a pair of daisy duke shorts, and a sexy little top. I had sex with four guys before yard closed two hours later. I didn’t think about the dangers to my health. All I cared about was how sex affirmed my womanhood. I spent years on my back, or on my knees, before I came to realize my body was all they cared about. Few cared about me as a person.

Many of us start off by emulating drag queens, even though deep within, that’s not how we want to present ourselves.

I understand all too well what those in my LGBTQ community are going through as they start this journey. I was alone when I began to transition to who I was inside. I now feel it’s my place to do what no one did for me and help guide these young girls into womanhood, giving them the benefit of the wisdom I amassed over four decades of incarceration.

So many of us never had a female role model or close friend to teach us how to do basic things like apply makeup correctly or style our hair. Many of us start off by emulating drag queens, even though deep within, that’s not how we want to present ourselves. So, I try to teach my girls by example, showing them how they can be proud, beautiful, respected women. Women of power, who don’t need to present themselves as desperate, needy, or attention seeking. My goal is to send them back into the world proud, confident, healthy, and educated.

I’m now trying to help my children across 21 prisons throughout Missouri. It can be a daunting task but I have an adopted sister in the free world, who will email some of my girls in prisons while I send letters via snail mail to the rest. One of my proudest achievements was working with an organization that agreed to sponsor a GoFundMe account that would enable not just myself, but two of my girls to have our names legally changed.

It’s not always easy and, as any mother will tell you, young daughters can break your heart with their reckless actions. But I never turn my back on them, I am always here when they need me most. I guess I realize, like any mother raising children, it is never about gifts or thanks. It’s about nurturing and teaching them skills needed to survive. That’s something I never had and it fills me with joy to be able to give that to them. My thanks come from seeing my girls leave these places and make a successful transition into free society.

I don’t know what I would do if that was taken away from me. Being “Mother” has become as much a part of who I am as my being an elderly woman in a men’s prison.

Writer, activist, and transgender inmate. Advocate for the fair and just treatment of all LGBTQ prisoners.

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