ONTD Political

Va. inmate sues state after unsuccessful tries at self sex change

1:31 pm - 06/07/2011

DYLLWIN, Va. (AP) - Crouched in her cell, Ophelia De'lonta hoped three green disposable razors from the prison commissary would give her what the Virginia Department of Corrections will not - a sex change.

It had been several years since she had felt the urges, but she had been fighting them for weeks. But like numerous other times, she failed to get rid of what she calls "that thing" between her legs, the last evidence she was born a male.

Months after the October castration attempt, De'lonta filed a federal lawsuit Friday claiming the state has failed its duty to provide adequate medical care because it won't give her the operation. She says the surgery is needed to treat her gender identity disorder, a mental illness in which people believe they were born the wrong gender.

If she wins, De'lonta would be the nation's first inmate to receive a state-funded sex change operation. Similar lawsuits have failed in a handful of other states, and lawmakers in some states are trying to ban the use of taxpayer money for the operations.

If she loses, she says she will continue to try self-surgery - acknowledging another attempt could kill her.

"That's a possibility," the 50-year-old said during a recent prison interview, pausing then smiling contently. "But at the end I would have peace."

Some physical changes have already taken place. Hormones won under a 2004 court order have caused her to develop noticeable breasts. Her eyebrows are perfectly plucked, and makeup accentuates her smooth cocoa complexion.

Still, special allowances such as feminine clothing and psychotherapy aren't enough to keep her mind off wanting to become the woman she says she was born. She longs for permission to grow out her short salt and pepper hair like female inmates, even though she's housed in the all-male Buckingham Correctional Center.

Experts say that De'lonta's behavior is an unusual - but not surprising - manifestation of her disorder. At least 12 other inmates in Idaho, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, Oregon, Kentucky and North Carolina have castrated themselves over the past 14 years, and several others have tried, said psychiatry professor George R. Brown at East Tennessee State University.

"This is not a choice. Transsexuals are born and not made," said Brown, an expert in gender identity disorder. "If you didn't have this condition, why would you want to have your genitals removed, if not by a competent surgeon but by your own hand?"

While many with gender identity disorder wish to get rid of their genitals, the majority never act - often because hormones and other treatments help make them feel more comfortable, Brown said.

According to research by Brown, about 27,000 people nationwide have gender identity disorder. Experts estimate 500 to 750 Americans undergo the surgery each year, with hundreds more seeking the procedure abroad.

Treatment is more readily available outside prison, though dozens of other inmates nationwide have won the right to hormones and psychotherapy. Based on counts of inmates with gender identity disorder in a half dozen states and personal correspondence with inmates during his research, Brown estimates that at least 750 of the more than 2 million prisoners nationwide had gender identity disorder in 2007, his latest count.

Inmates in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Colorado, California and Idaho also have sued to try to get the surgery, making arguments similar to De'lonta's that denying treatment violates the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment. All but one of those have failed; a decision in the decade-old Massachusetts lawsuit by convicted killer Michelle - born Robert - Kosilek is still pending.

Kosilek says that for her, sex reassignment surgery is a medical necessity, not a frivolous desire to change her appearance.

"Everybody has the right to have their health care needs met, whether they are in prison or out on the streets. People in the prisons who have bad hearts, hips or knees have surgery to repair those things," Kosilek told The Associated Press in a recent phone interview from a state prison in Norfolk, Mass.

"My medical needs are no less important or more important than the person in the cell next to me."

Federal courts have said prisons must provide adequate medical care, and that they must protect inmates from themselves. But correctional officials and lawmakers balk at using taxpayer money for sex-change operations that can cost up to $20,000.

A Massachusetts bill to ban the use of public funds for sex change procedures, hormones and other treatments has been before a joint committee since January. Wisconsin lawmakers passed the Inmate Sex Change Prevention Act in 2006, but a federal judge declared it unconstitutional last year. The state appealed, and a decision is expected soon.

Republican Virginia Del. Todd Gilbert says he would seek state legislation if De'lonta's lawsuit is successful.

"The notion that taxpayers are going to fund a sex change is just ridiculous," says Gilbert.

Harold Clarke, who became Virginia's corrections director last year, says it would be a security risk to allow the surgeries because Virginia's inmates are housed according to their gender at birth, not anatomy. While De'lonta sleeps and showers alone, she is not segregated from male inmates. Her lawsuit also asks that she be moved to a women's prison.

Federal courts have said mental health professionals - not prison officials - should dictate treatment.

But Rudolph Alexander, an Ohio State University professor who has studied the treatment of inmates with gender identity disorder, believes mental health providers are reluctant to say the surgery is medically necessary because they fear for their jobs. Almost always, the deciding physician is a state employee or has a contract with it.

