1st openly transgender San Quentin prison guard discusses coming out

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. (KTVU) - Walk through the gates of San Quentin State Prison, and the locks clank loudly behind you. You know instantly, you're in a tough place.

It's the place where Mandi Camille Hauwert set herself free. She's San Quentin's first openly transgender prison guard.

"You're putting yourself out there," explained Hauwert, who came out at work about three years ago. "You're putting who you are as a person out there. Most people hide their true selves from everybody."

Hauwert said she has the support of the prison administration, some fellow guards, and surprisingly, some of the inmates.

Several prisoners greeted Hauwert as KTVU accompanied her on a walk through the prison's lower yard; the main outdoor space for inmates. "The only thing I can come up with for why that is, is that they understand what it's like to be looked at and judged," explained Hauwert. "They're used to people judging them negatively, so they know what I'm going through. At the very least, they understand that part of it."

Mandi used to go by the name "Michael". Before she started working at San Quentin in 2007, she was a Damage Control Officer in the U.S. Navy., one of the burliest jobs on the ship. Hauwert says she used to mimic other men to fit in. "I had to teach myself how to be a guy," Hauwert explained. "I had a male body, so they bought it! So it's pretty easy."

Hauwert first started dressing more femininely and wearing makeup in private. She laughs when she talks about applying makeup at first. "A lot of us (transgender women) when we do come out, we go crazy with makeup and outfits. We kind of overdo it," she explained, it's a lot like being a teenage girl.

"When she gets permission to wear better clothes...and more makeup, once mom says 'OK, go ahead', girls go crazy! Right? Same thing with trans girls, we just happen to be doing it in our 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s."

Transitioning hasn't always been easy. Hauwert is chronicling the challenge in a diary for the online publication, Ratter. In it, she describes the first time "Michael" walked through prison gates as Mandi. "I'd be facing down some of the toughest people in the state in lipstick," she wrote. "I felt anything but brave. I thought I'd be fired, or dead within a month."

Hauwert said later that night, a supervisor pulled her aside, "And asked 'what's with the makeup?' It hit me: I was cornered. Stuck in a situation of my own making," Hauwert explained. "I responded with the words I'd spent a lifetime avoiding: ‘I am transgender.'"

Hauwert said some of her fellow guards have been supportive. "There are a lot of people here who are really, really good friends to me, who started out as people who did not want to speak to me," she said. But she says there are others who have bullied, even shamed her. "He told me I was an abomination in the eyes of God, and told me I would spend an eternity rotting in Hell for my choice."

The words clearly hurt, but Hauwert said she wouldn't change coming out to show her true self. "I can't stand people who bully others," she said. "I found myself in a position to help, and so I do."

Hauwert will undergo gender reassignment surgery at the end of the month. She hopes her experience, coming out in one of the toughest environments imaginable, will lay groundwork to help other transgender people going forward. "Because I have to. I'm driven to," Hauwert said. "I don't know what else to do."