For transgender woman Linda Thompson, life in prison is preferable to life on the streets.
On July 27, Thompson entered a Cheyenne, Wyoming, bank with a handwritten note: “I have a gun. Give me all your money.” The teller gave her thousands of dollars. But instead of making a getaway, Thompson stopped a few steps outside the bank, throwing the cash in the air and handing it to strangers while she waited for police to arrive.
“I just robbed the bank, I want to go back to prison,” Thompson told police, according to court records obtained by the Associated Press. Thompson told cops that she had been homeless, unable to find room at a shelter, and beaten by four men in a park.
Thompson had recently been released from Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon, where she was serving a second-degree robbery sentence. Coffee Creek Correctional is by no means an easy place to live (it’s been sued for sexual abuse), but it is an all-women’s facility, something Thompson had fought decades to access as a trans woman.
From age 3, Thompson said she knew she was transgender. In an interview on Cruel and Unusual, a 2006 documentary on trans women in male prisons, she recalls praying to look like other girls.
“Dear God, when I wake up, that thing will not be there,” she said. “I will look like Susie from across the street.”
When she came out as a woman in 1991, she was fired from her job at a Wyoming oil rig.
“Every time I went to try to get a job for something I knew how to do, I’d have to show ID and they’d say, ‘Oh, Linda Patricia Thompson, but you’re a guy,” she remembered in the documentary. “We can’t have that here.’”
Out of work and money, Thompson was arrested in 1997 for stealing scrap metal and was sent to the men’s ward of an Idaho prison. While she identified as a woman, her appeals to be transfered went unanswered.
“The warden in the Idaho state penitentiary said something like ‘transgenderism is not a disorder, and it won’t be as long as I run this prison,’” Bruce Bistline, a lawyer who represented Thompson told The Daily Beast. “That set up a battle of the wills.”
The penitentiary said gender was determined by genitalia, but they wouldn’t provide access to gender reassignment surgery, or the hormone treatments Thompson had been taking before her incarceration. So Thompson performed the surgery herself, cutting off her testicles with a razor blade and demanding medical treatment. The warden still refused, so Thompson cut off her penis, a dangerous operation that nearly killed her. But the surgery was an act of catharsis, she said in Cruel and Unusual.
“When I cut the thing off it was like 100,000 tons of hate and animosity towards myself was all of a sudden just lifted off my shoulders,” she recalls in the documentary. “Man, I could fly. I was light. I was happy. For the first time in my life, I loved myself.”
After returning from a brief hospitalization, Thompson sued the state in 2000. She enlisted Bistline and another lawyer, who won her an out-of-court settlement with the state and got her temporarily transferred to facility in California, where she was given estrogen treatments.
Even this reprieve meant consequences for Thompson. She was later transferred back to the Idaho men’s ward, where Bistline says she was reportedly punished for taking her shirt off. The warden wouldn’t recognize her as female and punished her for acting like a man.
Once outside prison, Thompson faced the same troubles as before: no jobs, no shelter, no resources. Homeless shelters and mission groups turned their backs on her.
“I’m not allowed at a shelter. I’m not allowed at a rescue mission. This is wrong,” she said in Cruel and Unusual.
This is an unfortunately common situation for transgender people facing homelessness in rural areas.
“There aren’t a lot of homeless facilities elsewhere and many might be religiously based, so they might discriminate,” Andrea Zekas, policy director for LGBTQ advocacy group Basic Rights Oregon told The Daily Beast. “When trans people leave incarceration no matter where, they are often left without knowing where to go. There often not a lot of resources.”
Thompson unsuccessfully sought work in four states before ending up behind bars again, this time for stealing copper wire from a construction site, her other lawyer, Lea Cooper, told Into the Fray.
“She told the judge she did it [got arrested] on purpose, because she didn’t have any more options,” Cooper said.
On a subsequent arrest in 2010, Thompson landed at Oregon’s Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, finally a women’s prison. When her sentenced neared its end in June this year, Thompson reportedly said that she did not want to be released and that she would not do well on parole.
Thompson told police last week she couldn’t find space at a homeless shelter and was beaten by four strangers while sleeping in the park.
By Wednesday, Thompson had had enough. Armed with her handwritten note and the threat of a gun, she walked into the Cheyenne, Wyoming, bank branch and demanded everything they had. Then she sat outside and waited for a squad car to take her someplace safer.