A mother takes twenty years to make a man of her boy,
and another woman makes a fool of him in twenty minutes.
A Trans-Girl in the Boys' Unit
As a residential facility for boys adjudicated by the courts for a variety of crimes, the addition of a girl to the unit creates expected chaos.
Our girls were not born with the bodies they want. The state takes a black-and-white approach to the occasional fact of transgender residents. If you presently have a penis, no matter how you express your gender, you go to a boys' facility. I am not sure if more male-to-female or female-to-male students come through the juvenile justice system. I am likewise uncertain that the state understands that someone who has had bottom surgery should on no account be assigned to the facility of their birth designated gender. It has yet to come up at my facility, since full transitioning requires an amount of money my residents lack, even assuming understanding parents (which one shouldn't).
These girls are not shrinking violets. If they are scared to be spending six or so months with a mass of hormonal, emotionally dysregulated boys with typical homo- and transphobia, they express it by being the fiercest resident on the unit. It only takes one attempt at a slight, followed by a left hook that would give Mike Tyson pause, before their status is made clear. As more than one of the young ladies has told me, they are the "baddest bitch" at the facility and no one is going to forget it. After that, the boys think better of harassing them to their faces. Most of them are not only transgender, but racial minorities who spent time on the streets. They've learned to protect themselves by setting very clear boundaries when they want. I've had residents who have walked five thousand miles to escape gang violence in El Salvador, ones to whom my facility is the first time they have had three meals a day, boys who have experienced such a torrent of violence that they have triggers by the handful, but the girls I meet at my facility are the toughest kids I encounter. Our facility is often a reprieve for them from all they have had to do to survive, all the blood and stained mattresses they've witnessed while they were just trying to stay alive long enough to become the sort of people they want to be.
Every few months, a resident will proclaim that every other resident is only at my facility because he (or she) couldn't have survived in any of the higher security facilities, unaware that he is with us for exactly that reason. We are unofficially designated the LGBTQ facility because the system knows that we will keep our gay and transgender residents safe, physically and emotionally. We treat them with the respect they deserve and do all we can to send them back into the community better than they came to us.
This should not be construed to mean that the staff is always understanding. Some of them began the job decades ago, when physical restraints were used far more liberally and in reward for disrespectful words. They confess in private to not believing someone born male could want to be female, so integral is their misogyny. Despite their personal prejudices, they outwardly treat all our residents equally - if they didn't, they would be advised to find a different job.
Inevitably, one of my coworkers, they of the old guard, will in meetings demand proof that our new resident is actually transgender, as though this is something a resident would claim on a lark. The administration tells them without fail that all the evidence we require as to a students' gender identity is their proclamation that they are other than cisgender. There is no objective test of their transgender status.
With each new girl, it is as though we must start at square one with our trainings and meetings. We must be reoriented that, no matter what the staff may privately believe, these residents identify as female and will be treated as such. No, they are not necessarily gay, since gender and sexuality are not coupled and any relationship should not be presumed. Yes, we are to use the resident's preferred pronoun and name, both in front of them and during meetings. No, the gender and sexuality status of a celebrity is not under debate at the moment.
One bureaucratic issue is that all legal correspondence with the state and their home school district insists upon the use of the resident's birth name. We have yet to have a transgender youth who has had the opportunity or foresight to legally change her name prior to placement, though I am sure a few would have tried if just to afford them an alias against the police. One resident tried to revise what we called her every few months, but we assured her she only got one name and it wasn't a string of gang-related slang.
If the girls have legally begun on testosterone blockers and estrogen, the state is obliged to continue their treatment, as they do with any other medicine the resident is prescribed. However, if their transition has not passed the desk of a therapist and is not yet "official," we cannot provide them the drugs they have illicitly been taking to stave off male puberty. If our girls wish to medically or surgically transition while in the care of a residential placement, they are out of luck. We legally cannot provide them that opportunity. We will certainly give them state-issued thick rimmed glasses to treat nearsightedness and send them to a dentist to clean teeth that have been years neglected, but we do not spring for Lasik or braces; our methods are limited and surgery to allow them to feel more at ease with their bodies is categorically off the table. Any politician that would suggest otherwise is signing their pink slip because most taxpayers do not want to foot that bill.
One thing that prevents the incidents that occur between teenage boys and girls in close quarters-or at least provides a legal statute to point to should the issue arise-is that consensual sexual contact cannot occur between residents under the care of the Office of Children and Family Services. Power dynamics are such that, no matter how ostensibly willing the teenager is, they do not have the ability to exercise their consent. So assiduously do we stress this that I have twice yearly trainings discussing an overview of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA, a jumbled acronym whose letters also darkly spell out "RAPE," in case we were inclined to forget). The safety of our residents is paramount, even and especially when we are trying to protect them from something they assure us they want.
However, our rules do not mean that boys do not flitter about with a mélange of confusing feelings. On one hand, these boys scream their heterosexuality to everyone unfortunate enough to be in earshot. Being straight--or straight-passing--is a survival strategy that has worked so far. "Gay" is a default insult of which we spend months breaking them (second only to the n-word, which serves as every other part of speech). On the other hand, our girls wear makeup, pout, and bat their eyelashes. Until we correct them yet again about proper uniform, they tie and bunch their clothes to give the illusion of curves. The boys' hindbrains understand that this creature before them gives all the right signals of femininity and it might be a very long time indeed until they are in the company of cisgender young women. They only get to be teenage boys for a few years and they are not about to waste prime months not crushing on a girl. Most transgender residents I have taught have thrived on the attention of boys fighting over them, even if these boys would call them homophobic slurs outside the facility's walls.
We are a therapeutic facility and the clinicians underscore that there is nothing wrong with the boys' feelings. Some of them have come from conservative and/or sexually abusive backgrounds, so these stirrings are not to be shamed. However the staff emphasizes that the carrying out of these desires will never be permitted while they are under the care of OCFS, no matter how our new girl flirts.
My boys are not always predictable. While a few argued up and down about the unnaturalness of being housed with a transgender teen, most of them hushed their pearl-clutching classmates. One, I think they like the diversity. Two, an increasing number of these boys genuinely see no real issue with someone being gay or transgender, in strict opposition to the stereotype of juvenile delinquents. Even they evolve along with society, despite peppering their dialogue with slurs by the dozen. Three, they understand that life is hard all over and hassling another resident for something outside her control only makes the days longer and harder.
Our transgender residents are not afforded special privileges, which is not to say they are given the same ones as the other boys. Instead, they are treated like other incarcerated girls, allowed to earn the ability to buy and wear makeup. From their intake, they are given the same uniform as the girls would receive, down to bras and panties. In the girls' facilities, the young men pressed their rights to the wear boxer shorts, which was allowed only three or so weeks out of every month for sanitary reasons.
The transgender residents have a clearer idea of their identity, since they have spent years fighting for it. Most of the boys float between opinions and outlooks, trying to find out who they would like to be when they grow up. Our girls, though still a little shaky on the particulars, have given a lot of thought to their futures. Granted, they all expect to be runway models and fashion moguls, but those are refreshing when contrasted against boys who aspire to be the most grating inmate on the cellblock or dead of a gunshot wound (I am not being glib. These are destinies I've heard more than once from their lips).
I like our transgender residents as a whole because they add variety to the mass of adolescent boys posturing their way into manhood. Teaching in a residential placement, I miss the female students of my prior classrooms, even as they present their own unique problems. It is comforting to be reminded of the island of the feminine in a sea of often toxic masculinity.
Soon in Xenology: Faces.