Mercedes Allen

Her Own Payette Idaho Revisited

Filed By Mercedes Allen | April 10, 2011 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Catherine Carlson, cruel and unusual punishment, Idaho, identification, institutionalized transphobia, Payette County, solitary confinement, transsexual

On Tuesday, Catherine Carlson's trial begins. She could potentially receive a life sentence for first degree arson, payettf.jpgunlawful possession of a bomb or destructive device, using a hoax destructive device, and indecent exposure. She could receive up to 35 years in prison, which would probably mean the rest of her life.

There seems to be frustratingly little will to talk about her story, and I'm concerned that it's because people in our community often act like it's embarrassing or counterproductive if someone lashes out. Even if the reason they lash out appears to be a long legacy of struggling against transphobia and an ongoing campaign of antagonism from the surrounding community and the authorities that govern it. According to Boise Weekly:

... during traffic stops or identification checks by police, Carlson claimed her private information was broadcast over police scanners that she said "put a target" on her back in what she calls the small, conservative, religious community of Payette. Carlson's efforts to have her male identity removed from Idaho records have been unsuccessful, leading her to what she considered her "breaking point" last July.

"You want to know why this mobile home went up in flames?" asked Carlson. "It went up in flames because they wouldn't transfer it into my name, and the reason why is because I don't have an ID. And I don't have an ID because they are insisting that they keep that aka [Carlson's previous male identity]."

Sunday, July 11, 2010, a mobile home and pickup truck were torched, fake pipe bombs found and a woman was arrested running naked down a county road carrying another fake pipe bomb. On that day, the Argus Observer reported:

When fire and police personnel arrived, they found what appeared to be four pipe bombs on the front porch of the residence and a propane tank between the bombs."There was a note that said, 'Do not enter. House booby-trapped. This is a bomb,'" Clark said.

Catherine Carlson was charged with arson, indecent exposure and making fake pipe bombs. But the details of what drove Carlson to self-destruct and (my speculation here) attempt suicide-by-cop paint a several-years-long shocking picture of inner death by misidentification.

The spark for this is said to have began back in December 2007, when she was handed an $841 fine for driving with a suspended license. Though her name was legally changed in the 1970's and she has not used the old male name since, authorities insisted on including her previous name from decades ago on the ticket as an "a.k.a."

She refused to pay this ticket because of the court's insistence on keeping that name on it and has served jail time on at least four occasions, including a five-day stretch in September 2008 and a three-day stretch in October 2008. Although post-operative since 1980, she was kept in segregation. At that time, the Observer reported:

Carlson said, when she was in jail, she could hear men's voices from her cell and said she was told the women's cells were full. However, after communicating with nearby incarcerated women, she said she learned two of those bunks were empty when she was checked in and continued to be so.

Payette County Sheriff Chad Huff said the "3-man" cell Carlson was placed in was not specifically designated as either male or female.[...]

He said Carlson was housed by herself in the cell because jail officials could not "confirm her gender."

He also said the jail does not have any legal obligation to house her with the women, which he confirmed with the county's legal department and the Idaho Counties Risk Management Program.

"We will never put her in with the females," he said. "That's just how it is."

(When I first posted on this, a reader took me to task for pointing out that she was post-operative. I do not believe that operative status should be the hinge upon which we should determine housing. However, the fact that she is post-operative demonstrates with absolute clarity that her treatment as a "man" is motivated purely by irrational phobia, rather than some weak reliance on the assumption that anyone with a penis is a potential predator)

A bookkeeper in Redwood City, California, eventually paid the fine. But the old name remains on record, and in fact likely came into use by Payette County officials after her mother revealed it to the court during a late 1990s dispute over a house.

By December, 2008, Carlson was a mess, and her weight dropped to 105 pounds. The Olympian reported:

She used to wear pretty dresses, fix herself up. Now she only has a couple blouses and says she doesn't want to attract attention to herself. She leaves her trailer about once every 10 days.[...]

"You're going to have to make me one of 'We the People,'" Carlson said.

In April of 2009, MSNBC detailed her story, including the rocky relationship Carlson has had with her mother, such as an angry beating of the "awful mischievous child" with an electric cord. Although her mother expressed some remorse, all was still not well:

Almost 29 years after Catherine's operation, Bowman is still trying to reconcile her deeply held religious beliefs and her distress over this boy she gave life to and this woman she has so much trouble understanding.

"I do not approve of transsexuals, I believe the way the Lord created us is the way we should stay," Bowman said. "But he was my child and I supported her."

Following the self-destructive pipe bomb incident, KIVI-TV conducted a telephone interview with Catherine which is very telling:

Steve Bertel: "... but she tells me that the cause of all of her trouble is her frustration with how she's treated as a transgender woman in Payette County. She tells me that agencies there refuse to use her female name, Catherine, and instead insist that she be called *****."

