The Rights of Trans Prisoners Are A Human Rights Issue

Okay, before I get into it, let me say from the start that I am not pointing this out to start a blog war, but because this is an issue I very passionately believe in, I felt that my silence was not acceptable.

Over at The Intersection of Madness and Reality, Rippa has a post up about Ophelia De’lonta, an inmate who is desperately attempting to get the state to approve and pay for SRS. 

Months after a botched castration attempt, a Virginia inmate wishing to be a woman has filed a federal lawsuit claiming the state failed to provide adequate medical care because it won’t perform a sex-change operation.

Ophelia De’lonta, 50, says she needs the surgery to treat her gender identity disorder, a condition in which people believe they were born the wrong gender.

“This is not something that I have any control over,” said De’lonta, who was born Michael Stokes. “This is just how I was born.”

De’lonta, who developed breasts with the use of hormones won under a 2004 court order, has tried self-surgery several times in the past. Her urges had been kept in check in recent years with the help of hormones and other treatments.

But De’lonta, who has perfectly plucked eyebrows and wears make-up, snapped on Oct. 8 when a jail guard at the all-male Buckingham Correctional Center referred to her as “he.”

“I screamed ‘She, dammit!’ becoming so overwhelmed it was hard to breathe,” said De’lonta (source)

I was pleasantly surprised to see that other than making sure to mention what Ophelia was convicted of, the article used the correct pronouns throughout.  I am very used to seeing cissexist language in the media. The truth of the matter is that once someone gets locked up, society is content to pretend that they are no longer human and deserving of basic rights. This is what I saw when I read Rippa’s take on Ophelia’s struggle.  He wrote:

OK, so now that I got that out of the way. Umm, so like, what the fuck is this bullshit?? No seriously; the fuck is up with this man threatening to cut his dick off in prison?!! OK, so you you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body and you’d like to have a sex change to clear up your gender identity issues.

OK, yeah, I support that. Shit, I’m down with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and all that. But nigga you’re in fuckin’ prison! You don’t threaten to cut ya schlong off yourself because you can’t take the being a man thing anymore; and when they take the razor away, you friggin sue them because they refuse to oblige your request for a sex change? Seriously, a sex change?!!

Excuse me, but err, umm… can I get an order of Negro please with a throat-chop on the side for this brotha? Clearly he has lost his rabbit-ass mind.

Ophelia didn’t choose to be trans anymore than she chose to be Black.  When I read her story, what I saw was someone who is in an incredible amount of pain, and my heart broke for her. Even if you don’t understand what she is going through, I don’t desire the need to misgender her and declare that she has lost her “rabbit-ass mind.”  Not only is such language cissexist, it is extremely ableist.  Rippa’s entire article is filled with such assertions, and it reads like a privilege laden hate fest.
If Ophelia needed to have her appendix or her gall bladder removed, the state would be obligated to ensure that she received medical attention and SRS should be no different. Some trans people will never have surgery because they either don’t want to, have medical issues that prevent it, or are unable to afford it, but in the case of Ophelia because she is incarcerated, she doesn’t even have the opportunity to work and save the funds for her operation.  This isn’t an optional procedure for her and her mental well being is at stake. She is absolutely suicidal. If for no other reason than the fact that she received a life sentence, and not the death penalty, the state is responsible to ensure her stability and provide the surgery that she needs.
Rippa ends his piece with the following:
Sorry Ophelia, stick to the Clarence Williams III look-alike thing while on lock down; get that sex change when you’re free man or the woman you identify as. Truth is, if you were free, I’d doubt you’d chop ya choad off on your own, so miss me with that bullshit. Calling it a “disorder” isn’t gonna make it happen

Should “gender identity disorder” be deemed a medical issue that warrants treatment by sex change for incarcerated individuals? Should they even be allowed hormone pills as treatment?

Well, let’s start with what the DSM has to say about GID.

There are two components of Gender Identity Disorder, both of which must be present to make a diagnosis. [1] There must be evidence of a strong and persistent cross-gender identification, which is the desire to be, or the instance that one is, of the other sex …. [2] There must also be evidence of consistent discomfort about one’s assigned sex or a sense of inappropriateness in the gender role of that sex.

I think it is fair to say after reading about Ophelia that she fits the definition of GID according to the DSM IV, as well as the definition under the standards of care for The World Professional Association of Transgender Health, thereby making this a medical issue.  So by fighting against her surgery, or even questioning the necessity of it, Rippa is advocating for inhumane treatment, despite statements to the contrary. Using the medical model, trans litigants have won suits against states and employers for disability discrimination, suits against state Medicaid programs requesting payment for gender related surgery and suits against prison officials requesting access to hormone therapy while incarcerated. (source: Harvard Law Journal 456-457)

You cannot on one hand argue to end inhumane treatment of prisoners, and then advocate that they should be denied medical treatment. This is hypocrisy at its best.  Transexuality has been documented throughout human history and there is no race, ethnicity, culture, or geographic location that has been excluded. It is estimated that trans people make up 3% of the human population. Even though trans people are a small segment of the population, “The National Transgender Discrimination survey found 41% of trans people in the United States have attempted suicide, more than 25 times the national average, while just under a fifth have reported being refused medical care due to their identity”. This means that Rippa’s assertion that Ophelia would not be attempting to alter her genitalia on her own, or self harm, is indeed incorrect based on the facts.
The truth is when a trans person goes to prison they are in an extremely vulnerable position, and there are no facilities designed to house them.  When they are not being attacked by fellow inmates, they are being verbally and physically abused by guards.  In many cases trans prisoners are held in solitary confinement – sometimes for years on end, though this constitutes inhuman treatment.  When you add to this that they have to fight to get proper medical treatment, I don’t understand for one moment why this is not seen as a human rights issue that demands our immediate attention and commitment to change. Ophelia is paying for her crime by being incarcerated, in a just society her health would not also be at risk.
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