In a series this past week, The Guardian looked at barriers to transition in the U.S. through moving portraits of two individuals.
The first part of the series shares the story of Alena Bradford, a young African-American transgender woman in south Georgia who is unable to live as her authentic self. The second part of the series profiles Transgender Law Center client Michelle Norsworthy and explores the barriers to health care in prison for transgender inmates.
In the course of a four-hour interview in Mule Creek state prison in Ione, California, Norsworthy talked about the pent-up desire for transition that has fuelled her long legal battle. For someone who has been locked up for the past 28 years, she uses a potent metaphor to portray her predicament.
“It’s an imprisonment within an imprisonment,” she said, referring to the perception of herself as a woman trapped in a male body trapped in a prison cell. “It’s like living inside of a box, and inside that box you are so confined you cannot move a limb, you cannot talk. It’s like suffocating.”
We’re sitting in Mule Creek’s visitation room surrounded by burly, heavily tattooed male prisoners. Norsworthy, who has lived as a woman for the best part of 20 years, is dressed in a male convict’s uniform: men’s prison boots, blue pants and a blue denim jacket stamped CDCR Prisoner in large yellow letters. “Let me ask you – what about my clothing here looks feminine,” she said. “I can’t see it.”
She has long brown hair which she sweeps back into a simple ponytail. Beneath her glasses you can see she’s wearing eyeliner, which she said she’d improvised by crushing colored pencils, since cosmetics are banned.
Since the revelation of the word transsexual in 1994, Norsworthy has engaged in a prolonged tug-of-war with the corrections department over key aspects of daily life. Starting with her name. She is still officially known on record and on the nameplate tagged to her cell door as Jeffrey Norsworthy, the name given to her at birth, despite having asked repeatedly to have her name changed officially to Michelle.