Tara Zyst: Live a lie or choose to die?

Originally published by the Tribune News Service

Tara Zyst

My name is Tara Ellyssia Zyst. I was born to another name: Karl Anthony Terry. I am not him. I have never been him. I will never be him.

He is a product of my parents’ wishful thinking. He is a product of their creative mythology. He does not exist and never existed.

But I exist.

I, Tara, am the only real entity birthed from my mother’s womb. Yet, all of my life, I have been denied that acknowledgement.

Now I am 43 years old. I’ve spent the last 23 of those years on Oregon’s death row, convicted and sentenced to death for two murders. I maintain my innocence.

I have been fighting with those charged with holding me — the Oregon Department of Corrections — since 2005, trying to obtain treatment for gender identity disorder. I have formal diagnoses, but the prison clinicians refuse to acknowledge them because they are made by outside providers.

I’ve fought. I’ve taken the prison system to court to force accountability. In 2010, Marion County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Guimond found me to have a “serious medical/psychiatric condition,” in his written decision to my habeas filing but dismissed my petition as moot based on the Department of Justice’s argument that I would be provided appropriate mental health care by the prison.

Seven years later, the facility’s Prison Rape Elimination Act compliance manager finally formally placed me on the list of inmates the Oregon prison system recognizes to be transgender. But their promises to quickly assess and diagnose me through their gender identity disorder specialist have not yet occurred.

Under Obama, the law was evolving to better recognize transgender issues. But given the recent confirmation of our new attorney general, Jeff Sessions — no ally to the LGBTQ community — it seems unlikely that the government will be advancing reforms on the treatment of transgender inmates.

My circumstances are rare but not altogether unique. There are 1.4 million adults who identify as transgender in the United States, according to a Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law survey. Of those, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveal that 3,200 of us are incarcerated, although that number is likely underreported.

As Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, has said of those in my circumstances, “For too long, institutions have ignored prisoners and casually dismissed medically necessary and lifesaving care for transgender people.”

I was sexually abused as a child and raped in adolescence and adulthood. I continue to carry all that pain, fear, rage and hate. My psyche is tortured. My mind, heart and soul are progressively being eaten away.

Being on death row, my time is finite. Perhaps that’s what prison administrators are counting on. But living out my days this way is no longer an option for me. The only alternative I have left is to waive all remaining appeals and demand my execution date.

Better to die than go on living this nightmare.

Tara Ellyssia Zyst is an inmate at the Oregon State Penitentiary. She wrote this article for Prison Lives (, a nonprofit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals.

ga('set', 'userId', {{USER_ID}}); // Set the user ID using signed-in user_id.