When it comes to genital reassignment surgery, a lot of the population questions its validity as a necessary medical procedure – especially for the incarcerated. But doctors worldwide now recognize gender dysphoria, a conflict between your physical gender and actual gender, as an actual medical condition. Treatment options vary from hormone therapy to surgery, but just like any other medical condition, doctors are the ones prescribing drugs and procedures.
What does this have to do with inmates? It wasn’t until I won my case against the state of California in April 2015 that incarcerated individuals were even eligible for this type of surgery. The decades-long struggle I faced with my identity, coming to terms with my gender dysphoria and then fighting for my rights – despite being behind bars – paved the way for other transgender men and women like me. It’s important to note that when you live behind bars in the United States, you’re still a human being with rights. You don’t give up those rights to being human because you’re serving time. If an inmate needed a medical procedure to be physically or emotionally healthier, once a doctor deemed it necessary it would be carried out. Because gender dysphoria is a medical condition, this type of procedure is no different. Yet it’s faced with incredible opposition.
My story is just one example of how challenging it is for a transgender individual to receive genital reassignment surgery, especially while incarcerated. I came out as transgender in 1994 after talking to a priest, various doctors and years of self-questioning. I began trying to express my true identity as I could with limited resources; I wore tighter clothes, grew my hair out and used makeshift makeup I was able to create. As I’m sure you can imagine, these changes didn’t make life with other inmates safe, either. While living as a trans woman behind bars I was a target for ongoing verbal and physical abuse, and was brutally gang-raped, left suffering from Hepatitis C, PTSD and Stage 4 Liver Fibrosis.
Once I was officially diagnosed with gender dysphoria in 2000, I began asking about surgery, requesting it over and over again. I wasn’t able to make any progress until a Department of Corrections doctor deemed it medically necessary. He submitted 13 pages about it, but was suddenly transferred to another prison. I filed an appeal as they were denying me a surgery their own doctor deemed necessary, citing Michelle Kosilek’s similar case in Massachusetts. The powers that be continued to deny appeals, refusing to take me seriously and sending people that didn’t have the authority to make the necessary decisions to the prison, so I sued the state of California. I won the case in April 2015 and the surgery was scheduled, but before it could take place I was suddenly paroled.
When I was released from prison, I approached the Transgender Law Center to help me navigate the path to receiving my surgery, but they refused to help me as their representation ended as soon as the case ended. I was left feeling completely alone in a world vastly different from the one I left 30 years prior, and needed to figure it out and advocate for myself yet again.
I started by calling the doctors scheduled to provide the surgery while I was in prison and they did a consult with me, explaining what type of insurance I needed. I made countless phone calls, went to the offices in person and ultimately navigated my way through so I could receive the insurance I needed for my surgery. I am looking forward to it finally taking place this February.
Along the way, I was very disappointed by the lack of support from advocacy groups that are supposed to be on my side; instead of giving me the help I needed, they just wanted to use me to advance their agenda. I’ve used this to fuel my mission, though. My dream is to open a home called Joan’s House, a safe place for other transgender men and women to become their true selves. I want to use my experience navigating through the confusing system to help others as they seek the medical care they need for their own gender dysphoria.
I’m truly grateful for a few organizations that are helping – specifically Bend Law Group, Three Girls Media and Healthright 360 – which have kept me off the streets, helped give me a voice and shown me the path to form a 501c3 non-profit.
Ultimately, the core of our identity is what’s truly at stake. My story is similar to so many other transgender men and women, and they’re why I continue to advocate.
Michelle-Lael Norsworthy is a trans rights advocate based in California.