Correctional Peace Officer, Writer, Activist, San Francisco
I was driving down the mountain in a 4x4, alone and on a road so bumpy it felt like off-roading. Basically I was off-roading on the Haleakala mountain, but I didn't even notice. I was listening to a podcast where a woman was pouring her heart out, and I heard her. Her struggles, brutal honesty and feelings of despair and triumph. And the more I listened the more I wanted to understand her story and interview her. Several searches, tweets, messages and I was sitting across from Ms. Hauwert in San Francisco, eating fish and chips. She had a day off from working as a first transgender correctional officer in San Quentin State prison and I was honoured that she decided to spend couple of hours with me. Opened in July 1852, San Quentin is the oldest prison in California with population of about 3,774 as of December '16. The state's only death row for male inmates, the largest in the United States, is located at the prison. I had so many questions and I was also intimidated to meet a person who handles herself so well among population of mostly men, in a tough environment. I did not need to worry because Mandi in person was even more lovely, kind and warm than the woman I heard over the speakers. Below is the very honest and unapologetic q/a where I learned something and was left with at least 100 more questions.
Mandi Camille Hauwert
2. Where is your hometown?
Port Hueneme, California
3. What is your profession/career/title?
Correctional Peace Officer—Writer
4. I first heard you talk about your journey / transitioning on a podcast interview where you describe the difficulties in personal and professional life. Can you describe what are some of the differences between feeling acceptance in your personal and professional sphere (at home vs. at work)?
I believe that acceptance is vital to a successful transition.
In my life, I am both a transgender woman and a peace officer; yet, within each of those environments, I am somewhat of an outcast. Inside the prison system, social progress is stifled. They remain decades behind the societies in which they reside. Racism, sexism, and homophobia find a home here—not that recent political events in the USA haven’t uncovered many of the same rampant forms of bigotry prevalent in our culture.
It is no surprise that those working inside the justice system would find the idea of a transgender woman to be unnerving. The outside world is, only recently, coming to terms with the existence of transgender people. It is as if they are being told that the world they thought they knew, is no more; in fact, it never was.
To my trans-family, being in law enforcement is either the most heroic thing that I can do, or it makes me a traitor to our cause. I have become an oppressor, in their eyes. It is an incredibly isolating experience to work in an environment where you are always fighting to gain acknowledgment. To better the very system you find yourself in. In the interim, you have to defend that career choice to those in the transgender community who, quite frankly, have every right to question and be wary of anyone who would call themselves an officer of the law.
I am not hated by every co-worker, just as I am not hated by every transgender person; however, it is for those who would throw me to the very depths of hell itself, that I continue along my path to bettering myself and my world. I am most fortunate to be in a position where I can even begin to make those changes, to a brighter, more inclusive society.
5. Biggest feeling of accomplishment since making the decision to transition?
My most significant accomplishment—thus far—would have to be the four and a half years I spent working toward gaining the acceptance of my parents. Going from, “You killed our son.” to, “This is our Daughter, Mandi.” My parents have made a substantial transition, perhaps more than my own. They had to come to terms with the idea that they were not losing a son; but, gaining a daughter. That I was still their child—their miracle baby.
6. What are the challenges you face as a female managing men and what has helped you to overcome those challenges?
It was kind of interesting to see how the inmates reacted to me as a male versus a female officer. For one, they tend toward softer more calming voices—I learned later that it’s their attempt at flirting indirectly. I struggle, now, to have men take my authority seriously—in just about everything. I don’t think they notice; but, they explain things to me now, things, I already know—better than them usually.
Although, I will say that I am not treated as a woman by all. To some, I am that “tranny.” A sideshow attraction.
To overcome or deal with many of my newfound problems, I looked to other female officers. I asked odd questions, like how to ward off unwanted male attention, or how to survive when you’re awash in a sea of testosterone and male aggression. Most people I think forget, I was never a man—at least not from my perspective—and though I’ve always been a woman, I have not always been treated as one. In other words, I had a lot to learn about being a woman in a male-dominated workplace; I am still learning.
