DILLWYN, Va. (AP) - Crouched in her cell, Ophelia De'lonta hoped
three green disposable razors from the prison commissary would give her what the Virginia Department of Corrections will not - a sex
It had been several years since she had felt the urges, but she
had been fighting them for weeks. But like numerous other times,
she failed to get rid of what she calls "that thing" between her
legs, the last evidence she was born a male.
Months after the October castration attempt, De'lonta filed a
federal lawsuit Friday claiming the state has failed its duty to
provide adequate medical care because it won't give her the
operation. She says the surgery is needed to treat her gender
identity disorder, a mental illness in which people believe they
were born the wrong gender.
If she wins, De'lonta would be the nation's first inmate to
receive a state-funded sex change operation. Similar lawsuits have
failed in a handful of other states, and lawmakers in some states
are trying to ban the use of taxpayer money for the operations.
If she loses, she says she will continue to try self-surgery -
acknowledging another attempt could kill her.
"That's a possibility," the 50-year-old said during a recent
prison interview, pausing then smiling contently. "But at the end
I would have peace."
Some physical changes have already taken place. Hormones won
under a 2004 court order have caused her to develop noticeable
breasts. Her eyebrows are perfectly plucked, and makeup accentuates her smooth cocoa complexion.
Still, special allowances such as feminine clothing and
psychotherapy aren't enough to keep her mind off wanting to become
the woman she says she was born. She longs for permission to grow
out her short salt and pepper hair like female inmates, even though
she's housed in the all-male Buckingham Correctional Center.
Experts say that De'lonta's behavior is an unusual - but not
surprising - manifestation of her disorder. At least 12 other
inmates in Idaho, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia,
Oregon, Kentucky and North Carolina have castrated themselves over
the past 14 years, and several others have tried, said psychiatry
professor George R. Brown at East Tennessee State University.
"This is not a choice. Transsexuals are born and not made,"
said Brown, an expert in gender identity disorder. "If you didn't
have this condition, why would you want to have your genitals
removed, if not by a competent surgeon but by your own hand?"
While many with gender identity disorder wish to get rid of
their genitals, the majority never act - often because hormones and
other treatments help make them feel more comfortable, Brown said.
According to research by Brown, about 27,000 people nationwide
have gender identity disorder. Experts estimate 500 to 750
Americans undergo the surgery each year, with hundreds more seeking the procedure abroad.
Treatment is more readily available outside prison, though
dozens of other inmates nationwide have won the right to hormones
and psychotherapy. Based on counts of inmates with gender identity
disorder in a half dozen states and personal correspondence with
inmates during his research, Brown estimates that at least 750 of
the more than 2 million prisoners nationwide had gender identity
disorder in 2007, his latest count.
Inmates in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Colorado, California and
Idaho also have sued to try to get the surgery, making arguments
similar to De'lonta's that denying treatment violates the Eighth
Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment. All
but one of those have failed; a decision in the decade-old
Massachusetts lawsuit by convicted killer Michelle - born Robert -
Kosilek is still pending.
Kosilek says that for her, sex reassignment surgery is a medical
necessity, not a frivolous desire to change her appearance.
"Everybody has the right to have their health care needs met,
whether they are in prison or out on the streets. People in the
prisons who have bad hearts, hips or knees have surgery to repair
those things," Kosilek told The Associated Press in a recent phone
interview from a state prison in Norfolk, Mass.
"My medical needs are no less important or more important than
the person in the cell next to me."
Federal courts have said prisons must provide adequate medical
care, and that they must protect inmates from themselves. But
correctional officials and lawmakers balk at using taxpayer money
for sex-change operations that can cost up to $20,000.
A Massachusetts bill to ban the use of public funds for sex
change procedures, hormones and other treatments has been before a joint committee since January. Wisconsin lawmakers passed the Inmate Sex Change Prevention Act in 2006, but a federal judge declared it unconstitutional last year. The state appealed, and a
decision is expected soon.
Republican Virginia Del. Todd Gilbert says he would seek state
legislation if De'lonta's lawsuit is successful.
"The notion that taxpayers are going to fund a sex change is
just ridiculous," says Gilbert.
Harold Clarke, who became Virginia's corrections director last
year, says it would be a security risk to allow the surgeries
because Virginia's inmates are housed according to their gender at
birth, not anatomy. While De'lonta sleeps and showers alone, she is
not segregated from male inmates. Her lawsuit also asks that she be
moved to a women's prison.
Federal courts have said mental health professionals - not
prison officials - should dictate treatment.
But Rudolph Alexander, an Ohio State University professor who
has studied the treatment of inmates with gender identity disorder,
believes mental health providers are reluctant to say the surgery
is medically necessary because they fear for their jobs. Almost
always, the deciding physician is a state employee or has a
contract with it.
Advocates argue that treating repeated self-mutilations costs
more than the surgeries. De'lonta, for example, has needed
expensive airlifts three times for self-inflicted wounds.
The hormones and other treatments had kept her urges in check
for years. She snapped Oct. 8 when an officer used a male pronoun
toward her, despite a court order that prison workers refer to her
as a woman.
"I screamed `She, damnit!' becoming so overwhelmed it was hard
to breathe," De'lonta said.
Looking down, she felt repulsed and helpless. She cried herself
to sleep, then hours later she prepared for her surgery attempt by
covering her cell door's window with paper and putting towels
around the commode.
Using knowledge gained from mail-order anatomy books, De'lonta
cut on and off for three hours before she passed out. It took 21
stitches to repair the damage.
"It's like if this doesn't exist, then I won't have any more
problems," she said.
Born Michael Stokes, she didn't understand from an early age why
other girls' names were different from hers, or why she felt no
connection to the boys in her gym class.
She constantly looked in mirrors and couldn't understand why the
reflection was so unlike how she envisioned herself.
Years ago she legally changed her name. Ophelia was chosen for
the Shakespearean woman who died for love; De'lonta because it was the last name of a slain friend; middle name Azriel for the angel
who helps one cross over.
De'lonta first tried to cut herself when she was 12. By 17, she
was robbing banks with the hopes of getting enough money to have a
sex change operation. By 18, she was in prison, sentenced to more
than 70 years for robbery, drugs, weapons and other charges.
She is eligible for parole this year, but a wide range of prison
infractions mean it's unlikely she'll be released any time soon.
Asked why she can't just wait until she's free to get the surgery,
De'lonta says she would if she could.
"This is not something that I have any control over," she
says. "This is just how I was born."
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