Coming Out as Transgender in a Hostile Environment
JUSTICE DENIED: SUMMARY
My name is Steph Turner, an openly transgender person in Michigan. I first came out as trans in 1993 amidst a religiously conservative community in Grand Rapids. Among the first I told was my older sister in Wisconsin, who came out as male-to-female transgender some time earlier. We had drifted apart, but now had something in common to rebuild our relationship. She moved in with me mid June of 1993, but she soon became the object of attention from a neighborhood girl.
While I was at work at night, I would later learn, this girl would peek into our apartment window to gawk at my transgender sister. To placate her persistent curiosity, my sister let the girl into our apartment one late afternoon on July 7, 1993. I was asleep in the back bedroom after a night’s work, and I awoke to hear my sister talking with someone. I got up to see who it was and found my sister conversing with a girl I had never met.
They both ignored me, and I was upset this strange girl was in the apartment without my consent. I left the apartment to discuss this with my estranged wife, who lived only a block away. She was not home, so I returned to my apartment. By the time I got back the girl was gone.
“Who was that?” I asked my sister. “Keiko, or something like that,” she tersely reacted. She obviously didn’t want to talk about it just then, so I thought I’d bring it up later.
But a few minutes later there was an angry knock on our door. The girl’s mother was accusing my male-bodied sister of molesting her daughter. When the mother had asked the girl why she wasn’t home on time she claimed that “a man with lipstick” grabbed her and pulled her into our apartment.
Police were called to the scene. Through leading questions, the girl implicated my sister in a string of bizarre sexual acts that stretches the imagination. Through more leading questions the girl then implicated me. This was during the height of the 80s/90s moral scare around child abuse cases that were later found to be unfounded.
The girl accused my sister of engaging in sexual acts with her, while I supposedly held her down. She then claimed I smeared jam on my shirt to appear as blood. That we forced her to pose with a butter knife held to my chest and took a picture. That we would show the photo to prove she was the aggressor, if she ever told anyone. I would not know any of this until long after we were arrested and thrown in jail.
Of course, the photo never existed and there was no jam on my shirt. Just as there was no semen found on her body or physical evidence of her being assaulted. We were confident the lack of evidence would clear up these incredulous accusations. After all, this is the only time I ever had been implicated in a felony. Although it didn’t help that my sister had some prior convictions from her struggles being outed as trans in the 1970s, but those were all property crimes.
We took it to trial later that year. The trial lasted two weeks. Jury deliberations extended over the weekend. I remained confident of being acquitted, until I learned from my lawyer that a conviction of sexual assault did not require corroborating evidence. In fact, the exculpatory evidence was duly ignored. In an era when LGBTQ people were widely viewed by religious conservatives as “recruiters” and child molesters, the jury convicted us on the 13th of December based solely on this girl’s coached testimony fitting us into their stereotypes.
Enduring Institutionalized Trans-exclusion
Continuing Shadow of Endured Injustice
Distorted Investigation Leads to Injustice
As profiled transgender people often are, we were overcharged, wrongly convicted, and then given harsher sentences compared to non-transgender people. Despite the sentencing guidelines recommending a minimum of five years, the judge sentenced me 15 to 30 years. My sister was sentenced 30 to 50 years.
Despite being male-to-female transgender siblings, we were both sent to men’s prisons. After eight years of this nightmare she succumbed to cancer and died in prison in late 2001. I was finally released in 2005 after the appellate court reduced my sentencing but failed to vacate the unjust conviction.
After being released I finally finished my bachelor’s degree in 2008, graduating magma cum laude. I went on to earn a master’s degree in public administration in 2012. Then I am pursued a second graduate degree program, but the wrongful conviction is preventing me from being able to complete the program. It's a gift that keeps on giving, or taking.
As a trans person it is hard enough to find work. A background check results in added discrimination. The felony question on application forms is enough to trigger some PTSD. I am currently underemployed and homeless. I had lived on student loans until they ran out. Ironically, the twelve years of wrongful incarceration was easier than this lifelong damage to my reputation.
My four young children (who never once accused me of sexual improprieties) lost their father. They are all grown up now, having children of their own, each struggling with the consequences in their own way. Their mother lost the family’s main breadwinner, throwing them all into an unending cycle of poverty. And she lost her husband, since prison is no environment to grow a marriage.
This case is still officially on appeal, as I have yet to exhaust all court remedies. But I am discouraged with the judicial process, at least trying to pursue justice on my own. I feel powerless to the widespread justification or uncritical belief in a process that disproportionately devastates marginalized people like me. Until I created this site to illuminate this apparent social disease of justifism.