It was late morning on July 27 when Linda Thompson walked into a bank in Cheyenne, Wyo., armed with only a note written on a piece of cardboard.
“I have a gun,” she told the teller. “Give me all your money.”
“Excuse me?” the teller said, according to a criminal complaint.
“Yeah, this is a robbery,” Thompson responded.
The teller handed over a thick bundle of cash, and Thompson walked away.
But she didn’t bother counting her haul; instead, she threw bills into the air and gave cash to passersby, telling them that she had just robbed a bank.
Then Thompson sat down in a nearby parking lot and placed the rest of the money in front of her, the complaint says.
And then, she waited for police.
Thompson had been out of prison for a little over a month. That morning, on her 37th day in the outside world, she decided — as she had done before — that she couldn’t make it on the streets.
She had recently served a six-year sentence in the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Ore., for another bank robbery — a crime she says she committed with the same goal in mind.
“I want to go back to prison,” she told a police officer in Cheyenne.
Advocates say transgender people face elevated risks of abuse behind bars. “Being transgender or gender non-conforming in an American jail or prison often means daily humiliation, physical and sexual abuse, and fear of reprisals for using the legal remedies to address underlying problems,” according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
But Thompson is different, explaining that prison has become home — a place where she doesn’t have to explain who or what she is.
For Thompson, who has spent about a third of her life locked up, living in the outside world is harsher punishment than being in prison.
Just a few days before she robbed the U.S. Bank branch in Cheyenne, a group of men beat her at a public park, leaving her with a black eye and a fractured jaw.
Homeless shelters were either full or unwelcoming, she said, and she did not think anyone would hire a 59-year-old transgender woman with a criminal history and no college education. Jobs have been mostly evasive since she became Linda Patricia Thompson in the 1990s, she said.
Turning to family was out of the question, too; the Presbyterian missionaries from Colorado who adopted her when she was 3 have long since died. She had only a younger brother, and they have been estranged for decades, she said.
So she chose what she calls the “cowardly” way to deal with the world.
“I go to prison as a means of survival,” Thompson said in a phone interview with The Washington Post, weeks after her arrest. “I find prison as a society that I accept, as a way of life that I accept. I’ve learned over the years to adapt to it.”
“Yes, there are people that don’t like you and never will like you,” she added. “I get that on the streets, too.”
‘There’s no place where she belonged’
Thompson’s younger years were marred by self-hatred. She said she has long wanted to be a woman, to be treated like one, but achieving that goal has been difficult.
She spent about 20 years, from the 1970s to the 1990s, working on oil rigs and at cattle and dairy ranches, construction sites and welder shops.
For a while, she lived a double life: At work, she was Brian Thompson. At home, she dressed up as Linda.
In 1991, she decided to be just Linda. She pierced her ears, permed her hair, grew her nails and bought women’s jeans at thrift stores.
But choosing to live as a woman had its consequences. Thompson said she found it hard to get employment, even for jobs she’d done for years.
“I had to show my ID and whatnot,” Thompson said in “Cruel and Unusual,” a documentary that explored the lives of transgender women in prison. “And they say, ‘Oh, Linda Patricia Thompson? But you’re a guy … we can’t be having that around here.'”
To get by, she resorted to stealing copper wires and metals. That landed her in prison several times.
She has served time in mostly male prisons in Utah, Idaho, California, Washington, Wyoming and Oregon.
“What am I supposed to do to survive?” she said in the documentary. “I can’t work. I’m not allowed in the shelter. I’m not allowed in the rescue mission. I’m not going to lie about who and what I am.”
In 2000, while serving time in Idaho, she decided to end the self-loathing and castrated herself. A year later, after prison officials did not provide her with hormone treatments, she cut off what was left of her genitals.
“For the first time in my life, I loved myself,” Thompson said in the film.
The same year, she sued Idaho prison officials in federal court for not considering her condition a medical one.
In an affidavit written by then-warden Dave Paskett, he recalled a statement Thompson made to a correctional officer about why she did what she did: “There is something inside my heart and soul that makes me want to do this because if I don’t do this, I would end up killing myself.”
Months later, Thompson cut her neck with a razor. Still, prison officials did not believe that she should receive female hormones or have a sex-change operation. They believed she needed extensive counseling before she could qualify for such treatments. They also cited her long history of alcohol abuse. (Thompson said she started drinking when she was 12 or 13.)
“She was considered a mental health issue,” said Bruce Bistline, an Idaho lawyer who represented Thompson in the lawsuit. “She was considered crazy.”
According to the American Psychological Association, identifying as a transgender “does not constitute a mental disorder.” Instead, obstacles such as lack of resources on counseling, hormone therapy, medical procedures and social support, as well as experiences with discrimination, lead to distress, anxiety and depression.
“There’s no place where she belonged,” Bistline said, adding: “Not only did she not have any place she belonged, she was abhorrent to a lot of people.”
Thompson has not had a sex-change operation, but she regularly takes hormones.
‘Nowhere to run’
Thompson said her decision to commit a crime just to get back to prison makes her “somewhat of a failure,” because other transgender women have made it outside. But not her.
“Even if they have to pick the lowest form of employment, they’re still out there trying to succeed and whatnot,” she said. “And I choose to have society support me and go to prison, which is kind of a cowardly way of dealing with my problems.”
Dru Levasseur, national director for the Transgender Rights Project at Lambda Legal, said Thompson’s choice of prison over freedom is uncommon but reflects the same sense of desperation that many transgender people feel.
“A feeling like there’s nowhere to run,” Levasseur said. “Everywhere you go, you’re facing discrimination, harassment and violence. That’s definitely universal.”
A recent survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that transgender people are four times as likely to have a household income of less than $10,000 a year compared with the general population. They also face an unemployment rate that’s twice that of the general population.
Lea Cooper, who also represented Thompson in the Idaho lawsuit, said she has a more significant purpose than just living in prison: She can change how transgender inmates are treated.
The Idaho Department of Corrections adopted new policies as a result of a settlement it reached with Thompson. The prison system was required to convene a committee and a psychiatrist familiar with transgender treatment to evaluate transgender prisoners on an ongoing basis, Cooper said.
“The part that makes her life doubly tragic is that there’s no support outside for people coming out of prison,” Cooper said. “Because she has a lot to contribute.”
Thompson now sits in a detention center in Scotts Bluff County, Neb., where she was transferred as she awaits sentencing. She’s facing a maximum of 20 years.
At a hearing last month, according to the Los Angeles Times, Thompson pleaded guilty.
Addressing the judge, she said: “I’d like as much time as possible.”