As many of you know, and as I posted about earlier this week, Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation came to Boston College to make a case against marriage equality (he doesn’t like that term; he uses the term same-sex marriage; more on that in a minute).  No longer a student, nor in the Boston area, I was unable to attend this event, so I am going to comment using the video snippets I’ve seen and the summary found in student newspapers, as well as my conversation with students who attended the lecture.

The centerpiece of Mr. Anderson’s post was not what I thought it would be: as a Ph.D candidate from Notre Dame, I expected a theological argument rooted in Catholic catechism.  Surprisingly, he chose not to go this route.  Perhaps he knew that the Boston College student body, despite being predominantly Catholic, does not buy into current Catholic social teaching in this way (just look at the overwhelming support for BCSSH, or the fact that most of the people in the audience were rocking Support Love gear or there in protest of the nature of the event).   I would have respected this argument, although I don’t agree with it, as it is a same-sex marriage as an idea is simply inconceivable under a Catholic telos.

Instead, he took a more utilitarian/instrumentalist approach, arguing that same-sex marriage would undermine what marriage is for.  He argues that the reason the government has a vested interest in promoting exclusive, permanent companionship is because of the public good served by raising children in two-parent households (specifically with male and female parents).  He claims social science (though I’ve not heard of any specific study he cited – I certainly hope he is not referring to the Regenerus study) backs up this position.

I think this is a narrow – and frankly naïve – view of the public good served by committed, exclusive, permanent relationships (one grounded in a culturally specific view of who and how children are raised).   There are certainly other public goods served by commited, exclusive, permanent relationships:

  1. Disease control: exclusive, committed relationships reduce the public health risk of STI transmission.  What would the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and early 90s have looked like if there was a mechanism – an expectation, even – of committed exclusive relationships in the gay community; if people weren’t driven into short-term, casual, sexual encounters by the stigma and underground nature of having same-sex attraction?
  2. Individual health and life expectancy: Research shows that those who are discriminated against experience an increase in negative health consequences related to stress (e.g., heart disease, decreased life expectancy).  Indeed, research shows that even the thought of the possibility of someone discriminating against you – popularly dubbed stereotype threat – results in increased anxiety and decreased health outcomes.  Studies have recently provided a correlation between marriage equality and increased life expectancy.
  3. Financial stability: a family unit comprised of two committed adults is more financially stable than a single individual.  This is especially true in families with children (indeed, he points out that children growing up with one parent is a social travesty).
  4. The adoption issue: there are hundreds of thousands of children without committed family units, under the care of foster agencies and being moved from home to home.  This instability must be worse than being raised in the care of a same-sex couple.  I think it would take a special kind of stubbornness to argue otherwise.  This puts a tax on public service programs that directly implicate the government’s interests.
  5. Equity: I think this is the strongest argument, though Mr. Anderson finds it weak (along with its complement, marriage equality).  It is simply a matter of fairness that denying federal or state benefits on the basis of an innate, generally immutable characteristic is unjust.  Perhaps he argues that this is not an innate characteristic, but I do not think he made that argument in his presentation.    This injustice runs contrary to the fundamental principles of fairness embedded in American culture.

There were other issues raised in Anderson’s responses.  He brought up some slippery-slope arguments: why not redefine it to include pedophilia (to which I would respond this is an issue of the ability to consent, which no one suggests adults with same-sex attraction do not possess), or why not “throuples” (to which I would say – indeed, why not?  Polyamory is not conventional in our society but I see no reason not to recognize permanent, exclusive partnerships of more than two persons.  Indeed, marriage historically has included these options, so I do not see why such would be problematic in this instance).

Even if I believed Anderson’s claim that children grow up best in a male-female household (which assumes an essentialist perspective of gender roles that I do not share, and I do not believe any research backs up this claim and have seen studies to the contrary), certainly two parents is better than one or no parents.  Certainly two same-sex parents is better than two opposite-sex parents who do not love each other, simply because they were pushed into a heterosexual relationship without heterosexual attraction.

There were a couple of other claims that I will not address here: one of which tried to use the fact that cheating is defined by “reproductive acts” and not, say, playing Tennis with another person, to show that marriage is really defined by reproductive acts and not just relationship/companionship.  Most people I know, however, would see romantically kissing another, or oral sex, as examples of cheating as well, and certainly gay men and women can do both of these things (with relatively impressive results), and so are just as capable of adultery as any other; another that men teach aggression and women teach nurture that ignores recent trends in sociology towards a feminist or critical theory perspective on gender.

Anderson did not argue the typical bigoted claims: that homosexuality is naturally immoral, that gay parents would corrupt children, that homosexual persons were perverts, etc.  And although he used pedophilia in a slippery-slope context, he did not directly compare gay men or women to pedophiles.  He even acknowledged that such was not his argument.  That this wasn’t about disrespecting individual persons, or arguing from a place of religious superiority.  He also did not make the Catholic argument about the natural purpose of life being reproduction and homosexual relationships being incompatible to the design of the Author of life (at least, he tried not to make it in those terms).  Both of those arguments would have been defensible intellectually (even if incompatible with separation of church and state).

Instead, he tried to make a utilitarian argument that I find wholly unconvincing and lacking in analytic rigor.  And that might be the most disappointing element of this whole fiasco.

