Transgender inmate hopes for release into an accepting world

TROY, Va. (AP) — Of the six gunshots Toni Nanette Hartlove fired inside her Hopewell apartment on New Year's Day 1999, three hit her husband.

Sentenced to 33 years for murder, Hartlove was locked up in the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women where she remains today, unique among Virginia's 30,000 prison inmates.

Born Anthony Norman Dunlop on July 15, 1949, in New York City, Hartlove has always felt she was female. She began transitioning her body in 1975 with hormone treatments and surgeries completed in 1981 in Mexico. Now age 70, she is the only transgender inmate being held in a Virginia prison that houses inmates of their identity gender.

Hartlove hopes to be released soon to an outside world more accepting of people like her than the one she left behind two decades ago. In a recent interview, she spoke softly and was given to understatement.

"I've led an interesting life," she said.

In a recent, high-profile Virginia case, Gavin Grimm, a transgender public high school student, went to federal court after the Gloucester County School Board denied him use of the boy's room. Hartlove, however, says she did not have a problem with the Virginia Department of Corrections two decades ago when she transferred from the Riverside Regional Jail to the Fluvanna Correction Center for Women.

"She is a female, so she is at a women's prison," wrote Lisa Kinney, a spokeswoman for the department, in an email.

Under department policy, only transgender inmates who have had reassignment surgery can be housed in facilities for members of their reassigned sex — and there is only one known offender in the Virginia system who has qualified, Kinney said.

Officials would not identify who that offender is, but the Richmond Times-Dispatch reached Hartlove through her attorney.

Lawyers in two other states who went to federal court in attempts to win recent transfers of transgender women to female prisons said that they were aware, anecdotally, of other transgender women in female prisons in other states, but that Hartlove's case is unusual.

"That's incredible that she's been in a women's prison since 1999. That's absolutely incredible. That is not the norm at all across the country," said Vanessa del Valle of the MacArthur Justice Center in Chicago.

Last year del Valle went to court on behalf of a transgender female inmate, Deon Hampton, who was being held in male prisons but was eventually transferred to a female facility.

"In Illinois, where I practice, we had to fight long and hard for Ms. Hampton to be transferred to the women's facility," she said.

Hampton, however, unlike Hartlove, has not had transitional surgery.

As of last month, the Virginia Department of Corrections said there were 42 offenders have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria — seven of whom were born biologically female and identify as male, and 35 of whom were born biologically male and identify as female. Another 20 to 25 inmates are under evaluation.

Gender dysphoria, a conflict between a person's physical gender and the gender with which they identify, can cause severe distress, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Most, if not all, Virginia inmates so diagnosed are receiving hormone therapy treatment from endocrinologists at the University of Virginia or Virginia Commonwealth University hospitals, said Kinney.

In an interview in mid-August at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, Hartlove sat in a wheelchair she has been using since a back operation.

She complains that her hair cannot be done properly at the prison so she had hers cut off. "When I get out, I'll get myself back together like I used to be. This is not the way I carry myself on the outside."

Her nails neatly manicured, she rested her hands on a table in the visiting room at the prison, gesturing with them at times as she talked about her life.

"I was born in Metropolitan Hospital, Manhattan," she began. She said her stepfather was in the U.S. Army. "We traveled all over the world."

"I've always been, I guess you could say, on the feminine side from the day I was born," she said.

Being transgender and a person of color has been complicated and at times difficult. "People have no clue whatsoever," she said.

"I was in the closet for many years," Hartlove said. Her identity, however, was hard to conceal and there was teasing and harassment from other children as she grew up.

She said her mother, Joyce Taylor, would tell her, "'Keep your head up and be strong and don't worry about what people have to say.'"

The family settled in Aberdeen, Md., where she graduated from Aberdeen High School in 1968. She soon left home for Baltimore and a new life. At age 18 or 19, she said, "I decided to live as the person I really am."

She received hormone treatments and started having surgery to transition to a woman's body in 1975, much of it done in Rosarita, Mexico, by Dr. Charles Brown, who had stopped practicing in the U.S.

"He made you feel welcome, he didn't make you feel different in any way," she said of Brown. She moved to California where she said people were more accepting and open minded.

There was more surgery in 1980 and it was finally completed in 1981.

Hartlove said she never doubted, before or after surgery, that she was doing the right thing.

But, she cautioned others, "it's rough for you to take that step. You have to know what you are doing."

"Once you lay on the (operating) table, it's done. It's over. There's no going back," she said.

