Her case may not be the most publicly appealing, but it’s pretty much a slam-dunk case of legal injustice
NOTE: The following is a story slated to run in the upcoming January/February 2013 issue of Boston Spirit magazine. We are running it here and now to include in the continuing coverage of the Michelle Kosilek case, including today's story from the Metro Desk of the Globe.
Every time Michelle Kosilek makes headlines, Gunner Scott’s phone rings off the hook.
Kosilek is in prison for committing a murder. By law, all prisoners are entitled to medically necessary procedures. For Kosilek, that means gender reassignment treatments. A U.S. District court has unequivocally stated that withholding treatment is a “violation of Kosilek’s Eighth Amendment right to adequate medical care.” For the judicial system, the case is a no brainer.
For just about everyone else the case can be confusing at a minimum, and downright infuriating at its worst. And some of those most disturbed by the case are often those who, like Kosilek, identify as transgender.
Gunner Scott, as executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political coalition, fields a number of these calls from frustrated and angry members of the transgender community who pepper him with questions like: Why is Kosilek up for getting treatment paid for by the state that they themselves can’t get from their own health insurance? Do I need to go to jail to get the health care that I need? How did a murderer become the face of transgender health care rights?
Scott frankly admits that Kosilek comes across as an “unsympathetic” person and that her case is not an easy one upon which to create public opinion in support of transgender justice issues. Even a politician as liberal as Elizabeth Warren came out against Kosilek’s surgery. “I have to say, I don’t think it’s a good use of taxpayer dollars,” she said in an interview during her senatorial campaign.
But civil rights movements do not always get to choose which battles come their way. And the Kosilek case, for better or for worse, has become an emotional lightning rod for discussing transgender issues.
Ethan St. Pierre, a 51-year-old Massachusetts resident, possesses personally compelling reasons for having conflicting feelings about the Kosilek case. St. Pierre’s aunt was a transgender woman who was murdered in 1995. His aunt’s killer is currently serving a prison sentence. Moreover, it was his aunt’s murder that propelled St. Pierre into working on social justice issues for transgender people, which in turn compelled him to look more closely at his own gender identity and to eventually identify as a transgender man.
“I understand the anger,” St. Pierre told Boston Spirit in a recent phone interview. “I get it.”
First, St. Pierre understands the frustration felt by the family of Kosilek’s victim, Cheryl. St. Pierre knows how unpleasant it can be to know that the person who killed someone you love is still alive and your loved one is not. “I feel for the family.” But, says St. Pierre, “even people who commit heinous crimes get health care.” Under U.S. laws, prison punishes criminals by taking away their freedom, not their health care. St. Pierre put it succinctly: “The guy that killed my aunt gets dental care.” But how can dental care be equated with transgender reassignment surgery?
Jennifer Levi, the director of the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defender’s (GLAD) Transgender Rights Project says that people should read the September 4, 2012 court ruling by U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf. Indeed, in the decision, Wolf states clearly that Kosilek had been unconstitutionally denied “sex reassignment surgery because of the belief that the idea of providing such treatment for a transsexual who murdered his [sic] wife is offensive to many members of the community” and that this represents a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment. Incarceration is a punishment that takes away a person’s freedom, not their healthcare. Denial of required medical care is considered “cruel and unusual punishment” and is forbidden under the Eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The core issue has nothing to do with Kosilek being a transgender person. The problem is that state and prison officials, acquiescing to public discomfort, are not complying with very clear laws.
Levi calls this “transgender exceptionalism.” St. Pierre calls it “blatant transphobia.”
When it comes down to what really matters in the Kosilek case, St. Pierre says, “I am not defending Michelle Kosilek, the killer. I am defending the law.” [x]
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