 

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Mister Anderson….

Posted: September 25, 2013 in Uncategorized

Tomorrow (or today, looking at the clock), Boston College’s St. Thomas More society is sponsoring a speaker from the Heritage Foundation and a Ph.D candidate at Notre Dame.  He will be presenting on the (a?) Catholic church’s case again same-sex marriage.  I don’t expect that there will be anything earth shattering about this presentation; likely a discussion on complimentarity, on the nature of what marriage is and the Church’s view of its purpose.  In fact, the speaker, Ryan T. Anderson, has said as much in his previous works.  It is no surprise that Boston College would host such a speaker.  Perhaps they’re trying to make up for the last time they tried (http://www.bcheights.com/2.6171/anti-gay-speaker-fails-1.919930).

Let me make a few important points: I love Boston College.  I very much enjoyed my experience there.  I find the ethos of the campus to be one that supports intellectual discussion around this issue.  Most members of the administration, the professoriate, and the ministry staff are open to discussions of the theological and sociological implications of defining, or as some might have it, re-defining marriage in contemporary society.  By and large, the institution makes an effort — at least at the individual level — to support its lesbian, gay, and bisexual students (from a policy perspective and a programmatic perspective, sometimes that gets a bit more tricky).  I also fully support allowing Mr. Anderson to speak on campus; to not do so would be a violation of the academic freedom that those working in Higher Education so often espouse.  The purpose of education is to promote critical thought and scholarship; to engage in meaningful debate around serious issues of our time.  It would be a grievous mistake to rescind an invitation on ideological grounds (as Providence College just did, in the reverse: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/24/education/catholic-college-rescinds-invitation-to-speaker-defending-same-sex-marriage.html?_r=0)

Where I will be critical, and this is where many of the student activist groups on campus are coming from as they plan protests/occupations of this presentation — these same student activist groups, I will say, that regularly push back against the teachings of the conservative Church in a meaningful and (usually) respectul way (GLC, BCSSH, etc.), is that there is no opposing view.  Last Spring, Boston College GLC hosted a student panel designed to raise awareness around issues of being LGBT at BC and, as a student group, had the forethought to include someone who could represent the Catholic position (incidentally, this individual is one of the folks headlining Mr. Anderson’s presentation).  The dialogue was measured and approached a sensitive issue from a number of different perspectives.

So where is that balance here?  Granted, most presentations on campus do not have someone sitting adjacent to the presenter offering counterpoints — but I would argue that most presentations are not on subjects that are so incredibly sensitive to a significant portion of the BC student body.  This is the first year that Boston College has not made the Princeton Review’s (methodologically flawed) list of least-friendly campuses towards LGBTQ students.  As I lived on campus for the two years in graduate school, I saw a change in the campus’s approach towards LGBTQ programming and discussing these issues.  My sense was that people were feeling better about the fact that Boston College really does support all of its community members.   My point, then, is that this one-sided presentation — sent out in an agressive e-mail blast to all students — has the potential to seem like a knife in the back.

Admittedly, Mr. Anderson has not spoken yet.  Perhaps the professor and the student hosting the event will rigorously question Mr. Anderson on these issues and provide just that balance.  My instinct, though, is that this is a lost opportunity — a chance to proselytize to an increasingly liberal student body at the expense of those in the audience who want their identity and their relationships to be compatible with the love they feel for their alma mater.

Tomorrow is a victory for Academic Freedom.  My hunch is that students will turn it into a victory for measured response and reasonable dialogue.  But I can’t help think, given recent history, that it’s all just a little bit Pyrrhic.

* It is also worth noting that Mr. Anderson has taken to Twitter to publicly shame the entire university because of one editorial:

  1. Ryan T. Anderson ‏@RyanT_Anderson18h

    also hopes that I have gay kids. A sad commentary on (Catholic) higher education. Stay classy Boston College. http://bcgavel.com/2013/09/24/editorial-the-case-against-a-case-against-gay-marriage/ …

    Details

  2. Ryan T. Anderson ‏@RyanT_Anderson18h

    Insists she’s not comparing me to Westboro Baptist, but is embarrassed that BC invited me to speak since I’m a hater http://bcgavel.com/2013/09/24/editorial-the-case-against-a-case-against-gay-marriage/ …

Sympathy for the Devil

Posted: April 20, 2013 in Uncategorized

Vladimir Lenin has a quote that I’ve posted a few times this week.  It goes: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”  That’s how I feel about this week; I can’t believe, for instance, that it was a week ago that I returned from one of the more rewarding experiences of my ResLife career thus far, helping to facilitate a retreat out of the Dean’s office.  It seems like months.

In this past week, I’ve come the closest to prayer as I have in years.  Monday, as I learned about the bombings, a (quite literally) sobering moment, I asked whatever power was listening to make sure that everyone I knew was okay, specifically the students and friends who I knew were running.  The second time was last night, as I asked for the police not to kill Dzhokhar (nickname: Jahar) Tsarnaev.  Not even, necessarily, because I wanted answers, but because after reading about him over the past hours, I couldn’t help but think he could have been someone I knew.

