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Written in the Stars with Passion

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After many horrors while being incarcerated, a Lambda Legal client achieves a lifesaving victory
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BY ESE OLUMHENSE

LAST JUNE, ON HER FIRST DAY OUT OF PRISON, PASSION STAR AND HER FAMILY WENT TO THE MALL. It was meant to be an ordinary visit, just to reacclimate her with the world beyond bars, a world that had changed during her 15 years of incarceration, serving a sentence for aggravated kidnapping in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system.

But the trip to the mall was unnerving for Star, even overwhelming. The strictly enforced, almost robotic order of prison movement—stay to the right, only walk in straight lines, never stop or speak without permission— was abandoned. Shoppers meandered around, talking on their cell phones, laughing loudly, idly chatting. Even their revealing summer clothes were strange.

It was all too foreign, all at once. Star had an anxiety attack.

“Everyone is in an assigned place at an assigned time,” Star says of prison. “In the mall, it wasn’t like that. Everybody was just walking around, and not paying attention to where anyone else was going. And I didn’t know what to do.” She laughed as she recounted the incident months later. “I was terrified,” she says.

A year ago, Star, now 34, was one of very few openly transgender or gender-nonconforming inmates in the custody of the State of Texas. She’d been a prisoner there since 2003, and had confronted a wash of horrors within many corrections facilities: Long stretches in solitary; sexual assault; repeated rape, once at knifepoint; harassment; and other violence, including an attack in which her face was sliced with a razor. That wound required 36 stitches. Through all of this, the state’s Department of Corrections challenged her transgender identity, and though she lodged complaints for years, she was not placed in safer housing within the system until March 2015, after Lambda Legal intervened. Legal action was facilitated by Star’s copious recordkeeping, evidence of years of sustained, audacious self-advocacy. After numerous attempts, she was granted parole in December 2016. She received a settlement in March 2018.

Star’s settlement included an undisclosed monetary payment and an agreement from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to change their policies to better protect LGBT people being held in their facilities.

“These include improving intake processes to better identify vulnerable people early on, so decisions with respect to housing and placement can be made in ways that better protect them,” says Demoya Gordon, Lambda Legal Transgender Rights Project attorney and lead lawyer on Star’s case. “The presumption now is that someone who faces sexual or physical abuse, or credible threats of sexual or physical abuse, will be placed in safekeeping, where they can be separated from those who would seek to abuse them while still having human interaction and access to the recreational, vocational and rehabilitative activities they would not have in isolation.”

The settlement also requires Texas to re-train prison staff on the revised policies within two years. Lambda Legal continues its legal and educational work around the issues affecting transgender women of color and transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals in prisons and jails around the country.

“I didn’t know this was gonna be that big, but it’s what I wanted to do,” Star says. “And I did it. There was no selfish reason behind it, I was just pouring out my heart.”

Surveys suggest that nearly one in six transgender Americans has been to prison. And 50 percent of black transgender people, this research shows, have been incarcerated. Transgender rights advocates attribute this to a confluence of factors, primarily the intersection of over-policing and profiling of low-income communities, especially black and brown ones, and criminalization of transgender people. Transgender women, many of them poor, are often falsely arrested for soliciting, lack of “proper” identity documents and even, in some jurisdictions, threatened with arrest for using the “wrong” bathroom or locker room, notes the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which advocates for transgender rights among marginalized communities.

Once inside prisons and jails, which are often sex-segregated, transgender and gender-nonconforming people are at dramatically heightened risk of abuse or harassment. Research published in 2009, found that transgender people in California facilities were far more likely than others to experience sexual assault, overwhelmingly more likely to be sexually assaulted by an attacker with a weapon, and, perhaps most troublingly, roughly half as likely to be provided medical attention.

Photo by: PHOTOS: VANESSA VELAZQUEZ

Though the academic, legal and corrections communities have been aware of the unique risks justice system involvement poses for transgender and gender-nonconforming people in prison, the public has largely been blind to these issues. Star’s case was one that received national attention in 2015, when her case was profiled by The New York Times, among other outlets. That spotlight, many agree, was the result of Star’s own efforts to get help.

