Editors' note: Alice Kalafarski is a law school graduate and transgender activist. She volunteers with Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC), SpeakOUT Boston, and spent a month with Maine's No on One campaign. Of all the places she helps out, she proudest to be a Camp Trans cat herder.
When we hear about a court ruling, the first thing we pay attention to is who won. We care a lot more about the practical impact of a decision than we do about which legal arguments won over the judges. However, you need to take a closer look at those arguments if you care about what courts will do moving forward and how the public as a whole will feel about the issue. I applaud the result of the O'Donnabhain decision, but I'm really scared it will reinforce the idea that being trans is a disease to be treated with hormones and surgery. A tax break isn't worth that kind of stigma.
The law isn't just about statutes and precedents; it's about how our society's rules affect how real people make the decisions that shape their lives. I'm one of the hundreds of thousands (or million+) of transgender Americans who lived through the current Gender Identity Disorder (GID) system. Ms. O'Donnabhain has the right to tell her story and explain why GID diagnosis helped her, but I should have my story heard as well.
I was closeted until I had a big trans-epiphany on November 14th, 2006. I was 25, and until then I'd been depressed, isolated, and almost completely asexual. I'd kept all of my dreams inside, so I hadn't crossdressed or done any of the other things commonly associated with being trans. I wanted to make up for lost time, and by December I decided to go full-time and start hormones; the student health center was very accommodating, and so were all of my teachers. In February of '07, I booked an appointment for genital reassignment surgery (GRS) with a surgeon in Thailand recommended to me by an acquaintance. I left in May right after the semester ended, and I paid $5,500 for surgery and the three-week stay to recover.
My parents were somewhat accepting of me being trans, but they wanted to stop me from getting surgery so soon in Thailand. They contacted gender specialist Diane Ellaborn, the same therapist O'Donnabhain used and the one relied upon in the court's decision, and they had her speak with me over the phone prior to leaving for Thailand. After just half an hour of speaking with me, Ms. Ellaborn said she could diagnose me with GID and get me any US surgeon I liked within six months; my dad even offered to pay for everything. I got rather upset at all this, and I said part of the reason I was going to Thailand was so I wouldn't have to put up with all of the GID nonsense. The stigma of being trans had kept me in the closet for 25 years, and I wanted to finally start making my own decisions about what to do with my life and my body.
At the time, I liked to think that I set the world's record for transitioning, but I know now that the physical changes are only a small part of the ongoing process to accept who I am and to get comfortable living my life. Looking back I also see how I made things harder on myself by rushing off to Thailand so quickly, but I don't have any regrets about deciding things on my own rather than letting a gender therapist decide for me. In traditional therapy, a large focus is on empowering the client to feel confident and self-sufficient; gender therapists take the exact opposite approach. They are the ones who decide if and when you'll make a permanent, major change to your body, and that's about as disempowering as you can get. Even if you get someone like Diane Ellaborn who'll give you a rubber-stamp, it's still disempowering to jump through all those hoops because you live in a society that demands the charade.
So let's be clear that we can't separate GID diagnosis from being trans. The judges who decided the O'Donnabhain case might not consciously accept it, but nearly any trans person who wants surgery can get diagnosed with GID. We can network amongst each other to find the therapists who'll diagnose us after a half-hour phone call, and we'll find the ones that can pull strings to get us any surgeon we want in six months. It might cost some money for 12 perfunctory sessions where we go through the motions of talking about how sad we are about our junk, but if you've got the cash you can get the diagnosis. It's a win for you to get the surgery you want, it's a win for the therapist that gets paid for those sessions, and it's a win for the surgeon who won't have any ethical qualms or legal hassles for taking your money.
The big losers in the system are the vast majority of trans people who don't go the GID-diagnosis-to-surgery route. The fact that GID is a mental disease keeps many of them in the closet trying to "cure" themselves; we lose many closeted trans people to suicide each year, and many who do emerge can carry the emotional damage of those years for the rest of their lives. Those that do come out often don't want surgery and suffer from a public perception that it's what every trans person who's "really a woman" (or man) will do. The system also doesn't do much to help trans people who want surgery but can't afford it. The holy grail of those pushing the GID system is that it will eventually make health insurers cover surgery, but in the unlikely event that does happen I don't think it will be worth the cost. As long as being trans means you're susceptible to a special disease that requires lots of painful and expensive surgery, we'll all be treated as if there's something wrong about being transgender.
Imagine yourself at a gay rights rally. What's your one-word response when a leader steps up and shouts, "What do we want?" I'd bet it's a resounding cry for "EQUALITY" or something similar. The gay rights movement has been making a fairly consistent push for equal rights for the past generation, and it's slowly captured the hearts and minds of most young Americans. But what message do trans people send with high-profile cases about getting money for surgery from the government or health insurers?
I do think that all trans people should get support once they decide what physical changes they need to make, but isn't that less important than directly confronting our nation's transphobia? In the long run, being trans in America will always really suck until we get just as much respect for our identities as cisgender people do -and nobody conditions that respect on genital status or any other physical trait. Although I support the result and believe all the activists and other people involved were well intentioned, the O'Donnabhain decision takes us farther away from when that day will come.