"I'm almost at a loss for words here," said an emotional Rhiannon O'Donnabhain, after being introduced to a national phone conference audience Wednesday evening.
"This is an affirmation that my cause was a right cause, and that I was right in pursuing this through the court. Now the long wait is over and my brothers and sisters can take a medical deduction for their treatments for gender identity disorder without fear that their medical deduction is going to be denied by the IRS."
Her case will heretofore be recognized as the landmark victory of transgender rights over discriminatory IRS tax policy. In legalese the case is filed as Rhiannon G. O'Donnabhain v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. But in everyday practice it's the little David's and Davina's of America triumphing over the big, bad Goliath of the Internal Revenue Service.
In an overwhelming 11-5 ruling the U.S. Tax Court affirmed O'Donnabhain's right to claim her 2001 sex reassignment surgery. Suddenly, transgender Americans have the law on their side to deduct sex reassignment surgery expenses on their taxes.
And it gets better.
Pending any further IRS legal action, transitioners will not only be able to deduct sex reassignment surgery, but other "non-genital sex-reassignment" surgeries recognized as medical treatment for gender identity disorder under the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care.
Hormone therapy and facial feminization surgery (FFS) both qualify as tax deductions under the new ruling, according to Jennifer Levi Esq., Transgender Rights Project Director at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD).
She noted a transgender individual may amend a tax return for up to three years, allowing some latitude for those who have had GID related medical treatments in the past.
Levi, one of six principal litigators representing O'Donnabhain against the IRS, moderated the national conference call, co-sponsored by GLAD and the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE).
The crux of litigation centered on Section 213 of the tax code which allows for a tax deduction for medical care. The IRS argued that Ms. O'Donnabhain's surgeries should be excluded as cosmetic procedures.
"As the first line of argument the IRS maintained the position that the experience of gender dysphoria, that's associated with being transgendered is not a real experience. That it's not a real medical condition. And that the clinically significant symptoms associated with gender dysphoria have no physiological origin and don't reflect pathology at a cellular level. Therefore they couldn't meet the statutory definition of what constitutes a disease or a medical condition."
--Jennifer Levi, Esq, GLAD describing the legal tactics of the IRS
In sum, the IRS legal strategy positioned GID as a social condition. It attacked the validity of Ms. O'Donnabhain's life experience as a transsexual woman and distress caused by gender identity disorder (GID) as manipulations devised to receive "cosmetic surgery" under the guise of medical treatment.
According to Levi, the IRS argument concluded there was no therapeutic goal to O'Donnabhain's sex reassignment surgery, but her "penchant for cosmetic surgery."
The U.S. Tax Court disagreed, rejecting IRS arguments out of hand. It ruled the "triadic" treatment sequence of the Benjamin Standards of Care including hormonal sex reassignment, real life experience and sex reassignment surgery, (consisting of genital and/or non-genital sex reassignment) is not only medical care treatment, but "the appropriate treatment" reflecting the consensus position of the medical community.
The groundbreaking verdict brings a swift end to the age-old discriminatory practices of the IRS. And it could well portend more significant change on the horizon. An end to unjust health insurance exclusions for transgender medical care comes to mind.
"I hope and expect that this case will have an impact," responded Levi.
The national publicity generated by O'Donnabhain versus the IRS validates the medical crises experienced by transgender individuals. But it goes the extra mile, validating the transgender experience as every bit as real as any other.
The U.S Tax court affirms the transgender experience with dignity. It is a welcome voice of reason echoing far above the harsh din of social conservatism.
The verdict is a small, but significant step forward. Even if it's not the proverbial giant leap for trans-kind, it's definitely a huge step in the direction of federally mandated transgender equality reform.