Identity behind bars

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By Emily Howard          

It’s already dark when Emily Plugge turns up outside the bar, but there’s no problem in spotting her in her bright pink jacket. Tonight, she can be herself: an identity she has been forced to keep behind bars from an early age.

Thirty-three-year-old Plugge is male-to-female transgender, which she’s known since she was 4. Even as a child, she borrowed female clothes from friends, wearing them secretly under her Adidas tracksuit – but her mother always found them. Now, her lipgloss and multi-coloured painted nails sparkle under the lamplight.

A free spirit is necessary to work in the music business, which Plugge knows all too well. Being a sound designer and mixer (her favourite genres are psychedelica and trance), Plugge has worked at festivals around the Netherlands as well as further afield. When playing at a rave in Germany in 2009, the police turned up and shut the party down – and Plugge had to go to the station to get her sound-systems back.

This kind of rebelliousness sparked Plugge’s curiosity with drugs. She started experimenting around the age of 12 with smoking, alcohol and ecstasy, to fuel her party-going. By 2012, she was addicted to GHB (or ‘Liquid G’ on the street), and was dealing; but Plugge is insistent that she never dealt to junkies and only dealt “open-minded stuff” such as ecstasy, amphetamines, MDMA and acid.

It was when she was in her boat, with large amounts of drugs on board, on one of Groningen’s canals in August 2013 that she was arrested. Taken to the cells in Zwolle, Plugge was body-searched by male officers and 3 days later was sentenced to the male prison. During the process, Plugge asked the court if she could be sent to a female prison; having lived as female for 5 years already.

“I was so scared of that. Scared of the other prisoners,” Plugge says. She describes the prisoner in the cell next to hers: Jasper S., a famous murderer in the Netherlands. “They are criminals, but I didn’t do anything to anyone.”

In the weekly meetings with her prison mentor, Plugge repeatedly asked to be transferred to the female wing, in vain. After 5pm inmates are locked in their cells and Plugge was told that during this time she could wear a skirt, so long as the other inmates couldn’t see. It was too risky to be herself around the other prisoners. “People who are themselves are raped.”

Plugge knows what hiding is like. Before coming out as a woman and moving to Groningen, she used to deal cocaine in The Hague, but she didn’t feel safe dealing hard drugs: “It’s a male world.”

In 2008, Plugge flushed her cocaine down the train toilet while moving to Groningen and since then has never had to hide; in Groningen, she has never experienced verbal or physical abuse from anyone. She enjoys being a daredevil when it comes to expressing herself: “Sometimes I try to see how far you can go, and it’s amazing.”

Repressing her identity in a male prison was damaging for Plugge’s mental health. She was clean from drugs but started getting the same feelings from before, “when you walk into a wall, and again and again and again.” After asking the prison manager, her doctor, and her psychiatrist to be sent to a female prison, Plugge was referred to Franeker FPA: a mental health clinic.

“That was a bad joke”, says Plugge. In the clinic, she could not be herself much more than in prison. She was frequently stared at, was told not to dress as a woman or to use make-up, because they couldn’t be sure that she would be safe – and other residents’ therapy might “go wrong” by seeing Plugge as a woman. The clinic refused to help Plugge in her gender transition; “they said, no, you’re hooked on the drugs so we work on the drugs.”

Even as a child, Plugge’s family made the mistaken connection between drugs and gender. “They say it’s the drugs, that’s why you think you’re female. But I say, when I was 4, I didn’t use drugs.” Plugge’s relationship with her mother is still strained; despite only wearing female clothes for 6 years, her mother still buys her male clothes for Christmas.

Given that Plugge didn’t see the mental health clinic as taking her seriously, she didn’t take them seriously either. On the weekends she would frequently escape her curfew and find some GHB. “When you cannot be you, you say ‘fuck it’.”

On her last day in the clinic, Plugge received a response from the University Medical Centre in Groningen (UMCG), who she had written to asking for medical provision in her transition to become female.

To medically transition from one sex to another, individuals must “prove” that they have been living as the gender with which they identify for at least a year, and so Plugge had eight meetings with Dr Ellen van Loo at the UMCG to prove her gender identity. For Plugge, this was hard. She doesn’t like wearing high heels or ascribing to anyone’s expectations; “it’s how you see yourself” that matters.

“They cannot categorise me as a sheep in one herd. They could not place me in a box, but they tried every time.”

For a fast-moving free spirit like Plugge, the process was not moving fast enough. “It looks like a game for people. They can say, ‘you must wait’.” Before starting the process in Groningen, she had thought about going to Thailand to get a sex change, but in the end she was too afraid that there would be health risks in adapting to a new climate and medical system.

Last month, Plugge received an invitation from the GenderTeam at the UMCG for November, and so her transition is moving forwards. For half a year, Plugge has also been clean from drugs after realising they also limit her. “When you use drugs every day, it gives the same feeling. No emotion. You’re in a box.” As Plugge says, she will not let anyone or anything stop her from being herself.

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