Sex and gender at work, in bed, and on the street

Female inmate sues Virginia prison for housing her with men

December 29, 2010 - 12:00 PM
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Policing gender, behind bars (Photo: Associated Press)

Deena Kaye Myers, an inmate at Virginia's Deerfield Correctional Center, has sued 38 employees of the male prison—from Warden Keith W. Davis down to numerous unnamed corrections officers—for housing her with men.

In recent years, transgender activists have lobbied jails and prisons around the country to ensure that trans inmates are housed in facilities consistent with their gender identity. Myers' case is a little different. According to Myers' suit, she was born with a medical condition that caused her to develop "feminized external genitalia," meaning "no scrotum, no gonads, and no penis." Though assigned male at birth, Myers was reassigned as female shortly thereafter and raised as a girl. Her birth certificate lists her gender as female. Results of blood work conducted on Aug. 17, 2010 reveal that Myers' "hormone levels clearly reflect that of a biological female." And Myers identifies as a woman. "I want to make it clear to you," she wrote in one complaint to the prison. "I am not a (hermaphrodite or Transsexual) I AM A FEMALE. My birth certificate states my gender as female. . . . I (do not) belong in an all male prison."

But Myers hasn't always identified as a woman. At twelve, Myers learned of her gender history, and began exploring her gender identity and sexual orientation. In 2003, Myers was arrested for felony robbery and later sentenced to 15 years in prison for that and related crimes. At the time, Myers identified as a man, and went by the name Scott. In court records, Myers as listed under both her birth name, Dena Kaye, as well as Scott, her "alias." Her sex is listed as male.

Some time after her arrest, though, Myers again began to identify as a woman. Upon arrival at the all-male Deerfield Correctional Center, Myers' suit says that she "explained her medical and gender situation and questioned why she was being housed at an all male facility." But she was nevertheless housed in an 88-bed all male dormitory, where she was forced to "use the bathroom, change her colostomy bags, shower and change clothes in an open locker-room style bathroom with 87 other individuals of the opposite gender."

Myers says she suffered "invasion of privacy" and "various degrees of sexual harassment" in the dorm, and was repeatedly denied accommodation for related medical issues. At times, Myers—who requires use of a wheelchair—says she was forced to crawl on the ground to access her bed and shower. Once, the suit claims, a male official with "notebook and camera" visited Myers to "look at any tattoos Myers had . . . ordered Myers to disrobe completely . . . then proceeded to take photographs, both close up and full body shots, of her body including her chest and pelvic regions." In 2008, she says she contemplated suicide.

That year, Myers began making efforts to be transferred away from Deerfield and into a female facility. Four years after entering Deerfield, Myers says that she was physically examined by a prison nurse to determine her sex. "No penis visualized," the report concluded. "Impression abnormal genital anatomy—plan nothing to do." Later, Myers says she was subjected to repeated strip searches and body cavity searches by male corrections officials. In 2009, she had her birth certificate sent to a prison counselor to to prove her sex at birth. Myers says the counselor was "shocked" that the document listed her as female. This year, Myers says she underwent several more genital exams in the prison. According to the suit, one Department of Corrections doctor "seemed to still be in 'shock' from the first exam to not find a penis but rather a vagina." In August, Myers underwent a blood test; her suit claims that her "hormone levels clearly reflect that of a biological female."

Despite the results of the birth certificate, the blood work, the genital exams, and Myers' own gender identification, Myers says that her repeated requests to be transferred to a female facility were denied. The rationale provided by prison officials: "at the time of our setence, you were assigned to a male facility." On Dec. 3, Myers filed suit against the prison in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

In one sense, it's encouraging that Myers was assigned to a male facility in the first place. The state of Virginia has no law protecting trans people against discrimination on the basis of their gender identity. Even if a biologically female inmate like Myers identified as a man at sentencing, the state law doesn't guarantee that the inmate would be placed in a facility consistent with that identity. But the state court's flexibility on the gender issue appears not to be shared by its Department of Corrections. Myers case demonstrates that gender is complex, fluid, and at times, arbitrary. Even prisons must be less rigid on the issue.

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