Because of her desire to dress "like a little girl," Paola was disowned by her Ecuadorian family when she was only 8 years old. She survived on the streets until the age of 15, before she began doing sex work. Then she met a man who beat her for several years, and she became HIV positive after being raped by six men as she was exiting a nightclub, having only just arrived in France. And yet it is prison, where she spent only three days, that remains "the worst experience" of her life.
She did a brief stint in the French city of Lille's northern correctional facility, where she was transferred in 2014. "The other detainees were in the courtyard, they were shouting, 'We don't want any women here!' They all wanted to hit me," she remembers today.
Paola was incarcerated in an all-male establishment, just like the vast majority of transgender women whose legal gender is marked as male, and who haven't undergone sex reassignment surgery. In France, as in many other countries, it is the gender that is inscribed on one's identification that determines where one will be detained, at least officially. "Men and women are to be incarcerated in separate establishments," Article D248 of the French criminal procedure code specifies. But what about trans and nonbinary people? What is a man and what is a woman in the eyes of the French prison administration? It seems to have quite a hard time wrapping its head around the question, even though transgender detainees — the vast majority of whom are women — are the group that "suffers the most" in prison, according to Adeline Hazan, the controller-general of Places for Deprivation of Liberty.
Recent news has demonstrated this, with the "worrying" conditions under which an American transgender woman by the name of Kara B. is being detained, after she was found guilty in a well-publicized trial about a police car that was set on fire during a protest in Paris in 2016. Paola's story is far from an isolated incident. Read more via Buzzfeed