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Stepping Out: "Freedom" For California's Famous Trans Inmate 

Wednesday, Jun 22 2016

Tall and lean in a waist-length buttoned sweater, Michelle-Lael Norsworthy takes large steps in her thigh-high booted feet. But as the sun cracks through the morning fog at the Palace of Fine Arts, she breaks her stride — straight and narrow as if she were walking a line — and suddenly halts.

"Look at these big — what are these? Swans?" she asks, as two of the giant white birds — swans, indeed — preen near the Palace's pond.

She smiles. After being in prison for more than 30 years, swans are a new phenomenon for her. Google, smartphones, those are new, too — all newer to her than being a woman.

When Norsworthy was sentenced to life in prison in 1984 after killing a man in a drunken bar fight, she was Jeff, a 21-year-old macho ex-military man who loved to drink and get in fights, so aggro that he went to bars dressed in military fatigues and kept a loaded rifle in his car. It took 14 years inside and a chance encounter with a priest — who led him to a revelation just by asking him to look up the word "transsexual" — for Jeff to realize who she was.

Now, Norsworthy is someone else entirely: 52 years old and quite possibly the most famous transgender person to exit the California state prison system. Norsworthy was the plaintiff in the landmark federal lawsuit, Norsworthy vs. Beard, that ruled the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation must provide gender-reassignment surgery to trans inmates under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

She was also mysteriously paroled last summer, after years of denials, while waiting for her surgery. Another lawsuit that forced the issue was settled on the eve of trial. (Norsworthy believes this occurred because evidence showing that the parole board and prison officials colluded to set her free to avoid paying for the $100,000 surgery would surface in court.) In any event, she's now a free woman, and she's scheduled to undergo gender reassignment surgery in February.

As she and two followers tromp around the Marina looking for a place to get a cup of coffee, Norsworthy speaks quickly and articulately, rapidly firing off facts about the prison system, transgender life, and her own experience.

"It's a textbook story," she says.

Officially, there are hundreds of transgender inmates in California's prisons — about 300 out of 128,000 prison inmates have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, and receive prison health center administered-hormone therapy, according to an official CDCR count. Unofficially, there are certainly many more.

California has had trans inmates as long as the state has had trans people. (How long would that be? Chances are it was before gender dysphoria was added to the DSM in 1980.)

And trans inmates live openly as trans even in the state's toughest prisons.

"I was on prison yards with a lot of African-American transgenders," Norsworthy says.

Trans rights are still being fought over in the courts. A judge earlier this month ruled that transgender inmates in California prisons must be allowed to have more female accoutrements, including nightgowns and necklaces.

In some cases, it has been easier to be trans inside than out. Trans inmate Deborah Lee Worledge made a brief appearance in Louis Theroux: Behind Bars, the British television journalist's well-received 2008 documentary on San Quentin State Prison. (Among racially segregated yards and lunch rooms and decades-long sentences for theft, Worledge was one of the least-shocking things Theroux saw.) She was filmed shortly before her release on Sept. 2, 2008. Two days after "going home," she was dead from a drug overdose.

Inside, the strict racial lines that determine where you live and with whom you associate accommodate trans people. After the revelation with the priest and a few appointments with prison medical officials, Jeff went to the leader of the white inmates.

"I think I'm gay," Jeff told the prison boss, whose name — really — was "Butch."

"Yeah, well, just keep it toned down and it'll be okay," Butch said. "Just don't make a scene."

And that was it. Jeff grew his hair long and, like the other trans inmates, feminized via makeup made from grease pencils and Kool-Aid packets. By the time Norsworthy was transferred to another prison, Jeff was gone. Michelle-Lael — a combination of the feminized version of Michael, for the Biblical archangel; and "Lael," a Hebrew word meaning "belonging to God" — walked onto the yard.

"It was the start of a new life," she says. There was still a long way to go — a cellmate at Mule Creek prison, angered after Michelle refused to allow herself to be pimped out by him, organized a brutal, hours-long gang rape in 2009, from which she contracted hepatitis C as well as PTSD.

She rebounded from that and became a peer counselor, helping write the CDCR's rules for complying with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the federal law meant to avoid sexual assaults like the one she suffered.

But this most-recent new life — as a trans woman, living "free" in America — has been the hardest by far, she says, as she walks towards Chestnut Street in search of that coffee.

After her release last August, Norsworthy was famous — her picture was on the website of the law firm that handled her case — but she had nowhere to go. Her family, with whom she'd been out of contact for more than a decade, had long since moved to Tennessee.

She had $200 in "gate money" from the prison — and absolutely no luck finding any social services catering to her unique predicament: a trans woman, still transitioning, trying to figure out 2015 with skills and a worldview frozen in 1984.

Though she had swore off alcohol more than 20 years ago — Jeff's first decade in prison was full of drinking and violence — she ended up in a sober living house in San Francisco run by HealthRight360, because "nobody else would take me."

Verbal altercations were frequent, and would send Norsworthy scrambling for cover. In prison, a yelling match can end with someone getting stabbed.

Her quest for financial help and other assistance in adjusting to life outside has been frustrating. There are advocacy groups for all kinds of people... but not specifically for a white trans woman coming out of prison. (Hence the sober living house.) While waiting for her benefits to kick in, she started a GoFundMe account, trying to raise $30,000 to start a trans-specific safe house. As of Tuesday, a few months in, she's raised $375.

Coffee in hand, Norsworthy lights a cigarette. She's out of the sober living house and in a transitional housing unit — a condo she shares with another trans woman on Treasure Island. She has $192 a month in food stamps, and $466 a month in general assistance. Minus $300 for rent, she's figuring out San Francisco on about $40 a week.

Inside, she had status. She was a famous inmate whose safety was assured because if she was attacked, it'd make the news. She had a television in a cell that she shared with her boyfriend (who is still inside). Outside, she is among the most marginalized people walking around.

"It's hard to find people I can identify with," she says, noting she still has many prison habits: waking up at 5 a.m. — though it used to be 3 a.m. — walking in a geometrically rigid straight line, tensing up at the hint of conflict, and maintaining hypervigilance. Lots of LGBT life centers around the party lifestyle; Michelle-Lael is sober. She's on Facebook and getting hip to 2016 — in text messages, she sends heart emojis — but often finds herself saying, "I wish I was back home" — meaning back inside.

"Prison, for the first 10 years, was an adjustment," she says. "After the second decade, it became acceptable. After three decades, it becomes home. I felt like I abandoned my girls."

Her life is still all about the girls. Well aware of the barriers to employment and housing for trans people, she is hell-bent on creating a nonprofit that runs housing for trans people — for anyone, anywhere in the country.

"You'll just have to contact me, and wherever you are, I'll send you a bus ticket," she says. "Preop, postop, it doesn't matter."


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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