‘I came to prison for taking a life in a tragically accidental situation and, regardless of that, I am nonetheless a human being deserving of dignity, and medical care is one of the things that prisons are required to provide’
Michelle Kosilek is an unlikely advocate for LGBT equality.
Convicted for murder and spending time in a designated all-male prison, Kosilek is suing for her right to receive gender reassignment surgery, to allow her physical body to match who she has discovered herself to be: a woman. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts refuses to pay for the medical procedure. Most recently, on January 17, 2014, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals declared in favor of Kosilek’s surgery, stating, “DOC has violated Kosilek’s Eighth Amendment rights.” The state is appealing the verdict.
Even as the legal case remains in Kosilek’s favor, the court of public opinion is not so favorable. Even progressive politicians like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick have not been supportive of Kosilek receiving medical transition surgery while in prison. Further, the prospect of Kosilek being one of the most highly visible people associated in the public mind with a transgender rights issue, makes some in the transgender community uncomfortable.
While many have weighed in on the merits and demerits of the case, one conspicuously absent voice from the public dialogue has been Kosilek’s.
Boston Spirit reached out to her. She agreed to speak to us. She had a great deal to say. We also present an open letter she wrote to the community.
[BOSTON SPIRIT] Well, hello, Michelle. Thanks for being with us this morning
[Kosilek] It’s my pleasure. I always have an overwhelming desire to have information—factual information—about me disseminated to as many precincts as possible, putting a stop to this craziness where my crime has been conflated with my right to medical care in a very cruel way that I am sure has negatively impacted some of the transgender members of the family.
[Spirit] Well, we want to get the information out there as well, which is why we are happy you’re willing to speak to us directly. So let’s start with a rather broad question: How would you characterize your role in the transgender movement today?
[MK] Well it was a role I initially assumed from a personal perspective—just from my own need to express myself and to be who I was. Over the course of the battle, it evolved into something much more meaningful, an opportunity to actually be helpful to the prison population in general. There have been an increasing number of medical vendors employed by the Department Of Corrections in recent years who have, for one reason or another, pulled back on the legal mandate to provide adequate medical care across a broad spectrum of illness presentations. I am just really grateful that I was offered an opportunity to go into federal court and have the federal district court and the appeals court both agree that regardless of how unusual the situation presented as a medical condition, and however much resistance there might be because of its unorthodox nature, it was required to be addressed appropriately as all other medical conditions were. There have been a number of lawsuits around the country and in each of these cases the prisoner has prevailed that they have a right to this. But Massachusetts is one of those states that still has an attitude about spending money to provide adequate prison medical care.
[Spirit] How aware are you about the response you get from the transgender community?
[MK] Well I’m not exactly aware of what’s happening within the transgender community, unless I hear about it from persons like yourself, or [my sister or daughter]. I was talking to my daughter Amy, [about what] she had seen on a transgender website. And some were questioning why a prisoner should be able to get something—I mean this is really big in the minds of trans people in the community—why a prisoner should get a procedure that is very, very expensive, that many of them have to save years to be able to afford. And I gave her the obvious answer, which is the truth that has been ignored for up to 20-some odd years in this litigation, and that is, when I was a prisoner in the Bristol county jail trying to get this treatment I had $27,000 dollars in my bank account, … and I was able to pay for my own surgery. I had contacted a surgeon, and he had agreed to come here and do the surgery. And this is the information I offered my daughter: “in case anyone says anything cruel to you about this procedure in the ways you described to me: I offered to self-pay. And they don’t understand that the US Supreme Court ruled in 1976 in Estelle v. Gamble that because we [prisoners] are deprived of our right to earn a living wage, prisons are responsible for our housing, our medical care, our clothing, our food and to keep us safe. There are all kinds of medical conditions that they refuse to provide treatment for—even though in the end they are forced to do it anyway—that are way more expensive than mine. They do hip replacements and the part for a hip replacement costs more than my surgery.”
[Spirit] Senator Elizabeth Warren said regarding your case, “I don’t think it’s a good use of taxpayer dollars.” What would you say to Elizabeth Warren if you could talk to her?
