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Court: Trans inmate must receive gender reassignment surgery

Panel says denying procedure to prisoner cruel and unusual punishment

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National LGBT Bar Association, Gay News, Washington Blade

The First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a trans inmate must receive gender reassignment surgery. (Image via wikimedia)

A federal appeals court ruled on Friday that a transgender inmate incarcerated for murdering her spouse must receive taxpayer-funded gender reassignment surgery that was prescribed by her doctors.

In a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel on the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that denying the procedure to Michelle Kosilek, who was sentenced to life in prison for murdering his spouse in 1990, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eight Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The 90-page ruling was written by U.S. Circuit Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson, an Obama appointee, who asserted the Massachusetts Department of Corrections denied Kosilek essential medical care by withholding from her gender reassignment surgery.

“Those findings — that Kosilek has a serious medical need for the surgery, and that the DOC refuses to meet that need for pretextual reasons unsupported by legitimate penological considerations — mean that the DOC has violated Kosilek’s Eighth Amendment rights,” Thompson writes.

The ruling upholds a decision from U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf in 2012 asserting Kosilek has a right to gender reassignment surgery. The decision was controversial — even among progressive leaders. Then-U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she didn’t think the surgery was a good use of taxpayer dollars.

Transgender rights groups lauded the decision from the First Circuit on the basis that prisoners — even those who are transgender — have a right to medical care during their incarceration.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Rights, said the ruling “affirms the increasing consensus among the courts” that transgender-related health care is a right protected under the Constitution.

“Prisoner or not, people should have access to the healthcare they need,” Keisling said. “For some of us, that means sex reassignment surgery. While we celebrate today’s ruling, we know there’s more advocacy needed to ensure that all transgender people have access to basic and necessary healthcare.”

Ilona Turner, legal director for the Transgender Law Center, said the First Circuit ruling upholds a constitutional right to essential medical treatment in prison.

“It is well established that the failure to provide essential medical care to people in prison is unconstitutional and amounts to torture,” Turner said. “This decision affirms that we as a society do not allow people to be tortured when they are in government custody.”

Afflicted with drug and alcohol problems at an early age, Kosilek in 1992 was sentenced to life in prison after strangling her spouse Cheryl McCaul, a volunteer counselor at a drug rehabilitation facility. The incident took place after McCaul caught Kosilek wearing her clothing.

Kosilek is serving her sentence in MCI-Norfolk, a medium security male prison, where she legally changed her name from Robert to Michelle. She must receive gender reassignment surgery through taxpayer-provided funds because, as an inmate in prison, she lacks access to her own finances for the procedure.

The estimated cost for male-to-female reassignment is $7,000 to $24,000. A footnote in the First Circuit decision notes that figure “pales in comparison to the amount of money it seems the state will be expending to defend this lawsuit.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Juan Torruella, a Reagan appointee who wrote the dissent in the decision, said he doesn’t find any reason to require Massachusetts to provide gender reassignment surgery to Kosilek when other treatments are available.

“[G]iving due consideration to countervailing security concerns and based on a review of the record that shows the DOC’s proposed care was not outside the realm of professionalism, I cannot say that the DOC has failed to adequately care for Kosilek’s GID or callously ignored her pain,” Torruella writes.

The decision could be appealed to the full First Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court. The office of Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley declined to comment on the next steps in the lawsuit.

Cara Savelli, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Correction, said the court ruling is under review.

“We are closely reviewing the lengthy decision issued today by the First Circuit Court of Appeals on this matter to determine next steps,” Savelli said.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Freed Spirit

    January 18, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    Although I am more inclined to disagree with this because the individual is a felon and I do not have a lot of sympathy for someone who took another human beings life, I do understand the challenges one faces with Gender Identity Disorder. The thing that is really upsetting about this is that many individuals that suffer with this, have no means of correcting this unless they can come up with 10's of thousands of dollars to do so. There is no coverage by insurance of any kind even though for allot of GID sufferers, despite the fact that they would have a better quality of life it were available. It's a shame that one would have to go to prison to have something like this taken care of.
    As a veteran and tax paying citizen and an individual that has lived with this dilemma all of my life, I find it very difficult to understand why a convicted murderer has more rights to help than I. “It is well established that the failure to provide essential medical care to people in prison is unconstitutional and amounts to torture,” Turner said. “This decision affirms that we as a society do not allow people to be tortured when they are in government custody.”
    But if you are not in custody, I guess you just have to suffer…

