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Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2023-02-22



Book focuses on transgender women in male prisons
by Ben Sanders

This article shared 3547 times since Wed Sep 16, 2015
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Kristin Lyseggen was absolutely disgusted. She had just finished reading about Grace, a transgender woman from Liberia who had spent time in a solitary confinement in a male immigration detention center in California. According to Grace ( whose last name is not included due to an ongoing dispute between the two of them ), during her sentence she was sexually harassed, constantly called derogatory names, suffered a mental breakdown and attempted suicide.

"When I read about Grace, I just could not believe what I was reading," Lyseggen told Windy City Times.

With her curiosity at its peak in 2012, she managed to get in touch with Janetta Louise Johnson, a transgender woman who had served three and a half years from 2009-2012 in a male prison at the Sheridan Correctional Center in Oregon and will become the new executive director at the Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project ( TGIJP )—an organization that supports transgender people in prison—in October.

Hearing Johnson's story first-hand was just as jarring for Lyseggen.

"I just thought I'm going to have to write a book about this," said the Norwegian-born photojournalist who previously authored The Boy Who Was Not A Lesbian and Other True Stories. "This is not normal! You don't throw women into the Colosseum with gladiators! It's horrendous. It's inhuman! We treat them like they are worth less than us."

This is when Lyseggen decided to pursue her next project, one about the experience of transgender women in male prisons. The final product, The Women of San Quentin: Soul Murder of Transgender Women in Male Prisons, will be sold starting Sept. 15.

Each of the nine chapters focuses on a different subject, some of whom have served their time, while others are still behind bars for the foreseeable future. What binds them together is their shared experience of hardship and trauma during their sentences.

Take Johnson as an example: During her sentence as the only trans person in custody, she claims that she was sexually assaulted seven times; was referred to as "the man with tits" by prison officials; and was denied medication prescribed to her by her primary-care physician at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco.

Johnson described to WCT what happened to her there as "soul murder," which, according to psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold in his book Soul Murder, is the act of a parent "to deprive the child of his or her own identity and ability to experience joy in life." Johnson has been in therapy every week since she's been out of custody, still battling with the psychological damage inflicted upon her in prison.

After thinking it over a moment, she chose to share the low point of her sentence in vivid detail. It occurred while she was forced to share a cell in solitary confinement for close to six months with guys who inflicted abuse of every kind upon her. Ironically, the main alleged culprit was the one who negotiated her out of solitary, but that's not what she will remember most about him.

"I kid you not: Every day, this person called me a faggot, told me I was no good, that I was a bad spirit because I wasn't even a good faggot, because if I was a real faggot, I'd suck dick," she said. "It was every single day that he pinned me down and sniffed my body parts. It was awful. It was so awful." [Note: It was at this point Johnson abruptly ended the interview, citing personal reasons.]

While Lyseggen spoke with Johnson primarily in person, a lot of the information she gathered about her subjects came via mail. ( The letters that Lyseggen received can be found in the book. )

After corresponding with these women for a while, the weight of her task started to set in. For example, it was difficult for her to wake up and read letters from people saying they've just been raped, knowing there wasn't a whole lot she could do about it.

Lyseggen started seeing a therapist in 2014 to deal with the mental strain this project was causing her.

"It's been really hard to store these stories in my body," she said. "I was worried about being able to finish it because it was too painful."

What kept her going was the promise that she'd give these women a voice, something they'd never really had before. Plus, she acknowledged that her agony doesn't compare to what they've had to go through.

"How can I complain if they survived all this?" she said. "They had this amazing strength in them to survive. Where does this strength come from? … I would never have survived it."

Now that the book's publication is a done deal, Lyseggen said she hopes that it will help recruit more transgender allies, something this community desperately needs.

"We have the responsibility to help these people—the lowest, deep down in the bottom of the hierarchy," she said, adding that there should be similar support for the Trans Lives Matter movement as there is for the Black Lives Matter one.

This article shared 3547 times since Wed Sep 16, 2015
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