Advocates argue that treating repeated self-mutilations costs more than the surgeries. De'lonta, for example, has needed expensive airlifts three times for self-inflicted wounds.

The hormones and other treatments had kept her urges in check for years. She snapped Oct. 8 when an officer used a male pronoun toward her, despite a court order that prison workers refer to her as a woman.

"I screamed 'She, damnit!' becoming so overwhelmed it was hard to breathe," De'lonta said.

Looking down, she felt repulsed and helpless. She cried herself to sleep, then hours later she prepared for her surgery attempt by covering her cell door's window with paper and putting towels around the commode.

Using knowledge gained from mail-order anatomy books, De'lonta cut on and off for three hours before she passed out. It took 21 stitches to repair the damage.

"It's like if this doesn't exist, then I won't have any more problems," she said.

Born Michael Stokes, she didn't understand from an early age why other girls' names were different from hers, or why she felt no connection to the boys in her gym class.

She constantly looked in mirrors and couldn't understand why the reflection was so unlike how she envisioned herself.

Years ago she legally changed her name. Ophelia was chosen for the Shakespearean woman who died for love; De'lonta because it was the last name of a slain friend; middle name Azriel for the angel who helps one cross over.

De'lonta first tried to cut herself when she was 12. By 17, she was robbing banks with the hopes of getting enough money to have a sex change operation. By 18, she was in prison, sentenced to more than 70 years for robbery, drugs, weapons and other charges.

She is eligible for parole this year, but a wide range of prison infractions mean it's unlikely she'll be released any time soon. Asked why she can't just wait until she's free to get the surgery, De'lonta says she would if she could.

"This is not something that I have any control over," she says. "This is just how I was born."


Associated Press Writer Denise Lavoie contributed to this story from Boston.


Posted via LiveJournal app for iPhone.

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wonderpup 7th-Jun-2011 09:51 pm (UTC)
If you could fix the photo size when you get the opportunity, thanks.
imissimissyou 7th-Jun-2011 10:06 pm (UTC)
I don't know what I think of this. On one hand it is very though on this woman having to live with a penis that causes her so much distress, but on the other hand I just.... I don't know, something about the fact that she's in prision and expecting the government to pay for it then...

I do think that the government should fund sex change operations because it isn't something to take lightly on, but someone who has stolen money? Idk. It's still just as real for her.
lone_concertina 7th-Jun-2011 10:57 pm (UTC)
Inmates have state-funded medical and psychological treatments in every other possible way. How is this different? Until it's they stop paying for everyone else's treatment, she shouldn't have to expect any differently.
chaya 7th-Jun-2011 10:13 pm (UTC)
Crouched in her cell, Ophelia De'lonta hoped three green disposable razors from the prison commissary would give her what the Virginia Department of Corrections will not - a sex change.

oudeteron 7th-Jun-2011 10:51 pm (UTC)
Yeah, very iffy about the writing in this article. I don't have the patience to point out everything wrong with its language, but wow. "Mental illness" is particularly classy. (It might be formally classified as such according to some, but unquestioningly parroting that is bad reporting.) Also irrelevant what name she was "born as", and yet it always crops up in articles of this stripe.

Virginia's inmates are housed according to their gender at birth, not anatomy.
What is this trying to say? Their assigned sex at birth (in which case, nice conflation of sex and gender there)? What anatomy - related to the assigned sex or related to transitioning? Huh?

And of course, then there's the actual story. D:
lone_concertina 7th-Jun-2011 10:54 pm (UTC)
I was expecting pronoun fail so much that it actually surprised me when I got to the part about her cutting off her genitals. I was expecting something completely different.
(no subject) - Anonymous
gloraelin 8th-Jun-2011 01:25 am (UTC)
Because if they don't they are, as the article states, violating the eighth amendment -- they are denying her essential medical care necessary to her mental and physical wellbeing.

And I think the state should fund everything medical, so yeah.
bestdaywelived 7th-Jun-2011 11:37 pm (UTC)
I don't think that prisoners should have access to care that people who aren't criminal would be forced to pay for out of pocket. It's a knee jerk reaction, but she robbed people. There are plenty of trans folk who are working and saving and not committing crimes; the government isn't stepping up to help them out.
theguindo 8th-Jun-2011 02:50 am (UTC)
I don't think that prisoners should have access to care that people who aren't criminal would be forced to pay for out of pocket.

