Gender Identity Disorder and the Prison System
Ophelia De’Lonta looks like a woman. She has feminine facial features and a higher pitched voice, but She was born a physiological male. De’Lonta deals with an issue faced by somewhere between 2-5% of the world’s population. Not only does De’Lonta face the adversity of being in a small sexual minority, but she finds herself in an even more dire situation: a transgender female in a male prison.
“The prisons reflect the society that they function in and that they’re a part of. Society is not comfortable with transgender folks, lord knows we’re just getting used to… far less conventional differences,” explains Victor Glasberg, De’Lonta’s attorney.
Transsexualism, technically called Gender Identity Disorder, or GID, is something that is not in the forefront of the fight for human rights, let alone peoples’ minds.
“There’s still all sorts of dissent over the rights of gays and lesbians; [transsexualism] is even further down on the totem pole,” Glasberg explains. “It’s not something that folks have had the occasion to dwell on or become comfortable with, so the initial response is typically negative and without regard to any understanding of why folks behave and are the way they are.”
Serving 73 years for a bank robbery committed at the age of 17, De’Lonta has spent a majority of her life in a male prison. She appealed for hormone treatment in 1999 and finally started treatments in 2003, but for De’Lonta, the hormones alone weren’t enough. She is currently in litigation for her second appeal to the state, this time for full gender reassignment surgery. Because of her multiple attempts at self-castration, and the abuse she faces in prison, she is appealing under the 8th amendment, which defines cruel and unusual punishment.
De’Lonta’s case is one faced by a number of trans-men and women around the United States. Currently, there is no written legislation regarding the issue of gender identity in prison. The question then becomes whether you house people by their physiological gender or by their gender-identification. Currently, people are housed based on their physiological gender.
Officially described as an overwhelming feeling of being in the wrong body, or being assigned to the wrong gender at birth, psychologists explain that it a very real and serious issue, and one that the courts haven’t found a solution to. “Oftentimes when gender identity is a factor [in court] it’s necessary to bring in expert witnesses to testify, but we really do not have a standard application across all jurisdictions,” says Dr. Lisa Griffin, a Richmond psychologists who specializes in dealing with transgender youth and adolescents.
Much of the controversy has been over the classification of GID as a medical disorder versus a mental disorder. Although Gender Identity Disorder is currently classified as a mental disorder in the DSM IV, the definition remains up in the air. “Activists are really trying to get it classified as a medical condition rather than a psychiatric disorder, and the likelihood is that we will eventually get evidence for that,” says Griffin.
In the prison system and judicial systems, the classification of GID is what will really make or break the way transgender delinquents are handled. “We already have some preliminary evidence that there are parts of the brain that are different for transgender men and women that match the target gender rather than the assigned gender,” Griffin adds. With further medical evidence, activists and doctors will eventually be able to have good data to back up changing GID to a medical diagnosis.
If GID is medically evaluated and officially changed to a medical disorder, it technically becomes the prison’s responsibility to manage the treatment. Glasberg explains that the issue is pretty much black and white. “The law requires prison officials to give inmates medically necessary care, whatever that happens to be, if it’s medically necessary, that’s a decision made on a medical basis, not by lawyers of judges,” he explains. “Think of it like cancer, you can treat it with radiation, you can treat it with chemotherapy, and there comes a point when you treat it with surgery. You have to cut it off, whatever it is, so as not to endanger the rest of the body,” he says matter-of-factly.
Until GID is classified as a medical disorder, transgender men and women undergo the woes of the prison industrial complex in a much more callous manner. “I think that the system intentionally targets vulnerable communities who don’t have access to power and thus there is little attention given to their needs,” says Jason Lydon, founder of Black And Pink, a prison support group for the LGBT community.
Lydon explained that as mainstream gay and lesbian organization have fought for things like marriage or inclusion in the military, there are those who continue to fight for more. “We’re trying to bring more attention to the experience of those in our communities who are far more marginalized and experience greater levels of violence,” he says of the group’s goals.
Among reasons for the marginalization of the transgender community are lack of acceptance by peer groups, and a lack of understanding by the general community. In “Cruel And Unusual,” a 2006 documentary about trans-imprisonment, De’Lonta and four other trans-inmates are featured in an eye-opening light. In the documentary, Psychiatrist George Brown explains the reasoning behind the disproportional incarceration of trans-folks, explaining that it is often difficult to get earn a living because it is still legal to discriminate against people with transsexualism. “It’s not surprising that many people with this condition find themselves completely marginalized, unable to make a living, and turn to things that involve criminal activity,” said Brown.
While De’Lonta is in litigation, activists and allies cross their fingers and hope for a change in a system that is not known for either luxury. “If she gets the surgery I think that the Department Of Corrections is likely to place her in a female prison,” says Glasberg of the potential outcome of the case. “That, I think, would be an easier issue for them than the one they’re facing right now,” he adds, referring to De’Lonta’s current state of affairs.
De’Lonta in Prison via Newshopper
The District Attorney’s office said they do not comment on cases currently in litigation. But in court briefs made available to the public, the AG’s office states “the plaintiff cannot claim direct entitlement under the Eighth Amendment to sex reassignment surgery, as opposed to other forms of medically indicated treatment, to prevent plaintiff from self-mutilating.” They also go on to say that De’Lonta failed to show sufficient facts that the Department Of Corrections were indifferent to her medical needs (self castration).
The transgender community is still far away from achieving mainstream medial and legal acceptance. The outcome of Delonta’s case, as well as the rulings on other similar cases across the country, could weigh heavy on the future of trans-rights.
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