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World

Canadian Senate approves bill to ban conversion therapy

Measure will become law once it receives royal assent

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health disparities, gay news, Washington Blade
(Public domain photo)

The Canadian Senate on Tuesday approved a bill that would ban so-called conversion therapy in the country.

Attorney General David Lametti and Women and Gender Equality and Youth Minister Marci Ien last week introduced the measure that would amend Canada’s Criminal Code to ban the widely discredited practice. The Canadian House of Commons on Dec. 1 unanimously approved the bill.

“Our government’s legislation to ban conversion therapy in Canada is one step closer to becoming law,” tweeted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday. “To everyone who has made this possible, thank you. Let’s keep building a country where everyone is free to be who they are and love who they love.”

Lametti in his own tweet noted the bill will become law once it receives royal assent.

Canada would join Malta and a handful of countries that ban conversion therapy once the law takes effect.

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World

Chile marriage equality bill receives final approval

South American country legalized civil unions in 2015

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Chile, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A bill that will extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Chile received final approval on Tuesday.

The Chilean Senate and the Chilean House of Representatives approved the marriage equality bill that passed in the lower house of the country’s Congress on Nov. 23. That vote took place two days after the first round of the country’s presidential election took place.

A final vote on the bill was expected to have taken place last week, but senators unexpectedly opposed it.

A commission with members of both houses of the Chilean congress approved the bill on Monday.

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National

Does a potential overturn of Roe imperil LGBTQ rights?

Some fear that Obergefell marriage decision could fall

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Protests outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1. (Photo by Cathy Renna)

The oral arguments before the justices of the United States Supreme Court had barely ended in the case brought by the state of Mississippi defending its law banning abortion after 15 weeks, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, when alarms were set off in legal circles as some argued that Obergefell v. Hodges — the same-sex marriage decision — would be in danger should the high court rule to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Florida State University law professor Mary Ziegler, appearing on NPR’s ‘Heard on All Things Considered,’ told host Mary Louise Kelly that there was a basis for concern over whether the court would actually overrule its precedents in other cases based on the questions and statements raised during the hearing by the conservative members of the court.

Asked by Kelly if she saw a legal door opening Ziegler affirmed that she did. Kelly then asked her, “Them taking up cases to do with that. What about same-sex marriage?”

Ziegler answered, “Yeah, same-sex marriage is definitely a candidate. Justices Alito and Thomas have in passing mentioned in dicta that they think it might be worth revisiting Obergefell v. Hodges – the same-sex marriage decision.

“And I think it’s fair to say that in the sort of panoply of culture war issues, that rights for same-sex couples and sexual orientation are still among the most contested, even though certainly same-sex marriage is more subtle than it was and than abortion was.

“I think that certainly the sort of balance between LGBTIQ rights and religious liberty writ large is a very much alive issue, and I think some states may try to test the boundaries with Obergefell, particularly knowing that they have a few justices potentially willing to go there with them.”

As almost if to underscore the point raised by Ziegler during the hearing, Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor pointed out that the high court has taken and “discerned” certain rights in cases from the Constitution.

Along with abortion, the court has “recognized them in terms of the religion parents will teach their children. We’ve recognized it in their ability to educate at home if they choose,” Sotomayor said. “We have recognized that sense of privacy in people’s choices about whether to use contraception or not. We’ve recognized it in their right to choose who they’re going to marry.”

In following up the cases cited by Justice Sotomayor, Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart, who was defending the state’s abortion law, whether a decision in his favor would affect the legal precedents in those cases cited by Justice Sotomayor.

In his answer to Justice Barrett, the state’s Solicitor General said cases involving contraception, same-sex marriage and sodomy wouldn’t be called into question because they involve “clear rules that have engendered strong reliance interests and that have not produced negative consequences or all the many other negative stare decisis considerations we pointed out.”

