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"I'm Still Gonna Be Me": Leading the Charge for Change in Prisons and Everywhere Else

John Knight,
Senior Staff Attorney,
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December 18, 2014

I first met Tatyana a few years after the Wisconsin legislature passed the Inmate Sex Change Prevention Act – a cruel piece of legislation aimed at denying urgently needed healthcare to any transperson in custody in Wisconsin.

By that time, she had already signed up to be a plaintiff in the challenge to the Wisconsin law filed by the ACLU and Lambda Legal, and I had already met most of the other plaintiffs, including Kari, Andrea, and Lindsey. But even though I had a pretty good sense of what these women were facing, it was still hard to fathom how these women managed to survive the challenges and indignities of living in a male prison – a near universal experience for transgender women in U.S. prisons where corrections agencies house prisoners based on birth-assigned gender, rather than lived gender. Despite risk of retaliation, Tatyana and the other plaintiffs in Fields v. Smith all courageously stepped up and stayed with us for the long fight until a federal court struck down this law as unconstitutional in 2010.

Though Tatyana’s challenge to Wisconsin’s law was successful and several other federal courts have similarly found bans on treatment for gender dysphoria unconstitutional, too many transgender individuals in prison continue to fight for years to try to get their basic healthcare needs met or to be protected from assault. To assist them in their fight, the ACLU and NCLR today released a new “Know Your Rights” resource to help other transgender prisoners demand to be treated with dignity.

When Wisconsin legislators passed the Inmate Sex Change Prevention Act at the end of 2005, they decided to tell Wisconsin prison doctors how to practice medicine, barring prison medical staff from treating transgender prisoners with the basic care they need, regardless of the health consequences. Tatyana, Kari, Andrea, and Lindsey had all taken hormone therapy for several years, so denying them their hormone therapy was devastating for them – causing depression, anxiety, and terror as their minds and bodies suffered the impact of abruptly stopping the medication they relied on to survive.

Like so many people caught up in the criminal justice system, Tatyana had a difficult childhood and then got into trouble, committing the identity theft crimes that landed her in prison. Growing up she would lie in bed, confident she was a girl and praying to wake up the next morning with a girl’s body only to be disappointed when she woke up the next morning with the same body that she believed betrayed who she was.

When she testified, Tatyana minimized the risks she faced as a woman in an all-male prison, saying that she avoided tight clothing and acting flamboyantly to keep attention from being drawn to her. But she had to admit that other prisoners and staff said offensive and threatening things to her because they saw her as gay, feminine, or just different.

Because of her gender identity, Tatyana was stigmatized. Staff and inmates harassed her and circulated rumors about her promiscuity. “I’m termed as a homosexual,” she said. “I’m more prejudiced against, more closely watched.”

One of the most disturbing parts of Tatyana’s case was that the state of Wisconsin actually argued that the law was passed to help transgender women by preventing them from being assaulted by male prisoners because of their feminine appearance. The judge was asked to believe that the same Wisconsin legislators who said they wanted the law to prevent “prison extreme makeovers” at taxpayer expense had the best interests of these transgender prisoners at heart.

But when asked about whether taking hormones would increase her vulnerability, Tatyana’s answers couldn’t be clearer: Denying her hormones was not going to end her vulnerability to harassment and assault, “[b]ecause I’m still gonna be me. I’m still gonna be female.”

Unfazed, Tatyana cannot turn back from living her life as a woman. “This is something that I’ve been dealing with all of my life and been attempting to take those steps to become, like I said, something that I’ve known I was in my mind all of my life.” And, ultimately, the court soundly rejected the state’s argument and struck down the Wisconsin law.

As difficult as it was for them to do so, Tatyana, Kari, Lindsey and Andrea spoke up ­– not only for themselves, but also for those who would come after them. Their struggles and their bravery – as well as those of Dee Farmer, Chelsea Manning, and many others – have made, and will continue to make, things a little better for those who follow.

My colleagues at the ACLU and NCLR hope that “Know Your Rights: Laws, Court Decisions, and Advocacy Tips” will help prisoners, their friends, family members, and other advocates to continue the fight to make things better for transgender people in prison. The courage and strength of people like Tatyana has moved the ball forward, but so much more work remains to be done.

We hope this new publication will assist with the work that remains.

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