RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — After 34 years in prison, several attempts at self-castration and a thus far unsuccessful legal battle to obtain a state-paid sex-change operation, the future is looking brighter for Ophelia De'Lonta.
The door of Buckingham Correctional Center could swing open any day now for De'Lonta, who was granted parole last month and is just awaiting approval of her post-release plan.
"I plan on going to nursing school and pursuing my surgery," De'Lonta said in a telephone interview. She said she chose nursing because "I like helping people," but obtaining the gender reassignment surgery also remains important to her. She has received counseling and hormone therapy in prison and no longer has the self-castration impulse, but the transformation she seeks remains incomplete.
"I'm dealing with something that bothers me mentally and physically, so having the surgery will complete everything and I will be less depressed, more productive," she said.
De'Lonta, born Michael A. Stokes, was sentenced in 1980 to 73 years for bank robbery. The 53-year-old De'Lonta has been diagnosed with gender identity disorder, a medically recognized illness in which people believe they were born the wrong gender.
She said her lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Roanoke will proceed, although she was unable to elaborate on any basis for requiring the state to pay for the surgery once she is released from prison.
"I really don't know the actual details on that, how that would play out," she said. "I'll let my attorneys take care of that."
Her attorney, Alan Schoenfeld, declined to comment.
De'Lonta said her hopes of succeeding in court were buoyed by a Jan. 17 federal appeals court ruling that Massachusetts must provide sex reassignment surgery for another inmate with gender identity disorder.
That ruling came nearly a month after William Muse, chairman of the Virginia Parole Board, personally informed De'Lonta that her parole had been approved.
"He said, 'Do you believe in Santa Claus?' I said 'yes' and he slid the paper over to me," De'Lonta said.
Muse said the prospect of the state possibly being ordered to pay for De'Lonta's sex-change operation had nothing to do with the parole decision. De'Lonta believes him.
"There was a thought, but I also had a clean record so there was no reason they would turn me down," she said.
She said she has stayed busy in prison, completing programs in business applications, brick masonry, substance abuse, productive citizenship and commercial foods.
When she is released, De'Lonta will initially live with her niece in Hyattsville, Md. Items near the top of her to-do list include finding a gender therapist, landing a job as a nursing assistant and getting enrolled in nursing school.
But there's one stop she wants to make on the way to Maryland.
"The first thing I really want to do is go visit my mother's grave," De'Lonta said. "That was my inspiration and my heart, so that's the first thing I have to do."
She said her mother was a regular visitor and source of emotional support before she died in 1996. She is buried nearby in Crewe, Va.
De'Lonta said other family members also have been supportive, and they will help pay for her sex reassignment surgery if the lawsuit doesn't pan out. And if it doesn't, she hopes the fight hasn't been for naught.
"I hope a lot of people have a better understanding of what gender identity disorder is," she said. "A lot think it's elective surgery, which it is not."