fb-pixel Skip to main content

In state first, a prison guard becomes a woman

Sergeant Sarah Stowe at home in Plymouth.
Sergeant Sarah Stowe at home in Plymouth.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

PLYMOUTH — Last August, Sarah Stowe started growing her hair out, from a buzz cut to a layered look that now reaches her chin. She added some gold highlights and began wearing makeup. She pierced her ears and went shopping for new clothes.

A year ago, she was Sergeant Paul Stowe, a corrections officer at the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, a medium security prison for men. Massachusetts has 17 transgender inmates, according to a spokesman for the Department of Correction. But, at a moment where a newly signed trans rights bill has made history in the state, Stowe is the first guard to transition on the job.

Advertisement



Before coming out as transgender in July 2015, Stowe, who is 38, met with the director of diversity at the Department of Correction, Monsi Quinones, to plan for a gradual transition, which would give officers and inmates a chance to adapt, she said.

She was shocked when the news immediately leaked: “Somehow, everyone found out right away. Just knowing I had to go to work the next day, I was so nervous. It felt like the first day of school.”

Paul Stowe served in the US Army and the Army National Guard. Above: Stowe while deployed in Kosovo in 2001.
Paul Stowe served in the US Army and the Army National Guard. Above: Stowe while deployed in Kosovo in 2001.Suzanne Kreiter

Despite her fears, most inmates seemed OK with it. “The first couple of days, there was some snickering and laughing,” she says. “They reacted pretty decent.”

But among her colleagues, the adjustment was more difficult. The officers who had a problem with it “just wouldn’t speak to me at all,” she says. And when Stowe started using the women’s locker room last fall, some complained to the union and to prison administrators that she was creating “a hostile work environment.”

When she complained about the barbs and snubs, Stowe’s work unit was sent to a class on transgender issues. During the session, some in the class made disparaging remarks about transgender people, according to one corrections officer who asked not to be identified because he fears a rebuke from the department.

Advertisement



The officer said that though many of the women officers didn’t care about Stowe using the locker room — “we have lesbians in the locker room” — others wrote letters to the governor and complained to the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union.

DOC spokesman Christopher Fallon acknowledged that “there were concerns raised by female officers with regard to privacy in the locker room,” but said the superintendent addressed them with complainants.

From the start, Stowe was legally protected from being fired: The state passed a law in 2011 prohibiting gender identity discrimination in housing, employment, public education, and credit. But not until Governor Charlie Baker signed a transgender public accommodations law on July 8 was she protected from discrimination in public places, including bathrooms.

Stowe lobbied legislators on behalf of the bill. Under the new law, transgender people are allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identities. It also protects them from discrimination in public spaces such as museums, restaurants, malls, and libraries. The bill follows the June 30 lifting of the Pentagon’s ban on transgender people serving openly in the armed forces.

“It’s such a huge relief knowing that I now have protections against being discriminated against and that I have the same equal rights as any other American,” Stowe said.

Since her journey began in the fall, Stowe has stuck with her plan to take it slow. She described her experience on the job as “a work in progress: I’m transitioning, and they’re coming along for the ride.”

Advertisement



Stowe has been undergoing laser surgery and electrolysis to get rid of facial hair. In May, she had breast augmentation. She is getting hormone therapy at the Fenway Community Health Center and hopes to have gender reassignment surgery next summer.

It has been a long time coming. Paul Stowe grew up in Bourne, the youngest of four siblings: two boys, two girls. From earliest memory, he felt like a she.

But Paul played with trucks and, as a 5-foot-4 high school freshman, played a year of football. After high school, Stowe joined the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, and spent two years in Kosovo “trying to stop Albanians and Serbs from killing each other.”

Today, Stowe says the five years in the Army and another five in the Massachusetts National Guard were futile attempts to stay busy, to try to outrun an inner conviction: that she was a woman. “I figured that would help me get rid of the girl feelings I had,” she said. “But once things slowed down, it would hit, the feeling that I was in the wrong gender.”

Paul Stowe went to work for the Department of Correction before transitioning.
Paul Stowe went to work for the Department of Correction before transitioning.Suzanne Kreiter

On a recent day, she was sitting in the neat two-story home she owns in Plymouth, going through Army photos. She had on black pants, size 10, and a plum shirt that matched her fingernails. She was wearing silver dangling earrings, and a touch of pale pink lipstick on a welcoming smile. Her eyebrows were shaped, her skin smooth.

Advertisement



In an upstairs closet with coral-colored walls hung navy blue DOC uniforms, next to newer women’s clothes including a silky pink shirt. There was a makeup bag in the bathroom.

It was hard to believe she was the same person pictured wearing Army fatigues and wielding an automatic weapon on a hilltop in Kosovo in 2001.

In May 2015, Stowe sent a long “coming out” e-mail to family and friends. “Ever since I can remember I have felt that I am in the wrong body and I was meant to be a woman,” she wrote. She said that she had found it difficult to accept being transgender, and that as a teenager she had thought of suicide.

“I would give anything not to be [transgender],” she wrote. “Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. . . . This is not a choice. Why would anyone choose to be transgender, to be hated by 95% of the world, to become an outcast, and to make your life 10 times harder.”

She wanted her loved ones to know that she was still the same person — “same likes, same dislikes, same jokes, same taste. Same personality.” Those family and friends have been supportive, she said.

In 2009, before transitioning, Stowe went to work for the Department of Correction, and in 2014 was promoted to sergeant, overseeing staff and inmates in the segregation and protective custody units.

Which Sergeant Sarah Stowe still does. “She was respected before [transition] and she made sergeant really quickly,” DOC spokesman Fallon said. “There were some things we had to make accommodations for.”

Advertisement



Fallon declined to elaborate, aside from giving the example that women guards at the prison — more than 90 percent are men — can’t do strip searches of men.

Stowe was recently chosen to be one of 400 people to attend the first international LGBT Conference for Criminal Justice Professionals in Amsterdam in August. For the first time in a long time, she says, she is happy.

Her colleague has noticed the change in temperament, too. “Paul could be rough to work with at times,” says the officer. “He was moody and depressed. I’ve seen a huge improvement from Paul to Sarah.”

Stowe says she hopes to have gender reassignment surgery next summer.
Stowe says she hopes to have gender reassignment surgery next summer.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.