Before she fell on hard times and got into trouble with the law, Ashley Diamond, 36, lived openly and outspokenly as a transgender woman since adolescence, much of that time defying the norms in this conservative Southern city.
But on the day she arrived at a Georgia prison intake center in 2012, the deliberate defeminizing of Diamond began. Ordered to strip alongside male inmates, she froze but ultimately removed her long hair and the Hannah Montana pajamas in which she had been taken into custody, she said. She hugged her rounded breasts protectively.
Looking back, she said, it seemed an apt rite of initiation into what became three years of degrading and abusive treatment, starting with the state’s denial of the hormones she says she had taken for 17 years.
But now, Diamond and, through her, all transgender inmates won the unexpected support of the Justice Department, which intervened on her behalf in the federal lawsuit she filed against Georgia corrections officials in February.
“During intake, I kept saying: ‘Hello? I’m trans? I’m a woman?’ ” Ms. Diamond recounted in a phone conversation from prison a few weeks ago. “But to them I was gay. I was what they called a ‘sissy.’ So finally I was like: ‘O.K., I’m a sissy. Do you have a place where sissies can go and be O.K.?’ ”
They did not provide one, she said. A first-time inmate at 33 whose major offense was burglary, Ms. Diamond was sent to a series of high-security lockups for violent male prisoners. She has been raped at least seven times by inmates, her lawsuit asserts, with a detailed accounting of each. She has been mocked by prison officials as a “he-she thing” and thrown into solitary confinement for “pretending to be a woman.” She has undergone drastic physical changes without hormones. And, in desperation, she has tried to castrate and to kill herself several times.
“My biggest concern is that she survives to get out of prison, which I worry about every day,” said Stephen Sloan, a counselor who treated her at Baldwin State Prison and whose pleas that Ms. Diamond be restarted on hormones were ignored.
In her lawsuit, Diamond asks the court to direct prison officials to provide her hormone therapy, to allow her to express her female identity through “grooming, pronoun use and dress,” and to provide her safer housing.
Diamond seeks broader changes in policy and practice. And the Justice Department, in its support, declared hormone therapy to be necessary medical care, saying Georgia, and other states, must treat “gender dysphoria” like any other health condition and provide “individual assessment and care.”
Georgia State had more sexual assaults between 2009 and 2014 than all but one other state prison.
Since her arrival in prison, Ms. Diamond has survived an attempted rape in a stairwell, dealt with inmates exposing themselves and masturbating in front of her, and faced relentless sexual coercion.
Though Diamond believes she is championing a cause larger than herself, she has expressed increasing despair. She sobbed continually during a recent visit from her lawyer, and in the phone interview, she said: “Every day I struggle with trying to stay alive and not wanting to die. Sometimes I think being a martyr would be better than having to live with all this.”
Unlike the transgender woman inmate played by Laverne Cox on “Orange,” the Netflix series, Ms. Diamond is locked up with men, for what could be eight and a half more years, and her reality is grimmer than television fiction.
Her lawyer, Chinyere Ezie of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Diamond’s case dramatized the “discrimination to incarceration pipeline” that disproportionately lands transgender people, and especially those who are black like Diamond, behind bars.
Many face rejection by their families, harassment at school and discrimination in the workplace. Black transgender people have inordinately high rates of extreme poverty, homelessness, suicide attempts and imprisonment; nearly half those surveyed for the National Transgender Discrimination Survey had been imprisoned, compared with 16 percent of the study’s 6,450 participants.
And transgender women in male prisons are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than is the general population, with 59 percent reporting sexual assaults.
“I wish I could say this is a problem only affecting Ashley,” Ms. Ezie said. “But while Ashley is brilliant and unique, her situation is not.”
‘Different Than Everyone Else’
At her peak, Ms. Diamond was an aspiring singer-songwriter, a drag cabaret performer and a Whitney Houston impersonator whose best friend was, as she put it, a “celebrity interior designer” and whose odyssey was featured on “The Sally Jessy Raphael Show.”