“Surviving in any form of detention is incredibly difficult for anyone, but it is particularly hard for transgender women, who are especially vulnerable to sexual and physical violence in the male facilities where they are typically housed,” says Gordon. “One of the reasons Passion is such a great client is she is amazingly well-organized, resilient and diligent. She exhausted every step of virtually all of her many grievances and had paperwork for everything.”

“People should not have to do this in order to be able to file suit for abuses they face in prisons and jails—especially since grievance rules often impose short filing deadlines, are inconsistently administered, and involve numerous confusing and unclear steps—but unfortunately they do,” Gordon says.

Though much of this struggle is behind Star now, freedom has not been easy, she says. First were the nightmares, which started seeping into her dreams after she found out she would be paroled.

“I kept having the recurring dream of me being killed outside prison,” she says. This, she thinks, stemmed from the death of a friend who had been incarcerated with Star, who left prison the year before she did and died months later, after overdosing on pain medicine, she said.

“It’s a bit of a trip,” she says of the adjustment. “You don’t understand how far the world moves while you’re in a stagnant state until you’re pushed into it and you’re basically told to swim or drown. You never really know how you’re gonna perform in that.”

The first few months out were particularly hard and, in the last year, she has faced numerous obstacles, including periods of unemployment and struggling to make ends meet. She worked for a time at a meatpacking plant, labor that involved early mornings, long days and arduous tasks. She struggled to get to work due to lack of money for gas and unreliable vehicles.

Relationships with family members were at turns strong, then strained. Her home was broken into; she even had a gun pulled on her in the neighborhood.

“It wasn’t anything like I thought it would be,” she says, her tenor careful and measured. “I fell on my face a few times. Nothing got easier, nothing got easier, nothing got easier.”

Others have even questioned her gender presentation, a painful part of the readjustment process Star is undergoing. Some say she does not appear feminine enough to really be transgender, that her sculpted physique, taut muscles, and bald head betray her gender-fluid identity.

Star, who identifies as gender fluid, scoffs at the thought that transgender and gender-nonconforming women can only express their gender identity by appearing feminine. Those who feel it does underestimate her need for safety and stability, she said.

“My life has never been my own, so I’ve always had to do what’s necessary to survive,” she once told to Gordon over the phone.

In the male-dominated, physical spaces she’s worked, her appearance is something of a survival strategy, a shield safeguarding her from possible discrimination, harassment, or worse.

“I don’t really care how anyone feels about it,” she added. “I don’t see nobody hiring transgender people to work at the places that I have had to work since I have no way of passing... I am a convicted felon living in the real world and having to adapt all over again.”

“Surviving in any form of detention is incredibly difficult for anyone, but it is particularly hard for transgender women, who are especially vulnerable to sexual and physical violence in the male facilities where they are typically housed.”
—  Demoya Gordon, Transgender Rights Project Staff Attorney, Lambda Legal

Things started to change this spring. “Just got married,” Star texted me on the night of April 11. She and her wife, Taleshia, are having fun exploring new things together, showing their cars off on Facebook in front of a backdrop of neat homes and carefully manicured lawns.

“Congratulations!” I responded, thumbs excitedly flying across my phone screen as I wrote. “How does it feel?”

“It feels real,” she replied.

She got a new job working for a software installation company, she said. She pierced her lip and gauged her ears, too, she said, body mods she didn’t dream of having just a year ago. She also bought a dark grey Camaro, outfitting it with matte black rims, new speakers and an amp, as well as lights and a remote start.

She’s relearning how to live, in some senses, and enjoying the ride. Learning to use a smartphone was a new experience, because phones didn’t even have cameras when she first went to prison. It was like “alien technology,” she says. Now she loves it, posting selfies often on social media.

“Things just are,” Star said, her contentedness obvious. “We live life. I’m just grateful that I found someone who loves me for me,” she said. “I don’t really have any problems.”

She plans on pursuing a career as a paralegal. “I want to try and break my curse,” she says.