[MK] I would say that it was disheartening to me—and that is the kindest word I can think of—that a sitting United States Senator could be so misinformed about the right to prison medical care as established by the Supreme Court decades ago. It really is, it’s disheartening to me. I would hope that our elected officials would be more informed about civil rights in regards to prisoners. This is the woman who has stood up in strong support of LGBT rights for those in the community. I don’t understand why my rights should be diminished by the existence of the wall that surrounds me, because of the life that I took. My humanity and my right to dignity has been repeatedly established by Supreme Court rulings. You don’t lose your right to humanity and dignity when you go to prison. We don’t go to prison FOR punishment. We come to prison AS punishment. This is what a lot of people, including our elected officials, don’t understand.
[Spirit] Over the number of years that you have been in prison, what significant changes have you seen in attitudes and the way you have been treated by staff and guards?
[MK] The way that I have been treated by staff has amazingly improved year after year. The day that I got the ruling on the 17th of January, I was congratulated by dozens of prisoners that I know, including some who came up to me to tell me: “I was just talking to my mom and she sends her congratulations,” or “I was just talking to my auntie and she sends her congratulations,”—you know, women that I don’t even know. But more importantly, I have had congratulations from every staff member that knows me. The ones who have known me longer have been more ebullient in their congratulations. I can tell the sincerity in that. I have not had one negative response. And last Friday afternoon at 4:30 in the afternoon, the superintendent opened the door to my room, and I looked up, and I said, “Hey are the rumors that I am hearing about you true?” And he said, “What are you hearing?” “I hear that you have tendered your resignation and that you’ll be leaving us soon.” He said, “Yeah, but my one concern is that after I leave, they’ll say that you chased me out of here.” I said, “Well it’s a big dysfunctional family dear, and you know that. You have been working here long enough to know that there are 1,500 people that live in the dysfunctional family here, and about 500 of you that work here, and at any given time most are so damn bored that they will sit around and make up anything. And I guarantee that after you leave, somebody will offer that as a reason for your departure.” He said, “Well anyway, that’s not the reason I came up here. The reason I came up here was to congratulate you.”
[Spirit] There are a number of people in the transgender community who are uncomfortable with your case. If you could talk to some of these people, what would you tell them?
[MK] I would tell them that I came to prison for taking a life in a tragically accidental situation and that, regardless of that, I am nonetheless a human being deserving of dignity and that medical care is one of the things that prisons are required to provide. That it breaks my heart to know that there are thousands of women and trans men like me out there who are unable to afford this surgery at this point in their life and that this makes them perhaps have very despair-filled days, some of whom might be so filled with despair that they might even be depressed and on anti-depressants. I understand this. I personally experienced depression for a long time. I tried to take my own life twice. And I tried to self-castrate in a moment of despair. But the fact that I am a prisoner should have nothing to do with anyone’s belief in my right to dignity. The courts have stated that we have a right to dignity. It’s just a common human right.
Department of Correction Statement on Kosilek Appeal
“ While we acknowledge the legitimacy of a gender identity disorder diagnosis, DOC’s appeal is based on the lower court’s significant expansion of the standard for what constitutes adequate care under the Eighth Amendment, and on substantial safety and security concerns regarding Ms. Koselik’s post-surgery needs. ”
[Spirit] Talk a little about some of the specific, significant changes that you have seen over your years with regard to either policies, practices, or treatment of LGBT prisoners.