At a low point, she was arrested for foraging through a trash bin for Taco Bell receipts and trying to get refunds, for breaking into that best friend’s apartment and stealing checks, and for violating probation. Even the judge who sent her to prison characterized these as crimes of survival.
“Hopefully, you’ll get all this behind you,” Judge Tambra P. Colston of Floyd County Superior Court said to Diamond. “When you do, you probably just need to go somewhere where you can get a job and not have to steal and shoplift and forge things to survive. You might be better off if you lived somewhere that was more accepting to the way that you live.”
Diamond’s quiet hometown, Rome, a former cotton port whose downtown is framed by rivers, lies in the foothills of the Appalachians.
An interior designer friend, who is white, said, “The worst demographic imaginable in a town like Rome is to be a black, gay, transgender drag queen with a tendency to challenge authority.” “And that was Ashley,” he said.
Her relatives gathered recently on the sun-soaked porch of her mother’s cottage to talk about Diamond. Her mother, Diane, who worked as an Army warehouse specialist, said she had unwittingly given her “the unisex name of Ashley, which turned out perfect.”
At 6, Ashley tiptoed into her older sister Kelly’s bedroom and announced, “I’m different than everyone else.”
“She was concerned with how to tell Mama; Ashley was Mama’s pet pea,” Kelly Diamond said. “She should have been concerned with our father. He was very cruel.”
Her younger sister, Diana, said their father “forgave” Ms. Diamond for being transgender before he died. “But when we were younger — one time Daddy hit Ashley, and her nose was bleeding so much it could have filled a gallon jug,” she said.
Ms. Diamond said both her parents had difficulty accepting her. “Oh, my God, my mom used to give me boy lessons,” she said. “I would literally have to walk around and practice grabbing my crotch. She is terribly sorry about it now, but I was, like, ‘Mom, you really tortured me.’ ”
At school, Ms. Diamond was relentlessly harassed. “Children would crowd around her and shove her into lockers and call her ‘faggot’ and different things,” Kelly Diamond said.
At 15, Ms. Diamond attempted suicide. “When I got to the hospital and they brought me back to life, the doctor was able to clarify what I was feeling, that I was trapped in the wrong body,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I had a little bit of hope.”
Given a diagnosis of gender identity disorder, Ms. Diamond was counseled to live as a girl before starting hormone therapy. Her father kicked her out of the house, and she moved in with “a white privileged family” and began exploring the more tolerant world beyond Rome.
In Athens, Ga., a university town, she met Mr. Sumlin, who had moved there to escape anti-gay sentiment in his own hometown.
“We just fell in love, friendship-wise,” Mr. Sumlin said. “Her personality is so beautiful; she’d always light up a room. We would go to Atlanta, and she’d sing Mariah Carey in the car and I’d sing Garth Brooks, and then we’d tear the town up. We also got into this thing, where I was always helping her, because I always had more.”
For a time, Ms. Diamond, performing in Atlanta clubs and developing a network of generous friends, was able to live well and dress stylishly. During that period, she flew to New York twice to tape episodes on transgender people for talk shows.
But she needed a reliable income, and the job market was tough. If she revealed her transgender identity, she was not hired, she said, and if she hid it and was discovered, she got fired. “I don’t want to be bragging, but I blended,” she said. “So people felt deceived. There are some people who want you to say, ‘Hi, I’m Ashley, and by the way I have a penis.’ ”
Mr. Sumlin believes her frustrations robbed her of “the motivation to persevere.”
“She was reduced to things like dressing up like a giant hot dog to flag down cars for a hot-dog stand,” he said. “I have to say, though, she wasn’t much of a worker when I would hire her.”
Ms. Diamond said her downfall began with boyfriends, and one in particular, who convinced her nobody could love her but them and led her into drugs and petty criminality. She started being arrested, getting barred from places like Taco Bell and Pawn Mart, and getting sentenced to probation.
