All the Crap I Put Up with Transitioning to Male in Prison

"Well, you’re still a she for now, anyway," the doctor told me when I started hormone therapy.

by Ethan Ybabes; as told to Page Dukes; illustrated by Matt Chinworth
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Jun 15 2018, 4:00am

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I finally saw a specialist one year after I decided to start hormone replacement therapy. Most prisons have a general practitioner, but not an endocrinologist. So, handcuffed and shackled with leg and waist chains, in a van with three guards and another trans man, I rode two and a half hours to Augusta State Medical Prison in east Georgia. When the doctor asked what stopped me from transitioning at home, I told him it was mostly my family’s influence, but that I was no longer concerned with whether or not they accepted me for who I am. He was satisfied with that. He wrote me a prescription for 100 mg of testosterone every two weeks.

Since we weren’t allowed to handle needles, I would have my injections administered by prison medical staff. But when I went for my follow-up, the doctor at the prison was confused. She saw my testosterone levels and thought I had already started taking the shots. I had to tell her I have hyperandrogenism (excess male hormones, a condition affecting 5 to 10 percent of women of reproductive age), but she should have known that already—she had my medical history open in front of her. She turned to the nurse to schedule my first T shot. “What day is she, I mean he...” the doctor stammered. “Well, you’re still a she for now anyway.” “It,” the nurse said, and laughed.

They concluded I would get my shot on Wednesday. “Ok, thanks,” I said, feeling belittled.

Why would you call a person “it?” You even call a dog a she or a he. If they were uncertain how to refer to me, they should have asked. But a more forgiving part of me gave them grace because I know it’s hard for people to understand.

When I told my mom on the phone about the nurse calling me “it,” she was pissed. “What?” she said. “IT?!” Then, after a moment, she said sadly, “Just don’t get in trouble, OK?”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t.”

On Wednesday, I made sure to let the nurse give me my shot before addressing the “it” incident. Since my dose was so high, the doctor had suggested I get the injection in my hip. It didn’t hurt at all. Afterward, I tried to tell the nurse how it felt to be called “it.” She apologized and said she meant no harm. I explained that it took me 35 years to get to this point, thanks to fears of what people would think and say about me, and that I have to continue to stand up for myself so I’m not scared back into hiding.

I was the first one at the prison to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria, at least during the time I was there. At first, I was apprehensive about transitioning. I had heard there were health risks associated with HRT, and I didn’t know if I would ever be able to afford surgery. I didn’t feel like I had enough information, so I put it off for a while. Even the doctors they sent me to didn’t have a lot of information, since they were used to dealing with male-to-female.

So I learned everything I could from books. A chaplain gave me the book “Becoming a Visible Man” by trans activist Jamison Green . It was like a sacred text for me. I remember highlighting the whole thing. It was the first time I had read someone’s story that sounded like mine. I felt connected to the world in a way I never had before, connected to another human being, someone who could fully understand me. Finally.

All of us trans guys at the prison who were transitioning around the same time were kind of flying blind. We would be, like: Wait, nobody told us about this. At first we were timid about asking each other things like, “Hey, has your cycle stopped yet?” But nothing was off limits after that. We were a close-knit community.

When I came to the halfway house and went out into the community to find a job, I realized that it was going to be a lot different out here because of the gender norms. They took me to a donation center where they had only women’s clothing. I thought: Man, I would rather just go back to the prison. It was a lot easier to be trans there.

In the prison, people were used to seeing us. In the free world, people just stare. At first I thought maybe I was paranoid. Then I realized they were trying to figure out if I was female or male. Some people have been respectful enough to ask me, and I’m better with that. One of the guys I work with came up to me and said, “This is awkward, but do you prefer he or she?” I said, “It’s not awkward for me. I prefer he.” And ever since then we’ve been pretty cool.

Another guy I work with, he knows I’m trans, but he still refers to me as she, and I have to continually correct him. It’s our policy that we’re not supposed to have facial hair at work, but I told him the other day I’m going to stop shaving my face just so I can get it through his mind to stop calling me she. Whenever he says, “Thank you, ma’am,” I say, “You’re welcome, ma’am.” Because when I do that, he’s like, “What?” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s how I feel when you do that to me.” I try to clarify for people if I can, in the most gentle way possible. I guess because I’m very nonjudgmental myself, it makes it easier for me to handle people who don’t understand.

I’ve had people ask me a million personal questions. The only thing people want to know about is your genitalia. Have you had surgery? What does it look like? Can I see it? They don’t even think about how it sounds—they’re just curious. To some extent I will answer their questions. Then I just tell them, “You know, there is a lot of information online.” I want to encourage people to be educated; I don’t want to be a jerk about it because I don’t want to be a bad example. I might be the first trans person that someone comes across. Some religious people make comments like, “God made you who you are supposed to be, so you shouldn’t try to change that.” But God knows how I’ve been from the very beginning and has just been waiting on me to figure it out for myself, to be able to live a better life, a more complete life for me.

The hardest thing is dealing with my family, because they haven’t seen me in so long. I have an older brother I haven’t seen in 12 years. So when we talk on the phone, he’ll say, “You just need to get you a man. You’re man-scared, that’s your problem.” I used to have nightmares that my sons wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me when I got out, that it would be too weird for them, but they are so open-minded. My oldest, who’s 21, said, “Mom, it’s 2018. It's a whole gender revolution.” And when I saw my brother-in-law, he didn’t bat an eye. But he also did 10 years in prison. Maybe that’s why he is more understanding: When you’re around so many different people in such a condensed environment, it allows you to open your eyes and be less judgmental than people in the free world.

My mom is coming around. When I first wrote her about my gender dysphoria, she wouldn’t even acknowledge it. That’s why I’m uneasy about how my family deals with things. If something is uncomfortable for them, they’d rather not talk about it. No wonder I pretended this man inside of me didn’t exist. But if I am to be a part of the family when I go home, I won’t be swept under the rug anymore. The rug is gone. The floor is bare. This is me.

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Ethan Ybabes, 37, is serving his last year of a 12-year sentence for armed robbery at Lee Arrendale Transitional Center in Alto, Georgia.

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