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Boxer Shorts Blues: My Path to Gender-Affirming Underwear in Prison

Nonbinary writer K.C. Johnson soon learned that behind bars, even their underwear was subject to deliberations.

An illustration shows the back of a light-skinned person with short strawberry blonde hair in a wired bra, with their hand on a mirror. In the reflection, they are wearing an orange sports bra. Green bathroom stalls are in the background.

I am sitting in a large conference room. It is bare, utilitarian. It could be an interrogation room. I am compulsively picking at a piece of black trim peeling off the edge of the slate-gray table. The hum of the ventilation system fills the silence, which is heavy. Floating heads stare in my direction waiting for a reply — or is it a confession?

“So, Ms. Johnson,” a voice begins. “Please tell us exactly what you are requesting.”

The “us” consists of the warden, assistant warden, assistant warden of programs, head nurse and head psychologist that make up my North Carolina facility’s Transgender Accommodation Review Committee.

The topic was my underwear.

Earlier in the day, I was held back from my work-release job for a meeting with prison administrators to discuss my request to wear boxers instead of women’s panties.

This article was published in partnership with Prison Journalism Project.

For almost two decades, I have struggled against the system for the right to wear items that conform to my gender identity. I have lived a large part of my life as a reluctant female, but I’ve always felt more masculine.

While I don’t consider myself a man, I also don’t feel like a woman. Yet most places, especially my North Carolina prison, want clearly delineated identifications. It is not enough to say, “I am nonbinary; I would prefer men’s boxers.”

I know that I am not alone in this journey, as I have met many other trans and nonbinary people in prison. The following is my guide for what to expect as a nonbinary person navigating the prison system.

Day One

When you first get arrested, you may be dazed, discomposed and possibly suicidal. Incarcerated people who are in a mental health crisis or at risk for suicide are usually housed in a private cell. This is not a privilege. If you happen to look like a scrawny teenage boy with long hair and facial hair and no razor or tweezers to control it, officers will come to your cell to demand you “prove” your sex — yes, exactly how you imagine. And you will, because you do not have the choice or the strength to rebel and to say no to abject harassment.

They will smirk, and you will stand there, cold and naked. The first layer of cement will harden around your heart.

From the first day, you will confront rigid convictions. The prison-clothes house is the primary site of judgment. The attendant will size you up, literally, and hand you a stack of gray “granny panties” and white, stiff, scratchy bras. The panties will begin to unravel within a week. When you ask for alternative underwear options, a no-nonsense woman will bellow, “This ain’t Walmart, sugar! You get what I give you!”

If you are facing a long sentence, now is the time to decide if this fight is among your top priorities.

Then, be grateful. When I was incarcerated at North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in 2006, dresses were part of the uniform. It seems shocking now that someone actually thought dresses were appropriate in an environment populated with vulnerable women, many of whom are survivors of sexual assault, sex trafficking and abusive relationships.

In a dress that ultimately amounted to a thin sheet, the lines of my underwear and shape of my body were on full display. Just when I was coming to terms with my 20-year prison sentence, I became a ghost of the past, reliving my days of forced fealty to a religion with clearly delineated gender roles that I didn’t believe in. I felt exposed and powerless.

It took months — and finally acquiring larger, loose-fitting dresses — before I could “own” the uniform. I would not allow the system to take my dignity along with my individuality.

A Possible Reprieve

Some relief is available. The dresses have since been discontinued. And though no one else will readily offer you this vital information, you’ll learn that medical staff can grant approval for sports bras. But don’t get too excited. This is seen as a strictly medical concern and not related to gender accommodation. To even suggest a dual purpose may threaten your tenuous eligibility, which is based on arbitrary criteria — like a skin issue. Still, obtaining the sports bra is an important win.

So, get that “rash” examined, as this will improve your odds of obtaining a sports bra. It’s worth it to stand in front of a mirror with a little less self-hatred and a little more confidence when your T-shirt hangs flat.

Still, you’ll await the day you can step into the world as yourself without suffering what I call the “eye-dropping conversations.” Some of you know what I mean. It’s when the other person’s eyes keep dropping to your chest to try and figure out what you are.

A bit of good news: Shorts are issued to us in North Carolina. You will want to wear these as boxers with your new sports bra. This may help you feel just a little more right. You will, of course, be reprimanded because “sleepwear is not underwear” and because anything suggesting individuality and agency could be scrutinized.

