Is Sex Reassignment Surgery a Right?

Just recently, the US First Circuit Appeals Court of appeals ruled that a prisoner’s rights were being violated because she was denied medically necessary sex reassignment surgery (SRS) [I use the term SRS rather than gender reassignment surgery because the surgery doesn’t impact gender identity or expression, but it changes things associated with biological sex, like breasts or genitals]. This violated the prisoner’s 8th Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

This is one of the first federal cases in the United States that has recognized that SRS is medically necessary.  This is a major win for the trans community.  And the advocates of the community understand this.

We expect the bigotrs to hate this. They don’t believe surgery is needed for anyone, much less a prisoner. “Let her rot.” Actually, they’d say, “Let HIM rot.” They don’t believe trans people exist, after all. But that’s not what annoys me.

However, what’s the response from the trans community as a whole? Basically the same as 2012, when she won a different case.  You can find comments online like, “I for one am infuriated by this. The inmate is a murderer serving life… Normal people can’t get this covered yet I can go kill some one and then someone will pay for my SRS? Ugh…..”

Or, “Although, I completely agree on a person’s need for GRS/SRS. I do not believe this person is entitled anything from the state. This person committed MURDER and they will now be rewarded with free medical anything from honest TAX PAYERS.”

These arguments are – pardon this language – bull shit.

First, the 8th Amendment, just like the 1st or the 2nd, is still in force. It is illegal to have cruel and unusual punishment. Even for someone sentenced to life. Even for a murderer. The US constitution is supposed to put us above abuse of prisoners. Even when the prisoners are bad people. Especially when we think the prisoners are bad people.

But, beyond that, we don’t have this standard for other treatments. We don’t say, “Oh, no defibrillator for you, no ambulance ride to the hospital. Die of the heart attack. You’re a prisoner. We don’t want to pay for you.”

We don’t say, “You can’t get cancer treatment. You’re a bad person. Too bad. We don’t want to pay for you.”

Yet, with SRS, apparently the standard from many members of the transgender community is two-fold: First, it’s not actually a right, it’s just a right for non-prisoners. Second, no prisoners get rights before get my rights. And even more critically, “This isn’t really medically necessary.

Well, rights don’t work that way. The prisoner is not keeping you from getting SRS. Maybe society is, and quite possibly your rights are being violated! That doesn’t change whether or not the prisoner gets SRS. Either way, your rights being violated don’t mean that someone else’s rights weren’t violated. Seriously, this is a basic concept! Once you bring your own rights into a discussion about someone else’s rights, that’s a problem. Let’s talk about your rights, and make sure you get what you need – and, yes, health care is a human right, and you should be getting it, even if some in our political system disagree. And it’s going to help you when a court recognizes it as a right. Really.

Second, SRS is a life-saving medical procedure for many. This prisoner was sentenced to life in prison. LIFE in prison, not death in prison! Yes, it sucks that sometimes prisoners get better medical care than non-prisoners. Perhaps the solution of that problem isn’t to take away the prisoner’s health care and violate their rights, but to make sure the rest of us also get medical care. Taking away their medical care won’t help those of us outside of prison have medical care!

It sickens me to hear the same arguments used against gay marriage to express disagreement that someone has a right to SRS. The gay marriage opponents’ argument is, essentially, “If someone else has a right, that hurts me.” That’s not cool. No, gay marriage doesn’t hurt straight people. It just helps gays. You can help someone without hurting someone else. The same goes for SRS for prisoners – you can help a prisoner, and live up to our constitutional obligations – even when that prisoner is a bad person – without hurting someone who isn’t a prisoner.

Yes, we need to fight for peoples’ rights to have SRS. That means we need to fight for prisoners to have that right. And for people who aren’t prisoners. It’s a human right, not just a non-incarcerated right. People are sorely mistaken if they believe throwing some trans people under the bus and saying they don’t have a right to SRS will help those who aren’t in that group. You’re just proving the point of the bigots: that SRS is not actually medically necessary. Yes, it is medically necessary for those who need it. And these people for whom it is necessary – like anyone else – may even be in prison. THAT is what needs to be fought for. Not the right for some people to have SRS, as that will only prove that SRS isn’t truly needed. Medical care is a human right. Let’s not forget that.