Catherine Carlson (by phone): "Nobody ever refers to me by that name... except the State of Idaho. And... I just... I just... cannot take it anymore. They're not going to allow me to have a life, then they're going to have to take my life, because I cannot live my life with an a.k.a. It puts a target on my back, it... it seriously endangers my welfare."

When the desperation has escalated to attempted suicide-by-cop, all because of stubborn insistence on maintaining a moniker that has long been irrelevant, something is very seriously wrong. Let me count the ways:

  1. For as little value as there is in noting a name that a person has not willingly used in decades, names gendered contrary to trans peoples' presentation expose them to discrimination, isolation, and sometimes violence. When law enforcement agencies insist on documenting such names in places where the revelation can turn into violence, they are potentially culpable by incitement, and Carlson's fear of the public would seem to indicate that county officials' knowledge did not simply stay hidden in court record. Although not as overt, this is certainly not without precedent. We don't know what whisper campaigns, conflicts and troubles have resulted in her everyday life, but it is clear from what has been reported so far that the name and history revelations have made Carlson terrified of going out into public, and that this has had serious physical and emotional consequences for her.
  2. As much as media is aware and reporting that Catherine Carlson's troubles and self-destruction are a result of ongoing misidentification and the creation of a target as a person with a known trans history,media outlets continue to include in their report that she "used to be named *****." (At the time this was originally posted, it was overwhelming - since then, a number of publications, including Boise Weekly, have stopped publishing the old name.) At this point, of course, her current name and trans history are going to be widespread knowledge and the least of her problems, but the salt in the wound - or worse, challenging her core identity - is really not necessary.
  3. Solitary confinement is a form of mental abuse and dehumanization that should really only be used when the person in question is causing trouble (which is not the same as when the person in question is the target of trouble). It is the most extreme punishment that can be used on prisoners short of capital punishment, and has a toll on a person that means it should be used only for extreme circumstances -- not prescribed for someone indefinitely simply because they're trans or perceived as trans. Although it's said to help protect trans women against rape, it has occasionally happened where some would rather chance the rape than endure the isolation. There needs to be a better system of including and protecting trans inmates with populations with which they identify. But when you add this to the fact that Carlson is many years post-operative, the old, weak "she might be perceived as a danger to the other women" argument doesn't even have a ghost of substance.

    "We will never put her in with the females," [Payette County Sheriff Chad Huff] said. "That's just how it is."

  4. Payette County law enforcement's bigotry is showing. If that's how they regard her, how have they addressed her and treated her?

"You're going to have to make me one of 'We the People,'" Carlson had said.

If she's open to the idea, we could start by being a community for her, right now.

crossposted at DentedBlueMercedes, there are some comments on the original entry worth noting.

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brandigirl | April 10, 2011 6:58 PM

While I sympathize with her situation she should have just moved long ago. There are many many places she could have moved that would have been more understanding and accepting. We all have to known there are some places and some people that were NEVER going to be able to enlighten.

Are we still at that juncture where it is considered our responsibility to accommodate everyone else, regardless of how much of our own lives we must uproot to do so? I'm not flaming you, mind you -- it hasn't been that long since that was the predominant opinion of our community and the people who gave us advice was to uproot and move. But I think we're past that.

Especially considering that she has family there. Regardless of what has been said, she may still have close bonds with her family. She might have / had other bonds there as well (job, etc.)

And I know from my own experience, uprooting and leaving Canada's Little Texas was never a fiscal reality for me, either (unless I wanted to go back to living on the street). It's always easier said than done.

No, I can't blame her for staying.

Well, sadly it sounds like she does love her childhood home and wants to be near her mother.

Even if her mother doesn't 'like' her, well I understand that. My dad outright hates me and yet I call him every week and every year or so I do go spend a few days with him.

And I know leaving home is hard for a lot of people. Those who are alone and isolated sometimes find solace just living where they’ve had happiness and feel discomfort at even the thought of leaving it. Once again, been there and done that.

Her family, her possessions, and her history are there. Just because someone else has a problem, doesn't make it her responsibility to leave to accommodate their bigotry.

Idaho is one of those three states in the U S that won't change sex or gender markers on identity documents. I said last week I am too old to be worrying about any of this. They still put people my age in jail, though, and I was born in Tennessee which is another one of those states that won't change birth certificates.

I support same sex marriage, honoring heterosexual marriages between partners where one, or both, has a transsexual history. I support anti-discrimination laws that protect people on the basis of gender identity and expression, those who are lesbian, gay and bi, too, as well as intersex but my overriding concern is that my identity documents protect me as the sex I am. If what sex I and people like me are is to be contested, I think it should be a focus of human rights in all of the categories established by Harry Benjamin where a person's day to day existence is involved, as well as for intersex people who feel they are both, neither, or the sex opposite to the one they were assigned. We have to stop evading the question of sex and face the complexities involved. It is not absolutely dimorphic. Sex is related to gender but not the same thing.

