Katherine Johnston, trans health coverage, and the perils of misinformation

August 15, 2009 at 7:37 am Leave a comment

Today, as I was reading The Province, I came across the story of Katherine Johnston, a 61 year old transgender woman who is incarcerated in a men’s prison for bludgeoning to death her East Vancouver roommate with a baseball bat. She claims that her request for a penectomy, paid for by taxpayers, is being held up by Corrections Canada. Because she still has a penis she has been disallowed a transfer to a woman’s prison.

Needless to say, her experience in a men’s prison has been pretty horrific so far: she’s been punched in the head, held at knife point, forced to perform oral sex, and her chest has been sliced with the edge of an open can of salmon. This is prison after all. You kill someone, you pay for it.

The thing is, though, that some criminals pay more than others. A convicted murderer must do his or her time, no one argues this point. But a convicted murderer with a medical condition, whether it be a mental illness or physical disability, is at once vulnerable in a way that a “normal” murderer is not. How, then should these prisoners be treated?

In the case of Katherine Johnston, or any trans person who finds themselves caught in the net of the criminal justice system, serving time in prison can be tantamount to a death warrant. If trans prisoners manage to survive the taunts of transphobic fellow inmates and unsympathetic guards, they are likely to suffer post traumatic stress from being severely mistreated. This can (and often does) lead to suicide.

And that, I would argue, is cruel and unusual punishment.

Putting aside, for the moment, the particulars of Katherine Johnston’s case, I would like to address some of the comments that readers have posted to the original article. The comments are emblematic of a persistent strain of misinformation prevalent in non-transgender circles.

Outraged writes “Are you kidding me? … I’ve worked 33 years, paid taxes and haven’t committed any crimes and for all my hard work I’m going to get stuck paying for a person behind bars to get a sex-change operation. Hopefully not in my lifetime.”

Along the same vein, Allan writes “There is no way that we should be paying for this. Canadian taxpayers are on the hook for enough and we can barely get decent medical coverage and surgeries done in a timely manner.”

The problem with these arguments is that these readers both seem to cling to the underlying notion that other surgeries are more worthy of funding than sex-change surgeries. The thing is, trans people are taxpayers too! Like many other people, we try to contribute to society, we hold jobs, we earn incomes, we pay taxes, and, yes, we have health care needs. Like other people, we have a right to health care services and our needs are just as valid as anyone else’s. Would we deny an inmate with asthma access to an asthma pump?

Surgery is a necessity that is at least partly thrust upon trans people by the larger society: surgery allows us to function in society’s binary gender model; to fall outside of the binary of man or woman is to be exiled from society. If we weren’t required to slice up our bodies to be legally recognized for who we are, I promise you a lot of transgender people wouldn’t even pursue surgery.

Another common argument is encapsulated in the following comment. Miranda writes: “Women have a vagina and men have a penis. This inmate has a penis. He’s a man.” I wish it were that simple! For most people it may be that clear, but for an admittedly few, genitalia don’t always match one’s inner sense of self. This isn’t only true of trans people. Intersex people (estimated at 1 in every 2000 births) are born with ambiguous genitalia and are often arbitrarily assigned a gender by a medical doctor. Even chromosomes can sometimes mislead: XX and XY are not the only two options. Some people are made up of XXY or XO or any number of other chromosomal combinations.

I realize that for many people, transsexuality is a strange and confusing phenomenon. We are few in numbers (though not, perhaps, as rare as people might think) but we do exist. By some fluke of nature, we have been subjected to one of the most potentially humiliating and undignified conditions known to humankind. What can be more personal and difficult to speak about than one’s relationship with one’s genitalia?

I realize that for some, I (and those like me) will perhaps always be considered “crazy”, less than human and unworthy of respect. I can only hope that through speaking out about my own experiences, some non-trans people will at least open themselves to the possibility that “[t]here are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in [their] philosophy.”

For the online version of the article about Katherine Johnston, as it appeared in The Province, please click here.

For information about intersex conditions, click here.

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Entry filed under: Gender, Transgender.

In remembrance Spending time in District 9 is time well spent

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