On Tuesday, Catherine Carlson’s trial begins. She could potentially receive a life sentence for first degree arson, unlawful 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 “embarassing” or politically bad if someone lashes out. Even if the reason for their lashing 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].”
The following has been reblogged from previous, but will be new to readers of The Bilerico Project, where I’ve crossposted.
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 given an $841 fine for driving with a suspended license. Though her name was legally changed in the 1970s 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 5-day stretch in September 2008 and a 3-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, CA 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 precedence. 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.