Twelve years ago, Massachusetts inmate Robert Kosilek sued the state for the right to a sex change. Convicted of murdering his wife in 1990, Kosilek is serving a life sentence, and claimed that the surgery was necessary to effectively treat gender dysmorphia. After two lawsuits, U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf ruled Kosilek was entitled to a sex change operation because it was considered a “serious medical need.”
Kosilek had twice tried to commit suicide while in prison, and had also tried to castrate himself. Department of Corrections health professionals testified that they believed gender reassignment was the only appropriate treatment for Kosilek, who now wishes to go by Michelle. Transgender rights groups lauded the judge’s decision. “It’s great to see a judge recognize that transition-related health care is medically necessary health care and that transgender prisoners are entitled to the same health care that other folks who are incarcerated receive,” said Kristina Wertz, director of policy and programs at the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco.
Critics of the ruling have been vocal. “We have many big challenges facing us as a nation, but nowhere among those issues would I include providing sex change surgery to convicted murderers,” said Republican Senator Scott Brown. “I look forward to common sense prevailing and the ruling being overturned.”
Kozilek’s case isn’t the first time a prisoner has requested gender reassignment surgery. Inmates in Colorado, California, Idaho and Wisconsin have also fought unsuccessfully for the surgery. Hopefully transgender opponents won’t use Kosilek’s case as some kind of real life example of common gaysploitation tropes, but that seems unlikely. Brown called the ruling “an outrageous abuse of taxpayer dollars” and many critics of the ruling couch their comments in terms of what will be best for the prison population as a whole. Is it safe for Kozilek to stay in a male prison, or should she be moved to a women’s prison? And will other female prisoners be safe if she is?
As Kozilek told the AP, “Everybody has the right to have their health care needs met, whether they are in prison or out on the streets. People in the prisons who have bad hearts, hips or knees have surgery to repair those things. My medical needs are no less important or more important than the person in the cell next to me.”