[MK] I can speak mostly from personal experience as far as transgender people are concerned. And I can speak from a perspective of observation where gay prisoners are concerned. As a matter of fact I was just talking to one of the local jailhouse lawyers who is trying to get a gay prisoner single-cell status. He’s currently being held in a double cell and has had a number of different cell partners. The Department of Corrections has a policy—the Inmate Management Policy—it’s a state law that requires they screen all people for compatibility with whoever they are going to be put in a cell with. They don’t do this, and then they have gay people stuck in cells with homophobes. Fights ensue; suicides ensue. These things are issues for gay prisoners all the time. There are quite a few here. If you are here long enough you eventually earn the right to have a single cell, because about half of the cells here are single cell. But you have to be here about a year before that happens, and in the interim, gay prisoners are housed with a bunch of people who may be homophobes or who may not be homophobes. There is another transgender woman here who is now in the segregation unit because she got in a fight with someone that resulted from her being forced to cell with people. Gay guys have their own version of difficulties that are not related to me, except that they are a family member of mine, and I will do whatever I can to try to help them. This morning I signed an affidavit for a gay prisoner who is going through litigation over the prison’s refusal to cell him alone. From the transgender perspective, when I first came into the Department of Corrections the resistance was so high, the first thing that my Block Officer said to me at Walpole was “What’s wrong with your voice?” I said “What’s wrong with your attitude? Nothing is wrong with my voice.” It got worse from there. There was all kinds of resistance. There was name calling. I heard “faggot,” “freak,” things like that from staff and from other prisoners. I was relatively isolated for much of my incarceration, but that isolation was mostly by choice. Over time it got worse. Every time I was trying to be myself, or express myself, there were people who were in disagreement with the way that I looked, the way that I walked, the way that my voice sounded. I got disciplinary reports for using homemade makeup, homemade eyeliner. (I would make homemade lipstick.) There was verbal abuse involved. There was just an unfriendly atmosphere for the most part, so I just remained isolated. That slowly changed. When I was allowed to begin my transition, there were very few people who were outwardly supportive, but one of the ones who was outwardly supportive was, at the time, superintendent of Norfolk. … My therapist told me that [the superintendent] actually had a meeting with the staff where he said, “We are going to support Ms. Kosilek’s transition, and we are going to do so in a respectful manner.” And from that point on things began to change slowly. … It didn’t change overnight. You know I could still go out and walk by a building and somebody could yell out a window: “Kill yourself you fucking freak.” But that’s not about me. That’s about them. None of them would come up to my face and say that. But you know those changes came slowly. Mr. Lopata can I ask you a question? Are you gay?
[Spirit] I am.
[MK] So then you know what it’s like in the LGBT community, and that the letter T isn’t at the end by accident. Some people are open and accepting, but there is still—it’s like a stepchild-in-the family kind of a thing. Not in all, but in some areas of the family. In a straight prison community—which in case you are unaware, most people are conservative in their political views—there will never be 100 percent acceptance. With the young population there is a lot more acceptance, because there seems to be a lot more acceptance of everything. As far as the medical care, the resistance has been political. The medical staff, for the most part, has been willing to recommend and approve everything, including the surgery. The people that were in charge of the medical program said that I was a strong candidate; that’s what they testified in the courtroom. So the resistance is just political. And that is what the courts agreed on. They have spent several million dollars over 20 plus years in the process when I offered to pay for myself at $4,500 twenty-two years ago.
Mason J. Dunn, Executive Director, Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition
“ At the core of this case is Michelle Kosilek’s right to medically necessary care. The Constitution, and more specifically the 8th Amendment, protects everyone, including those who are transgender and incarcerated. Doctors and courts have agreed that the care sought by Michelle is life saving and medically necessary; thus, denial of that care is a violation of her Constitutional rights. The Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition applauds the First Circuit Court of Appeal’s affirmation of Michelle’s right to medically necessary care. Moreover, we support the right of all transgender people to have access to inclusive health care. ”
[Spirit] In terms of your personal story tell us how you came to discover who you are and how you’ve gotten to be where you are.
