Transgender woman faces legal dilemmas
STRASBURG — Her friends and family know her as Kendra, but when her name is called during her many appearances in court, she is William Brill and that’s when the humiliation starts.
Sometimes, she says, it’s a smirk or guffaw coming from a law enforcement officer sitting in the back of the courtroom. In jail, she’s been asked whether she still has a penis.
An arrest and a stay in jail or prison, never a cheerful experience, is much harder when the inmate is a transgender woman like Kendra Brill, 35, of Strasburg.
She’s been in and out of the corrections system for the last three years as a result of a string of charges for drunken driving and shoplifting. Her stay in the Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake, which began in 2012, marked a turning point in a long struggle with gender identity.
Indian Creek’s website describes it as one of the largest “prison-based” therapeutic communities in the United States specializing in treatment for substance abusers. Toward the end of her sentence, Brill took some tests, one to determine female orientation and another to determine male orientation.
The tests asked numerous questions about different subjects. Did the test taker prefer blue or pink? Did he or she like sports? The results produced two graphs for the man identified as William Brill in the prison records. The graph for male orientation showed peaks and valleys. The one for female was a straight line and came with a diagnosis from two prison doctors: gender dysphoria.
“I was relieved,” Brill recalled. “It was good to know what the underlying issue was, the reasons why I was drinking and using drugs as badly as I was at the time.”
The diagnosis started Brill on a journey that has continued to take her in and out of court and to medical professionals who have tried to provide her with medication and other kinds of help.
In October, the same month she was released from Indian Creek, she submitted a name change application to Shenandoah County Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp, asking that her name be changed from William Joseph Brill to Kendra Catherine Brill.
Hupp replied on Oct. 30: “I have denied your application for change of name. In view of your felony record, I want to avoid any confusion as to your identity in our computer databases, both the Central Criminal Records Exchange and the Virginia Criminal Information Network. If you undergo a sex change operation . . . you may file a new application.”
Hupp’s letter stunned Brill. She wanted the name change to ease the awkwardness and confusion that she has faced in situations such as job interviews. The interviewer would be poring over documents identifying the applicant as William Brill, but the same individual appeared in person as a woman.
“All they see is William, and I go well, ‘it’s a long story,'” Brill said of those who interview her. “I’m transgendered, and I can’t get my name changed, and the judge won’t let me.
“I get turned away. They want to focus on my story more, but then they don’t need me.”
Donna J. Buchanan, a psychologist who had been treating Brill at the Shenandoah Community Health Clinic, submitted a letter to Hupp on Jan. 15, citing the gender dysphoria diagnosis and stating, “Kendra is no longer functioning in society as a male.”
“Kendra is receiving estrogen replacement therapy by a physician outside her clinic in anticipation of a future sex-change procedure,” Buchanan wrote, adding, “She dresses as a female and, other than having male genitalia, we respectfully refer to and treat her as a female at our clinic.”
Hupp denied the request again in a second letter to Brill on Feb. 2, repeating the earlier requirement for a sex change operation before applying again for a name change.
“I can’t believe he said that because a lot of transgendered people don’t even do that,” Brill said of the sex change operation. “It would be nice to have the money to do that.”
Brill has been arrested twice since her release from Indian Creek, both times for shoplifting beer. She was convicted the first time and jailed at the Northwest Regional Adult Detention Center in Winchester from June 10 until Aug. 6.
Brill worries about where and how she will be placed in jails when she is arrested. The Northwest Regional Adult Detention Center is “more up to speed” than other jails in the way it treats transgendered inmates, Brill said.
“They actually allowed me to have my hormones in jail, and they kept me in a dormitory, so that I didn’t have to be put in protective custody or anything like that,” Brill said.
She said her experience in the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail didn’t go as smoothly, although she was in the facility for less than 24 hours before a family member bailed her out. The case is still pending.
Court documents say a security camera at a convenience store in Strasburg showed Brill taking a bottle of beer out of a refrigerator, putting it in her purse and leaving the store without paying.
“It was humiliating,” Brill said of her stay at RSW. “I wasn’t there that long, thank God, because my mom came and got me. I slept on the floor of the jail. They give you a mat and put you up front in front of booking. That’s where the officers were joking, asking me did I have a penis and stuff like that.”
Brill also said she told jail staff members about the medications she is taking, but no medical professional spoke to her or made arrangements for her to receive the prescriptions.
William Wilson, the superintendent of the RSW jail, said placement of transgender prisoners can get “a little confusing” when an inmate is still making the transition from male to female or vice versa. Decisions about where to place transgender inmates are made on a case-by-case basis, Wilson said.
“If they still have male genitalia, they’re still going to be placed with the male population,” Wilson said, adding, “You definitely don’t want to be housing somebody with male genitalia in a female (population) even though they may feel that way.”
Lisa Kinney, director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, said her agency uses criteria similar to those cited by Wilson in deciding where to place transgender inmates.
“Housing decisions are made on a case by case basis,” Kinney wrote in an email. “Unless an offender has completed sex reassignment, the offender would be housed in a facility congruent with the biological sex of the offender.”
Wilson added that he believes jails are moving toward creating facilities where transgender inmates have their own areas “where they will be safer together” but still receive the same programming as the rest of the jail population.
Rebecca Glenberg, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said transgender inmates face more risks than other inmates, regardless of how they are classified or where they are placed.
“Being in prison is just one of the worst things that can happen to you in this country,” Glenberg said. “For transgendered inmates, you multiply that by five or 10 or 20. It just amplifies every terrible thing about being in prison, especially if you are being classified in a way that is inconsistent with gender identity.”
Brill sees a link between her struggle to clarify her sexual identity and the excessive drinking that has led to multiple jail and prison sentences.
“I think if society were a little more accepting and didn’t fear the unknown, which is the normal thing, then maybe I wouldn’t have the social stigma I have and the fear that I have,” Brill said. “I would be a little more productive member of society and wouldn’t have to use alcohol to numb the pain.”
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org