The media keeps trying to find some villainy in his twitter account, but it’s not really there.  People keep pointing to the following tweet:

‏@J_tsar15 Apr @MelloChamp and they what “god hates dead people?” Or victims of tragedies? Lol those people are cooked

But, if I’m reading it correctly, he was mocking the Westboro Baptist Church who were going to picket the funerals of the Marathon bombing.  I read cooked as kooked (like, kooky).  Maybe I’m being too generous, but that’s what it looked like to me.

The rest of his tweets are pretty much what I’ve read in some of my own friends’ accounts.  Jokes about movies and television shows, about smoking pot, a few misogynistic or homophobic remarks here or there, his hesitation about expressing excitement for getting his citizenship because it was on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but nothing out of the ordinary for a 19 year old college student.  In fact, aside from his heading photo, reading “Salam Aleikum,” there is little to identify his faith tradition (and certainly nothing to suggest extremism).  He reminds me of a few stoner friends of mine, who also have been known to posit conspiracy theories about 9/11 being a government job. He jokes about beer pong, complains about waking up early, and tweeted about the election.

When I read his account, the reactions of his friends and roommates, the denial of his parents (and what parent wouldn’t deny to their dying day that their child could commit such an atrocity?), I can’t help but remember: he’s someone’s son.  He’s someone’s friend.  He’s someone’s student.  I can’t imagine the fear he felt as he realized that the entire commonwealth was searching for him; I can’t imagine the anguish he felt after he realized that he killed his brother in his attempt to flee from the police; I can’t imagine what it was like to lie in that boat, bleeding, hungry, scared.

Perhaps I give him too much credit.  I find it hard to believe what I’m writing, myself.  Maybe he is as foreign as we would all like him to be; an outsider, a sociopath, a monster.  It’s easier that way, isn’t it?  It’s easier that way to make sense of that photo that shows him putting down the bag right next to young Martin Richard.  It’s easier to understand how he or his brother could shoot Sean Collier in his police cruiser, just out of the academy.

It’s definitely hard to reconcile his humanity with the fear he caused: the fear that literally locked down a major metropolitan area as a manhunt ensued.

But if you read some of Jahar’s other tweets, you seem him express frustration at the notion that Islam is synonymous with terror, and frustration towards members of his own faith community who don’t understand how he came to Islam (presumably because he’s Caucasian), and the selfishness of suicide.  He’s not your stereotypical fundamentalist.

One thing is for certain: we cannot use this as an excuse to create the same type of fear and malice towards Islam as we did on 9/11.  That he spent his time smoking pot and drinking beer is testament to the fact that Jahar was not a devout Muslim.  Maybe when he wakes up, he’ll tell us it was about Chechen freedom.  Or maybe it will be something else entirely.  But, as we continue in the days and weeks ahead, I hope that you all will remember that this bombing was not, in any way, a religious act.  It does not represent a nationality or a people.  It was an isolated act of aggression and a tragedy.

And I also hope that you will keep the perpetrator of this incident in your thoughts/prayers as he recovers in the hospital, as well as his victims.  As Mark Twain said: “But who prays for Satan? Who in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most, our one fellow and brother who most needed a friend yet had not a single one, the one sinner among us all who had the highest and clearest right to every Christian’s daily and nightly prayers, for the plain and unassailable reason that his was the first and greatest need, he being among sinners the supremest?”

Regardless of your thoughts on the above, there is one thing I think we can all agree on: we are grateful for the men and women who brought Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev to justice; that protected the people of Boston, of Watertown, and of Cambridge – indeed, that protected entire greater Boston area.  We are grateful for the spirit and the resilience of the people of this great city, who joined in unity last night in catharsis either by celebrating in the streets, or, as I did, by having a good cry and getting the first restful night’s sleep in a while.

We are indeed Boston Strong.

I’m frustrated.  And I’ll tell you why I’m frustrated.  I’m frustrated because of the UNC sexual assault scandal that is in some of the press right now.  I’m frustrated that we live in a culture that puts the survivors of a sexual assault on trial more than the accused.  I’m frustrated that a school as prestigious as Carolina would  threaten a survivor with disciplinary action for intimidating her rapist, just because she decided to speak out about what she sees as an unfair process and a lack of support.  I’m frustrated by the comments by student conduct board members, or the comments in every article about this case, that suggest she brought it on herself.  I’m frustrated by my friends with whom I’ve been arguing who say that if she wanted a fair hearing, she should have gone to the police.  And I’m frustrated by the people who are making this issue about the rights of the attacker instead of the rights of the victim, even when said attacker has not been publicly named.

No doubt this is a complicated case.  I will not presume to know whether or not Landen Gambill was forcibly raped by her former partner.  I will state, however, that 2/3 rapes are committed by someone the victim knows.  Nearly 30% of rapes are committed by intimate partners.  What I do believe, though, is that the decisions the UNC administration have made – and the basis for Gambill’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Complaint and subsequent media attention – are at least unethical, and most likely illegal.

1.)    The case was heard by the student “honor court,” a board of undergraduate students designed to hear violations of the student conduct code.  This requires little further elaboration because UNC has admitted that the board should not have heard the case, and have since been stripped of the right to hear them.  Unfortunately, Gambill’s case was heard in the interim, between when the University began to respond to the OCR’s Dear Colleague Letter and when the policies changed.

