why I write to trans girls in prison
KUCHENGA first started writing to trans girls in the early days of her transition. Little did she know, the experience would give her all the validation as a woman she would ever need.
Photography by Cole Patrick on Unsplash
I first started writing to trans girls through Bent Bars, an LGBT prison pen pal service run by a voluntary collective. I got in touch with them because I’d just left a traumatic relationship in the early days of my transition. I needed to connect to the girls in my community who knew what it was like to go to hell and back and live to tell one’s tale.
When I write, I never ask the girls what they’ve have been banged up for. I’m too used to dehumanising questions. I start by keeping things fluffy. I talk about my transition and hope that they feel comfortable to talk about theirs. Sex is a great opener too. A light blue comment invites them to send a giggly response in written form.
The dynamic is in the same tone as Pat Butcher and Peggy Mitchell from EastEnders reminiscing about their younger years over a glass. Light and breezy, before delving into the opaque gloom of sexual assault and transmisogynistic violence. Short, punchy sentences that detail having boiling sugar-water thrown over you. Or a man who thinks consent is for sissies; ‘having ‘is way with you’, as my mother would committedly use as a euphemistic phrase for the brutality of rape. Every girl I write to is a survivor.
"I used to think a cisgender man would be my prince from the suburbs ... Now I know, the person who first made me aware of the internal divine feminine is in a permanent state of custody."
To fight to honour your womanhood in hostile conditions is an enduring feature of trans girls’ lives, whether on the inside or outside. Trans girls get locked up and are often isolated from the general population ‘for their own safety’. According to a government survey, there are currently 125 transgender prisoners in England and Wales. Tabloid papers rely on society’s fear to justify keeping us sequestered and in a state of permanent quarantine. Incorporating femininity into one’s life is an act of palliative self-care that helps keep trans girls on the inside sane. I love to spritz my letters with my Jean Paul Gaultier’s ‘Femme’ fragrance and watch the biro writing bleed into the almost translucent paper. It warmed my heart to hear from one of my girls that the scent filled her cell. Such things are not emptily wistful. Sisterhood is powerful and lifesaving.
Writing to trans girls in prison has humbled me. I have a compulsive obsession with doing everything within my power to pass as cisgender. Partly because of safety and partly because of a lethal mix of gender dysphoria and internalised transphobia. It’s hard to divorce the two in my mind. I used to think a cisgender man would be my prince from the suburbs. I imagined that living in In choosing to create a conformist cis-heteronormative living situation with with me, I imagined he would give me my ultimate validation as a woman. Now I know, the person who first made me aware of the internal divine feminine is in a permanent state of custody from which she will never escape.
She asked for a picture of me. I felt it would be best to send her a picture of me taken by the amazing photographer Eivind Hansen for his series of portraits for the Unite to End Violence Against Women campaign. My hair is in long purple Marley twists. I have a beaming, juicy lip-glossed grin with vibrant Pat McGrath eye makeup. I have a blooming halo of orange and violet protea cynaroides, South Africa’s national flower. I am carefree, confident, joy personified. It’s so rare for us to see trans girls just being happy without a traumatic narrative or cheap, hyper-sexualised objectification.
I knew she would like it. What I did not know was that she would end her letter by saying, “One day I hope I will be as beautiful as you.” What I did not know was that this would mean so much to me that I would have to sit down and cry. That my tears would drip onto her biro-scrawled letters and turn the ink from jet black into a bleeding gradient of blue sable, indigo and rose pink that would bring to mind a melancholic rendering of the trans flag’s colours. With that one sentence she gave me all of the validation as a woman I will ever need. And that is why I write to trans girls in prison.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.