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6:08 pm
Mon March 3, 2014

Michelle Kosilek: 'You Don't Lose Your Right To Humanity When You Go To Prison'

Michelle Kosilek is serving a life sentence for the 1990 murder of her wife. Kosilek has been embroiled in lawsuits with the state over its repeated refusal to provide hormone treatment, electrolysis and gender reassignment surgery.
Credit Associated Press

There hasn't been a more perplexing prison controversy in Massachusetts than the case against Michelle Kosilek. Convicted of killing her wife when she was referred to as Robert, today Kosilek is serving a life sentence for murder.

But the case is bogged down in Kosilek's demand to have gender reassignment surgery.

Boston Spirit Magazine recently interviewed Kosilek by phone and provided audio to WGBH News. Kosilek takes on critics and offers a rationale for why the state should pay for the surgery.

In January, a three-judge panel upheld a ruling that the state should pay for Kosilek’s surgery. But the Department of Corrections is appealing.

All of this puts transgender in legal, medical and ethical spotlights.

Kosilek tells Spirit magazine that as a young boy growing up in Chicago she endured regular torment and abuse.

"I was beaten, and eventually my grandfather started sexually molesting me," she told Boston Spirit Magazine.

Kosilek says the struggle with gender identity led to substance abuse. By 1983, she landed in a Massachusetts rehab center where he met his future wife Cheryl McCaul.

"I trusted my therapist, and he referred me to Cheryl, one of the volunteer counselors who he said was an expert on, or more knowledgeable about, sexual issues," Kosilek said. "Cheryl is the one who seduced me."

Kosilek married McCaul and they had a son. Then, in May 1990, Kosilek killed her in a rage after she came home to find her husband dressed in women’s clothing. Once in prison, Kosilek began the long journey to gender reassignment surgery.

"When I was a prisoner in the Bristol county jail trying to get this treatment, I had $27,000 in my prison account," she said. "I had contacted a surgeon and he had agreed to come here and do the surgery."

Robert Kosilek, who now goes by Michelle, has been embroiled in lawsuits with the state over their repeated refusal to provide hormone treatment, electrolysis, and, of course, the surgery itself. In 2012, federal Judge Mark Wolf ruled that withholding the surgery was tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. It’s a decision that remains controversial.

"It’s disheartening to me," Kosilek said. "You don’t lose your right to humanity and dignity when you go to prison. We don’t go to prison for punishment. We come to prison as punishment. This is what a lot of people, including our elected officials, don’t understand."

Kosilek, who is currently serving a life sentence at MCI Norfolk, says things have gotten much better over the years, but it wasn’t always like that.

"There was name-calling. I heard 'faggot,' 'freak,' things like that from staff and from other prisoners. I was relatively isolated for much of my incarceration, but that isolation was mostly by choice. Over time it got worse. Every time I was trying to be myself, or express myself, there were people who were in disagreement with the way that I looked, the way that I walked, the way that my voice sounded. I got disciplinary reports for using homemade makeup, homemade eyeliner. I would make homemade lipstick. There was verbal abuse involved."

Still, Kosilek remains dismissive of the crime.

"I came to prison for taking a life in a tragically accidental situation, and regardless of that, I am nonetheless a human being deserving of dignity, and that medical care is one of the things that prisons are required to provide," he said.

A jury found nothing accidental about the murder. After practically severing McCaul’s head, Kosilek drove her naked body to a nearby shopping mall and left here there.

"I — like anybody — I am a work in progress," she said. "I have made a lot of mistakes, and I will probably continue to make a lot of mistakes. Though none of them will be as damaging to others, I’m sure, as those I have made in the past, I’m not a bad person, regardless of how the D.O.C. might instigate the media, conflating my crime with my status as a transgender woman."

  • Read the full text of Boston Spirit Magazine's interview with Michelle Kosilek.
  • Read Kosilek's open letter to the LGBT community.
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