Sorry, prisoners: calling yourself a woman doesn’t make it so India Willoughby Sunday Times 15.03.20

The original article is here.

Opportunities to go inside HMP Stafford, a category-C men’s prison, are rare. The only type of inmate you’ll meet behind the barbed-wire-topped walls and heavy, mechanised doors are men who — for their own safety — cannot be allowed to walk the landings of other jails for fear of attack.

Last week, I was invited by the guards to give a talk to an audience of rapists and paedophiles about being transgender. Some of these men want to move into the wings of female prisons because they self-identify as women, but have no plans to physically transition. There are five such people at Stafford, out of 750 inmates. Four have their own cells. One shares. In the UK as a whole, 153 prisoners self-identify as transgender, out of a population of 85,000.

Officially in Britain, legal transgender status requires a diagnosis by a doctor. But in reality, many walks of life shy away from asking for proof, knowing the outrage it would provoke from transgender campaigners. Which, in a prison context, creates a host of exploitable situations.

Cards on the table. I am trans, the full, medical-transitioned variety. I am not a fan of the divisive campaign that says anyone who calls themselves a woman should be treated like a woman at all times. But I was willing to listen to any compelling arguments.

At Stafford, the corridors are filled with people playing cards and socialising. There is no brooding menace, just the occasional floor-mopper. The men say hello to me and my guard as we pass. And, so far, everyone is obviously a man. Occasionally we pause to swap small talk. I keep having to remind myself that some of these charming chaps have done the sort of things that might get their throats cut in normal jails.

In a room of coloured sofas and chairs that could easily be a Google HQ chillax area, I tell my story to an audience of about 50, stating I’m against self-identification. I take questions and meet with a round of applause. I even sign an autograph. Nothing quite like a captive audience.

Two of the five self-identified trans women have attended. Neither looks, behaves or sounds female, even though women’s T-shirts and trousers are available for them to wear. The guard agrees I can chat with one of them later.

We head to the office of the prison’s governor, Ralph Lubkowski, passing portraits on walls painted by Rolf Harris, the disgraced entertainer, during his stay here. They include, incongruously, the computer pioneers Steve Jobs and Alan Turing, and Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel prize laureate. Lubkowski is a warm person with bright eyes and beard. He has something of Henry VIII about him.

Learning to accommodate trans prisoners is something he says the prison service struggled with initially, but, after working with LGBT advisers, things have improved.

Anyone who identifies as a trans woman will be referred to by staff using female pronouns, and whatever name they choose. Regardless of how they look, dress or sound, dignity is afforded. If, however, a self-IDer asks for a move to another prison, the request goes before a panel, which reviews the individual’s crime and how much commitment has gone into “transition”.

People who have undergone full medical transition — with or without an official gender-recognition certificate — almost always go through. Self-IDers now mostly don’t — a point that some LGBT campaigners say amounts to discrimination.

“We’re very conscious of risk when making those decisions,” says Lubkowski. “Everyone within the system should be protected. Systems have been tightened up in recent years following certain cases, and we’ve learned a lot.” One case he may be referring to is that of Karen White, who had been convicted of sexual offences against women but self-identified as female and, even though legally still a man, was moved into New Hall women’s prison in West Yorkshire, where she sexually assaulted two other inmates in 2017.

Events before the White case contributed to what the prison service admits was a terrible decision. Months before, Vikki Thompson, a 21-year-old trans prisoner who wasn’t a sex offender and had not undergone surgery, was told she had to stay in the men’s estate at Leeds prison. After being informed, Thompson, who was regarded as being a suicide risk, was found hanged in her cell, though an inquest concluded she did not intend to take her own life.

The Howard League for Penal Reform says trans suicide attempts in the general prison population are 10 times higher than the average. Amid fears of another incident similar to that of Thompson, and amid the heat of LGBT calls for relaxing the rules, White’s transfer was granted. A dedicated wing for trans women opened a year ago at Downview prison, in south London, but has been criticised as opening too soon and failing its inmates.

Trans people in their widest sense have always been a marginalised group — but the situation for medical transitioners has been made worse because of self-identification. Trans acceptance has gone backwards. The air around us has grown more toxic. It feels as though we have been thrown to the wind by the very organisations that are supposed to be representing us. Medical transitioners are outnumbered by a new intake, who have taken the trans word and redefined it.

The charity Stonewall, in effect the governing body of LGBT people in the UK, campaigns to demedicalise transition, at a time when people suffering from genuine gender dysphoria are stuck on five-year waiting lists.

Before I leave Stafford, the guard takes me to meet Chelsea, the middle-aged, pony-tailed self-IDer I had been introduced to earlier. I ask whether she wants to undergo medical transition. She says no, she’s happy as she is. Chelsea is married with a wife and children.

“Don’t you want to dress or look like a woman?” I ask. “No,” replies Chelsea. “It’s not worth the hassle. I’m happy in men’s clothes. I’m not interested in passing as a woman.”

India Willoughby is a journalist and broadcaster