2.)    The student court put the victim on trial. According to Gambill, one of the members of the student court stated: “Landen, as a woman, I know that if that had happened to me, I would’ve broken up with him the first time it happened.  Will you explain to me why you didn’t?” My response to this the first time I read it is absolute rage.  The student a.) presumes to know what she would do if she were in an abusive relationship, even though leaving an abusive relationship is very difficult and complicated, b.) by asking the question, the implication is clear: “if you really were raped, you would have left him.  Staying implies consent.”  I’ve argued with some people who don’t see that implication in the question, but really I can’t read that question without seeing the insinuation that the victim was responsible for her own assault, c.) the student conduct board brought up a previous suicide attempt (which has no bearing on this case. None.) in her hearing.  Why?  The only thing I can think of is that this was an attempt to discredit her, that just because she suffered from depression she was more likely to “make up” the story.

3.)    The student board released graphic details of Gambill’s assault to her parents, in potential violation of Federal privacy laws (specifically FERPA).  FERPA allows institutions to disclose any and all information to parents if the students are dependents for tax purposes.  According to the UNC website, however, the parents would have needed to file for access to that information in advance, suggesting that this was probably a violation after all.

4.)    The most frustrating piece for me, however, is that Gambill now faces disciplinary action for speaking out, something I believe to be in direct violation to 2008 amendments to the Clery Act which is designed to protect whistleblowers and victims of sexual assault.  From a policy perspective, this decision is especially harmful.  If victims are being intimidated, they are far less likely to report a sexual assault.  Sexual assault is already underreported and underinvestigated.

5.)    In terms of public response, many are wondering why Gambill decided to report to the school rather than the police.  I think the answer is at least two-fold.  First, the campus has a lower burden of proof than the criminal justice system for adjudicating such cases.  Colleges are required to use a “preponderance of evidence” standard for hearing such cases.  That is to say, students are held responsible if there is an infinitesimally greater than 50% chance that they did it (this is often dubbed the reasonable observer test – would a reasonable observer presented with the evidence believe that the person was responsible).  Courts are required to use a “beyond reasonable doubt” standard – something that’s probably closer to the high 90%s.   Second, going through the criminal process requires a much greater emotional commitment and resilience than going through the conduct process for what are usually meager results (rape cases are among the hardest to prove at the criminal standard).  This process can cause even more trauma on top of the initial assault.  Above and beyond that, though, it doesn’t matter. It was the survivor’s right to choose to whom and when she wants to disclose.  Whether or not she reported to the police as well, the campus would still have been responsible for addressing the assault.

6.)    To those saying that there isn’t enough evidence: maybe.  This isn’t about whether or not the accused actually did assault her (although false sexual assault claims are very rare).  It’s about whether the University met its legal obligation and moral obligation to support the survivor.  It did not.  I believe there are other probable violations here as well (failing to inform her that her alleged attacker was moving back on campus, for instance).  Moreover, it’s worth noting that the honor court did find her attacker responsible for harassment after Gambill’s roommate reported behaviors characteristic of stalking, and that an administrator (according to Gambill) obtained a confession from her alleged assailant. As to the rest of the case, we are not privy to the details of the hearing; perhaps there was enough evidence, perhaps there wasn’t, but the above violations should never have occurred.

No institution is perfect.  Sexual assault is difficult for any campus to address.  But it is a problem that we need to be addressing.  Sexual assault is pervasive on college campuses, and if you think you don’t know a survivor, I’d bet you’re wrong.  And the level of the press that this case is getting is probably frustrating for students, who just want to put the whole thing behind them.  I suspect UNC will probably be found in violation if OCR investigates – that an Assistant Dean of Students had resigned over this very issue, and has joined in the OCR complaint with more than 60 others, is testament to the mistakes that were being made.  Let’s spend less time impugning the victim’s character and trying to interrogate her and spend more time addressing the cultural conditions that excuse rape but harass survivors.

Imagine it was your best friend. Your mom. Your sister. Your daughter. You.  Imagine if someone asked you why you didn’t prevent your rape.

I set off a firestorm on my Facebook page when I suggested that transgender murderer Michelle Kosilek should receive her gender reassignment surgery at taxpayers’ expense this week.  Some folks said that only the most liberal of liberals would say such a thing; other people, who I would consider at least as liberal as I, said that this was a waste of Taxpayer dollars.  Some suggested that prisoners forfeited their right to health care and that they should have let Kosilek kill herself.  Others suggested that a “sex change” could not be medically necessary.  Others still demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of the difference between sex and gender.  Throughout my conversation – and other similar ones that I saw spawning across the internet – an unexpected amount of vitriol was being tossed around as casually as people today discuss the weather.  I found the whole experience rather disturbing.  I’m going to try to address all of these pieces in what is bound to be a rather long post.

First, a primer on language:

I think it’s important that we work from the same set of definitions.  Anyone who knows me should know that I think language is incredibly important.  It’s possible that I’m wrong about some of these terms – I am not blessed, to my knowledge, to have any really good friends who identify as transgender – so my working definitions of these terms are purely academic.

Sex: For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use the traditional chromosomal definition of “sex.”  XX = female.  XY = male.  This becomes incredibly complicated in the case of persons who are intersex, but this is not part of our discussion for now.