[MK] In my earlier years … I was subjected to some rather drastic intolerance—again, I’ll try to use the kindest word I can: intolerance. My mother abandoned me and my sister in 1953. I was four. She was six or seven. The local police department gave control of us to the local Catholic parish, St. Hedwig’s. So that is basically where I grew up, from age four to age ten, and the acceptance there was just completely nonexistent. They were relatively cruel in some of their responses. I was beaten a lot, hit a lot, and at one point locked in a closet overnight, without being fed. And I went from that environment to living with my mother and her alcoholic husband. It was like planet shock. I went from [living at the parish] to being allowed to wander the streets of Chicago at late hours at age ten. I began drinking at that point, and not long afterward, my maternal grandfather began molesting me. He and my grandmother used to give me and my sister a dollar a piece a week for allowance. My mother used to send me over there on a Saturday to get it when my grandmother was out. And my grandfather was there, and he began to serial molest me. That lasted until I was about 12. From that point I began trying to explain to whomever I could, whenever I could, to whomever was willing to listen, that I wasn’t sure that I was gay, but that I was having a problem living this way, and that I wasn’t really enjoying it, and that I was a girl. There wasn’t very much knowledge about transgender people back then—in the early- to mid-1960s. The people at Johns Hopkins were just starting to do their research, and I just got into drug use and prostitution. You know kids didn’t have much chance making a living on their own. I ran away frequently, and I was just trying to be as girly as possible in my private moments. At one point I developed gynecomastia [enlargement of breasts in males], and was talking about it. And my step-father broke a window and came at me and cut me. And my mother hit him with a frying pan full of chicken. It was a really ugly scene and I was very frightened. At that point I was not going to be accepted with the people that were supposed to be embracing me and nurturing me. I got kind of scared about how the rest of the world was going to treat me, and that contributed to my very early substance abuse and a decades’ long battle of being myself and purging myself and being myself. You know—back and forth—throwing away hundreds of dollars’ worth of cosmetics and clothes, and then trying to act like a man hiding in plain sight behind a beard. But it never worked. I found myself in a substance abuse facility in 1983. I trusted my therapist, and he referred me to Cheryl, one of the volunteer counselors who he said was an expert on, or more knowledgeable about, sexual issues. Cheryl is the one who seduced me. She’s the woman who—I took her life.
[Spirit] Thanks for sharing your story.
[MK] Along the way there was a whole lot of bizarre stuff. I tried everything in the world to act masculine. I worked construction. I drove a truck. You name it. Anything that was allegedly masculine, I did it. But none of that worked, including my therapist’s suggestion that, if I just found the right woman, my female urges would go away. Cheryl was the woman that my therapist suggested. And I was in the Bristol county jail and I tried to take my life, and I kind of blacked out and started having—you know, your life really does start flashing before you as you’re losing consciousness—I was dying. And I just had all these thoughts that I was just running for nothing. For all these years I had wasted decades of my life trying to be the man that I knew that I was not. And I just decided from that point on to never go back. The next time I went to court and the media yelled something up to me: “Hey Robert.” I said “Don’t call me that name, Robert. My name is Michelle.” And that was that from that point on.
[Spirit] So what is your hope for the future?
[MK] My hope for the future is that I will live long enough to be able to effect some changes in many other people’s lives, and in some way to be absolved for the things that I have done on this very troubled journey that I have taken, where I have taken every fucking wrong turn possible, and that I can someday hopefully convince the court that my conviction was an erroneous one, and that the facts were not taken into account, and I can get a re-trial and perhaps someday get out. But if I don’t, and this life sentence is what I’m stuck with, then that is what I’m going to accept and continue to move forward trying to improve my life and the lives of anybody who I come in contact with as much as possible. There’s a lefty singer-songwriter named Katie Curtis who has a line in one of her songs: “We may not be able to change the world, but we can change the world within our reach.” That is what I am going to continue trying to do. I’m relatively healthy. I’ll be 65 in April. I’m a vegetarian, non-smoker, I do yoga. I exercise seven days a week, and I run five days a week, so I’ll probably live another 20 or 30 years. So I’ve got a long time available to me to try to make lots of changes in the lives of others.
[Spirit] Anything else that you can think of that you would like to share?
[MK] I would just like to say in closing that people need to understand that I—like anybody—I am a work in progress. I have made a lot of mistakes, and I will probably continue to make a lot of mistakes. Though none of them will be as damaging to others, I’m sure, as those I have made in the past—where I was running from myself because others were willing to beat me to convince me that I shouldn’t be myself. I’m not a bad person, regardless of how the D.O.C. might instigate the media, conflating my crime with my status as a transgender woman. [x]
Boston Spirit publisher David Zimmerman appeared on Broadside with Jim Braude on NECN to discuss the magazine’s exclusive interview with transgender inmate Michelle Kosilek. View the coverage here.