Tuesday August 22, 2017

From men's prison to the beauty salon - Judy Thompson's quest to shake her demons

Judy Thompson

Judy Thompson (Ben Shannon for CBC)

Listen to Full Episode 28:09

This documentary contains strong language, violence and sexuality. The original version is above; below is a censored version.

Producer's note: Judy Thompson is a former prisoner who, in her sixties, started to identify as transgender. Prior to this, Judy was known as Dale Thompson. Judy says that, if she had been allowed to live from a young age the way she had wanted to — as female — she would likely not have committed the crimes she did. Judy refers to her old life under her former name, "Dale." Following her cue, I also use "Dale" when talking about her former life, to respect Judy's desire to separate "Dale" from who she is now.

By Marc Apollonio

"I'm making a pointed effort to get that jailhouse language out of my system. It's coming pretty good, but every once in awhile…"

Judy Thompson's working hard to cut back on the expletives. But after 45 years behind bars — for crimes including armed robbery and murder — taming her language isn't easy.

It's mid-April 2017, and Judy is lying in a convalescent bed in Montreal. Two days earlier, she underwent gender reassignment surgery. It was an operation a lifetime in the making.

"I've never been happier with any part of my life than I am now."

Judy Thompson spent over four decades behind bars...0:42

Judy is now 67 years old. She says her memories of having "girl feelings" date right back to early childhood, when the world around her was telling her she was a boy named Dale Thompson.

She says cousins used to dress her up in girl's clothing — and that she loved it. "That playtime was... fantastic."

But those feelings collided with another inescapable force of her young life: Judy's father, a veteran of the Second World War, who sexually and physically abused her.

"When I was fifteen, mom and dad came home from the cottage sooner than what I expected. And I was in four-inch heels with a black gown. And my dad put me in the hospital."

It wasn't long before the violence and dysfunction of Judy's household began to manifest itself in her own behaviour. Judy describes how "Dale" used intimidation to assert control and to hide personal insecurities.

"I used violence to to cover up hurt, to cover up my feelings of being different."

As a teenager, Dale left home to live on the streets and began working as a prostitute, soon getting involved in petty crime. By Dale's early twenties, he was heavily involved in armed robbery. By his early thirties, Dale had killed a man. 

A timeline of the trial in newspaper clippings

Dale Thompson was given a life sentence for second degree murder. A decade and a half into that sentence, Dale realized that unless he changed drastically, he'd be in prison the rest of his life.

In the mid-90s, Dale quit drugs and alcohol and got out of the drug trade. But without narcotics, Dale could no longer remain numb to the tremendous guilt that came from having murdered an innocent man.

As she contended with the remorse, other buried elements of Judy's psyche surfaced; such as the truth about her identity. But she says, being a transgender woman in a male prison would put her at huge risk of sexual abuse and assault.

"Because of the places I put myself, acting in a feminine aspect was detrimental to my life." Another decade passed before she was ready to open up to the world that she was, in reality, a woman.

That came just three years ago, in 2014. The first person she told was a prison psychologist. She declared that from then on, she would be known as "Judy."

A year later, Judy was released on parole.

She now lives in Ottawa. She volunteers — speaking in schools and universities about LGBTQ rights. She frequents a local beauty salon, where she's learning to call getting a haircut "getting your hair styled." Slowly, she's making friends. With her gender reassignment surgery complete, her sense of self worth is growing.

"As I am now, psychologically in my own skin, I feel beautiful. I feel that I deserve different things in life that are meaningful. I deserve it and the people that take the time to stop and smell the roses with me deserve it too."

As she adapts to her new life — a life without bars and life as a woman — Judy says, she will always live with remorse for the life she took.

She says her greatest goal is to put violence and aggression behind her.

"I think the only way that I can make up for it in a realistic aspect is that if I live my life the rest of my life — whether it's a year a few months or 20 years — without hurting anybody in a physical or an emotional sense then, maybe, I can be forgiven."

"I don't want to be the king of the hill anymore... I just want to be an ordinary middle aged woman."


Postscript

Over the period it took to produce this documentary, I met with Judy several times and spoke with her, by phone, many times more. We became friends and she and I continued to talk quite regularly. But about two months ago I suddenly stopped hearing from Judy and couldn't reach her. 

I emailed Correctional Services Canada, and a communications person told me, "Due to the Privacy Act, I am not able to share too much on Ms. Thompson. I can say that she is still under our jurisdiction, and would not worry about her health."

I hope that I will hear from Judy again soon.


About the Producer

Marc-Apollonio-Headshot-100

Marc Apollonio

Marc Apollonio has been with the CBC since 2006, working in offices around the country. Currently, he's back in his hometown, Toronto, helping out on national radio programs like The Current and Tapestry. 

"Becoming Judy Thompson" is his second piece for The Doc Project.