Metro Weekly

California transgender man sues Catholic hospital over denial of surgery

Oliver Knight argues that the hospital is still bound by state's civil rights law prohibiting anti-trans discrimination

Oliver Knight – Photo: ACLU of Northern California.

A transgender man in California is suing a California Catholic hospital for backing out of performing his gender confirmation surgery at the last minute and refusing to reschedule.

The ACLU Foundation of Northern California, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and the law firm Rukin Hyland & Riggin LLP filed the suit on behalf of Oliver Knight, a 29-year-old transgender man, alleging that St. Joseph Health Northern California discriminated against Knight when it refused to perform a surgery deemed “medically necessary” by Knight’s doctors.

St. Joseph Health is owned by Providence St. Joseph Health Network, which operates 51 different hospitals across the country and 18 in California alone, meaning that transgender people throughout the state and the nation — particularly those who live in areas where a Catholic-affiliated hospital may be the only one within hundreds of miles — could potentially be subject to similar forms of discrimination.

According to the complaint, Knight had been scheduled to receive a hysterectomy in August 2017 at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka, Calif. But just minutes before the scheduled surgery, Knight’s doctor informed him the surgery had been cancelled and would not be rescheduled because it was a Catholic hospital. Current Church teaching is that one’s biological sex at birth is fixed and immutable, and should not be altered or changed.

“The refusal of St. Joseph to allow a doctor to perform a medically necessary procedure because the patient is transgender is discriminatory,” Jessica Riggin, a partner at Rukin Hyland & Riggin LLP, said in a statement. “This is a hospital that is open to the general public so even though it’s religiously affiliated, it’s illegal for them to turn away someone based on gender identity. Everyone should be able to get the care they need.”

The lawsuit, filed in Humboldt County Superior Court, argues that the denial of surgery constitutes discrimination under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations based on a person’s gender identity.

While many political observers have argued that Catholic hospitals should not be forced to violate their religious beliefs or Church teaching, the crux of the case rests on the idea that because St. Joseph opens itself up to the public and does not solely treat those of the Catholic faith, it is considered a public accommodation. As such, it had no right to cancel the surgery just because Knight is transgender.

Adding to the ACLU’s case is the fact that St. Joseph currently provides hysterectomies for patients who are not transgender — thus showing the hospital doesn’t object to the procedure, even though Catholic teaching generally opposes hysterectomies, particularly if they are used as a form of birth control rather than to treat a life-threatening condition. Additionally, Knight’s medical records show that the decision to cancel the surgery was based on an “ethics assessment” completed by a reverend with no medical training.

“Gender-affirming care is lifesaving and medically necessary,” Elizabeth Gill, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, said in a statement. “Transgender people are part of our community, our workplaces, and our neighborhoods and they, just like everyone else, deserve to get the health care they need.”

On the day of the scheduled surgery, Knight also experienced discrimination when hospital staff frequently misgendered him and forced him to wear a pink gown instead of a blue gown because he was receiving “female” surgery, even though he had told them his pronouns and his health records identify him as a male. This created a great deal of stress and anxiety, which was further exacerbated by the denial of surgery.

Knight said he had originally decided to have the surgery at St. Joseph because it was the hospital closest to his home, and traveling elsewhere would have created additional burdens for him and his family. He eventually arranged to have the surgery at Mad River Community Hospital in Arcata, Calif. 

“I’ve had to deal with a lot of anti-trans bigotry, but I didn’t expect it from a hospital,” said Knight, who penned an op-ed for the ACLU of Northern California detailing his experience. “It seems the hospital doesn’t understand how it feels to be treated inhumanely just because your body parts do not match your soul.”

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