Gender Barred 

Transgender inmates sue for hormones

Natalia Whitefeather Flores, as she calls herself, is getting her hormones.

But the Idaho Department of Corrections waited until she filed a $5.5 million lawsuit against the state, got a visit from the American Civil Liberties Union and contacted BW to provide Flores, whose given name is William Ray Flores, with her estrogen pills and a testosterone blocker.

"France does the best sex changes, I hear, and that's where I want to go," Flores said in a call from the Idaho Maximum Security Institution.

But she's not going anywhere until at least September 2009 when she may be up for parole. Flores was born a woman in a man's body on the Rocky Boy Reservation near Havre, Mont. She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and has spoken Cheyenne, Spanish and English from an early age.

At 5 years old, Flores, who then called herself Susie, was diagnosed with gender identity disorder, a psychiatric disorder that the Idaho Department of Corrections defines as dissatisfaction with one's biological sex. The department has recognized GID since 2003, after an earlier lawsuit forced officials to develop a policy.

Flores is transgender in that she desires to become a woman. But she also considers herself two-spirited, a condition recognized in Native American society long before 2003.

"We are considered more spiritual than most people because we've got the spirit of a woman and the spirit of a man," Flores said.

Flores' two-spiritedness has not been dulled by a life in foster care, juvenile hall and, for the last two years, state prison. She chats about life in prison, how she can't get access to makeup through the men's commissary, how they took away her hair ties, how she was raped eight times by six different men and then how she was moved into the maximum security prison.

"I tried to stay away from the people but they always found a way to get me alone," Flores said.

In July 2006 Fourth District Judge Darla Williamson sentenced Flores, then 20 years old, to two years minimum and up to six years in prison after she stole a credit card from her boss at the bagel shop where she worked. Flores gave the card to her supervisor at the halfway house where she had been living before she racked up any charges on it.

Flores wrote to "La Honorable Darly Williams [sic]" in Spanish thanking her for the sentence and copying out a Bible passage and a poem that spoke of the three important things in life: la fe, la esperanza y el amor. Faith, hope and love. "But the most important is love," she wrote.

Williamson ordered mental health treatment for Flores in prison, which Flores says she did not receive until very recently.

Idaho's GID policy requires that a management and treatment committee make recommendations on each inmate with GID. The department may continue or initiate hormone therapy if deemed medically necessary, but does not provide inmates with sexual reassignment surgery or cosmetic procedures.

"The Idaho policy is not as comprehensive or as supportive as we believe it can be," said Jody Marksamer, an attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco.

In her lawsuit, Flores is asking for a more stringent policy to address what she considers rampant discrimination against transgender prisoners including barring her from the sweat lodge, confiscating leather hair ties and harassment.

"I constantly get harassed about my hair, my walk and the way I talk. I cannot help this. I was born with these traits," Flores states in her suit.

There are two other transgender cases pending against the Idaho Department of Corrections, including Jennifer Spencer's case, now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

A federal judge ruled about a year ago that the state should provide estrogen to Spencer, who has since been released from prison. Spencer castrated herself in prison after being denied numerous requests for treatment.

Marksamer gets hundreds of calls a year from transgender inmates who are not getting proper treatment in prisons and jails across the country, as do several other advocacy groups. Often unable to find jobs and shunned by society, about 30 percent of transgender people spend time incarcerated, according to some estimates.

Idaho's chief of prisons, Pam Sonnen, said she had never seen a case of GID until about six years ago. Now there are four in the system, according to a prison spokesman.

"Our goal is that all offenders are housed in an appropriate place so that they are not either victimizing someone else or becoming victims themselves," Sonnen said.

Prison policies, in accordance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, include prohibitions on male prisoners dressing in a feminine manner. Sonnen said inmates cannot use chalk for eye makeup or extra large T-shirts as dresses.

"We don't want to add any more risk to that offender," Sonnen said.

Sonnen encourages GID inmates, or any inmate, to try to integrate into the prison population as practice for when they are released and need to integrate into society again.

"I am not a proponent to separate any group just based on their group," she said.

Idaho prison officials would not comment on Flores' case or any pending cases, and Sonnen said only that prison policies are constantly under review.

Flores filed her lawsuit on her own, but contacted the ACLU for legal advice.

"She's not being treated for her disorder," said Idaho ACLU staff attorney Lea Cooper, who is helping Flores with her case.

Cooper has been involved in several Idaho GID cases and appeared in the 2006 film Cruel and Unusual, which profiles five transgender inmates, including one Idaho case.

Linda Thompson, an Idaho inmate who spent time in Vacaville, Calif., at a special transgender prison facility, is profiled in the film. Cooper said Thompson is in prison again, this time in Wyoming, where she moved for work and wound up on the streets.

Since Cooper got involved in the case, the Idaho Department of Corrections has responded to Flores' request for treatment.

"They seem to be taking it seriously now, each time it comes up we have to do less," Cooper said.

Flores is pleased to be getting her hormones, and is talking about becoming an attorney to help other transgender inmates.

"I want to start my own law firm for transgenders, go to law school," Flores said. "I want to have my sex change done appropriately."

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