PoliticsAshley Diamond on being a transgender woman in a men's prison
While SCOTUS may have made history on Friday, the fight is hardly over for the LGBTQ community. Diamond calls for prison reform for transgender inmates.
In light of the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage in all 50 states—and Caitlyn Jenner's watershed Vanity Fair cover story—it's easy to think that our culture is now fully tolerant and accepting of LGBTQ people. But just because one star is being celebrated for her bravery (which is awesome), doesn't mean that the average transgender person has experienced the change in attitudes overnight. For those not as privileged as Jenner, like Ashley Diamond who grew up poor, black and transgender in the rural South, being treated like a human being is an everyday battle.
Diamond is a transgender woman and non-violent first-time offender who is currently incarcerated at Jack T. Rutledge State Prison, a medium security men's prison in Columbus, Georgia. Before this, she was being held a maximum security prison, Georgia State Prison, where she was sentenced in 2012 for burglary. Georgia transferred her to Rutledge earlier this year after she received a sexually explicit and threatening note from a fellow inmate. Diamond has done multiple interviews with the New York Times, in which she stated she had been raped at Georgia State Prison at least seven times, in addition to suffering other verbal and physcial attacks.
Diamond, now 36, has never lobbied to get a lesser punishment for her crimes, which include a series of thefts and receiving stolen property. Instead, she has been outspoken about her treatment, which she calls "regulated bigotry." She has been vocal, at times even against her attorney's request, about the injustices she says she faces and her desire to be moved to a prison for women. She is aware she can't talk about certain aspects of her case, but says she wants to bring light to the treatment of transgender people in prison. Diamond spoke to Hopes&Fears via prison telephone.
Before going to prison, Ashley Diamond lived as a woman using a hormone therapy she had been taking for 17 years. Diamond has been the subject of several new stories which document her incarceration as a key example of the problems transgender people face when in the prison system.
“The deliberate de-feminization of me is part of the process of my incarceration. It has been from the very beginning,” she said.
Diamond has been living openly as a transgender woman for over 20 years, and has fought to be transferred to a women's prison with no success. Such an environment, she feels, would be a better and safer place for her.
"Pronouns wouldn't be an issue in a women's prison and having access to female garments wouldn't be an issue in a women's prison," she said. "Being called 'she' wouldn't be an issue." (Right now, intead of being called called "she," she is referred to as 'it.') "They constantly reinstate to me in the department to me that I am a male," she said, adding that she is routinely spit on and pushed against walls. "It's not that they don't understand transgenderism, it's that they aren't going to tolerate it in any form," she continued, speaking not only about the other inmates but also about the prison guards.
She said if housed with other women, her safety could be assured to some degree. She also added that she poses absolutely no threat to females, and that her being male on her birth certificate shouldn't matter. "It isn't as though I have a functioning male part." After 17 years of hormone therapy, she clarified, her male genitalia is almost non-existent. "So, it wouldn’t have been a risk of me being a sexual predator," she said. She added that under the current prison guidelines, transgender inmates are not supposed to be housed based on their genital status.
— 52% of LGBT population lives in states that do not prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
— As of july 29, transgender inmates who have been detained by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for their undocumented status have been granted their right to housing in “detention facilities that match their gender identity.”
Although Diamond is happy that Caitlyn Jenner is creating more acceptance for transgender people in mainstream media, she says her situation is not representative of the average transgender person. "She is a white wealthy sports figure and television star who has a medium, and she was never going to have to struggle with being able to afford healthcare or medical care. She's never going to know what it's like to be fired over and over again,” said Diamond, who claims to have been fired from Walmart after they saw that the sex on her birth certificate didn't match what she checked on her job application. "As a minority, I feel like those who are members of the minority are just being swept under the rug. I'm not saying anyone's troubles are worse than anyone else’s," she said. She added that she is very proud of Jenner.
"As a transgender woman, I am very supportive of anybody with transition," said Diamond. "Any time one of us gets in the media, it helps all of us. But, I have to say, I don't believe that Caitlyn Jenner's situation will ever be as dire as mine." Diamond said that the state of Georgia is backwards and that in comparison to other parts of the country, it's like going back in time. She said in the rural South, where she grew up, racism is still very much alive. "I was in a town that was predominately white. Being black and transgender was a stumbling block and it always has been," she explained. She said she has been struggling with her gender since she was 15.
"I'm very happy for Caitlyn Jenner, but when the world is more obsessed with what she is going to wear to the Emmy Awards while other trans women are dying everyday, not only in the streets but in prison, it's disheartening."
— 40% of transgender prisoners are sexually abused each year.
– Nearly one in six transgender people (16%, including 21% of transgender women) have been incarcerated at some point in their lives.
– Among Black transgender people, nearly half (47%) have been incarcerated at some point.
Source: US Department of Justice, 2011-12 [PDF]
Diamond said the prison fails to provide her enough estrogen, and it's certainly not to the level she took before her incarceration. "Basically they're giving me a drop of water in the desert," she said. She said her breasts have shrunk, and that the denial of hormones is an additional punishment that she does not deserve. This situation is not unlike something Laverne Cox's character goes through in the hit television show Orange Is The New Black. On the show, Cox is denied her hormones and as a result her body goes through a process similar to menopause. But the key difference is that her character is in a women's prison, something Diamond has been fighting for since the beginning. The judge repeatedly rules against her transfer into a women's prison and refers to her as a man. "I just can't accept it. I've cried every single night. I continue to cry."
After being transferred from a maximum security prison to a medium security one, she said the abuse she deals with has been minimized but it's still really bad. "It's hostile," she said. "Maybe now I'm not in an environment where I'm being raped everyday but sexual abuses are still happening. My presence here is very unwelcome." Sometimes her media exposure helps, but it never lasts long. "If I'm on the front page of the New York Times, then somebody wants to do something, they wanna act like something is happening. Once the fanfare dies down, nobody's talking about it anymore and it goes back to the way it used to be."
Her sister Diana Diamond said it's been extremely hard for her and their mother to deal with the thought of Ashley being hurt. "She has never complained about serving her sentence," Diana Diamond said of her sister to Hopes&Fears. "She just asks that she do it without being tortured. I just want her to be safe, so she can come home."
Diana said that she has always thought of Ashley as a woman, and as her sister. "I love her," she said.
— 44% of reported hate murders in 2010 were committed against transgender women.
– 22% of the 6,450 transgender and gender-nonconforming respondents to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) who had interacted with police said they’d been harassed by them, with rates even higher among people of color.
– According to the same survey, 41% said they had attempted suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population.
Source: Lambda Legal [PDF]
cover image via wikimedia.org