Windy City Media Group Frontpage News
Celebrating 30 Years of Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Trans News
home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor
About WCMG Publications News  Entertainment Features Donate Bars & Clubs Calendar Archives OUT! Guide    Marriage



Trans* woman McShan wins right to be herself
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Gretchen Rachel Blickensderfer

This article shared 3574 times since Tue Aug 19, 2014
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email

According to the most recent numbers, one in six transgender individuals report having been imprisoned at some point in their lives. The history of horrific abuses they often suffered in jail have been well-documented—trans* women housed with men and, so, subjected to rape and violent assault from fellow inmates while prison staff have looked the other way; denial of hormone medication or access to mental-health counseling; and sometimes extended periods of solitary confinement "for their own protection," which yields devastating psychological consequences.

However, the story of Donisha McShan indicates that those abuses do not necessarily end upon release from prison. As long as a trans*person remains a part of the correctional system, the dehumanization of that individual can continue unchecked. In McShan's case, it appeared to be policy.

McShan is a 39-year-old trans* woman who began her transition in 1998. Intelligent and pragmatic, it was not a decision she entered into without a great deal of soul-searching. Although raised Southern Baptist and estranged from her family, she recalled that she did not have to face too many challenges. She had a good job in Information Technology and there were no professional issues with her transition. "I was living on my own and self sustaining," she remembered. "It allowed me time to be comfortable with my transition before I expected other people to be. My friends were all very supportive and I took a good couple of years to be OK in my own skin."

At the time, she chose not to undergo reassignment surgery until she was 100-percent sure it was what she wanted. "I had waited a lot of years in order to reconcile myself to this spiritually," she said. "I knew that surgery was something so final that I didn't want to have any doubts on any level of my being. I wanted to be affirmed in the decision emotionally, mentally, psychologically and physically."

At the age of 35, she was convicted of mail fraud in Belleville, Illinois, and sentenced to two years in a federal prison for men. Along with her fellow trans* inmates, she was immediately ostracized by the general population. "Because the system was so hyper masculine, and a reputation was the most important thing the other prisoners had, being seen even socializing or speaking to a trans* woman was really taboo," McShan said. "It was a very lonely place."

McShan also remembered that the presence of trans* women seemed to be a headache for the prison's administration. As a result, there were a lot of double standards. "The other trans* women and myself were allowed to dress feminine, but—for example on the recreation yard—there were guys walking around in tank tops," she said. "We weren't allowed to wear tank tops because they would show our nipples and our breasts. The reality is that there are very few concessions made to incarcerated trans* women."

The terms of McShan's sentence included three years of supervised release. She was eventually sent to a halfway house in Marion Illinois run by The H Group. She had been addicted to crack cocaine since 2001 and the facility offered long-term rehabilitation.

A non-profit organization, The H Group has received funding from the Department of Health and Human Services and Early Head Start among others. According to the organization's website, their mission is to be a "healthcare partner for hope, growth and improved quality of life." They claim to value both their clients and "social, individual and cultural diversity."

McShan desperately wanted to regain the control of her life and she passionately threw herself into each of the group and private counseling sessions on offer while maintaining a job and going to school. However— from the moment she arrived at The H Group's male residential facility in Marion on Oct. 17, 2013—McShan's problems began to escalate in shocking and unexpected ways.

She had been there for less than 15 minutes when McShan said she was informed by the facility director and two other staff members that she would be referred to with male pronouns only. "I was told that I would be addressed as 'he'," she remembered. "I was completely taken aback. I was hurt. I felt like—before I was even processed or before I could take part in any treatment plans—they had set the tone and were telling me who I was."

The gender marker on her state issued identification clearly indicated her as female. "The staff stated that they were just following orders," McShan said. "When it was learned that I was arriving there, the man at the Bureau of Prisons who oversees all of the halfway houses in this particular area of the country sent direct orders that they should house me with the men, treat me as a male and refer to me as 'he.'"

Terrified of being sent back to jail if she rocked the boat at all, McShan said nothing in her defense. She remembered that there were two halves to The H Group campus—treatment and residential. At the treatment center, staff members were respectful of her gender identity but only in private. Her counselor was similarly compassionate and affirming. In fact, McShan stated it was his support that was quintessential in keeping her from giving up.

Life in the residential facility was another matter. "I was not allowed to wear clothes that were classified as too feminine, like dresses or skirts," McShan said. "They took my curling irons, make-up, hair rollers. They even confiscated my feminine body spray. They told me one of the coats I had was too feminine."

