Guest Commentary: My Trans Cellie Was Vilified and Objectified

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Illustration by Teresa Tauchi

Too many people in prison reject the humanity of queer and trans people, exposing them to an onslaught of indignities.

By David “Razor” Babb

Officer Jenkins entered the housing unit that Saturday morning with a purpose in mind. I thought he was simply conducting a random walk-through. But as I stood by the microwave nuking a sandwich, he sidled up to me, speaking in a low voice.

“Babb,” he said, “I’ve got a little situation. I’ve got to move a problem someplace safe … well, relatively safe. You’ve got an open bunk in your cell. If you’ll work with me here, it’s only temporary.”

I was a little taken aback, although maybe I shouldn’t have been. Jenkins had done this to me before, twice.

“Who is it?” I asked.

He gave me a long sigh, as if reluctant to burden me. If he was selling used cars, this would be the point where I would need to run.

“Alvarez, in C-section. There’s been some … problems. I just gotta find a landing spot. If you do this, maybe we can do something about your other issue.”

He was referring to the last guest our cell had accepted, who was supposed to be a temporary placement: a mentally ill person with hygiene issues. I knew instinctively this was another false non-promise that would never happen. I also knew that it was no accident that Jenkins chose me for his pitch. He knows I’m open-minded, liberal and have a desire to help when I can.

Or, in Jenkins’ eyes, I’m a real sucker.

“Who is Alvarez?” I had an idea but wasn’t 100% sure.

“You know, long hair, Hispanic, a little wacky, transgender.”

“Oh.” I did know. “Uh, you know, my cellies are homophobic.”

Even as I said it, I realized homosexuality and transgender identification were distinctly different. But I don’t have enough knowledge on the subject to mount any legitimate argument that would be in any way convincing or coherent. And even if I could, Jenkins wasn’t the audience for it.

“Yeah, well, who isn’t?” he replied.

I told Jenkins I was OK with it, but my cellies were going to have issues. We live in six-man cells, 11 cells per unit. He didn’t really need to ask me — correctional officers can make any moves they want as long as their supervisor is OK with it — but I surmised he was making an effort to at least be able to claim that the move would be safe. At least in his mind.

Selena arrived the next day, much to my cellies’ chagrin. They immediately laid down the rules: “None of that stuff goin’ on in here. You got your own thing, but that don’t go here.”

I knew Selena had been moved around quite a bit. I had never spoken to her, but it was obvious that she was going to attract attention. She was youngish in appearance with long raven-black hair, olive skin, a bright smile, and early evidence of hormone therapy. She had no facial hair and an unusually pretty face.

Yeah, she was going to bring trouble.

My cellies had been pretty upfront about what was considered proper conduct, even as they danced around the real issue: What exactly was appropriate sex protocol? And how do you engage another in that discussion?

Over the course of the next few weeks, we had to adopt a strict no visitor rule. Even though Selena had a boyfriend on the yard, the relationship wasn’t exclusive. The accusations of illicit shower sex arose on the first night. My cellies’ fears and warnings were not unfounded.

When Selena was in the cell, she was in a safe zone. Nobody was trying to get at her. She was a good cellmate — quiet, always smiling and happy. She never complained.

It was clear, however, that she suffered from some pretty serious health issues. She was taking medication for schizophrenia, and she paced the cell sometimes, which I later learned was due to the medication. She had the emotional intelligence of a pre-teen and had bouts of dissociation, possibly from childhood abuse and trauma.

The real problem, though — the issues that led to complaints and where earlier drama surrounding transgender inmates originated — was due to the sexual aggression of others. Many of them just couldn’t control themselves. She was irresistible to a lot of men. Some of them plied her with drugs, alcohol, canteen items, attention — whatever it took to get at her. She was a baby lamb in a den of lions.

I was overly optimistic going in, hopeful that things were going to be alright and that my cellies’ bigotry would take a back seat. But my acceptance of Selena was the exception, rather than the rule.

There were two main camps of people: those that criticized and judged her, vilifying Selena as a sexual deviant; and everybody else who wanted to have sex with her.

Even inside prison we have learned much about accepting others and being open to different races, cultures and lifestyles, but sexual orientation and gender identity has remained a point of polarization.

Several weeks later, Selena was attacked by another transgender woman over a misunderstanding involving a boyfriend. When they subsequently moved her out of our prison yard, her boyfriend was in tears.

Selena’s youthful expression of joy and enthusiasm for life had been replaced with fear and confusion. She had the look of a child whose whole world had collapsed, whose belief in the goodness of others had been damaged or destroyed.

Selena is still a topic of conversation on this yard — by those who miss her, and those who vilify her.

Originally published by the Prison Journalism Project.  Prison Journalism Project trains incarcerated writers to become journalists and publishes their stories.  David “Razor” Babb is the founding editor-in-chief of “The Mule Creek Post,” a newspaper published out of Mule Creek State Prison in California and a 2008-2009 winner of the PEN Prison Writing Award in the essay category. He is also the author of numerous books including “Icicle Bill,” “Goodbye Natalie,” and “Last Lockdown.”

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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