The Trans Woman Behind the Right to Have Surgery in Prison

In January, a California prisoner, Shiloh Quine, made headlines when she became the first prisoner to receive sex reassignment surgery.

However, her story begins much earlier and through the journey of another transgender woman, Michelle-Lael Norsworthy.

“I am so happy that she got it,” Norsworthy said of Quine. “Anybody who disagrees with an inmate getting sex reassignment surgery is saying — and a lot of trans people are against it — … that gender dysphoria is a choice, [that the surgery] is an elective or cosmetic procedure.”

Norsworthy, 53, who is now out of prison, made waves of her own when she petitioned the state to receive the surgery while she was serving time, a surgery she and medical professionals said was a medical necessity, in Norsworthy v. Beard.

However, after being denied parole five times, the state decided she was “cured” and ready to be released from prison. While she could finally say goodbye to prison life, it meant that she would no longer be getting the surgery.

“It was amusing,” she said. “I was denied parole five times, that I’m a threat to society… and here you are now saying I am no longer a danger … I was being evicted from my home and I was being denied something that I had won fair and square.”

On the outside, reporter Annie Brown had been following cases of transgender prisoners and was interested in Norsworthy’s story. The two got in touch and for five months worked on the story, with Brown witnessing the struggle of obtaining medical care, housing, learning how to navigate the internet, and continuing to fight the state.

“I just followed her and her path home for the next several months,” Brown said. “It’s this very confusing, emotional situation where you’re excited but also sad and I was also really interested in that experience.”

In May 2016, “Michelle’s Case” was published in The California Sunday Magazine, an in-depth piece on the case of the first prisoner to be granted gender confirming surgery.

“There’s the potential for everyone to be mad at you. But the reception was really positive, I think,” Brown said. “It’s hard to have someone write about such an intimate part of your life. It’s a minefield, there’s such a potential for error.”

Norsworthy was also happy with the piece, saying it was factual and that she “got everything right.” Today, the two are still in touch as Brown, who now is a reporter for The New York Times, continues to report on the case. She is working on a radio story with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

In the story, Brown recounted how Norsworthy served 28 years in prison in California after being found guilty of murder when she killed an acquaintance during a fight. When he was shot, Norsworthy used her military training to treat the wound and call for help. Six weeks later, he died from a blood clot.

In prison, Norsworthy struggled with her identity. It was the priest in the chapel who encouraged her to look up the word “transsexual” in the dictionary after she told him how conflicted she felt. In 2000, she was diagnosed with gender dysphoria.

During the rest of her time in prison, she became a constant figure in the law library, where she read up on cases, learned legal jargon, and advocated for herself. In fact, she helped write the Prison Rape Elimination Act Peer Education Program in California — transgender women in prison are 13 times more likely to be raped than their peers in prison. This included Norsworthy, who was gang raped during her incarceration and contracted Hepatitis C as a result.

“I spent most of my time fighting for the rights of my kind to exist, just to exist,” she said. “I don’t care if a bigot hates me, their freedom to hate me is my freedom to be me.”

Finally, she then petitioned the state to be allowed to have sex reassignment surgery while incarcerated. The case was taken up in Norsworthy v. Beard. After much back and forth, and a doctor vouching that it was a medical necessity, a judge ruled in April 2015 that she be granted the surgery. Then, she was suddenly granted parole and was released from prison in August.

When she got out, after nearly three decades behind bars, she was completely unequipped to live on the outside, let alone as a transgender woman.

“There’s no shelter or programs even on the outside world for trans people,” she said. “I had to self-advocate again. I had to start over again.”

Also, with her case being high profile, nonprofits came out of the woodworks to represent her and make her the face of their campaigns. When she got out, some didn’t follow through.

“When I got out, some of the people that were supposed to be representing my interests weren’t exactly as representative as they had told the world.”

So again, she decided to advocate for herself, and also for others. A year to the date of her release, she received nonprofit status from the government for her charity, Joan’s House Shelter. Here, she wants to create a safe haven for transgender people. Especially with Donald Trump becoming president, she believes transgender people are more vulnerable than ever.

“I don’t know what else to do other than try to build a shelter and try to build an ark and try to weather this storm,” she said.

When Quine, the other transgender prisoner, received her surgery, angry readers across the nation lashed out — why should the taxpayers pay for the surgery of a convicted killer? Reading the stories, some never mention Norsworthy’s name as the one who set the standard for SRS surgeries for inmates.

“They’re mad at the wrong person,” she said. “They really are. They should be mad at me. It was me that helped her get her settlement because her settlement came following my decision.”

And that same “public” will probably get angry again very soon — Norsworthy is having her long-awaited surgery on Feb. 10. After petitioning the government again, and the case bouncing from court to court, she won a settlement in February 2016, covering attorneys’ fees and costs totaling under half a million dollars.

A year after the settlement, she will go under the knife in an event that, like many others in her life, is filled with conflicting feelings.

“I’m excited about the fact that I will finally dismantle a level of discomfort that I’ve been living with for a long time,” she said, adding that on the other hand, “I am scared because I’ve never in my life had a surgery before. I have a fear of going under, so that part is really bothering me. I’ve never been out of control like that.”

For more information about Joan’s House or to donate, visit JoansHouseShelter.wordpress.com.

Originally published in South Florida Gay News.

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