Story of my life — I totally spaced out on writing about the movie I was supposed to in class. I must have simply glazed over it at the time… but I watched a documentary for my paper that was extremely heartbreakingly interesting.
Cruel and Unusual is a documentary from 2006 chronicling the lives of several trans women who either have been or are still incarcerated in the United States. Because prisons in the US are divided by gender, these women were placed in men’s prisons instead of women’s. This seems bad enough, but because of the threats for their safety, they are placed in solitary confinement. Oh yeah, and let’s make it a little bit worse — for most of these women, they are also denied their hormones.
Because hormone treatment isn’t considered “necessary medication” by most prisons, they choose to ignore the issue regardless of the fact that most of these women have been taking hormones for years. As you watch the documentary, you begin to find out that the way the prison system deals with transgendered people is by not really dealing with them at all — stick them in the corner by themselves and make them wait out their time, unless they’re unlucky enough as a few of the women in the film were, to be felt up by prison guards or, unfortunately for Yolanda, raped.
The most heartbreaking account in the movie, in my opinion, was Lisa’s. Lisa had been working on oil rigs in Wyoming and eventually decided to come out as gay and then live full time as a woman. As soon as her employers found out, they fired her, and she spent time being homeless while searching for work. Eventually she began to steal copper wire to steal and trade in as scrap metal to try and make ends meet.
In the process she was caught and sent to prison in Idaho. Because of her male genitalia which she despised, she was sent to men’s prison and was denied hormone therapy. After a costly trip to the ER after “cutting her balls off with a razor” she demanded hormone therapy once more — she’d proven she was not a man. She was once more denied and she told the prison she would give them a year of her sentence before the penis went, too. A year later and another trip to the ER after completely removing her genitalia, she was once again denied. She ended up filing a lawsuit against the state and won. She set a statute in the state of Idaho that any transgendered person requesting hormones can now receive them.
After completing her sentence, she attempted once more to find work on an oil rig but could not because, as she put it she is, “6’6″ and two hundred and fifty pounds. [She] looks like a man, sounds like a man, but can’t be treated as a man,” so after a failed attempt at prostitution in Los Angeles, she was once again incarcerated for stealing more copper wire in Oregon. She did something to land in prison again because she simply could not afford her hormones.
The documentary showed how cruel it can be to have the issue simply ignored by the prison system in the United States, but the truly heartbreaking aspect was the fact that each woman’s story held such complex and horrific tales of heartbreak. They ranged in age from their early 20’s to 60’s and referred to themselves as transgendered, transsexual, and cross-dressing, but at the end of the day, the clear issue at hand was the fact that they had all been mistreated based on their gender representations.