McShan claimed that she was searched every six weeks and something new was taken away every time, even her shower cap because it was pink. When she finally spoke up in protest, she was severely sanctioned through an internal disciplinary process. "I was allowed to express myself as a woman off the campus," she said. "But the rule was—once I came back on the campus—I had to look like a man."

She had to share a room and bathroom with four men. The atmosphere with them was consistently tense and they called her names. However—as a person who had always stood up for herself—the derogatory terms didn't bother McShan so much as the fact that she felt unwelcome and consequently unsafe around her roommates.

Before she could go to school or a 12-step meeting, McShan would get ready in her bathrobe with the understanding that—once she was dressed as herself—she would immediately leave the campus. Eventually even that small freedom was removed and McShan had to get dressed for school in her car. "I was given conflicting reasons," she said. "Apparently one of my roommates had complained that I was dressing as a woman. The other reason I was given was that it was a part of my 'treatment plan.'"

Despite the confusing information, McShan came to believe that the ever increasing restrictions placed on her life and her identity were the result of directives being handed down from the Illinois Department of Correction's Residential Reentry Manager for the region. "He was sending correspondence to the halfway house to take my things," she alleged. "He said that if I didn't comply then he would have me sent back to prison for failure to obey the rules."

Psychologically, the isolation and constant degradation were taking a toll on McShan. "It was very depressing being there," she said. "If you can imagine being in a room with 75 or 80 people at a time and no one's talking to you or are afraid to sit by you. It's just so lonely."

She had a choice—acquiesce or fight. For McShan, it was the thought that other trans* women would have to endure the same treatment that resolved her to take action, despite the threat of being returned to jail.

In March of 2014, she called Lambda Legal. Jael Humphrey is a staff attorney with the organization.

"Donisha had contacted us and—over the weeks we were talking to her—the persecution intensified," Humphrey recalled. "We worked with Donisha to send a demand letter to the halfway house and—if the matter wasn't resolved—to pursue a legal action."

McShan was thrilled at the speed at which Lambda Legal moved on her case. "They let me know what I needed to do to start the process, gathered information and made sure that I protected myself legally," she said. "They were behind me every step of the way. Essentially, I raised my voice and they amplified it. They made the difference."

On May 1, the demand letter was sent to The H Group's administration and "several other parties."

Within days, all of McShan's rights and belongings were immediately restored and she was issued a formal apology. She was given a single room at the male facility until one became available in female housing. She was allowed to present as a woman on the campus and the staff began to refer to her with the correct pronoun of 'she.'

"It was fantastic how quick the response from the halfway house was," Humphrey said. "It was a striking turnaround in Donisha's treatment and the extent to which they were willing to apologize to her and to admit that they had not respected her gender identity."

Although Windy City Time's calls to the Illinois Department of Corrections were not returned, Humphrey recommends that anyone who may be going through a similar issue at a halfway house immediately reach out to a Lambda Legal office. "Contact me!" She stated. "All too often transgender people in custody face this sort of discrimination. We have represented them before and we were prepared to represent Donisha in this action had her demands not been met."

It is a sentiment McShan wholeheartedly agrees with. She has a message for any trans* person in her situation. "Always believe in yourself. Don't be afraid to affirm your right to be yourself. Never let anyone punish you for who you are."

She was released from the halfway house in early June. She is working towards a career as a musician and continuing her therapy. Meanwhile, she is pursuing advocacy for transgender rights in correctional facilities. "I can do it all," she said. "You are talking at the next great Diva. I've held onto this dream for long enough and now it's time to do it."

This article shared 3574 times since Tue Aug 19, 2014
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email

Windy City Media Group does not approve or necessarily agree with the views posted below.
Please do not post letters to the editor here. Please also be civil in your dialogue.
If you need to be mean, just know that the longer you stay on this page, the more you help us.


Gay News

Lawsuit filed regarding trans exclusion for health benefits 2020-11-24
- Lambda Legal and Sirianni Youtz Spoonemore Hamburger PLLC filed a federal lawsuit challenging Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois' (BCBSIL's) administration of a blanket exclusion of gender-affirming care in an ...

Gay News

New study: Military transgender ban hurts readiness 2020-11-23
--From a press release - SAN FRANCISCO, CA — A new study has found that the current ban on military service by transgender Americans has harmed the armed forces, contradicting claims by the Trump administration that the ban was needed to ...

Gay News

Black transgender artist Heather Hills releases single, video from Trans Trenderz 2020-11-20
--From a press release - (New York, NY) Electro-pop/rap artist, Heather Hills, has released the new single and video, "Get Dun," on the Trans Trenderz label. "Get Dun" is not for those expecting trauma porn. "I got a cute beat and ...

