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Appeals court rules gender dysphoria is a protected disability, sides with trans-identified inmate

Prison
Women's prison. |

A federal court has ruled that the Americans With Disabilities Act protects trans-identified individuals and that a prison policy requiring inmates to be housed based on their biological sex, specifically their external genitalia, violates federal law. 

In a 2-1 ruling published Tuesday, the 4th U.S. Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling asserting that the Americans With Disabilities Act does not apply to trans-identified people.

Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, appointed to the bench by former President Bill Clinton, delivered the court's opinion. The issue will go back to the district court “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

The ruling stems from a trans-identified male filing a lawsuit against the Sheriff of Fairfax County, Virginia, as well as a nurse at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center and a deputy at the prison, alleging discrimination and harassment after having spent six months incarcerated in men’s housing at the facility.

Kesha Williams contends that gender dysphoria — persistent discomfort with one’s biological sex — constitutes “a disability suffered by many (but certainly not all) transgender people.”

Williams sued Nurse Xin Wang, who performed a “preliminary medical evaluation” on the plaintiff at the beginning of the six-month prison sentence and labeled Williams as “male” upon discovering the presence of male genitalia even though Williams “for fifteen years had received hormone medical treatment for ... gender dysphoria.”

Prison policy required that “[m]ale inmates be classified as such if they have male genitals” and “[f]emale inmates be classified as such if they have female genitals.” 

In her opinion, Motz maintained that this policy “violates federal law.” She cited it as a violation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. The law mandates prison officials to “consider on a case-by-case basis whether placement would ensure the inmate’s health and safety, and whether the placement would present management or security problems” when “deciding whether to assign a transgender or intersex inmate to a facility for male or female inmates.” 

Williams maintains that Wang failed to fill a request for “prescribed hormone medication for gender dysphoria” promptly, resulting in “experiencing significant mental and emotional distress.” The opinion states that while Williams was housed on the men’s side of the prison, prison deputies "repeatedly harassed [him] regarding [his] sex and gender identity.”

“Deputies ignored [his] requests that they refer to [him] as a woman. Instead, they referred to [him] as ‘mister,’ ‘sir,’ ‘he,’ or ‘gentleman.’ Williams’ requests for some accommodations — to shower privately and for body searches to be conducted by a female deputy — were denied. One deputy threatened to place [him] in solitary confinement if [he] resisted a search by a male deputy. Male inmates also harassed Williams, causing [him] to fear for [his] safety throughout [his] incarceration in male housing.”

One deputy, in particular, referred to as Deputy Garcia in the opinion, found himself as a defendant in the lawsuit for reportedly subjecting Williams to a “‘highly aggressive’ search that resulted in bruising to [his] breast and caused [him] ‘pain for several days’” in addition to mocking Williams and [making "light of his actions." 

The plaintiff accused both Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid and Garcia of “gross negligence.” The court ruled in favor of Williams on all aspects of the lawsuit. 

“In light of the ‘basic promise of equality ... that animates the ADA,’ we see no legitimate reason why Congress would intend to exclude from the ADA’s protections transgender people who suffer from gender dysphoria,” Motz wrote.

While Motz was joined by Obama-appointed Judge Pamela Harris in the majority opinion, Trump-appointed Judge A. Marvin Quattlebaum authored a dissent taking issue with the majority’s interpretation of the ADA and what constitutes “gross negligence” under Virginia law. 

The Americans With Disabilities Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1990 and signed into law by then-President George H.W. Bush. The law contains text explicitly declaring that “Under this Act, the term ‘disability’ shall not include – (1) transvestitism, transsexualism, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, [and] gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments, or other sexual behavior disorders.”

Defendants cited this portion of the ADA when rejecting Williams’ claim that their actions violated the law. 

Motz noted that Congress amended the Americans With Disabilities Act to clarify that the term “disability” “shall be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals under this chapter, to the maximum extent permitted by the [ADA]’s terms.” The judge also highlighted the evolution of the medical community’s understanding and classification of gender dysphoria and gender identity disorders in the years since the ADA’s passage. 

The presence of men who identify as women in women’s prisons has caused concern for the safety of biological females. At a New Jersey women’s prison, a trans-identified male impregnated two biologically female inmates and was later transferred out of the facility. 

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ryan.foley@christianpost.com

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