However, Lambda Legal Chief Strategy Officer and Legal Director, Sharon McGowan had a different take and interpreted remarks by Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to mean that the decisions in Lawrence v. Texas, which decriminalized private sexual intimacy between same-sex couples, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down remaining bans on the freedom of same-sex couples to marry, would actually justify overturning Roe v. Wade.

In a publicly released media statement McGowan noted: “During today’s argument, Justice Kavanaugh suggested that two key Supreme Court decisions protecting LGBTQ civil rights—Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges—support overruling Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

‘To that we say, NOT IN OUR NAME. LGBTQ people need abortions. Just as important, those landmark LGBTQ decisions EXPANDED individual liberty, not the opposite. They reflected the growing societal understanding of our common humanity and equality under law.

“Just as the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education rejected the lie of ‘separate but equal,’ the Supreme Court’s decisions in Lawrence and Obergefell appropriately overruled precedent where it was clear that, as was true with regard to race, our ancestors failed properly to acknowledge that gender and sexual orientation must not be barriers to our ability to live, love, and thrive free of governmental oppression. … 

“These landmark LGBTQ cases, which Lambda Legal litigated and won, and on which we rely today to protect our community’s civil rights, were built directly on the foundation of Casey and Roe. Our interests in equal dignity, autonomy, and liberty are shared, intertwined, and fundamental.” 

On Sunday, the Blade spoke with Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a national LGBTQ+ legal organization that represented three same-sex couples from Tennessee, whose case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court along with Obergefell and two other cases.

Minter is urging caution in how people interpret the court arguments and remarks made by the justices.

“We should be cautious about taking the bait from anti-LGBTQ groups who falsely argue that if the Supreme Court reverses or undermines Roe v. Wade, they are likely to reverse or undermine Obergefell or Lawrence. In fact, that is highly unlikely, as the argument in Dobbs itself showed,” he said.

“The only reason Justice Kavanaugh mentioned Obergefell and Lawrence, along with Brown v. Board of Education, was to cite them as examples of cases in which the Supreme Court clearly did the right thing. All of those decisions rely at least as strongly on equal protection as on fundamental rights, and even this extremely conservative Supreme Court has not questioned the foundational role of equal protection in our nation’s constitutional law,” Minter stressed.

During an interview with Bloomberg magazine, David Cortman, of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based anti-LGBTQ legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist hate group, said “two things in particular distinguish abortion from those other privacy rights: the right to life and the states’ interest in protecting a child.”

Cortman, whose group urged the justices to allow states to ban same-sex marriages, said those other rights may be just as wrong as the right to an abortion. “But the fundamental interest in life that’s at issue in abortion means those other rights are probably not in any real danger of being overturned.”

But Cortman is of the opinion that there is little impetus among the court’s conservatives to take up challenges to those cases.

However, the fact that the six to three makeup of the high court with a conservative majority has progressives clamoring for the public to pay closer attention and be more proactively engaged.

Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, in an emailed statement to the Blade underscored those concerns:

“Reports and analysis coming out of Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization are extremely disturbing and represent a threat to our individual constitutional rights to privacy and autonomy. There is no ‘middle ground’ on what the Constitution guarantees and what was decided decades ago with the Roe v Wade decision. 

“This is about liberty, equality, and the rule of law, not the political or partisan views of those sitting on the bench. The unprecedented decision to remove a constitutional right recognized by the Supreme Court 50 years ago would set back civil rights by decades. ….

“Abortion access is essential, and a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution. Bans on abortion are deeply racist and profoundly sexist – the harshest impacts fall on Black and Brown women and pregnant people and on our families and communities.

“If you think this decision will not affect you, think again: a wrong decision by the Supreme Court means you, too, will lose your bodily autonomy, your ability to own your own personal and community power. This is not just about abortion; it is about controlling bodies based on someone else determining your worthiness. This is a racial justice issue. This is a women’s issue. It is an LGBTQ issue. It is a civil rights issue. These are our fundamental rights that are at stake.”

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