In the fall of 2010, Mr. Sumlin returned to his apartment in Atlanta to find the air-conditioning unit askew. Eventually he realized checks were missing and had been cashed. His bank insisted that he call the police, he said, and Ms. Diamond was found to be the culprit. Mr. Sumlin said she stole just under $10,000.
About a year later, sheriff’s deputies with a warrant for her arrest on other charges knocked on the door of her mother’s home. Ms. Diamond was in the bathroom. The next thing she knew, she said, a deputy was climbing through the kitchen window and she was being taken into custody at gunpoint.
What happened next is murky. The deputies claim that Ms. Diamond, with her hands cuffed behind her back, managed to reach out through a crack in the rear window, open the door from the outside and escape. She said they let her out for a cigarette, and enlisted her to find a weapon she had told them was hidden in the woods. Either way, she ran from them; in her version, it was out of fear they were setting her up on additional charges.
With her probation revoked and new convictions on escape, obstruction of justice and theft charges, Ms. Diamond was sent to prison in March 2012, with a maximum release date of November 2023.
“You’d have thought she murdered a small village,” said Mr. Sumlin, who testified at her probation revocation hearing. “But it was their final chance to get her out of Rome, and they did.”
‘Just Words on Paper’
Shortly after Ms. Diamond entered the Georgia prison system in 2012, new federal standards under the Prison Rape Elimination Act established special protections for transgender inmates, recognizing them as an especially vulnerable group whose prison placement should be carefully considered and continually reviewed.
Georgia itself committed to evaluate each inmate individually during intake to identify “risk factors associated with sexual assault,” and has declared zero tolerance for sexual assault and misconduct. In Ms. Diamond’s perception, however, “that is just words on paper.”
Though she said she loudly declared herself a transgender woman during intake, she was assigned to a high-security prison for men, where within a month she was brutally attacked — punched, stomped, raped and knocked unconscious — by six gang members, the lawsuit says.
She was then transferred to another high-security prison, Baldwin State, where Dr. Sloan works. In his notes on her case, he describes the atmosphere there as “one of marked homophobia with little support for inmates who are members of sexual minorities.”
By the time Dr. Sloan met her, Ms. Diamond had already gone through an abrupt withdrawal from the hormones she says she had been taking: estrogen, progestin creams, testosterone blockers and anti-androgen medications. As her body transformed, and without access to feminine dress and grooming, her appearance and her gender identity were suddenly and painfully unaligned, she said.
Georgia’s policy, which the Justice Department says is unconstitutional, is to “freeze” treatment at current levels at entry into the system and deny “new” hormone therapy. It is unclear why, then, Ms. Diamond was denied treatment.
“Ashley is actually the first transgendered individual I’ve worked with who really has been outspoken and demanding her rights,” Dr. Sloan said. “What I’ve always done is just document my observations of how the system is hurting her.”
Over the next couple of years, Ms. Diamond repeatedly suffered sexual assaults and harassment, which she says some prison officials told her she had brought on herself while others cautioned her to “guard your booty.” She also attempted suicide several times, and tried to sever her penis with a razor, ending up hospitalized.
For a period, Ms. Diamond was housed with nonviolent offenders and “ceased being a victim of sexual coercion or assault,” her lawsuit says. But when she renewed her push for hormone therapy, she says, she was told to develop better coping skills, placed in solitary confinement, and transferred back to a high-security prison.
In apparent response to her lawsuit, Ms. Diamond was recently given a hormone patch, though the dosage is too low, her lawyer said.
A couple of weeks ago, on her mother’s cottage porch, the phone rang. Her younger sister answered and shrieked: “Ashley! I love you!”
Ms. Diamond had found a few minutes to call before a head count was taken, she said over the speakerphone.
“I’m in a little hell right now,” she said, her voice trembling. The state attorney general had called the prison after her lawyers reported the attempted rape in the stairwell, she said. “The warden came up to me and said: ‘Do I need to lock you down? I’m not going to have this!’ ”
Her sisters wailed, and her mother raised her arms to the skies.
“Don’t cry, everybody,” Ms. Diamond said. “Please, don’t cry.”