Fear & Punishment


By Nancy Nangeroni

Published in the Transgendered In Prisons newsletter, by the Gender Identity Center of Denver, Colorado, in the Spring of 2002 (see http://www.transgender.org/tg/gic/tip/2002/spring02.html)

After reading Juli Goins’ scathing indictment of Michelle Kosilek’s plea for sex-change surgery (“An Inmate’s Very Own Sugar Daddy: How a killer’s plea for having Massachusetts pay for sexual reassignment surgery makes a mockery of transsexuality”), I feel compelled to write in rebuttal. I am informed by a series of communications with Kosilek some years ago, when she wrote to me (as a nationally visible trans activist) seeking help in bringing her lawsuit. While I was unable to provide her with any substantive assistance, I did learn some of the particulars of her situation. Goins’ opinion of the Kosilek case, on the other hand, seems based primarily on her fear over the consequences of the publicity it has spawned. While I share some similar fears, I also know from experience that the kind of publicity that this case has generated, while admittedly challenging, is not insurmountable. As if it were the first time we faced public ridicule of our claims to respectability!

One particularly offensive portion of Goins’ piece – besides the consistently glib tone – was her denying Kosilek the simple respect of appropriate pronouns. Whatever Kosilek’s crime, she deserves to be treated as a human being. Such is the essence of our principle of law. Just because Goins is a transsexual does not make her immune to anti-trans prejudice. Quite the contrary, in fact. It is common in any stigmatized group to internalize self-loathing, and to turn it on one another at the slightest instigation. Sadly, Goins’ article comprises the very kind of trans-on-trans bickering that she criticizes (“trannies are a fickle bunch”).

We all probably want to distance ourselves from this embarrassing situation. While we are right to be repulsed by consideration of her crime, that does not make us right to reject all consideration of her humanity. The treatment of prisoners, whatever their crime, should be of concern to all of us, and is perhaps the best indicator of the depth of compassion and conscience of any society.

Let me remind you that William Palmer, also in Massachusetts, strangled a transwoman to death, and served only two years in prison for his crime. Kosilek will probably spend her life there. Where is the justice in that? And how about Dee Farmer, a transsexual incarcerate who has served over 13 years for credit card fraud? Are we to consider ourselves of such lowly status in this culture that our punishment for any crime should be many times worse that that of others?

Goins also asserts that Kosilek “hadn’t begun reconciling his gender issues, either by consistently presenting as a woman or with therapy” That is simply not true, at least not by Kosilek’s own account. In a letter to me requesting help (in 1996), Kosilek told of abandonment at age 4, followed by six years in an orphanage with many beatings by nuns for her insisting that “I was a little girl,” followed by being locked in a closet at length for wanting to dress like a girl She was reclaimed by her alcoholic mother and a stepfather who, when she found herself developing breasts naturally and asked, ‘Am I a girl?”, responded by grabbing a knife and stabbing her with it. She describes “a sloppy six-inch scar”. She told of being repeatedly raped by her Maternal Grandfather, and of eventually becoming alcoholic, falling into a lifestyle of prostitution, booze and drugs during early adulthood. At some point, she came to the realization that the central cause of her problem was her gender issues. She got herself into a half-way house, where she was assigned a therapist who reportedly seduced her, telling her that “I just needed the right woman, and that she was that woman.” This masters-degreed therapist violated the most basic code of ethics of her profession by developing a romantic relationship with her client Kosilek that ultimately ended in marriage. By Kosilek’s account, the murder resulted from an incident arising from an argument, where the therapist threw boiling water on Kosilek, then, after Kosilek knocked her down, attacked her with a knife. Given that Kosilek had been stabbed earlier, as a youth, by her adopted father earlier, it seems reasonable to at least make some allowance for the likelihood of some kind of traumatic re-enactment. But for some reason, Kosilek wasn’t allowed to introduce evidence of the scalding at the trial. In contrast, affluent white programmer William Palmer’s only excuse for killing recently jobless (fired for being TS) Afro-American Chanelle Pickett was that he “thought she was a woman,” and the jury didn’t get to see photos of her face, which had been beaten to a bloody pulp.

Kosilek’s story would be too fantastic to believe, had I not read Daphne Scholinski’s book and heard other, equally shocking stories.

Whatever the truth, the fact remains that Kosilek’s wife violated the most basic ethic of psychotherapy by becoming romantically involved with her patient. While this does not in any way excuse murder, it does create at least some mitigating concern, and also establishes that Kosilek was someone who recognized the depth of her gender issues, and who was seeking to correct her admitted problems. I also believe that there is more than ample cause for doubting whether this case was fairly judged, and whether Kosilek was fairly sentenced. As we stand informed by our witnessing of what has passed for “justice” when transsexuals have been victimized, we can hardly doubt the injustice routinely accorded to those who stood accused of crime, especially 12 years ago.

Goins would do well to show a little more compassion for someone whose life will have been wasted inside a concrete and steel cage. Yes, it’s an embarrassing case. Kosilek blew it big time. But it’s just one more case of differential punishment for disposable trans offenders.

As for whether the state should provide free “sex change” surgery, I don’t know what to think. Incarcerates get free room and board; there are certainly plenty of trans people who could really use that kind of help. Should we deny Kosilek those, too? The answer, if we apply Goins’ reasoning, would be yes. Is our newfound acceptance and respect as trans people so fragile that we must abandon any compassion for those less privileged, less fortunate, less well positioned to earn that respect for us? I don’t think so. Let us be judged by how we judge others, including our own. Especially those less fortunate than ourselves.