7. What are some stereotypes about your line of work that are true and which are unfair (not true)?
Stereotypes are a funny thing; often they can be alarmingly close to reality—others—they miss the mark entirely. The problem with stereotypes is grouping. When they get applied to an entire sub-group of people as being immutable facts or qualities. For example, when many people think of correctional officers—prison guards—they’re imagining something akin to the guards in The Shawshank Redemption; lumbering knuckle draggers who revel in inflicting pain and suffering upon another human being they see as scum.
Do these type of guards exist? Absolutely; however, in today’s modern prison system, those sorts of individual quickly go from wearing a badge to dressing in a prison jumpsuit. My experience of most correctional officers is they tend toward conservative viewpoints, chauvinism, and a strong sense of justice. Like all of us, they are flawed; they have qualities which are not best suited for working in prison. Yet, for balance, we need all sorts. I am a communicator; I talk my way out of bad situation. But, there are situations where talking just isn’t going to work, where a harder approach is warranted.
As an officer, my job is to ensure the safety of those in my charge and to make sure that the will of the people, through the courts, is carried out—namely, that those sentenced to incarceration, serve out their time. I was not hired to make their lives a living hell or to pass judgment upon them.
8. What was the biggest disappointment and plan to overcome it?
I’m assuming you’re referring to my biggest disappointment since transitioning. For me, it has to be my potential as a writer. I’ve had some success, and writing about my journey has given me so much to write about; yet, I remain blocked somehow. There are barriers that I seem unable to defeat.
Really, it is the desire to contribute something of significance to the transgender movement—more than simply coming out at San Quentin. While that is indeed an accomplishment worthy of attention (ahh—so egotistical), it does not feel quite right. I have more to offer; I am more than an intriguing headline.
A talent that I have been fostering my whole life has been my writing. I make no particular claim as to the brilliance or ingenuity of my prose; but, it is all that I know, all that I am, and all that I have to give.
9. Advice for other men looking to transition (related to thriving as a transgender woman) and Advice for other women (trans and not) who may be looking to enter your line of work?
First I need to address the usage of language in the question itself; I would be derelict in my duties as a trans advocate if I did not.
When you ask about advice for transgender women—referring to them as other men—I understand the confusion in pronoun usage; after all, before transitioning, they are typically living and presenting as men. Yet, I would advise any individual, writing in the transgender sphere, to avoid using the assumed pronouns of the trans person(s) in question—unless it is absolutely vital to tell the story. It would be the same for transgender men—not referring to them as other women. Sorry—preaching.
For those who may or may not be transgender, looking to enter into corrections, I would first ask—do you have any other options?
Kidding aside (Am I?), Working as an officer in prison is, tedious, stressful, and dangerous. We need all sorts of personalities wearing a badge; diversity in policing is incredibly important in creating a better environment for all—or at least as good as a prison can be. Be prepared to see things that may disturb you, frighten you, or shake you to your core. And if any of that sounds ominous, then corrections is not for you.
Remember, those in our care are human beings and deserve respect afforded to that title. If you cannot separate your personal feelings toward their crimes—and do your job—then you will struggle. We are not here to be their friends; but, neither are we here to be their tormentors.
And to the transgender hopefuls, know, that things are still improving; the department of corrections has a few miles to go yet. If you can, transition before you apply. If you come into your own while wearing the uniform, I can only hope that your experience is better than mine and those who’ve come before.
We are here—I am here; should you need to reach out for advice or a friendly ear, I am always willing to listen.
10. Where in the world do you feel “tallest” (i.e. where is your happy place)?
My happy place, is not so much a place, as it is an activity—writing. Specifically, scribbling in my notebook with a good’ole pen or pencil. With a piece of paper, I am God. I hold the fate of each blank page in my hand. Before me is infinite possibility waiting for my thoughts to give it form and purpose. Even the act of regarding the beauty of a blank page gives me satisfaction. With a pen and a piece of paper, I can control the fate of my deepest, darkest, thoughts; my heart tore open upon the page for others to read, to ponder, and perhaps—to learn.
11. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?
I’ve had so many hobbies, it is hard to know what to chose. Learning martial arts rates high on my list of activities I’m most proud of. However, my reasoning for taking it on in the first place has to do with my childhood. I used to get picked on and beat up. The worst of which happened during shower time after P.E. I wasn’t comfortable undressing in front of boys—I am a girl—and that made me weird, and outcast. And around junior high, I began to notice my attraction to males; the bullies too, noticed me, noticing boys. I was the target of regular beatings, usually while kids yelled homophobic epithets. It was a kid on the playground that saved me one day; literally sailing over my prone form and kicking my assailant. It was his intervention and the knowledge that he possessed such knowledge thanks to the study of martial art, that moved me to seek training.
In the years that followed, I gained a Sandan (third-degree black belt) in Shorin-Ryu and a high rank in Wing Chun Gung Fu. Over 20 years of hard work and long days punching and kicking—all so I could walk through life without being in fear of my life.
I’m not too shabby at Close-up Card Magic either.
12. What is the future goal/challenge (career and/or life goals in 5-10 years)?
I’ve always said, that at my ten-year mark with corrections, I’ll promote; I am well on track to that goal. My ultimate career goal, however, has to be living and working as a writer, and author. I love it. Toward that goal, I have made progress, and I need to continue pushing forward. Perhaps a biography is in my future—though I love writing the stories of other trans people as well.
13. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?
I want to, desperately, overcome my fear of living. For decades, I’ve suffered from depression. In fact, I couldn't say for sure whether or not I’ve ever been happy. Having to deal with Gender Dysphoria and all of the fears that come with it, have left me spent. While my darker emotions come quickly, I find it hard to connect to the brighter side of my psyche.
I have—and continue to—suffer from suicidal thoughts and ideations. I am a survivor of more than a few attempts. More than anything, I want—need—those self-harming thoughts to stop. The scariest part of it all is that I have no idea—short of medicating myself into oblivion—about how to end this deadly cycle.
14. Anything you'd do differently (if you had another go at life)?
Can I be born a girl? If not then —no. The reason? There is no guarantee that my life would have been any better today, had I come out at a young age. During the 80’s and the 90’s, the treatment for transgender people was shock therapy. They’d literally attach electric contacts to your skull and turn up the juice. Besides, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do many of the things I’m doing today—like making history as the first openly transgender correctional officer at San Quentin. (ps…I was born a girl; I just didn’t tell anybody right away.)
15. What inspires you?
The unending creativity of the human mind gives me hope for the future; I draw from its wellspring to turn the void into being. It is from the example set by my progenitors that I draw my inspiration.
16. What are you hopeful about?
Hope is a fickle friend for me. I sometimes feel that the more I hope something, the further it races from my grasp. If there is hope in me, it would have to be for the bright future of our young transgender family.
17. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favorite reads?)
I mostly read non-fiction—science, psychology, and philosophy. I do love Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett as my go to fiction authors. The book I’ve gifted most—even going to the store to buy new copies just to give away—is Gavin-De Becker’s The Gift of Fear. Mostly it teaches people to trust their instincts in dangerous situations; that we often notice more about the world around us than we give ourselves credit for.
18. Who is a “WOW Woman” in your life who inspires you (and why)?
Perhaps it’s cliché; but, my WOW woman is my mother. She has overcome so much in her life and still managed to raise loving, caring, and compassionate children. I would say more about her story; however, I do not want to tell it, until she is ready for the world to hear it. She is far from perfect; she has flaws which I would never admonish; though I have yet to run across a better woman to look toward, to show me what a woman is—a decent person.
19. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)?
My HuffPost Blog