Editor’s Note: In October Erykah Carter will walk out of the Franklin County Jail and take her first free steps — ever.

“To be able to say my name, my name is Erykah Carter, it means the world to me, it makes me feel right,” says Carter during our interview in the jail’s library.

Carter is serving a two-and-a-half year prison sentence on a breaking and entering conviction stemming from two break-ins on the same night at two Turners Falls restaurants in 2014.This November, she began taking hormones to transition from a male to a female. Carter kept track of her transition in a journal she shared with Revan Schendler, who is teaching a creative writing class at the jail. She typed it up and edited it with Carter, got the manuscript approved by the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department and brought it to the paper. Schendler, who has worked with Franklin County inmates for years on teaching writing and sociology concepts, says the sheriff’s office has never made edits or changes to the work she provides them.

Carter was 21 or 22 the first time she tried to come out as a female to her family. It was “awful” and it was the last time anyone in her family has seen Carter as a woman.
“I hadn’t hashed anything out with them,” Carter says of presenting herself as a woman that day. “So, they struggle, they go back and forth with being okay with it. In here it just became easier, anything became possible,” Carter says. “I have to understand that I am not the only one transitioning and I need to accept that my family is transitioning with this, too.”

Carter and her family moved to Greenfield from New York City when she was 9 to get away from “the city, all the crime,” Carter says. “If you ask how my mother found Greenfield on a map; I don’t know, but it’s where we wound up.” One of Carter’s earliest memories is being five-year-old standing in the long hallway of her home in NYC. She would regularly walk down the hallway and drop her pants — until her mother yelled at her to stop. It took years for Carter to realize her younger self was attempting to imitate a curtsy she had seen a woman perform on TV.

The following essays, vignettes, and poems are Carter’s and they would not be possible without the staff and D-Pod inmates at the Franklin County Jail as well as the doctor who has been helping her through her transition, Schendler, and the transgender outreach volunteers who visit her weekly, Carter says. The jail and newfound support system have provided Carter with something she hadn’t experienced much of before: the freedom to say, “I am Erykah Carter.”

— Kristin Palpini, editor@valleyadvocate.com

An Honest Smile

Imagine getting up every day in the opposite of your preferred gender, having to be someone you are not, having to put your life under a scope, trying not to be too feminine or masculine, just wanting to hide. I have been so uncomfortable in my life. Everything I did I failed at because I wasn’t comfortable building someone I couldn’t see. Being out and trans I feel bold and alive.

I have written letters and had hard conversations with those I love. Now it’s about educating those who come into my life. I am informing myself as much as I can.

My family loves me and chooses to keep me in their lives, but struggles to accept the gender I identify with. The attachment we have as a family is strong. My mother raised us to love and protect. Having to lose the brother/son they have known for 26 years is something to have feelings about. I have put myself in their position many times. This was the only way I could understand.

There must be a grieving process before they can openheartedly accept who I have always been. Things will be missed in the role I played. The nature of who I am will stay the same but I will be adopting a new role.

They fear the challenges I will face, being abused by people who find it necessary to harm me and anybody who does not fit their idea of an ideal person in terms of race, sex, gender, religion. Some people feel they are entitled to inflict their invasive, taunting judgments on others.

My family has not stopped loving me. I am still supported as a child and sibling. When there are strong attachments within a family, people tend to take things personally. I understand their struggle to accept me as I am.

I notice the letters that make me feel most comfortable are from my nieces and nephews. Love is all children need to accept you — that and a lot of sweets. Love has no gender

Unable to fit in

stuck in an unfamiliar realm

that serves neither gender

I willingly and unwillingly take on

I learn the importance of choice

and determination.

I strive to stay alive.

Trans women are telling their stories but leaving out the challenges — the therapy, the court documents, the changes of name and gender markers, the harm to the body to feel OK. We don’t always want to tell people what we have been through to be here today.

We are treated like we are not capable of

knowing what’s best for us.

We are subject to ridicule and judgment.

I go through the fire only for a sip of water

that doesn’t quench my thirst.

I did not come from many galaxies away. I was raised in this world, stripped of opportunities because ignorant people are not interested in unlearning what has this world in so much turmoil.

With so many against us who try to take away our rights as human beings, trans women are making the necessary corrections.

Starting to freak out about things going wrong, not being able to express myself when I’m released. Afraid of being judged, being hurt mentally and physically. Scared to lose the strength I found in myself when I started this process.

I know that I identify as a woman, but what kind? I want to enjoy openly the things that I love. Trying to figure out who I am. Trying to build a life and transition all in one.

Going through what my mentors call my second puberty, my body and spirit are creating the image in which I see and carry myself. Becoming familiar with the body that is having aches and pains and growing, I learn to love myself. I embrace every change as my body feels more like my own.

I just got into it with someone for purposely calling me by my birth name. When I corrected him he said, you’re still a man. I am full of anger because I did nothing to him to be degraded. How do I argue that I am not a man in a men’s facility? There are always mean and ignorant people, not just here.

Mostly I feel very fortunate to be where I’m at, to get the necessary help to have a life. I’ve heard many horrible stories about places I’d be harassed for being who I am. Not many are fortunate enough to have the help of the system. It hurts to know that my brothers and sisters right now are being neglected because of who they are.

It breaks me down every time I read about the abuse trans people are dealing with but I am built back up knowing that I will make change and open the door for the next person. It doesn’t stop here. I will continue to speak out and make people notice. I will stop when equality is not just a word in a dictionary.

Being trans is not what I am, it’s just a part of me. People don’t see that. They pick out what stands out and then generalize. If you don’t fit somewhere, then you are nowhere, nonexistent.