Gender: Gender is not a biological concept.  Rather, it a socially constructed identity that entails a number of different roles and expectations.  In my view, gender is something that is determined by the individual and how he or she (I’ll avoid the neutral pronoun xe or any of its alternatives for simplicity’s sake, again) identifies.

Transgender Flag

Transgender (adj.): Someone who is transgender identifies with gender roles incongruent with their biological sex.  Often, people who are transgender say they feel as though they are a “female trapped in a male’s body” or vice versa.  I think the part of speech is important here: transgender is an adjective and not a noun.  We talk about a person who is transgender; we don’t talk about a transgender.  This is because saying “a transgender” is similar to saying “a gay”—you are defining someone based on one characteristic.

Transsexual (adj./n.): I’ve been told that some people differentiate transsexual from transgender in the following way: that transsexual individuals have had gender-reassignment surgery and now have the physical anatomy to match their identified gender.  I’ve also been told that this word is problematic because it has negative clinical connotations.  It is also much more often used as a noun than “transgender” which makes someone’s gender identity their defining characteristic.  So I will avoid using this term, but I wanted to throw it out there.

Cross-Dressers: Cross-dressers are not the same as transgender people.  Cross-dressing may have nothing to do with gender identity.  Cross-dressing can be for performance (drag), sexual fetishism, and more.  Some cross-dressers are transgender; many are not.

Cisgender (adj.): The quality of identifying with the same gender as your biological sex.  For analogy sake, gay:straight::transgender:cisgender.  It’s not an apt analogy, really, but it’ll do.

Pronouns: It is important to use the pronoun of the person’s identified gender.  Some people make it a practice to ask people what their preferred pronoun is (typically he or she, but sometimes gender neutral pronouns such as xe).  When I discuss Michelle Kosilek, for instance, I will be referring to her as “she” because that is the pronoun with which she identifies.  This is the same reason that we should refer to Chaz Bono as “he.”

MTF/FTM (adj.): Male-to-Female or Female-to-Male – these are sometimes used to describe people’s original sex to their new gender.  These are problematic because transgender females are not people who were male and became female; instead, they were always female and they just began living the roles with which they always identified.  Make sense?

Some famous Transgender People:

The two that pop into my mind immediately are Chaz Bono and Laura Jane Gabel, the lead singer of Against Me!  Keelin Godsey also comes to mind because he almost qualified for the Olympics this Summer.  Truth is, though, there aren’t many reference points in popular culture for transgender individuals.  This is a subject only recently being examined by our culture.

A quick transgender fact sheet:

26% of transgender individuals have been fired for their gender identity.

15% of transgender people live below the poverty level.

Between 16% and 60% of transgender individuals experience physical abuse.  Between 13% and 66% are survivors of sexual assault.

Suicidal ideation is reported in 38-65% of transgender individuals, with attempts having been carried out by 16-32%.

Depression has been reported in 43-60% of transgender persons.

So why the big range?  The truth is, the research is sparse and there are a lot of factors that weigh in on someone’s mental health, including the support of the community, access to resources, whether or not they have been assaulted, etc.  I imagine that as more research is conducted, and as trans issues reach public awareness, the numbers will point to a greater consensus.

So, now onto Michelle Kosilek:

Michelle Kosilek is in prison for murder after having strangled her wife with a wire.  She is sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.  She sued in 2000 for access to hormone therapy while she was in prison, and sued again in 2005 to gain access to Gender Reassignment Surgery.  A federal judge last week (notably a Reagan Appointee) stated that the Massachusetts Department of Corrections needed to provide the surgery.  This sent off a nationwide backlash against tax-payer dollars being used to fund “sex changes for murderers.”

It’s important to note that Kosilek’s doctors have established that this is the only treatment that would help with her Gender Identity Disorder (A term in the DSM-IV which will likely be replaced in the upcoming edition).  Kosilek has attempted suicide twice, and has attempted to manually castrate herself in absence of the prescribed surgery.  Although the American Psychological Association has not officially declared Gender Reassignment a treatment for GID, it is the standard of practice espoused by most practitioners who treat transgender individuals and it and part of the WPATH standards of care (http://www.wpath.org/publications_standards.cfm).  In nations that have adopted universal healthcare (e.g., Canada), gender reassignment surgery is covered as medically necessary.  Some private insurers in the USA cover the surgery as well, but only after strict criteria are met.  Otherwise, the surgery can cost up to $20,000.  In order to legally have the surgery in the US, one must live as the new gender for at least a year and undergo extensive psychological evaluation.

Do Prisoners Forfeit their Rights to Health Care?

This is a complicated question, to be sure, and I believe it comes down primarily to the eighth amendment – do we inflict cruel and unusual punishment on our most heinous criminals?  The Constitution says we don’t.  The purpose of the prison system is not to inflict suffering on inmates; it is to remove them from society and, for those who will eventually leave prison, rehabilitate them for reentry into civilization.  For prisoners with Cancer, we do not withhold chemotherapy.  For prisoners with severe depression, we do not withhold antidepressant medication.  For prisoners with schizophrenia, we do not withhold antipsychotic medication.  To do so is inhumane.

Some argue that Kosilek lost any right to humanity when she took another’s life – so do we just withhold treatment from murderers?  What about the number of false convictions?  And if murderers, what about rapists?  Pedophiles?  Drug Dealers?  Exactly which prisoners do we withhold treatment from?  I find the whole logical progression of this argument disturbing – such withholding of treatment amounts to torture, and I’m not comfortable living in a country that tortures its criminals.  The same applies to Michelle Kosilek.  She is by no means sympathetic (although more on that later) – it is understandable that our basest instincts would say “let her suffer.”  She did, after all, murder her wife and leave her in a parking lot.  But she is still a human being, and she is suffering immensely without the treatment her doctors have prescribed.  Besides, since when do we allow our basest instincts determine public policy?

If it’s a question of cost, chemotherapy can cost up to $30,000 or more.  Stopping cancer treatment doesn’t seem to be as popular as withholding Michelle’s gender re-assignment.

But It’s Not Medically Necessary!

Here is the one that frustrates me the most.  People go on and on about how a “sex change” cannot be medically necessary.  I guess that really does pose an important question: Do we believe doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and scholars about what is medical necessary?  Or do we defer to the armchair clinicians spewing their “common sense” truths from talk radio, twitter, or the legislature?  Isn’t the reason that people are so afraid of “ObamaCare” that they’re afraid unqualified bureaucrats will be determining healthcare?  One would need to be the Gabby Douglass of mental gymnastics to overcome that cognitive dissonance.   On this one, I’ll trust the doctors and the people who say that gender reassignment surgery saved their lives.

He’s Not REALLY a Woman:

Really?  And you live inside Michelle Kosilek’s mind and can say, with certainty, that she does not identify as a woman?  Some folks out there would respond that it doesn’t matter how she identifies.  But gender is socially constructed, and one’s self-identification is all that matters.  This blog post is going on for too long, so I won’t get into everything that’s wrong with this sentiment.  Anyone who would like to do more can google “social construction of gender,” or take some introductory courses in sociology, gender studies, feminist theory, or queer theory.  Here is a brief summary: http://thefeministagenda.blogspot.com/2009/04/social-construction-of-gender.html.  Michelle is just trying to make her external self match her internal self; in an ideal world, we could decosntruct gender roles entirely.  That’s not where we are yet.

Good, Hard-Working People Can’t Afford GRS, So Why Should the State Pay for a Prisoner’s?

This is probably the most compelling argument, and I think the question is backwards.  It should read: “If part of being humane is giving prisoners access to health care, why do we not give that same access to good, hard-working people?”  The problem isn’t with the DOC providing the surgery; it’s the fact that access to good health care in the United States is a problem.  It’s a problem that our current president has tried to fix, and it’s a problem that’s seen great progress in recent years.  But it’s still a problem.  Taking healthcare away from prisoners only makes it worse and it imposes undue pain and suffering to boot.

So what?

So why does any of this matter?  Why have I gone out of my way to defend Kosilek or the decision of Judge Wolf?  Because it’s a matter of principle, and not of politics.  This has nothing to do with me being an uber-liberal.  It has to do with me believing that we have a moral obligation to help those on the margins of society, and that as a public we treat Transgender people like crap.  It’s interesting to note that Michelle Kosilek got life in prison without parole, but someone who strangled a transgender person in Massachusetts only got two years.  It’s interesting to note that the person Kosilek murder – her wife – was originally her therapist in a half-way house that seduced her.  It’s interesting to note that her wife, Cheryl, physically abused her by pouring boiling hot water on her and attacking her with a knife.  It’s interesting to note that she was also abused by her stepfather who attempted to stab her for asking if she was a girl.

If people only took some time to understand the issues that trans people face, maybe Kosilek never would have been abused?  Maybe she never would have checked into that halfway house?  Maybe she would have never murdered anyone?  We’ll never know the truth.  But it’s time that we start allowing compassion and sympathy back into our lives instead of judgment, hate, and fear.  So if you’re going to talk about this case – and you should, there’s a lot to talk about – do it respectfully, do it with integrity, and remember that prisoners – no matter how heinous their crimes – are people too.

 

P.S. – This piece tries to make the moral case for granting Michelle Kosilek her surgery.  For the legal reasons, I would suggest reading the actual decision — there is more to it (basically depraved indifference on the part of the DOC) than what the media would portray: http://cbsboston.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/kosilek-order.pdf

Dear Professor Warren,

I woke up this morning thinking about the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.  I remembered how attuned we were, as a party, to the needs of those on the margins.  As those on the right accuse us of godlessness (and I admit, I myself am an atheist), I saw people preaching the true message of Christ and professing the values our nation is built on: that yes, we are our brother’s keeper, and yes, we are in this together.  That together, we are greater than the sum of all our parts.  You quoted a piece of scripture in your speech that resonated with what I think we stand for as a party.

You said: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”  And you explicated the passage well, stating that the passage “teaches about God in each of us, that we are bound to each other and we are called to act.”  You, along with the rest of the speakers, reached out to those on the margins – the poor, the homeless, the undocumented, the disabled, the LGBT community, and the various racial communities that make up our great nation.  You drove home the point that health care is a fundamental human right that no one in this country should go without.  Because of this, I woke up and donated $20 to your campaign.

Then I saw Scott Brown’s response to the Michelle Kosilek case; he called it “an outrageous abuse of taxpayer dollars” and I said (publicly) that this was yet another reason I would not be voting for Senator Brown.  Certainly, transgender folks are treated as some of the “least of these my brethren.”  The prison community even more so.  And for a woman who has been forced to live her life as a male by a society that refuses to understand the needs of gender minorities – for a woman who has been forced to live in an all-male prison – for a woman who has repeatedly self-mutilated and attempted suicide over the lack of medical care (again, something we as a party deem a fundamental human right) – I knew that you would understand Kosilek’s plight.

So I was surprised today to learn that you agree with Senator Brown.  Surprised and disheartened, really, after what I found to be such a great convention speech.  Although you weren’t as blustering as Senator Brown, you told WTKK the following: “I have to say, I don’t think it’s a good use of taxpayer dollars.”  It’s true that this is the sentiment of many of our friends and neighbors who do not understand transgender issues.  It’s true that, in an election year, it might have been political suicide to come out in favor of trans rights (especially in the case of Kosilek, a murderer who garners little public support).  But there was an out for you, Professor; you could have simply deferred to the medical expertise of those in the prison system who stated that this was medically necessary treatment.  Certainly the great people of Massachusetts don’t want the Government intervening in the decision of doctors, right?  Isn’t that everyone’s great fear about “ObamaCare” – that bureaucrats will be deciding the treatment of Americans?

I know that you would not deny anyone the chemotherapy to cure their cancer, or the medicine to control blood pressure, or the drugs to treat depression.  Why then would we withhold treatment for someone who has fought the last twenty years trying to live as a woman the treatment the medical community has deemed necessary.  We do not allow prisoners to fund their own care; we take on that obligation as a state and as a nation.  That means that we cannot withhold treatment, even from – especially from – “the least of these my brethren.”  What Michelle Kosilek did to her wife was deplorable; it’s easy to hate her, and seek vengeance against her by denying her treatment.  But that’s not who we are, nor is it who I think you want us to be.

Trans folks face some of the worst treatment our society has to offer, and to keep her in an all-male facility, and to deny her the care she needs, sets her up for further suicide attempts, further attempts at self-mutilation, further attempts at rape and abuse.  The Bill of Rights protects every American from cruel and unusual punishment – even those on the extreme margins of our society – and I would hope that a candidate as progressive as yourself would recognize that this is not about an operation; this is about a human being.  It’s about our own humanity as we remember what a Reagan-appointed federal judge remembered: that we love our neighbors, that judgment is not our prerogative, and that – with God in each of us – we are called to act.

More:

http://articles.boston.com/2012-09-06/metro/33615525_1_disorder-illness-violent-inmates
http://tranifesto.com/2012/09/06/the-michelle-kosilek-decision/
http://news.yahoo.com/transgender-murderer-michelle-kosilek-deserves-sex-change-treatment-155400205.html

Resources for those trying to understand trans issues:

http://transequality.org/Resources/NCTE_UnderstandingTrans.pdf
http://lbgtrc.msu.edu/resources/understanding-transgender-identities

I want you to imagine a scenario, and I’m not going to tell you why until the very end of this post.  Some of you might already know where this is headed, because I’ve used this metaphor in conversation before.  To my knowledge, this analogy is my own creation; that said, a quick Google search will pull up similar parables to demonstrate the same point, but I do not recall ever having heard it or read it before I thought of it.  So let that be my disclaimer – I think I came up on this with my own, but it’s entirely possible that someone made this or a similar argument before and I just think it’s mine.  Either way, I think it’s a great way to discuss justice and fairness – and to ask if those are the same thing, necessarily.

A very important race is about to happen – a long-distance relay that carries very high stakes for those involved.  The winning team will be set for life – they will win the Olympic gold, as it were – and will go on to long-lived careers as relay race runners.  We have two teams – I will call them Team X and team Y.  The players – five per team — are spaced out over this lengthy course.  Unbeknownst to Team X, or the final team members of Team Y, the first Team Y runner has bribed one of the officials to rig the race in their favor, and that official has constructed additional hurdles across the way.  In addition, the baton that Team X will be carrying will be heavier than the one Team Y will carry.  The running shoes provided to Team X have less traction and arch support than the ones provided to Team Y.  In addition, the judge has stolen the water bottles that Team X was supposed to have to run this race on what is a very, very hot day.

As the race is about to begin, the official begins counting down the time until the race starts.  He fires the gun to start the race, and the teams are off.  The official immediately stops the first Team X runner, claiming that they jumped the gun, and authorizes a five minute head start for Team Y.  After five minutes, Team Y has developed a considerable advantage over Team X, but Team X begins the race as the crowd watches on.  While the first leg of the race is being run, the later players of Team X recognize that they don’t have any water and immediately send their coach to find more, but that doesn’t help the first runner who is parched, already significantly behind, whose feet are beginning to hurt due to lack of support in the shoes, and who has already tripped twice because of the sabotaged soles.  By the time Team X passes the baton to the second player, Team Y now has an eight minute advantage.

The second runner fares a little better though, since he has some water and he was born a naturally gifted athlete.  He only trips once in his leg of the race, and while he was running, the first player told the coach that their shoes had been sabotaged.  The coach was able to get new shoes for the last three runners who would not be similarly handicapped.  When the second runner passes the baton, Team X is only trailing by six minutes.  In the meantime, an oversight committee has recognized that something is amiss and has removed the bribed officials and replaced them with unbiased observers.  As the race continues, they hustle to remove the additional hurdles that the fourth and fifth runners will face, but do not want to try to dissemble those on the third leg of the race to avoid confusion and refrain from interfering with the runners.

By the time the baton is passed to the fourth runner, all but a few of the extra hurdles have been taken down for Team X, and Team Y only has a four minute lead.   The officials are able to remove all of the superfluous hurdles on the fifth leg of the race by this point, but because the additional weight of the baton is so subtle, they do not recognize that it has been weighted improperly and is contributing even more to the unfair time.  They wish that they could start the race from scratch, but they only have the resources to host the race this one time and it would be virtually impossible to begin anew.  They recognize that the race was rigged from the start, but can do nothing about it except hope that the fifth racer can bridge the gap.  When the baton is passed to the fifth racer, Team X is only three minutes behind.

The fifth leg of the race is, by all appearances, completely fair.  No one – not even the runner – recognizes the extra weight of the baton.  By force of will alone, and because perhaps Team Y has gotten a little complacent in their lead, Team X almost closes the gap.  Ultimately, Team Y wins the race by just fifteen seconds.  The results, however, are not immediately announced.  The officials have convened over in a corner somewhere and seem to be intensely discussing the situation – after all, this race was certainly not one that was equitable for Team X.  After a short discussion, the officials announce that they have decided to award the Gold medal to Team X because of the unfairness, but promise that a Silver medal will be available to Team Y and that they will likely still get sponsored and have long and successful careers.  The final runner on Team Y is outraged – “This isn’t fair!” he says.  He didn’t even know that the first member of the team had bribed the judge, and he just ran his butt off.  His team had a better time and should win the Gold!  The crowd at this point is quite confused.  The family members of Team X are cheering at this unexpected announcement.  Some independent observers, well-informed about the race, recognized the disparity too and are cheering for the announcement.  But by and large, not recognizing the unfairness that existed all along, the crowd is outraged.  They say that the officials are simply discriminating against all of Team Y because of the actions of one misguided first player and a corrupt official.

If you had to pick a runner for your next relay team – who would you pick? Someone from Team X or someone from Team Y?  My bet is that, knowing everything you know about the race, you would pick someone from Team X who had to surpass insurmountable obstacles.  Sure, Team Y had the better overall time, but looking at the situation holistically you have decided that your team will be better served by Team X.  In this one instance, you’re going to ignore the quantitative score and make a more subjective decision based on individual characteristics.  I think that’s what you would do, anyway.  It’s what I would do.  For several reasons, actually.  It is obvious that Team X had to work much harder, and they didn’t finish that far behind.  There is a lot of potential there.  In addition, it’s the only truly just thing to do.  It might not be fair to that fifth runner on Team Y, who did absolutely nothing wrong himself and benefitted from an advantage that he didn’t even know about, but he is a good runner and he’ll probably be okay.

But now let’s pretend this isn’t a relay race at all.  Let’s pretend, instead, that this is actually the story of American history.  Let Team X represent, for the purposes of this discussion, African Americans.  Let Team Y represent White Americans.  The corrupt judge in this instance is slavery, and the five minute head start represents the time during which African Americans served as slaves.  Let the sabotaged sneakers represent the laws that made it illegal to teach blacks to read.  Let the removal of the judge represent emancipation, and the restoration of water the right of African Americans to vote.  Let the passing of the baton represent the passage of time from one generation to the next, and the additional hurdles laws like Jim Crow.  Let the people working to dissemble those hurdles be protestors fighting for and politicians implementing imperfect policies that remove most of the obstacles to success.  Let the family members of Team X represent the African American community, the independent supporters of Team X well-educated activists working for social justice, and the rest of the crowd represent today’s White majority.  Let those final runners be, for example, high school students today.  The runner for Team X is Black, and the final runner for Team Y is White.  Neither is responsible for the actions of their predecessors.  Let the heavy baton represent all of the subliminal messages that African Americans receive – subtle but systematic discrimination, both actual and perceived – that not everyone sees.  Let the gold medal awarded at the end represent admission into a highly-selective University.

And the judges’ decision to consider the totality of the circumstances in awarding that medal to Team X?  That’s the choice – the affirmative action – to try to correct past and present injustice. Knowing that Team X deserves it even if their time (grades? SAT scores? Extracurricular activities?) wasn’t as strong as Team Y on paper.   And sure, that final leg of the race – Team X and Team Y started on almost equal footing if you looked at their race individually.  Sure, it seems unfair that the final runner of Team Y – who did nothing wrong himself, and ran a great race – doesn’t get the medal.  But he’ll be okay in the end.

We need to examine issues of public policy in terms of the entire historical context rather than how things are right now.  And race certainly isn’t the only issue, though it’s one of the factors that has provided the greatest obstacles to human beings in our short history as a nation.  Does that mean that Team X always gets that bonus in their future races?  No.  But until they’ve recovered from that first race, and until that baton is weighted exactly as equal to the other, we need to continue to act within the context of the society in which we live.  When the Supreme Court likely hears a case on Affirmative Action this fall – or when you’re discussing the issue over the water cooler, or in a car ride home from the beach – I hope you really consider whether or not Team X is still very tired from their first race, and if that baton really has been fixed.