Virginia inmate Ophelia De’lonta lives in an all-male prison facility but she takes female hormones, wears a woman’s prison uniform, has everyone address her by her proper gender, and gets psychotherapy to help with her transitioning. But the guards don’t allow her to grow out her salt-and-pepper hair and she knew that the state prison system would never pay for her a sex change operation, so she tried cutting off her penis using three disposable razors from the prison commissary. She ended up in the hospital infirmary and got 21 stitches to keep herself together. Now she’s suing the state in federal court, saying that the state is denying her a medical necessity. But her prospects for victory look bleak.
Jezebel writer Margaret Hartmann says:
Another transgender inmate filed a similar lawsuit in California, and a lawyer for the prison health system argued, “A prison is not required by law to give a prisoner medical care that is as good as he would receive if he were a free person, let alone an affluent free person.” And in response to De’lonta’s lawsuit, Virginia Del. Todd Gilbert says, “The notion that taxpayers are going to fund a sex change is just ridiculous.”
But the ostensible fiscal conservatism of these statements may disguise transphobia. Paying for gender reassignment is only “ridiculous” if you regard the surgery as illegitimate or unnecessary, and De’lonta’s disturbing self-injury reveals how very necessary it can be… State governments need to stop thinking of gender reassignment as a luxury, and recognize that for some, it can be a matter of life and death.
Ignorance of how to appropriately handle trans inmates has caused problems for transfolk: a Sydney prison put a suicidal MTF inmate in an all-male facility. Another isolated an MTF prisoner rather than house her with women because of her male genitalia. Then there’s the question of what trans surgeries to approve—genital reassignment, possibly, but how about hair removal?