After her transition she returned to Baltimore, had her name and sex legally changed by the state of Maryland, and married a man who was later killed in a drive-by shooting.

She remarried, this time to John Hartlove. She said they had a house, two cars and a boat. Life looked good from the outside, but the marriage was rocky and there were a number of separations, she said.

They moved to the Tri-Cities area to help out her ailing mother who was having difficulties with an adopted child in high school at the time.

In her accounting of events, Hartlove said her husband was fine when he was not drinking, doing drugs, or chasing other women. He could become abusive when he was intoxicated, she said.

There had been issues in Baltimore and again after they moved to Virginia. Police had to removed him from their home at one point, Hartlove said.

On Jan. 1, 1999, she said she emptied her revolver at her husband in self-defense. "I was just protecting myself," she said.

According to a Times-Dispatch account of her trial, Hartlove testified that the shooting followed a quarrel in which her husband became verbally and physically abusive.

They attended a party on New Year's Eve and then returned home. Then her husband left for another party and returned home early that morning belligerent and angry, she said. They argued and he cursed and attacked her in their Hopewell apartment, she testified.

"She retrieved the gun from the bedroom closet and fired all six shots in self-defense,' she said. According to testimony, Mr. Hartlove was on medication for seizures and his blood-alcohol level was .07 percent at the time of his death. In Virginia, a person is considered legally drunk with a blood-alcohol level of .08 percent or above," the story said.

Judge Robert G. O'Hara found her guilty of first-degree murder and use of a firearm in commission of a felony. That September, he sentenced her to a total of 33 years.

Hartlove complained last week that her trial lawyers did not fully explore and present to the judge the couple's bad history — some of which was in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, after a medical examination and review of her records, the Riverside Regional Jail housed Hartlove with other females there. Many jails in Virginia house both men and women in separate tiers.

Virginia prisons, which hold inmates for longer terms, keep the sexes apart in separate facilities. When Hartlove was transferred to the Virginia Department of Corrections, she went directly to FCCW on Dec. 1, 1999.

In the years since then, she said she has not had any real problems as a transgender woman with the staff or other inmates at FCCW, the state's largest female prison. In a way, she said, it has been easier inside. "It's outside you find the people that want to judge you," she said.

Other offenders at the prison ask her about her background but she said she generally deflects the questions, preferring to keep things to herself.

"I tell them we all come from different walks of life and we have to join together to help each other," she said.

She said the prison was a better place when she first arrived. Two big issues there now are drugs — Suboxone primarily — and not enough activities for the inmates. She said she spends much of her time reading.

She has had two surgeries, one for a back problem and the other for a thyroid issue since she has been at FCCW.

Hartlove has battled with the department over medical issues, joining other inmates at FCCW and testifying in a long-running federal court case filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, over health care at FCCW.

In an opinion written by U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon earlier this year, the judge noted that Hartlove had taken phenobarbital and dilantin to control seizure disorders since 1969.

In November 2016, Hartlove began to feel disoriented and inebriated, and her speech slurred. She reported her symptoms to FCCW medical personnel and testified that she was not treated for them.

Later she blacked out, fell, was taken to the FCCW infirmary and from there to the UVA emergency room, where she stayed for five days. It turned out that Hartlove was suffering from dilantin toxicity. The UVA hospital refused to return her to FCCW until her levels returned to normal, wrote Moon in his ruling.

Then on April 17, 2017, a FCCW nurse gave Hartlove three times the amount of phenobarbital that she should have had, according to Moon. Hartlove had to be monitored in the infirmary for six hours. The next day, Hartlove did not receive her phenobarbital, Moon wrote.

Hartlove said last week that as a precaution, in case it is a tumor, she is being checked out for a mass in her left breast which she believes is related to a silicone injection.

Her good-time release date — the 33-year sentence minus time off for good behavior — is not until 2027. However, she said she is eligible for geriatric conditional release, which would enable her to complete her sentence in the community.

She said her case went before the Virginia State Parole Board in June, but she has yet to hear back. She believes she may first have to live in a transitional house.

Her parents are deceased and is she estranged from her brother and sister for reasons other than her sexual identity.

"I have nothing out there. No family," she said.

The LGBT movement has come a long way since she entered prison. She is hopeful the outside world will be a better place to live than it once was.

"It's so open now, it's so wide open," she said. She wants to find an apartment and live in Virginia Beach.

Beyond that, her plans are simple: "Buy me a puppy and raise my puppy and be happy until the good Lord calls me."


Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch,