Metro Weekly

Supreme Court refuses to hear Texas transgender inmate’s request for gender confirmation surgery

Appeals court rejected Vanessa Lynn Gibson's contention that denying her surgery violates her Eighth Amendment rights

U.S. Supreme Court – Credit: Davis Staedtler/flickr

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear the case of a transgender inmate who sued after Texas prison officials denied her request for gender confirmation surgery.

Vanessa Lynn Gibson, 41, filed the suit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice earlier this year, arguing its policy barring surgery for trans inmates violates her constitutional right to be free from “cruel and unusual punishment,” as guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Gibson, an inmate at the Gatesville Correctional Facility, has suffered from gender dysphoria since she was first incarcerated in 1995. As a result, she has experienced severe depression and has attempted self-mutilation and suicide.

At her doctors’ recommendation, the prison has provided Gibson with hormone therapy, but has refused repeated requests for gender confirmation surgery.

After a federal judge ruled against her, Gibson appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But the 5th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling, prompting Gibson and her lawyers to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But on Monday, the high court refused to hear the case, thereby allowing the 5th Circuit’s ruling to stand. The court did not offer any justification or ruling for its refusal.

Writing on behalf of a three-judge panel, Judge James Ho, a Trump appointee to the 5th Circuit, ruled that denying gender confirmation surgery was not “cruel and unusual” because there is still debate over whether pursuing surgery is the best treatment for gender dysphoria, essentially casting the decision to undergo surgery as elective rather than medically necessary.

“A state does not inflict cruel and unusual punishment by declining to provide sex reassignment surgery to a transgender inmate,” Ho wrote. “Under established precedent, it can be cruel and unusual punishment to deny essential medical care to an inmate. But that does not mean prisons must provide whatever care an inmate wants. Rather, the Eighth Amendment ‘proscribes only medical care so unconscionable as to fall below society’s minimum standards of decency.’

“Accordingly, ‘mere disagreement with one’s medical treatment is insufficient’ to state a claim under the Eighth Amendment,” Ho continued. “This bedrock principle dooms this case. For it is indisputable that the necessity and efficacy of sex reassignment surgery is a matter of significant disagreement within the medical community. As the First Circuit has noted — and counsel here does not dispute — respected medical experts fiercely question whether sex reassignment surgery, rather than counseling and hormone therapy, is the best treatment for gender dysphoria.”

Ho also noted that not only is there disagreement among medical experts, but prisons across the country have barred inmates from receiving surgery, thereby making the refusal to provide such a procedure neither cruel nor unusual.

“The dissent suggests that a blanket ban is unconstitutional — and that an individualized assessment is required. But that defies common sense,” Ho wrote. “To use an analogy: If the FDA prohibits a particular drug, surely the Eighth Amendment does not require an individualized assessment for any inmate who requests that drug.”

Gibson’s attorney, Maxwell Kennerly, previously blasted Ho’s bias and pointing to his ruling as an example of “result-driven judicial activism” in his blog, Litigation & Trial.

“Although some people claim  ‘trans rights’ are ‘special rights,’ the movement for ‘trans rights’ is really an effort to provide transgender persons the same rights everyone else has,” Kennerly wrote. “All the plaintiff wanted in her lawsuit was the same treatment every prisoner is entitled to have under the Constitution, i.e., appropriate treatment for what everyone agreed was a ‘serious medical need.'”

Gibson previously told Waco-based CBS affiliate KWTX that she would castrate herself if the courts wouldn’t allow her to undergo surgery.

“Having male genitalia, it makes me literally sick. I’m talking about to the point that I hate my life and it’s an everyday thing,” she said.

Currently, an estimated 212 prisoners in custody in Texas identify as transgender. A group of three currently and formerly incarcerated trans women recently filed suit against the state of Texas for refusing to allow them to change their names to match their gender identity.

In their complaint, the women argue that prison officials’ refusal to recognize their gender identity is another form of cruel and unusual punishment, as it exacerbates their feelings of inadequacy and depression, and puts them at risk of harassment or physical assault at the hands of other inmates who become aware of their transgender status.

Read more:

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