Every state in the U S has only two kinds of prisons, one for men and one for women. It isn't all that difficult to find yourself in one in this country where there is no other place in the industrialized world that puts a higher percentage of their population. A trans prison wouldn't work much better. I don't think they are on the way, anyhow. Focusing on whether surgery matters, or not, is a distraction. It should be accepted that there is no way it couldn't. Requisites for legal identity documentation is a much more complex problem. There is a lot more than "gender expression" that has to be considered, however.

How people are classified is a big issue. In Thailand there are now three categories for conscripts. I think this has evolved out of the need to fill places in the military. Their system essentially classifies transsexual women as men. Post op women, presently, do not have to serve but have to report every year for three years. Previously, all "trans" categories were most often dismissed on the basis as unfit for service for having malformed chests but more often, "The most common reason for dismissal . . ., is also the more damning: “mental disorder.” Worse yet is “permanent insanity,” a ruling written into the permanent record of kathoey Samart Meecharoen in 2006."

Trans, kathoey, and Hijra are not much different from each other in meaning. The third sex category has been very problematic for trans people and people of transsexual history, as well as intersex, in countries where a third sex category has been recognized as existing.

Self identity is important but having it congruent with official identity is no less important.

Idaho is a place where hate groups breed and hang out. The likes of Timothy McVey and Sarah Palin have hung out there. Idaho needs to be discussed more in the media for the embarrasment to America that it is. There are only three States that don't allow birth certicates to be changed and then there are the other States like Texas that do but don't offer universal acceptance. It would seem to me that those states should be the ones that we should be working the hardest to change. Has anyone taking them to court over their failure to change birth certificates? What is the history of efforts to try and get them to change birth certificates?

My heart goes out to Catherine Carlson. I lived in all three corners of Idaho for more than 12 years, most of them in the Boise area of the Snake River Valley. This is just upstream of Payette County in a region marked by religious intolerance, a region where it is very difficult to be different. While Idaho's unconscionable birth certificate policy is symptomatic of the prejudice suffered by transpeople there, the injustice that Catherine has endured is more fundamental. She is entitled to dignity and equal protection under the law, and she has been denied both. I worry that Catherine may now be at risk of brutality from Idaho's mental health system that may rival that from their criminal justice system.

Yes, Sarah Palin somehow graduated with a BA in journalism from the University of Idaho, 300 miles to the north. This is the campus where I earned two graduate degrees, conducted space communications research for NASA, served as an adjunct professor and administrator, and studied English and (believe it or not) queer literature later in life. Both Sarah and I had opportunity to gain some competence in English there. I'd like to think that one of us paid attention in class.

This story reminds me of the movie Do the Right Thing, where, after a black man in the neighborhood is killed by the police and residents blame a local pizza shop owner, Spike Lee's character throws a garbage can into the pizza shop window and the shop is destroyed.

Spike Lee later said that only white people ask if his character "did the right thing" in throwing the garbage can at the window, while black people don't question whether a black man's life has more value than a white person's property.

Perhaps the people asking if Catherine's actions were justified should wonder what could have been done to prevent this. Putting Catherine in solitary isn't going to get anyone else to not do the same thing if they're in the same situation.

Emilie Jackson-Edney | April 11, 2011 11:29 PM

I'll be attending Catherine's trial proceedings tomorrow along with Jody May-Chang from the Boise Weekly. It's anticipated that the court will be doing jury selection, which in itself might be rather interesting.

amym440 - ACLU of Idaho and their national office are beginning the process of looking at the birth certificate issue and developing a strategy for getting the gender marker (birth sex) changed for Idaho born transsexual citizens. Interestingly, neither Idaho Statute nor the Idaho Health and Welfare's Administrative Code specifically prohibit changing one's gender marker on their birth certificate. Unlike the Statute and Admin. Code process for changing one's name, it just doesn't say anything. Therefore, The bureaucratic morality police have chosen to just not allow gender marker changes on Idaho birth certificates. However, Idaho will change the gender marker of a post-operative person of transsexual history on their state issued drivers license.

With regard to changing one's name on their Idaho birth certificate, a lot of good that does because the Bureau of Vital Statistics lists the Court Order instrument number and person's previous name on the amended birth certificate.

Emilie I hope that things can go as well for Catherine as they can. Earlier today I sent an idea of mine on how to legally challenge States like Idaho on Birth certificates and civil rights to Jillian Weiss. I am not a lawyer but my idea is simple and straight forward. It also addresses those who would claim religion as an excuse for bigotry. It would pretty much only cover transsexuals and those with a proven medical or pschycological condition. It wasn't my intention to exclude others but instead it is hopefully a beginning strategy for eliminating religion and false claims of morality. No one should be allowed to stop us from enjoying our "Unalienable rights to " Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." or from having legitimate medical treatments legally recognized based on their personal religious beliefs or morals. If Dr. Weiss gives my strategy a reasonable nod of approval I would be happy to let the ACLU use it.