Open letter to Elizabeth Warren on a prisoner’s right to medical transition

Dear Elizabeth Warren,

It’s been a long time since I’ve been as excited about a political candidate as I am about you. You speak truth about income inequality in a way that is clear, honest, and heartfelt. At this point it scares me to trust a politician, but I believe you will do good work. I wish I was still a Massachusetts voter (born and raised in Boston) so I could cast my vote for you. Which is why I was so disapointed to read your recent comment that Michelle Kosilek, who is serving a life sentence for murdering her wife, should not be granted access to sex reassignment surgery. And it’s also why I’m writing to you. I believe you want to do good work, and I think this is an opportunity to correct an error, get educated about an issue you don’t know about, and hopefully become an ally to a community that could really use your help.

Elizabeth Warren

On Friday this happened:

“I have to say, I don’t think it’s a good use of taxpayer dollars,” Warren, a Harvard Law School professor, said in an interview on WTKK-FM.

A trans woman in prison for a horrible crime is someone who’s sadly easy to throw under the bus politically, given the lack of public knowledge about and support for the rights of trans folks and incarcerated people. This is part of why I’m so disappointed to hear these comments from a politician who’s great at speaking truth to power. We could use a passionate, caring voice like yours to cut through the bigotry, rather than joining in the current ignorant conversation.

Do you believe prisoners deserve basic human rights while they are incarcerated, including access to necessary medical care? Kosilek’s doctors have said she needs this surgery. Assuming you do believe prisoners deserve health care, the only reason I can see you thinking it OK for a politician to insert yourself into someone’s process of making medical decisions with her doctors is because you don’t accept this is actually necessary medical care. I frankly don’t understand how a pro-choice politician can think voicing this sort of opinion is OK ever, and the only explanation I can find is ignorance or bigotry about trans people. It seems like you think Kosilek’s surgery is unecessary in some way – that it’s cosmetic is a typical uninformed take. That you think it’s OK for a politician to even weigh in with her medical opinion, though, only seems possible if you think trans women are less deserving of rights.

I shouldn’t have to explain to you that sex reassignment surgery can be necessary surgery. But we’ve got this bizarre attitude that trans women’s bodies are public property, that we don’t deserve bodily autonomy because of our genders, so everybody gets to say whether we even deserve health care. I shouldn’t have to explain that some trans folks experience dissonance between our bodies and identities to such a harsh degree that is has marked negative health outcomes. I shouldn’t have to explain that sex reassignment surgery isn’t cosmetic – it’s health care. Medical professionals have agreed that transition related medical care, including hormone treatment and surgery, is appropriate treatment for extreme gender dissonance experienced by trans people. I can tell you that my own process of transition has helped move me from being a suicidal person with crippling depression to someone who wants to be alive and feels capable of living in this world. None of these explanations should be necessary for you to get that you shouldn’t comment like this on another person’s health care needs. But sadly we’ve got a long way to go on giving trans folks the same basic rights, including access to medical care, as everyone else.

Courts are finally starting to listen to medical experts about trans folks’ health needs, which is a positive step – we’re beginning to be treated under the law just like other people. I’d love to see you being one of the people to model this same attitude as a politician. Instead, you’ve commented on an issue you obviously know nothing about just because it’s in the news cycle. Frankly, that’s what I expect from most candidates, but I’ve come to expect a lot more from you.

Trans people face horrendous violence within the prison system. Trans women get housed in men’s prisons, as happened to Kosilek, which helps make them a target. The options for trans women are often either solitary confinement, which is cruel and unusual punishment, or being put in general population, which exposes them to an extremely high risk of violence.  These are some of the most marginalized people in our culture, and there’s a general lack of compassion for trans women in prison. These are exactly the sort of people who need an Elizabeth Warren in their corner. We could also use an ally on access to trans-related health care, too. Right now, there are major barriers to access – there is a lack of insurance coverage precisely because of the lack of understanding of our health care needs which you recently expressed. The entire trans community could use more political allies to help us access the health care we need.

I believe you are in politics because you want to do good, and I believe your comments on this case were made out of ignorance. If I’m right, you have the opportunity as a public figure to model learning about trans folks and changing your views. I urge you to get educated:  talk to organizations like GLAD in your state, the National Center for Transgender Equality, or the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which does vital work on trans folks in prison. Please, learn from the trans community.

You got this issue wrong, but I hope you’re willing to listen to criticism, and I hope you’re willing to change. Kosilek deserves your apology, and she deserves an ally like you. There’s a number of politicians speaking against Kosilek’s right to health care, including your opponent Scott Brown. I don’t expect him to change his views on this issue. But I do expect more compassion from you.

Sincerely,

Jos Truitt

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/4thwaver/ Lauren

    I’m not sure Elizabeth Warren was saying that trans people don’t deserve human rights or the same medical attention that other prisoners are warranted. I think she was trying to walk a razor thin line between what is right and what is political. She isn’t saying that Kosilek shouldn’t have her surgery, just that taxpayer dollars shouldn’t fund it. I’m not saying I agree with her, but I don’t think her statement was based in bigotry. It’s worth consideration.

    • http://feministing.com/members/jpbsa/ Jason

      But Elizabeth Warren IS saying what type of health care this woman should get. When in prison, folks don’t have medical options – you have what is there and what politicians are willing to let you have. In this case, the doctors are saying this is needed care. Politicians are disagreeing. Why are they disagreeing? This is bigotry.
      Saying “taxpayer dollars shouldn’t fund it” means “you don’t deserve it” because what other options are there? Can she pay for the treatment herself? From all the money she is making while in prison? There is no other option!

      So maybe Elizabeth Warren is saying “You can have your surgery, but we won’t pay for it.” But why would she say that? Because she doesn’t believe it is a medical necessity, but instead a cosmetic thing like a tattoo.
      Jos is saying that trans people deserve to have their health needs be considered as such and anyone that isn’t willing to do so…is a bigot.

      And I agree with Jos (full disclosure, I do most of the time)

    • http://feministing.com/members/marlene/ Marlene

      No.

      The taxpayer dollars talking point? NO

      Go read a book, or even the article you are commenting on for that matter.

      • http://feministing.com/members/4thwaver/ Lauren

        Honestly, the slinging of insults is silly. Come on now. Go read a book? In fact, I am a graduate student in Women’s and Gender Studies. I read many feminist and gender based texts. I am constantly engaged in discourse around gender and human rights. I care deeply about equality for all, and that includes trans people. I am NOT defending what Elizabeth Warren said. I am simply providing a context for it.

        Please leave the negativity out of commenting.

        • http://feministing.com/members/widdershinscat/ Kat B.

          What other medical conditions besides transsexuality should have necessary treatments withheld based on public disapproval? Should HIV positive inmates have their antiretrovirals withheld? Conservatives believe that AIDS is the wrath of God for promiscuous behavior. Should inmates with depression have their antidepressants withheld because they can just suck it up? Should inmates with bipolar have their mood stabilizers withheld?

          Where do we draw the line? Or is it just transsexual inmates whose lives are worth so little?

  • http://feministing.com/members/gaulding/ Jill Gaulding

    These comments from Elizabeth Warren are disappointing. Thanks for your powerful response!

  • http://feministing.com/members/herdisleah/ Tina

    Incredibly well said. Love it.

  • http://feministing.com/members/kglenna/ Katelyn

    I feel like you surrender some rights when you murder your spouse…