Gay News

Day With(out) Art: Transmissions launches online Nov. 30 2020-11-18
--From a press release - NEW YORK, Nov. 16, 2020 — Visual AIDS, the only contemporary arts organization fully committed to raising AIDS and HIV awareness through dialogue, art exhibitions and public forums, announces their ...

Gay News

PPIL extends Gender Affirming Hormone Therapy program statewide 2020-11-18
- During this year's Transgender Awareness Week (which culminates with the Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20), Planned Parenthood of Illinois (PPIL) is highlighting its Gender Affirming Hormone Therapy (GAHT) ...

Gay News

WORLD Trans deaths, China census, Rob Halford, Hungary measure 2020-11-16
- Globally, at least 350 transgender people have been killed this year (2020)—a figure that has risen since last year's total of 331, Forbes noted. The annual list, released for Transgender Day of Remembrance (Nov. 20) by ...

Gay News

MOVIES Trans-focused Born to Be to be released Nov. 20 2020-11-16
- Born To Be—a hit documentary on the country's first hospital center for transgender medical care—will open in Philadelphia on Friday, Nov. 20 (also the Transgender Day of Remembrance) with Gene Sickle Film Center Virtual Cinema. The ...

Gay News

Mama Gloria, about Chicago's elder, trans, activist icon, to screen 2020-11-10
--From a press release - CHICAGO, IL — Luchina Fisher's Mama Gloria, an important and timely documentary about Chicago's trailblazing Black trans elder icon and activist Gloria Allen, will hold nationwide screenings during Transgender Awareness ...

Gay News

Victory Institute calls for LGBTQ cabinet appointee 2020-11-09
--From a press release - Washington, DC — Today LGBTQ Victory Institute called on President-elect Joe Biden to appoint at least one out LGBTQ person to a Senate-confirmed Cabinet position and said it will provide the transition team with a list ...

Gay News

SHOWBIZ Rock Hudson, The CW, Jillian Michaels, Isis King 2020-11-09
- Among Kino Lorber's December DVD and Blu-ray releases is a three-movie set (with the 1953-54 features Seminole, Golden Blade and Bengal Brigade) starring the late actor Rock Hudson, a press release noted. Co-stars in the films ...

Gay News

Jill Rose Quinn first trans elected official in Illinois; wins for Cook County Circuit Court Judge 2020-11-03
- Washington, DC — Today LGBTQ Victory Fund endorsed candidate Jill Rose Quinn won her election to be a judge on the Cook County Circuit Court, becoming the first out transgender person ever elected in the state ...

Gay News

Sarah McBride of Delaware first trans State Senator in U.S. history 2020-11-03
- Washington, DC — Today LGBTQ Victory Fund endorsed candidate Sarah McBride won her election for the Delaware state Senate, becoming the first out transgender person ever elected to a state senate seat anywhere in the United ...

Gay News

Jennifer N. Pritzker, Erin E. Solaro wed 2020-11-02
--From a press release - Jennifer N. Pritzker and Erin E. Solaro were married in a private ceremony in Chicago on Oct. 31, 2020. Ms. Pritzker is President & CEO of TAWANI Enterprises Inc., Lieutenant Colonel U.S. Army, Retired, and Founder ...

Gay News

NATIONAL Texas board, intersex portfolio, hate crimes, beauty queen dies 2020-11-02
- A Texas regulatory board reinstated protections that bar social workers from refusing services to LGBTQ people and people with disabilities, NBC News reported. The Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council, or BHEC, on Tuesday unanimously reversed an ...

Gay News

THEATER REVIEW Being Earnest 2020-10-29
- Playwright book and lyrics by Paul Gordon, music by Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska At Skylight Music Theatre online at Tickets: $25. Runs through Dec. 31, 2020. Two things to remember when proposing to transform a ...


Copyright © 2020 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives. Single copies of back issues in print form are
available for $4 per issue, older than one month for $6 if available,
by check to the mailing address listed below.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.
All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transegender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.







About WCMG Publications News  Entertainment Features Donate Bars & Clubs Calendar Archives OUT! Guide    Marriage

About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots      OUT! Guide     
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Advanced Search     
Windy City Queercast      Queercast Archives     
Press  Releases      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast      Blogs     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam      Outguide Categories      Outguide Advertisers      Search Outguide      Travel      Dining Out      Privacy Policy     

Windy City Media Group publishes Windy City Times,
The Bi-Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.