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Saturday 27 May 2017


Trans behind bars: Tama's story, Pt 2

Posted in: People
By Jay Bennie - 17th May 2017

This is part two of Tama's story. You can read part one here.


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He related it during an emotional discussion which took place in a NZ women's prison, following GayNZ.com expressing interest in interviewing a transgender prisoner. The choice of interviewee was made by the Department of Corrections and one of the Department's female media relations team sat in. Tama seemed comfortable with her presence and she was genuinely moved by his story and solicitous of his well-being during difficult parts of our discussion.

This is not Tama's complete life history. There are gaps due to time, legal and privacy constraints and emotional blocks. And, in order to comply with the Department's requirement that Tama not be able to be identified, we have changed his name and omitted some elements of his life story.

With some prompting along the way by GayNZ.com, Tama spoke about his life from childhood until the present day. These are his own quietly-spoken and at times deeply emotional, words.



I'd found a church that I really liked with a real family, nurturing loving environment where I felt that I was being loved by people for the first time. A lady who is still a good friend was helping me in my relationship with God and stuff like that. I kept telling her not to be too forceful about it... I was liable to snap at any time.

We had this conversation about straight relationship. I tried to explain to her 'look the way that you see a male and a female in a relationship that's natural to them, well for me with a woman that's what's natural to me.' And she couldn't understand that and I was trying to find a way to tell her that 'what's normal to you is what's normal to me with women' and I started getting really stressed about it.

My life had done a 180, it was getting better, it felt like I was getting my life back on track. I'd got my son back, I had my own place, had got some qualifications.

I just threw my life away. I messed up. I went and got a lot of alcohol and I drank all night and eventually hurt some people that had put me in a defensive position. There was a lot of name calling and I was trying to protect myself. For me an argument is just as bad as fighting. The argument was going on for hours and it got to the point where something just switched and I... I don't know if it was psychological or not but I... I took them all out without realising it...

It was a real shock, it happened so fast,i had no time...

Back where I came from [violence] was quite normal,.. we'd fight quite a lot down there. Real drunken situations... you know how people make mistakes when they're drunk, well, that's how people there see fighting. It's like 'ít's all right mate, someone else's going to mess up next weekend. It'll all get forgotten soon.' I did hurt some people and I don't know how to acknowledge that because it feels like it wasn't me.

It was a major breaking point in my life. I really didn't know to cope with a lot of things in everyday life as well as my past so it kind of led there.

[Tama becomes extremely emotional as we discuss at length his experience of remand prison and, in particular, court, and whether he was understood for who he is.]

I went into remand and was surrounded by around 40 other... that was a lot to take in. I don't like calling much attention... so I kept to myself for a while. My first medical appointment was after a month or two months of being in here. I was celled up with a cell-mate and once they sorted out my testosterone treatment and stuff like that it was noted on my file that I was transgender so I had my own cell.

They had to get all my notes from my doctor here and my doctor back where I came from, it was quite a long waiting process.

[In court] they just went by what was on the paper... female. From day one I was a monster. That's how I felt, standing in the dock. For a couple of weeks I didn't know what i'd done. It was like one of those blackouts... I needed to hear over and over what I did to those those people before... I had little specific memories about it... and I was able to accept that I had done it.

The first months, in high security prison, was the worst, being locked up for so long, having little or no privileges, being with so many people who had no control over their lives, no idea how to cope, they just let that show in every way, take it out on others... it was just a survival thing for me in high security, but it's over and done with.

[Tama is now in a lower-security prison]

It's really hard being surrounded by so much women and being... I just keep my silence. I know that it's a women's prison and that its the safest place to be but being recognised as a woman is... all I can do is understand others and understand what I'm going through at the same time. That helps me get through it.

When I first came in I hadn't been able to talk much about what I was going through. I wanted to be acknowledged as a man, to be looked at as a man, I want to be treated just normally as a man without being looked at...

The person they see physically is completely different to who I am.

They have their... They're straight up. There's some common questions they ask all the time. They often ask if I'm gonna get surgery, what that's going to be like, and am I going to be able to have intercourse and stuff. Yeah. It's real personal.

I don't fit in anywhere. I've just gotta be me and stand out.

I've been asked why I'm here and not at [a men's prison] but I don't want to have to explain to them why... but it's because of my safety, I have to be here, there's nothing more I can do about it. Even though I'd rather be there. But I understand how brutal things can be.

I'm accepting who I am and where I am, doing everything I can to work towards the career that I want, that's what I'm doing every minute I get here, it helps to hold onto that it will become a reality. It involves being an artist, a writer...

I'm working in the laundry so there's lots of time for studying waiting for the machines. I've had to in a way become my own advocate.

I get on with the staff pretty well I guess. I honestly do. I see what they have to put up with and I do what I can to make life easier for them. They are understanding, they offer their support, some better than others. So far they don't judge me, they try to be understanding, to use the male pronouns for me. But when they slip up it'll be the 'she' or the 'her' and I just let it slide. I get that now.

That's something I have to keep in mind for my family as well. A lot of them don't know... But my family's old-school. I'll just let them be. The ones that matter most to me are my sons and my relationship with them means more. They're still [very young].

My youngest one still calls me mum. He called me dad for the first time on Saturday which was really neat. Either way, whatever makes them feel comfortable.

I have one person, my ex-partner who has my youngest son now. She... it took her a while to get used to the changes but now she's 100% supportive. Otherwise, apart from that I don't have any friends so its something that I'm going to have to work on. I want to become part of the lgbtqi community, because that's where I belong and I completely understand the diversity and we're all so different but also beautiful and free within our community. Well that's how I see that anyway. I've got a couple of pen pals that are transgender men as well and I korero about how their journeys are going and I hope to meet up with them.

[I do want a partner], hard out. I know I can't have a relationship unless I'm complete. I want to be complete, all the time.

It's been a hard journey for me with the whole religion thing. In the last years when I've been looking for God again in my life it's become more of a personal journey. By personal I can't explain to other Christians but I've come to understand that my relationship with God is completely opposite to religion and totally based on love and the heart. The Bible's there to encourage me, to lift me up and give me a bit of insight into humanity as a whole but I just understand not that every individual has their own choices to make and shouldn't be bound by rules and ritual things.

Jesus set an example that was based on love and a clear communication with God but with love being the motivation with his relationships and the way that he spoke...

I did struggle with God when I came in. Like, 'God, how could you love me the way that I am?' And pretty much what I heard from him is 'I love you as you are.' And I said 'far out. I'm a transgender male and you know what I'm going through... that's enough for me.' That's a message that I want to share with the wider transgender community because I want them to know that he loves us all, based on our hearts and not on our exterior.



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Jay Bennie - 17th May 2017