By Jessica Phoenix Sylvia
I’m not sure where to go, which makes this more stressful. I open the door and look for an officer.
As I walk, a group of men notice me. They get the attention of the others and point. Soon, a mob is staring at me. Some burst into laughter, some pound on the window to get my attention, and others talk excitedly amongst each other.
My name is Jessica Phoenix Sylvia. I am a trans woman who has spent the last eighteen years locked up for a domestic violence-related crime. Whenever I transfer to a new men’s prison things get wild. Many of the prisoners are shocked to see a woman like me among them. I usually write about the bad things that happen to me as a trans woman in a men’s prison. Honestly, it can be dangerous and life is difficult at times, but there is another story: A story of trans joy, strength, and triumph.
As I walk onto the tier in Evergreen Hall, which is the unit where I lived at the Washington Corrections Center, I feel the weight of the room staring at me. The buzz makes me feel like a reality TV star. If I were overcome by fear I might think, Oh my goddess, there are no women here. I’m surrounded by men. How scary! Instead, I decide to focus on my power, not powerlessness. I channel my inner bad-ass and create a new reality. I tell myself: I’m surrounded by men. There are no other women here. That makes me their queen! Even though I am bold and determined, I can’t do this alone—I must build power relations. I recognize some guys I’ve done time with so I greet the most influential ones first and some of them introduce me to their friends.
Of course, it’s not all love. I expect to encounter some transphobia, and I don’t shy away from it; I confront it.
At the end of the day, I know that most of these guys are just waiting to see if it’s alright to talk to me. Once everyone sees that the fellas like me—I’m good. It won’t be long before they all jump into the trans pool on the deep end. Head first!
Now that I’ve established some allies, it’s time to deal with the enemy. I refer to those who cling to the idea that trans women are not women as “flat-earthers”. Randy is a flat-earther that I know from another prison. I pull up to Randy’s table and smile. Randy looks at his buddy and says, “Great, now they are gonna come out of the woodwork.” He still sports a bald head and goatee. How original.
With his eyes fixed on me, Randy asks, “Hey Jessica, how many guys did you turn out at the reformatory?”
“None, Randy,” I explain. “My legal identity documents say I’m female. Medically, I’m a post-transition woman, and socially I’m accepted as female.”
Randy wears a dumb look on his face as he tries to process the information.
I continue poking at him. “I know some guys don’t like girls, and that’s fine. There is nothing wrong with being gay. Are you gay, Randy?”
“Fuck you,” Randy shoots back.
“No thanks,” I reply with a smile, “Then, you’d probably follow me around for weeks. I might never get rid of you.” I hear laughter around the room. I walk away feeling trans triumph. One down—bring on the rest.
I didn’t make this place a trans utopia overnight, but over weeks and months, I have changed the culture. People are drawn in by my mischievous smile and infectious laughter. Eventually, everyone sees me as the fierce, beautiful, smart, funny, fun-loving, and free-spirited person I am.
Eventually, even some of the apprehensive cis hetero guards come around. I remember playing guitar along with Third Eye Blind on my stereo. Flenders walks by, stops, and slowly backs his way to my door. His bearded head bobs up and down to the beat. “Sounds great,” he tells me excitedly. Surprised at the compliment, I stop to give thanks. “Keep playing!” he demands. I merge back into the song, picking notes passionately. Flenders smiles his approval and walks off. I’m happy about the humanizing interaction. I know he is beginning to see me as a talented person, and not a fetish object. These moments change hearts and minds more than any rule or policy ever could!
Though many come to love me and see me for who I am, I know I can be punished for partying or showing sexual affection in this prison. Still, I don’t ask for permission for who to love or how to live. I see my own personal pleasure palace just waiting to happen. Gerard, my celly (nickname for cellmate) is a reserved and soft-spoken guy who likes anime and writes nonfiction. Some would say he is a nerd. One day, as Gerard comes back from the shower shirtless, I notice his muscular pecs and rippling abs. At that moment I feel an unforeseen sexual tension. That’s when I knew it was going to happen between us.
The next day, I entered the cell for my post-shower routine, and as usual, Gerard prepared to exit so I could have some privacy. “Wait, you don’t have to leave,” I begin, “we’re beyond that now.” “You sure?” he asks. “I’m fine with it if you are,” I assure him. I undress and begin to moisturize. With my right leg extended on the bed, I begin rubbing lotion into my skin. I notice Gerard glancing curiously. “When is the last time you saw a woman’s breasts?” I ask playfully. “Uh, well,” he stutters, “since I was nineteen.” As I remove my sports bra, he locks his gaze on my chest.
Gerard surrenders to the moment then seems to come to. He looks in my eyes then back to my breasts. He takes a moment and begins, “You know, I never knew that I liked broccoli until I tried it. I mean, I never really thought about it. Then one day, I was curious and I decided to try it. As it turns out, I really like broccoli.” “Is that so?” I reply, maintaining a subtle seductive stare. “Yeah, I really like broccoli,” he repeats with certainty. I inch closer until we are face to face, and I kiss him. He wraps his arms around me, and we enter a heated embrace that leads to his first sexual encounter with a woman in nearly eighteen years.
That began a passionate and unexpected romance that completely took my head out of prison for the next two months. I never would have thought I was broccoli.
I enjoy the fact that men give me gifts and show me constant attention. I have taken passionate lovers, but what means the most to me are the loyal and loving friendships I have built in this small community of prisoners.
I remember when my best friend stood at my door and proudly claimed me: “See mama, that’s what I like about you. You’re always smiling. You are such a joy to be around and you’re pretty! How could I not call you my friend?”
Even though I am ecstatic and relieved to have been released from prison after 222 months, I will truly miss some of the most joyful relationships and experiences I can recall. Now I know that if I can find joy in prison, I can find it anywhere.
Featured Image by Ron Lach.
Jessica Phoenix Sylvia (she/they) is an Empowerment Avenue social justice writer. She is currently writing a book based on a set of shocking prison memoirs. Follow her on Instagram @jessicaphoenixsylvia and Twitter @Abolition_Jess.