A pioneering transgender inmate who waged the first successful legal challenge to force the state of California to pay for ‘gender affirming’ surgeries for inmates is lashing out against prison self-identification laws, calling them “an embarrassment.”
Michelle-Lael Norsworthy, a biological male who identifies as transgender, spoke exclusively to Reduxx about the extensive problems with SB-132, California’s legislation which allows male inmates to be transferred into women’s prisons on the basis of self-declared ‘gender identity’ alone.
Norsworthy was sent to prison in 1987 for murdering a man during a heated, alcohol-fueled exchange at a bar. Sentenced to 17-to-life, Norsworthy was housed in a male prison. But after experiencing an hours-long gang-rape in 2009 which resulted in a contraction of Hepatitis C, Norsworthy’s mental health began to suffer. A prison psychologist would later recommend that Norsworthy be provided surgical treatments for gender dysphoria in order to alleviate the psychological distress.
But faced with a continual denial of access to those treatments while incarcerated, Norsworthy sued the state of California in 2014. The ruling on Norsworthy’s case, issued the next year, created a precedent in holding that transgender inmates had a right to specified treatments. As a result, Norsworthy has been heralded by lawmakers and trans activists as a ‘trailblazer‘ and pioneer of transgender inmate rights in the state of California.
But now, the former inmate is expressing outrage at the impact of SB-132’s self-identification policies on incarcerated women’s safety.
“I didn’t mean for this to happen. My case in 2015 opened up a doorway [and] I am waiting for the states to apologize to women. I didn’t mean for this to happen. Women are the most subdued people on the planet, all over.”
Norsworthy says SB-132 is “poorly written,” and that it wasn’t created to address the needs of transgender inmates at risk of sexual assault as was claimed, but rather to cater to specific inmates at the whim of powerful trans activist organizations.
“SB-132 is a play-thing of the Transgender Intersex Justice Project and the Transgender Law Center,” Norsworthy says, “They pushed an agenda based on lies.”
Speaking to Reduxx on the current state of women’s correctional facilities, Norsworthy slammed the trans activists behind the law, and asserted that none of the males transferred to women’s institutions since SB-132 was implemented had faced any hardships in the male estate consistent with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
“The law was sold on the premise that it was intended to protect people like myself from sexual assault… But they [transferred] a lot of inmates, and I knew every single one of them when they got [to the women’s prison] and not one of them has anything in their file that says they’d been a victim of sexual assault.”
Norsworthy told Reduxx that the first 10 male inmates who were transferred to the California Central Women’s Facility were placed in solitary confinement for trying to initiate sexual relationships with female inmates. Having an extended network of contacts inside women’s facilities, Norsworthy says the women have reported that male transfers often stop or decline ‘gender affirming care’ once being moved to women’s prisons.
“These people got into the women’s prisons by claiming to be women. But then, the moment they arrived they stopped their hormones or didn’t want the surgery anymore … Why? Because they wanted their penises to work.”
Norsworthy’s female contacts have also revealed that reports to prison staff about trans-identified male inmates victimizing them have gone neglected or entirely dismissed.
“[The state] just took these behemoths and threw them into the cells with the women and said ‘deal with it.’ And now, every time a woman does come out she is being stalked, harassed or gawked-at, they are just ignored … the [trans inmates] transferred under SB-132 have more power in women’s prisons than the women themselves.”
Norsworthy also noted that despite SB-132 being in effect, no transgender female-to-males have been sent to a men’s prison, and says that the official reluctance to move biological females who identify as men to the gender-specific institution exposes the ultimate intention of the law.
“They’re never going to allow a [female] to walk on a man’s yard because they know the men’s side is different,” Norsworthy says, “Those [female-to-males] are either going to have to start saying they’re women again in order to stay [in a women’s prison], or, if they are recognized as men — you gotta’ get them out of there! Because if you don’t, the male inmates are going to figure that out.”
Norsworthy warned that there will be no legal basis to keep any male inmate out of women’s facilities if trans-identified females are allowed to be legally recognized as men but avoid transfer to a male estate.
“That’s where the problem lies. The problem lies in the contradictions. And it is a very obvious game being played by these advocacy groups who got into California lawmaker’s ears and sold them a story.”
Norsworthy told Reduxx plans are in the works to launch a challenge agains the state and demand a full review and re-write of SB-132, as well as seek to include female inmates and women’s rights groups in the discussion.
“We want equal rights. Not one person has more rights than the other… because that’s what I fought for! What we’ve got is that trans people are developing a power source that stomps on women’s rights,” Norsworthy says.
“The female inmates and women’s groups weren’t allowed to speak. They had a right to be involved in the legislative process,” Norsworthy says, continuing: “I am sick and tired of having more power and right to be a woman than a woman who was born a woman.”
Norsworthy also expressed support for the lawsuit launched by Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) against the state of California on behalf of four female inmates victimized by trans-identified male transfers, and will soon be one of many stakeholders providing information to the organization’s legal team in order to assist them.
Commenting on Norsworthy’s statements for Reduxx, WoLF’s Legal Director Lauren Adams says she’d heard similar sentiment time and time again.
“In working on this case, I have spoken to over 60 inmates in California. I am struck by how uniform the opposition to SB-132 is, including from trans-identified people of both sexes.”
Adams notes that Norsworthy has an ideological stance on gender that is in opposition to WoLF’s own, but says that when trying to take down California’s current prison self-identification law, they share a common motivation of attempting to help the women most impacted.
“WoLF is here to protect the safety and dignity of women behind bars,” Adams says, adding that Norsworthy was introduced to WoLF by the plaintiffs they are representing in their lawsuit. “I am so grateful for the diverse group of stakeholders who have really shown up for these women.”
Adams points out that the laws surrounding this issue are complex and not favorable to women. She says that the Supreme Court has even ruled that incarcerated men may have a constitutional right to cross-sex housing in certain circumstances.
“In WoLF’s lawsuit, success is harm reduction,” Adams tells Reduxx, continuing: “There are dozens of men – murderers, rapists, gang members – in California women’s prisons right now who are abusing, exploiting, and terrorizing captive women. Hundreds of additional men have applied to transfer.”
WoLF launched a lawsuit against the state of California in November of 2021, but earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a motion to intervene in the suit. The ACLU is seeking to protect SB-132, and maintain the ability of trans-identified males to be moved to women’s prisons. In a May 16 brief, the ACLU went so far as to claim even sex offenders should not be denied transfer.
“Winning this lawsuit is not going to erase the path that brought us to this troubling place – but it would dramatically change the world for thousands of female inmates who are, at this very moment, enduring these unfathomable conditions.”
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