Catherine Carlson, who transitioned 28 years ago, says legal records that still include her male name threaten her safety
PAYETTE, Idaho — For nearly a year, Catherine Carlson refused to pay the fine for driving with a suspended license because it was issued to both her and the man she used to be.
She went to jail four times over the ticket that includes both her legal name and the one she was born with, Daniel Carlson. She had surgery 28 years ago to become a woman, the gender she believes should have been assigned her at birth.
Carlson legally changed her name in the 1970s, but police and court records include both in this rural farming and ranching community east of the Snake River in southwestern Idaho.
"The ticket was the last straw," Carlson said.
Her fight against local authorities brought up questions Payette County had never answered before: where to house a transgender person in a jail with separate cells for men and women, which courthouse bathroom should she use, should the former male name be stricken from county records.
"This is a very conservative old-fashioned community, that’s just the way it is. This is rural, small town Idaho. This is new to us," said Payette County Sheriff Chad Huff.
During the past year, Carlson repeatedly protested the $841 citation in court hearings on the case.
Her struggle for acceptance since the sex-change operation on Thanksgiving Day 1980 has gone on much longer. She chose a life of solitude at a trailer park near the Payette city limits, rejecting a society she feels has rejected her.
In her cramped mobile home, she thumbs through court records from a 2000 dispute over a house between her and her mom. The male name was entered into the system then, she said, after she sought a protection order in the case.
While a stranger in California recently settled the dispute over the ticket — paying the fine that was reduced to $510 in October after Carlson spent three days in jail — she vows to continue her fight against the local justice system for using a name she feels is a threat to her safety because it reveals she is transgender.
"It destroys my ability to be me," Carlson said. "It’s not just a ticket."
Elizabeth Barbour, 57, a bookkeeper in Redwood City, Calif., found out about Carlson after a story in Carlson’s local newspaper, the Argus Observer, was posted online, detailing how she could no longer drive to the store because she was afraid of local police.
Barbour paid the ticket.
"I couldn’t imagine how difficult it must be for a transgender person in Idaho; it’s difficult in California," Barbour said in a telephone interview. "I would imagine the culture would be less forgiving there."
A Nov. 28 court hearing was canceled, dismantling the platform Carlson planned to use to fight the use of her former name.
"It’s frustrating to me, this whole thing," said Huff, elected sheriff in 2004 of this rural county, where the city of Payette includes 7,400 townspeople in a sugar beet-and onion-growing region on the Oregon border.
The police officer who cited Carlson on Dec. 3, 2007 was doing his job when including the male name, which is listed as an "aka" or "also known as" in the county records, Huff said. "The only reason the officer put that down is because it was on her driver’s record," he said.
Carlson was sent to the county jail four times in the past year. She failed to appear for court-ordered community service, drove without her license and was "semi-indignant" to a judge who held her in contempt of court, Huff said.
Each time, her request to be housed with other women was denied and she was placed in a cell by herself.
"She doesn’t get to dictate to me, the sheriff, where she spends time in jail," Huff said. "When she came in, we couldn’t confirm or deny her gender because we don’t do strip searches on misdemeanors."
Her longest jail stay was a five-day sentence in September. Huff requested a shorter sentence because Carlson wasn’t eating. "I don’t believe this is the last we’ll see of her," Huff said.
Dressed in black pants, a plaid shirt and hiking shoes, Carlson is rail thin with long blond hair. Fine lines map her face, she hand-rolls her cigarettes, eats little and survives on nine travel-sized mugs of coffee a day. She lives on a $1,000-a-month Social Security check, suffers from depression, emphysema and a heart condition.
"Changing your gender is not going to solve all your problems," Carlson said.
Two small dogs, Shadow and Teeny Tiny Tina, scramble at her feet as she flips through an album to a photograph of a cute blond in a knit cap, the woman she became after the surgery. She worked three jobs, saved up about $15,000 to castrate Daniel and get saline breast implants for Catherine. She took estrogen until it became too expensive.
She used to wear pretty dresses, fix herself up. Now she only has a couple blouses and says she doesn’t want to attract attention to herself. She leaves her trailer about once every 10 days.
Carlson views her struggle against the local justice system as a fight for rights granted to everyone else under the U.S. Constitution, acceptance in the society she has secluded herself from for all these years.
"You’re going to have to make me one of ‘We the People,"’ Carlson said.