If you ever find yourself held in minimum custody, sometimes known as honor-grade housing, you’ll have the opportunity to order personal clothing items like undergarments, a pair of shoes and an outfit for work release. Hope will rise, then fade. Boxers will not be on offer, and you’ll watch in frustration while women order their choice of bras, panties or boy shorts from catalogs.

Prisons are socially archaic and only make changes by force. Do not be discouraged. Recently, the North Carolina Department of Adult Correction introduced committees dedicated to transgender accommodation reviews at the state and facility level. This allows individuals to declare themselves trans and receive accommodations like chest binders and boxers.

What about those of us who blur the lines?

“Transgender” is not a label I had ever applied to myself. I’ve never needed to. The prison system, however, needs to shove everyone into a nice, tiny box.

Plus, making this declaration means seeing a therapist and discussing the most private and personal aspects of your identity. It will be the talk of the yard. The entire compound will pass judgment, some in whispers, some to your face. You will often hear statements like, “This is a women’s prison. There are no men here; why would someone need boxers?”

Some people have chosen to come out as trans while in prison, and there are many who like to shame them by calling out their past of gender-conforming practice, saying, for example: “She used to wear makeup; now she wants to be a little boy.” One option is to be quiet, let it ride and try to avoid controversy.

Become a Member

Join the community that keeps criminal justice on the front page.

But if you decide to no longer let things slide, or to apologize for who you are just for the sake of others’ comfort, then go ahead and fill out the mental health request, a prerequisite for transgender accommodation reviews. Overlook the insinuation behind having to see a therapist. She — it’s usually a she — will actually be supportive and understanding. You will wish she was the face of society, your friends and family.

It’s OK to cry, to unleash the torrent of pain and grief you did not even know you carried. The therapist has the soft tissues. After discussing your needs and what to expect from the system, she will submit a request for a meeting with your Facility Transgender Accommodation Review Committee (FTARC).

This day will be a critical juncture in your life. It’s your only chance, but it will take a lot out of you. You will be asked about personal feelings that may still be unresolved. Yet, as the words flow, a relief may wash over you. You may hear yourself declare, “I am transgender.” While nothing has changed, absolutely everything has changed. Relax into this moment. This was the easy part because there is no judgment here — just talk of practicalities and policy allowances.

For transgender men, FTARC may accommodate items such as boxers, binders and male-typical hygiene products such as Dove men’s body wash or Axe deodorant. One may request a gender pronoun change if desired. But even with all of these changes, you should know that most staff will not honor pronoun changes, either out of malice or by mistake.

For most needs requiring medical care, such as starting hormone treatments, the individual must appear before Division TARC, the review committee that functions at the state level.

After a meeting with DTARC, a request is sent to the department of corrections. Until they grant approval, it is as though your identity is in limbo. What if they question your authenticity or your truth? How can you prove a feeling, an all-pervading and long-suffered ache?

No matter. Soon you will be called to the clothes house. Not the previous one, but a new one, with an open-minded supervisor. The day of measurement is awkward, but exciting. If others are with you, know they are feeling the same hope and relief. They, too, have suffered.

Finally, a Win

When your order finally arrives and you pick up your five pairs of white cotton boxers and five black chest binders, walk, do not run, back to your cell. Give yourself these moments to think about how far you have come. The battles you have fought, both within and against the system, not just for a pair of underwear, but for your own identity, which cannot be bought at any price.

Then, stand in front of the mirror, and see yourself as the person you want others to see. Stand up straight, flex those muscles, witness the strength you hold inside. Now, get dressed — before you get ragged for checking yourself out. Step out into your world, wherever it may be. Be proud, and own it.

K.C. Johnson is a student and writer incarcerated for second-degree murder and robbery. A contributor to the Prison Journalism Project, Johnson is working toward a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University. Their goal is to travel and do investigative journalism on issues that represent a microcosm of larger social and cultural challenges.

A communications officer from the North Carolina Department of Adult Correction stated that prior to the agency’s 2007 establishment of the federally required Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Office, “there was no policy nor any standards that addressed staff searches to determine an offender’s sex.” They also stated that “based on lack of complaints made to the PREA Office, there is no indication that the practice was occurring.” There was no policy put in place to protect trans and intersex people from such searches until 2012.