Then they would be getting NO healthcare. Period. =x
dangerousdame 7th-Jun-2011 11:42 pm (UTC)
I don't know what the government's policy towards funding prison medical procedures is, so I can't comment on whether or not this is fair. That said, the description of how she tried to do this herself is horrifying.
terribilita 8th-Jun-2011 04:44 am (UTC)
The government funds necessary medical procedures for prisoners. This should be no exception.
sparkindarkness 8th-Jun-2011 12:19 am (UTC)
ugh she is being denied essential medical care and if anything bing forced to something so desperate should make this abundantly clear
alryssa 8th-Jun-2011 02:07 am (UTC)
Some of the comments in this post. :|

Seriously, I do not understand this attitude of meritocracy wrt healthcare, especially when most of the folks in this community KNOW how fucked up the justice system is, how the US has the highest incarceration rate in the WORLD, and how completely unbalanced it is regarding PoC. JFC, people. Show some compassion. If you don't like the idea that the state is paying for someone's transition but not those of regular folks, then let's talk about WHY that is or at least lambast those outdated, flawed policies and those of the private health insurance companies that in so many states refuse to even allow paying customers to have those procedures covered. That's without even going into the details of why she was put in prison in the first place - did nobody read WHY she was doing this? Why do you think she was driven to doing it? JFC.

ugh, internet. .___.
meran_flash 8th-Jun-2011 02:35 am (UTC)
For real.
doe_witch 8th-Jun-2011 02:42 am (UTC)
Anyone here who's commented about how "well it is terrible that she's so depressed about this but how can the state fund her surgery and no one else's," or "how can the state fund a prisoner's surgery and no one else's."

... look at your fucking priorities. Your statements are disgusting in light of the fact that this woman may easily kill herself. And yes, the state is supposed to stop prisoners from killing themselves, and that even includes people on death row. And the state is supposed to provide necessary medical care for all its prisoners. Which leaves you debating whether this surgery is necessary (it clearly is, for the sake of her mental and physical health), or whether the state should provide anything for prisoners at all (and I do not have the patience for a prisoners' rights rant tonight). So just stop.

I'm not speaking for all trans folks here but I personally don't give a flying fuck if she gets surgery "before me." It is clear that she needs it, and guess what else, all trans people who want surgeries or other medical treatments should have it paid for by the state if they can't afford it themselves, if you ask me. Most of us can't. Call her opportunistic for taking advantage of the system, if you want to, but we have to take what we can get because no one is willing to just give it to us. For some of us, that means accidentally or deliberately taking our own lives. I commend her for fighting this fight and I admire her unbelievable courage and endurance. Prison is hell for virtually anyone, but it takes on a special dimension when you're not even housed with the right gender and/or you belong to a class of people especially at risk of rape, sexual assault, and murder outside of prison as it is. She fucking rocks for this lawsuit and the ~skeptics in this thread should be kissing her fierce ass. What the fuck.

The crappy writing in this article barely deserves my comment at the moment.
theguindo 8th-Jun-2011 02:59 am (UTC)
+a million, I want to frame this comment and hang it on my wall.

I am really fucking bitter about being unable to even START transitioning because I can't afford to see a THERAPIST, to say nothing of the cost of the rest of it, but that is 100% the fault of the system. I would be a terrible fucking person to say "Well if I can't get it, neither should she." That would be like saying all those people who have insurance that IS willing to pay for their surgeries/treatment don't deserve it because I don't have insurance that is. Her insurance is the prison system's obligation to provide care to its prisoners.
krazykat88 8th-Jun-2011 04:04 am (UTC)
NGL - I'm kind of annoyed by the way refers to her want to transition/have a sex change operation as a mental illness/a disorder. Maybe they don't mean it this way, but to me, it just reads like "well since she isn't conforming to gender/sex norms, then she has a disorder"
Or...maybe I've just taken to many womens studies courses.
oudeteron 8th-Jun-2011 05:02 pm (UTC)
I'd be surprised if they didn't mean it this way, to be honest. That whole article is condescending, and buying into pathologizing jargon like this fits right in with that attitude.
staringiscaring 8th-Jun-2011 05:12 am (UTC)
Its really a shame that she couldn't get help earlier. Its too bad that we don't have a healthcare system that provides that.
deathchibi 8th-Jun-2011 05:23 am (UTC)
I wish they would pay for her sex change operation. :( It's sad she's willing to do this to herself and telling that our health care system needs to provide better care for transgendered persons.

Or hell, better care period. Apparently single, uninsured, childless people over 18 cease to exist or never get sick (hah) because fuck me if I can get any sort of benefits and the lady just advised me that I could get benefits if I had a kid. It is not right to bring another human being into this world because I need health care.

It is tragic and very telling when one must resort to crime to get basic care in this country. :/
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
jamethiel_bane 8th-Jun-2011 08:44 am (UTC)
That poor woman.
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