ROME, Ga. — Before she fell on hard times and got into trouble with the law, Ashley Diamond had a wardrobe of wigs named after her favorite divas. “Darling, hand me Aretha” or Mariah or Madonna, she would say to her younger sister when they glammed up to go out on the town.
Ms. Diamond, 36, had lived openly and outspokenly as a transgender woman since adolescence, much of that time defying the norms in this conservative Southern city.
But on the day she arrived at a Georgia prison intake center in 2012, the deliberate defeminizing of Ms. Diamond began. Ordered to strip alongside male inmates, she froze but ultimately removed her long hair and the Hannah Montana pajamas in which she had been taken into custody, she said. She hugged her rounded breasts protectively.
Looking back, she said, it seemed an apt rite of initiation into what became three years of degrading and abusive treatment, starting with the state’s denial of the hormones she says she had taken for 17 years. But on Friday, Ms. Diamond and, through her, all transgender inmates won the unexpected support of the Justice Department, which intervened on her behalf in the federal lawsuit she filed against Georgia corrections officials in February.
“During intake, I kept saying: ‘Hello? I’m trans? I’m a woman?’ ” Ms. Diamond recounted in a phone conversation from prison a few weeks ago. “But to them I was gay. I was what they called a ‘sissy.’ So finally I was like: ‘O.K., I’m a sissy. Do you have a place where sissies can go and be O.K.?’ ”
They did not provide one, she said. A first-time inmate at 33 whose major offense was burglary, Ms. Diamond was sent to a series of high-security lockups for violent male prisoners. She has been raped at least seven times by inmates, her lawsuit asserts, with a detailed accounting of each. She has been mocked by prison officials as a “he-she thing” and thrown into solitary confinement for “pretending to be a woman.” She has undergone drastic physical changes without hormones. And, in desperation, she has tried to castrate and to kill herself several times.
“My biggest concern is that she survives to get out of prison, which I worry about every day,” said Stephen Sloan, a counselor who treated her at Baldwin State Prison and whose pleas that Ms. Diamond be restarted on hormones were ignored.
In her lawsuit, Ms. Diamond asks the court to direct prison officials to provide her hormone therapy, to allow her to express her female identity through “grooming, pronoun use and dress,” and to provide her safer housing.
She also seeks broader changes in policy and practice. And the Justice Department, in its support, declared hormone therapy to be necessary medical care, saying Georgia, and other states, must treat “gender dysphoria” like any other health condition and provide “individual assessment and care.”
Georgia’s Department of Corrections has declined to comment about the case. As a matter of policy, it also denied The New York Times’s request to interview Ms. Diamond in person at Georgia State Prison, where she was moved a few weeks ago in apparent retaliation for her lawsuit, she claims. Georgia State had more sexual assaults between 2009 and 2014 than all but one other state prison.
Since her arrival there, Ms. Diamond has survived an attempted rape in a stairwell, dealt with inmates exposing themselves and masturbating in front of her, and faced relentless sexual coercion, she said last week in anemergency motion seeking an immediate transfer to a safer institution.
Though Ms. Diamond believes she is championing a cause larger than herself, she has expressed increasing despair. She sobbed continually during a recent visit from her lawyer, and in the phone interview, she said: “Every day I struggle with trying to stay alive and not wanting to die. Sometimes I think being a martyr would be better than having to live with all this.”
Last year, Ms. Diamond smuggled video snippets out of prison, and a friend posted them on YouTube. In them, her head wrapped in a white turban, she struck a lighter and more defiant tone, hoping that recent television portrayals of transgender characters might generate concern for her plight.
“While it seems like the whole world is obsessed with ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ I’m living it,” she said.
But unlike the transgender woman inmate played by Laverne Cox on “Orange,” the Netflix series, Ms. Diamond is locked up with men, for what could be eight and a half more years, and her reality is grimmer than television fiction.
Her lawyer, Chinyere Ezie of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Ms. Diamond’s case dramatized the “discrimination to incarceration pipeline” that disproportionately lands transgender people, and especially those who are black like Ms. Diamond, behind bars.
Many face rejection by their families, harassment at school and discrimination in the workplace. Black transgender people have inordinately high rates of extreme poverty, homelessness, suicide attempts and imprisonment; nearly half those surveyed for the National Transgender Discrimination Survey had been imprisoned, compared with 16 percent of the study’s 6,450 participants.
And transgender women in male prisons are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than is the general population, with 59 percent reporting sexual assaults, according to a frequently cited California study.
“I wish I could say this is a problem only affecting Ashley,” Ms. Ezie said. “But while Ashley is brilliant and unique, her situation is not.”
‘Different Than Everyone Else’
At her peak, Ms. Diamond was an aspiring singer-songwriter, a drag cabaret performer and a Whitney Houston impersonator whose best friend was, as she put it, a “celebrity interior designer” and whose odyssey was featured on “The Sally Jessy Raphael Show.”
See more here: Source: NYTimes