"I'M A MAN. YOU CANNOT TELL ME I'M NOT"
Today, sitting in Pulaski State Prison, 23-year-old Ky Peterson shakes his head at the mention of CeCe McDonald. "I haven't heard of her," he tells The Advocate, his brow furrowing. He opens his mouth to ask a question — then the video conference signal cuts off without warning. Visitation is over for now until his partner, Georgia resident Pinky Shear, makes a deposit for the next half-hour. She speaks to him several times a week, listening to his worries — like his struggle to acquire asthma medication or his distress after he was slapped in the face by a correctional officer — as well as his triumphs, including recently passing his GED exam.
Shear is now Peterson's main connection to the outside world, and the one whose daily efforts have resulted in the blog Freeing Ky, which started telling Ky's story and fundraising online for legal counsel last December. In February she helped lead a local drive called "Love Letters to Ky" to collect written messages of support for Peterson that she says have helped raise his spirits.
"I'm just so grateful for everything that everyone has done for me," says Peterson of the letter-writing campaign. "Getting these letters from people I don't even know — it just lifts my spirits. It helps me try to keep a positive outlook, even when my environment has so much negative."
That negativity results in an ongoing battle with feelings of hopelessness and depression — compounded by the discouraging, sometimes abusive treatment Peterson tells The Advocate he's experienced since entering the all-women's prison in November 2012. While incarcerated, Peterson has been prescribed antidepressants, but a report from a corrections department therapist obtained by The Advocate indicates that Peterson has not received follow-up care or counseling for the trauma he endured as a result of being raped.
Like McDonald, Peterson remains imprisoned in a facility that does not match his gender identity, a fact that he's reminded of daily as fellow inmates and staff consistently misgender him.
"My identity [as a trans man] has not been respected at all. The officers still address me as 'ma'am,' which I don't like at all. But I have to go by it, because that's their rules that I have to go by," he shares with The Advocate with a shake of his head and a sad smile. "Here the staff's like 'girl' this and 'girl' that, and I have to catch myself sometimes like, 'You must be talking to someone behind me.' It's just not what I'm used to, even at home."
"Once I make it known to them [that I'm a trans man], it's always something extra like, 'No, you're just gay,'" he adds, looking up to address the video screen as if it were a guard, his voice quiet but resolved. "I'm a man. You cannot tell me I'm not."
Though he says he knows that testosterone therapy is part of his medically necessary care, he's not yet asked for access after experiencing a distressing delay with his asthma pump and denial of his gender identity daily from prison staff. Yet Peterson remains cautiously hopeful that change may come.
The first bright spot has been the one respectful prison official he's encountered since entering the penal system three years ago: his mental health counselor at Pulaski. "She actually respects me as what I am. She addresses me as 'he' and doesn't call me [by my birth name], so that makes me feel better," he says.
Recently, Peterson has been in contact with local trans advocacy group Trans(Forming), which has given him his first access to a gender therapist via video conference. Peterson anticipates receiving a formal letter diagnosing him with "gender dysphoria," which is often the first step needed to request medically necessary hormone therapy. He is currently contemplating, in a move similar to fellow trans black Georgia inmate Ashley Diamond, pushing the state's Department of Corrections for transition-related care.
Day-to-day, Peterson holds on to little victories and takes life one moment at a time as he faces down the next 17 years (with 12 more to serve in prison) of his involuntary manslaughter sentence. Meanwhile, he dreams of release and a day where he can live in his authentic gender without the fears and struggles that now plague him.
"I want to be a motivational speaker," he says resolutely. "I want to travel around the country and educate other people about trans rights."
Peterson says he's already working on his first speeches. "They're not very good," he concedes — but they're a starting place.
Those speeches, along with the letters, video calls from his partner, his GED, and the possibility of finally receiving the gender-affirming care he's been denied, all help Peterson stay positive.
"It gives me hope," says Peterson. "And that's what you've got to have to get by in here. That makes me stand a little taller — even if it's just this much, it makes a difference."