Perhaps one of the hottest topics in prisons today is the housing, or rehousing, of transgender offenders. With some states, such as Washington, beginning to warm to the idea of housing transgendered offenders in their preferred gendered institutions such progressive actions spark some controversy.

It wasn’t that long ago that receiving Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) while incarcerated was impossible unless you were taking HRT pre-incarceration. Today it is commonplace. Problems still exist, however.

While there is still violence against transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) folx as a whole, by both the incarcerative state and its inhabitants, there exists challenges that are not violence related. As cisgender folx see transgendered folx in their respectively preferred gender identities (i.e. trans-men as men and trans-women as women) the norms of co-ed cohabitation arise, like attraction.

Prisoners having an attraction to another prisoner is nothing new. The introduction of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and its violent usage to criminalize homosexuality (under PREA guidelines it is NOT possible for consensual sex to occur, one MUST be a perpetrator and one MUST be a victim, thus, effectively criminalizing homosexuality as an act) is proof that it occurred enough to warrant Federal action and guidelines. Transgendered offenders present a whole new set of challenges not just in the arena of safety but in the arena of love as well.

I assume that we can all agree that love is something often not chosen. It just happens. Like attraction. You cannot choose who you are attracted to. Proof in point: straight men do not CHOOSE to be attracted to women, it occurs naturally, likewise straight women to men (the same is true for homosexual men and women, just to be clear). When a trans-woman is housed with cis-men the idea of “transness” diminishes in the eyes of many and our “transness” transforms into “woman-ness”. There is prison slang for this occurrence but I will spare you the nomenclature and instead point your attention to the cultural aspect of co-ed prisons.

Now, I understand that for some the word “co-ed” is controversial. Male genitalia is the scientific/biological marker for anatomical “sex” and it could be said that prisons utilize biological identifications to house inmates. In this case “gender” is accepted as the cognitive aspect of biological sex and is uncontested (generally) that sex/gender incongruity can, and does, occur. In which case, the state recognizes gender incongruity and treats it (in some states) with accepted medical standards while still holding firm to biological identifications for housing purposes (don’t think for a second I don’t call this state violence, it most definitely is direct and active state violence). As far as I’m concerned though, I am a woman and I am housed at a male facility. This place is co-ed no matter who agrees with it, in my not so humble opinion.

What’s happening, then, on a cultural level is typical male/female interactions. Love, flirtation, romance, intimacy (of many varieties), jealousy, violence, drama, etc. All the things that go along with men and women living in close proximity to one another, with one slight variation, our entire world exists on just a few acres.

We work, eat, sleep, exercise, emote, stress and de-stress, play, struggle/succeed in the same places. There is no break one might get in the free world. For instance, if you are at work and you find a co-worker attractive and you know you cannot date, it sucks but it is manageable because that only exists for 7-8 hours of your day 5 days a week. But what happens when you work with them AND you have to eat with them AND you have to live with them? What happens then? When you have nowhere to go it becomes extraordinarily difficult to not date at that point, that’s what happens. If you’re like most, attraction just occurs and love is just as involuntary. Instead of “falling” in love our attention turns to pretending to NOT fall in love or do ones best to hide it. This adds a whole new level if complexity to an already complex environment.

Offenders are having to reconcile their own sexuality and/or masculinity/femininity living among TGNC folx. When attraction is expressed, sometimes just platonic conversation, some have to deal with confrontation by their peers suddenly having to publicly reconcile their own sexuality. That kind of pressure can have serious effects on both TGNC and cis folx alike. Let me assure you, it’s not so easy.

On the other side of all this is hope. While it is technically a crime for offenders to date one another, it doesn’t mean it’s realistic or even morally acceptable for the state to be involved in consensual romance at all, it does present normalcy to an abnormal environment. To flirt and be touched, to spend time with the opposite sex as equals is vital to better community reintegration. It is important to have the simple-ness of seeing femininity or masculinity when we are so starved of that. Getting out of prison after 10 plus consecutive years and the opposite sex being unanimously an authority (the only previous interaction with the “opposite” sex being staff or visitors, either are rarely viewed as equals) it is a shock to ones system to be faced with peer interactions with opposite genders. Not for all, but for many. The co-ed element is helping to normalize healthy relationships despite them being labelled as “unhealthy” by a violence-led system.

It means a little more tolerance. Something we can all benefit from.

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With Love