Janet Mock wrote, “I wish that instead of … ranking people according to these rigid standards that ignore diversity in our genders and sexualities, we gave people freedom and resources to define, determine, and declare who they are.” Her words run through my body, letting me know I am not the only person fighting for change.

Acknowledge me for being different and

forget it at the same time.

Are your beliefs so important that you would break down my self-esteem to mend yours because you were once me? Because you were once enslaved, I must be too? Our common goal is to live life. Learning to accept differences and being able to voice your opinion respectfully and still be OK with loving a person with different beliefs openheartedly … that would be my dream for everyone.

I could list a thousand things that led to my being incarcerated, from making mistakes because of being insecure to physical and sexual abuse to society not promoting healthy living. I have taunted myself for things I couldn’t control. All these obstacles make me who I am today, and I’m proud of the person I’ve become, minus a few flaws. I’m tired of being a victim.

This incarceration has led me to realize many things. I have learned self-worth. I have shown kindness and promoted something other than anger. I have built and broken down walls that I would never have seen myself doing. I have been taught patience. Communicating my needs is necessary so I am not taken advantage of or used. I have always been scared of life and although my brain is scattered I can smile honestly today. I am emotionally available to care for myself. Now life interests me.

Discussing the man I love is necessary. Without knowing it, he is my strength. In the face of my constant doubts he assured me with a stern voice, as if he knew something I didn’t, you are a woman. Everyone deserves to have that non-judgmental love.

I have met three beautiful trans women who have dedicated themselves to my transition. Leea, Amy, and Brianna have nourished my soul. I was so afraid I would walk out alone. Finding these women has given me a real chance at life. They have sat and talked with me for hours, assuring me of my journey and my strength. They have nurtured and saved other people’s lives, from adolescents to adults. They are my sisters and I love them not because of what they have done for me but because of who they are.

The person who encouraged me and made this project possible is a beautiful soul who looks to capture the imagination of others and let it be seen. We are thankful for the achievements we have all made in and out of the think tank. Because of our projects I have had letters of encouragement, books and magazines to help me on my journey. I thank you, Revan, for your hand in all of this.

I notice that gratitude can come from being different. Sometimes we have to go through a painful time to notice how blessed we are.

Vigorously looking for resources, making phone calls, contacting organizations. I want to work in human services, build that life I need and work with people who need care, no matter their race, culture, gender, etc. I have job training in the field of work that I want. I have many things set up when I’m released, which I haven’t had before. I have great mentors who were found through the caseworkers and facilitators. I have found a program that will accept me as a woman. I have looked and they have searched for months.

Being human and wanting instant gratification, at times I lose faith and patience. At times I thought everyone had forgotten me, but I was wrong. Help is out there, but it needs to be publicized, it needs to reach small towns like this one.

There is a gentleman I have shared a sentence with and until you see his anger, which is fueled by his passionate values and beliefs, you wonder why he’s here. Kerry calls me little sister and has written about me in his book Angry. He says, my little sister is stronger than most men and it takes a lot of courage to do what she has done. He knows when I am hurting, though I don’t like to show it. I realize I have a voice and people will listen and care.

How can someone tell a child

they are wrong for what they feel

make them never follow their heart again.

Right/wrong male/female black/white he/she

never just me, never a grey area.

Telling me who I’m supposed to be.

10-15 minutes isn’t enough time

to say to those you love, your lies.

You have 1 minute remaining.

Mom I just want to tell you I’m….

Your party has hung up.

I am. I am. I am nothing but me.

Stop trying to put more labels on me.

I am she and even that is a judgment

but the closest to explaining what I see.

Parents, be happy with your healthy child! Imposing a gender sets a child up before they can even talk. Preferring one gender over the other only shows the ignorance of parents who are expecting.

I would like to give a voice to trans women and everyone who doesn’t fit society’s narrow ideas. How truly beautiful we are as individuals. Putting people in categories with the excuse of protecting our kids actually hurts someone else’s kids, leading them to doubt or judge who they are, creating havoc in their lives. Instead of learning to accept difference we are taught to hate or bash others, creating homophobia, racism, sexism. White hates black hates gay hates trans and on and on.

Silencing the pain becomes only one way. Bleed out, remove the poison, stop producing … die!

No, stop feeding me these lies.

Although with time we may be able to claim our right to live, we will never rid the world of evil. Anything that separates us for the purpose of power and greed will always promote hatred, a disease that feeds off people’s lives. Little do you know lives are taken because of your actions.

Stop putting us into a category because we fit a description. I would never assume that all whites are racist, or all blacks can’t swim, or all Jews are cheap, or all masculine women like women. With all these ignorant clichés no wonder people are afraid of difference.

My transition is not separate from my recovery. Addiction is part of me. As an addict I harbor pain and resort to drugs. I have made progress while incarcerated because I took a deep look at my life. Without delving into the core of my problems I would not understand my addiction and would not have my recovery today. Putting something off that makes me whole would only cause me to relapse.

I can only make a difference if I choose to be me.

I claim the air.

The beauty is already there, achieved.

Clear water, flowing dreams,

I wish I was blind, to see the world as kind,

deaf, to hear only what I feel inside.

I find myself looking back at someone I used to know. I am dreaming now as Erykah.

Erykah Carter is a member of the Elm Street Think Tank, a group that meets weekly inside Franklin County Sheriff’s Office (the Greenfield Jail) to work on collective projects, share work with one another, and “promote alternatives to incarceration by raising awareness and connecting people, ideas, and resources.” For more information contact Revan Schendler at SchendlerR@gcc.mass.edu.