17 July 2012

The Dilemma Of A Transgender In Prison

Note:  At the beginning of  this post, I am going to use a male pronouns and a male name in reference to someone who identifies as female.  As a transsexual woman,I am not doing this out of disrespect to her.  Rather, as a former journalist, I am following the practice of using what is in official records.  Also, to my knowledge the person of whom I'm about to write has not changed her name or gender. 

However, I will take the liberty of referring to the subject of this post by a female name and feminine pronouns later in the post.  

This story came my way today.

Derek Sinden, who identifies as Thalia, has been incarcerated in the Wolston Correctional Center in Queensland, Australia since 1999.  After becoming involved with the transgender community in Sydney, Sinden used drugs, drinking and sexual activities with men to cope with gender identity issues.

Queensland Correctional Department's policies allow prisoners to receive hormone treatments while in custody if they had been receiving treatment before they were incarcerated.  Thus, the authorities will not allow Sinden such treatments.  However, the prison is providing a testosterone blocker.

On one hand, I know--from my own experiences and those of other transgender people--that, for us, hormones are not merely a means for feminizing (or masculinizing, in the case of female-to-males) our bodies.  To us, they are what Prozac, Zoloft and other psychotropic medications are for clinically depressed (which many of us are before our transitions, by the way) patients.  True, they--in conjunction with antiandrogens (for male-to-females)--soften our skin, hasten the growth of the hair on our heads, slow or stop hair growth on our bodies and grow our breasts.  But, I felt that the most important effect, at least for me, was psychological:  Depression that, for me, seemed like a normal state of being lifted.  Perhaps I shouldn't say this in a public forum, but I'll say it anyway:  Had I not started taking hormones, I might be dead by now, and it probably wouldn't be from natural causes. 

If I could experience the sort of depression I felt--in my body as well as my mind--for so long, I should not be surprised that others, in such a state, would resort to crimes of one sort or another.  Some might commit them to cope with their issues, while others might break the law under the influence of the drugs or alcohol they use in their attempts to ease their pain.   For those reasons, I think that if prisons can dispense pyschotropic medications to depressed inmates or prisoners with other disorders, they should also give transgender patients hormones treatments.

On the other hand, I understand what Custodial Operations Deputy Commissioner Marlene Morrison said about Sinden's case.  Even if someone has know since age four or five (as I did) that he or she is not the "right" sex, prison is not the best place to embark upon such a transition.  No matter how certain you are about your need for a gender transition, you need to see a doctor and therapist.  Seeing, in addition, a counselor or social worker who understands the issues involved with gender transition is a very good idea.  (For the first two and a half years of my transition, I saw both a therapist and clinical social worker every week.)  Plus, you need other kinds of supportive people, whether they're friends, family members, co-workers, members of support groups or other people in the communities of which you're a part.

Medical or psychiatric professionals are not merely "gatekeepers."  What people--especially young people who are eager to transition--often forget is that the hormones and medical procedures are risky.  Also, anyone who embarks on a transition needs to have mental, emotional and spiritual resources to cope with the transition.  You might think you'll deal with one aspect or another in a certain way, but you are changing and things feel different from how they did before you started your transition.

Also, as Ms. Morrison pointed out, fellow prisoners may not be the most supportive people, to put it mildly, for someone undergoing a transition.  Most medical and psychiatric professionals--including the ones employed by correctional facilities and systems--cannot offer advice or anything else that can help someone in a gender transition deal with hostile, and possibly violent, inmates.  

So, even with all of my sympathy for anyone who faces gender identity issues, I'm torn.  On one hand, I'd like to see Sinden get the hormone treatments, which would probably alleviate some of the emotional and psychiatric problems associated with gender identity issues.  On the other, Sinden would really have to face the transition alone in ways that most of us who've had the help of competent professionals, friends and (in some cases) family members and co-workers, simply cannot imagine.