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My Prison Diary, A French Inmate's Battle To Become A Transsexual

Sentenced to 18 years in prison, Franck fought to undergo a sex change operation with hunger strikes and endless mutilations. Chloe is now a free woman, and married to her former cellmate.

My Prison Diary, A French Inmate's Battle To Become A Transsexual
Rozenn Le Carboulec

CAEN — In the Caen prison, Franck Vilain was once authorized to paint his cell pink and to order, via "canteen" vouchers, makeup that he put on before going to his job in the workshop of the French prison. That's also where he got his first bra — a 34A — and a sewing machine to make skirts.

And in June 2006, Franck swallowed the first of many small pills — hormone therapy he had been asking for to begin his transformation — a final victory in his long and turbulent fight to become Chloë.

"They gave it to me in a small bag, and I held it against my heart and cried," says Chloë, now 53 years old, in her mostly pink 10-meter studio apartment in Caen. Her voice is soft but still deep.

"Taking that thing off"

Before being allowed to receive the hormones, Chloë tortured herself, to the point of initiating in her cell the operation that she was denied. Alone, she tried "taking off that thing" between her legs that prevents her from being the woman she feels she has been for a long time.

When she talks about the man she used to be, Chloë uses the past tense. Franck was the son "of a prostitute who abandoned him and of a passing customer." He was married twice and lived with a third woman. He was the father of eight children, whom he hasn't seen since his 1998 conviction for which he was sentenced to 18 years.

Chloë wants to erase Franck, the killer buried deep inside her, and doesn't want to talk about the serious offenses for which he was convicted. She's scared it will damage her new life as a free woman, which began when she was released from prison in April 2014.

More and more violence

In the beginning, when she was incarcerated in a prison in Loos, in northern France, Chloë dressed as a woman every evening in her cell. But when she arrived in Fresnes, south of Paris, in 2004, it didn't go as well. One evening, a warden doing his rounds asked her to change on the pretext that women's clothes were forbidden. "It can be a way to escape," another guard noted. That's when Chloë"s battle started.

She went on a three-month hunger strike, then started mutilating herself more and more violently. “I burned my arms," she recalls, pulling up her sleeves to reveal numerous scars. "I cut myself with razor blades. I cut one of my fingers. I didn't know what was wrong with me."

A few months later, in September 2004, she was transferred to Caen, where she read Le Transsexualisme by French psychiatrist Colette Chiland. That's when she discovered it was possible for a man to have his penis removed, to undergo a physical sex change. "When I understood it was all based on that thing, I stopped all other mutilations," she says. But though she began hormones in 2006, her surgery request didn't go as planned.

"When I asked that they remove this thing, they told me they weren't allowed to, that I should just cut it off myself," Chloë explains.

She took that response literally.


In February 2006, she was taken to the emergency room after hurting her penis with a nail. It was the first in a long series of self-mutilations.

"I felt her pain indirectly, and she was deathly pale," says Jérôme, a former cellmate who worked in the same prison workshop and has also since been released. Chloë promised herself that before 2009 ended, she would be rid of "that thing." In April, she was once again admitted to the emergency room, before eventually being transferred to the Fresnes prison hospital.

That's where she met social worker Henri Ricciardi. He was the first to visit her in Fresnes. Chloë wanted him to see her mutilations, to provide proof to the prison sanitary unit. So she undressed in front of him. "I almost passed out. I had to lie down on the bed," Ricciardi recalls.

"Transsexual syndrome"

To obtain a "gender reassignment" operation paid for by social security, Chloë was told she had to undergo a two-year evaluation to verify her "transsexual syndrome," as psychiatrists call it. Only after this monitoring by a multidisciplinary medical team could she hope to receive the operation.

A first assessment in 2008 described her case as "secondary transsexualism," meaning that its onset was late, without noting "any mental illness diagnostic." It concluded, "It is important not to impede her demand, considering the risk of very serious mutilation and, on the contrary, help her in the practical realization."

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Fresnes prison — Photo: Lionel Allorge/GFDL

But in December 2011, she received bad news: Her request for surgery was denied. "The diagnosis is in favor of a borderline type emotionally unstable personality disorder," the report said. It was a severe blow for Chloë.

In 2013, she mutilated her penis once again, so seriously that it had to be amputated at the Caen hospital. A few months later, Chloë was finally sent to urologist Jean-Pierre Villez.

"He asked me, "Do you want me to try and make you a labia so it looks more womanly?" Chloë recalls with a smile. She gladly accepted.

A concerted campaign

At the Caen prison, which receives mostly sex offenders, Chloë says she was raped three times — in her cell, in the showers and at the canteen, while she was cleaning one Sunday morning. She won't say more about it. "I preferred not spreading it or filing a complaint." A member of the National Prisons Union admitted the wardens were aware of these attacks but adds, "We passed on the information to a higher level. After that, it's no longer our responsibility. Plus, we're under-staffed."

Throughout her detention, Chloë addressed thousands of letters to politicians and associations to denounce the living conditions of transsexuals in prison. She contacted Jean-Marie Delarue, who was at the time the "Controller-General for Places of Deprivation of Liberty." In June 2010, Delarue issued a notice aiming to improve "the treatment of imprisoned transsexual people."

In 2010, a prison memorandum noted that searches of Chloë"s body should be conducted by two wardens: a man for the lower half and a woman for the torso. "Taking into account Mrs. Vilain's chest, I thought at the time, probably in a bit of a rush and alone, that it was a good solution," says prison director Karine Vernière. "It's more a problem of unawareness that true animosity," the warden assures. Her hierarchy eventually changed the process.

Wardens were provided with awareness brochures, but when her lawyer Benoît David wrote to "Mrs. Chloë Vilain," his letters were corrected at the prison to "Mr."

That doesn't matter to Chloë anymore. Now, when she looks in the mirror, she no longer sees Franck. "If you put me naked next to a woman of my age, you can't see the difference."

Today, Chloë is officially a woman. Her name has been legally changed. She chose Chloë, she says, "because when you mix the letters, it says éclos," whichmeans "blooming." She was even given a social security number starting with a 2, which is used for women in France. In 2013, she married her former cellmate Pascal.

Every day, when she rides her bike to go to work for an organization that collects and sorts textiles, she passes by the prison at exactly 6:30 a.m. "Pascal knows it, so he turns on his small light, and we wave to each other." She sleeps surrounded by soft toys, one of which he gave her, and she never turns off the stereo, "because it comes from him." Pascal was sentenced to life in prison, but his mandatory minimum has just ended. Chloë"s next campaign is to get him released.

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