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Young adults protest to protect LGBTQ rights
Photo by Aiden Craver on Unsplash

The so-called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation that Florida lawmakers recently passed is the last thing gay and transgender people need.  

Trans people have always been around and will continue to exist regardless of a politician’s agenda. Recent trans- and homophobic legislation highlights a disturbing reality: uninformed individuals, playing the game of politics, risking the well-being of young people for their own gain. 

In this case, they are doing it by preventing conversation surrounding gender and sexuality for Florida’s young children in public schools. This will only fuel hate and violence. Politicians will be harming queer young children who must look to others for support and validation.

How, when and to who one chooses to come out to is a deeply personal decision. Not everyone has a safe place at home. When a queer person’s family refuses to support their identity, threats of violence or separation can follow. 

In my case, I felt different from my earliest childhood. At the time, gender identity was hardly a well-known concept. I possessed many feminine qualities, which were dismissed as “just a phase.”

I could either dress as a boy, feeling wrong about myself, or I could wear what felt right and possibly face the wrath of an intolerant society. 

Eventually, I transformed from Jon to Nikki Nigel. For nine years, I lived as a woman. 

Drug addiction ultimately led me to a life of crime. For a turbulent 25 years, I found myself in and out of treatment, jails and prison. I am now serving a 10-year sentence for bank robbery.

In Florida prisons, people who identify as transgender have certain accommodations and privileges available to them — at least in theory. 

On a case-by-case basis, transgender prisoners may be housed in a facility that accommodates specific transitioning needs for safety reasons. 

Transgender inmates in a male facility may also be given accommodations for housing, separate showers and female-only pat searches. Staff are encouraged to use gender neutral language to address prisoners if they request it. 

Additional privileges may be extended to transitioning inmates, including permission to wear makeup and style one’s hair in a feminine way in accordance with female standards. However, a 2020 federal appeals court panel ruled that the Florida Department of Corrections was not required to do so. 

In some cases, hormone therapy is provided if the prisoner was receiving it prior to conviction. But this too is not required. 

In reality, I have faced unbelievable obstacles in prison, including the threat of violence, theft, intimidation, bullying, exploitation, prostitution and rape. 

On one occasion I was assaulted, and the assailant took off with my inmate ID. He used it to access my inmate trust account and spent $100 at the canteen. I didn’t feel like I could report the incident to security for fear of retribution.

Gender identity begins to form early in life. Parents, who recognize differences in their child, might struggle to love and support their child, which children must be able to talk about elsewhere. They need to know they have other avenues of support. The recent Florida legislation closed that possibility off.

I paid a price for the culture’s ignorance and intolerance. Fifty years later, I have finally begun celebrating my story instead of hiding it.

Trans people deserve the dignity that is extended to everyone else. Considering that the state has acknowledged this in the past through policies that benefit transgender people in prison, the new legislation betrays the politicians’ naked political aims. We’ve come a long way since my gender expression was dismissed as just a phase, but we clearly  still have a long way to go. Let’s not take a step backwards by harming LGBTQ youth. 

(Additional reporting by PJP staff)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Nikki Nigel is a writer incarcerated in Florida. When released, Nigel plans to develop a transitional housing program for LGBTQ ex-offenders in Orlando.