Originally published at: Aria’s Prison Blog #2: Being Trans in Federal Prison | Free Keene
My good friend and the High Priestess of the Reformed Satanic Church of Keene, Aria DiMezzo, is through her first month of her 18 month federal prison sentence for the victimless “crime” of selling bitcoin without a government permission slip. You can find out how to write her letters, send her books, or money for her commissary on her blog post here. This week, she sent me the following blog from the Devens, MA federal prison camp, as originally posted to her website, AriaDiMezzo.com:
No one dislikes the government more than I do (although some may equal my disgust with the institution), but even so it would be silly and unfair to accuse the BOP (Bureau of Prisons) of being anti-trans, in exactly the same way that it would be absurd to accuse the rain of malice because it erodes the hills. The water does not hold enmity toward the dirt; the rain only does what it does, and there are simply effects to that. In actuality, the treatment of the BOP in regard to trans people is both a stark contrast and an alarming analog to the conversion therapy camps that were more common in the 90s; by holding none of the enmity and sharing none of the intentions of the “pray the gay away” camps, the BOP is more subtle in its erasure of trans identity, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Just as the rain does not try to destroy the hillside, and is merely a result of weather patterns much greater in scope than a mound of dirt, so is the assault on transgener identity only an effect of a larger phenomenon: a widespread tendency to glance at a newborn’s genitals and map out large sections of their life for them, and then becoming irate and hostile at the suggest that an infant’s gentials may not be the best way of grouping adults into relationships, friend circles, or prisons.
It is simple, when a patient complains of a cough, for a doctor to prescribe some cough syrup, but nearly no doctor would do this, because it is myopic and narrow to treat a sympton rather than the underlying illness that causes the symptom. By treating only the cough, a doctor could easily miss the pneumonia, lung cancer, or asthma that is causing the patient to cough. Similarly, there is a Buddhist story where the Buddha is traveling with students when one of them is shot by an arrow, and begs the Buddha to pursue the attacker, so they might be held to account. The Enlightened One responds that he could do that, or he could remove the arrow and dress the wound, but he obviously could not do both. Similarly, shaking our fists angrily at the torrents or clouds that produce them has a tremendous opportunity cost and is a waste of emotional energy; instead, we could devote our time and efforts to halting the erosion, and then preventing it from recurring.
The issue at hand is not that the BOP maliciously denies transgender healthcare, because it doesn’t; the BOP fails to provide adequate care to transgender inmates, but it is because the society behind the prison industrial complex routinely fails the transgender population, largely due to apathy, although there is occasionally malice shown to these people who declare themselves to fall into the cracks of the social construct of gender, which, in the estimation of the bigoted, is sufficient for “everyone else,” and thus must work for all. It is the equivalent of telling a person who is cold to remove their coat because the speaker isn’t chilly, so how could anyone else be?
Even under the best of circumstances, being transgender is difficult. Transgender people already know in their hearts that they will never be indistinguishable from a cisgender person, but there are plenty of people who enjoy reminding trans people of that anyway, to say nothing of the myriad of minor, incidental, and accidental ways in which this is made clear to a trans person. No one ever said, “I’m going to make my life easier by dressing as the opposite sex,” because, despite bigoted claims to the contrary, such a monumental step serves only to make one’s life more challenging, at least for the foreseeable future, when it is less readily apparent that a person is trans at all.
Everyone has struggles, though, and it would be inaccurate to suggest that this is unique to trans people, or that the hardships of a trans person are unduly difficult. Rather than somehow being “worse” than the challenges other people faced, the tragedy of the trans plight lies in how utterly and easily preventable–and harmlessly so!–the difficulties are. In prison or larger society, it brings no risk or hurdles to anyone else for a person of any characteristics to present themselves as they need to in order to look in a mirror and be reasonably happy with the reflection.
The existence of transgender people, without a doubt, creates challenges for society that it is not equipped to handle, but putting trans women into a men’s prison and trans men into a women’s prison should be regarded at least as catastrophic to the involved people as placing trans men into a men’s prison and trans women into a women’s prison is regarded by those who have run out of real problems to deal with and so instead spend their time seeking trivialities about which they can be upset.
For more than a month, I have been waiting on basic items, not necessarily to reaffirm or bolster my identity as much to simply maintain it against the unrelenting, subtle forces that exist within a men’s prison to oppress, deny, and erase all non-masculine traits, with men’s prison obviously being the peaks of testosterone and toxic masculinit: emotions are not expressed, oether than anger. Imagine trying to maintain femininity in an environment entirely ruled by testosterone, much less attempting to enhance one’s feminine side such that behavior more closely matches the interior. Even if I had every resources that I’ve collected over the last decade in my life as a trans woman, simply existing as myself would be a challenge; with those resources denied me by policy, and with the meager substitutes taking now more than a month to reach me, the task is utterly impossible.
This shouldn’t be taken as necessarily the fault of the BOP, just as rain is not really to blame for the erosion of soil; rather, that it is this way is a reflection of social values. Though society increasingly recognizes the rights and needs of transgender individuals, the government always lags behind, and then always fails to actually meet the needs that are recognized–someone with a malignant growth will have to wait months to have it addressed, because the prison industrial complex is not equipped to act with grace and compassion. Given that this is the case, perhaps our first goal should be to not have the largest prison population on the planet, and, in so doing, we would lessen the hardship unnecessarily placed on all people, transgender or not, and that could only ever be a positive thing for us all.