By John Knight, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU LGBT & AIDS Project
Earlier this week, we got the good news – the six-year battle was over. Wisconsin’s anti-transgender Inmate Sex Change Prevention Act was a thing of the past. The act was a one-of-a kind law banning prison medical care for a medical condition that is unique to transgender persons. The law prevented prison doctors from ever prescribing transition-related medical treatment, including hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery, to transgender prisoners. In May 2010, a federal district court struck the law down as unconstitutional and in August 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed. The third and final act of this legal drama was the U.S. Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari this week.
I had the privilege of participating in the entire six-year struggle, from the time we filed our complaint in January 2006, through trial in November 2007, and oral argument on appeal in February 2011. The highlights for me were the courage and determination of our clients, who were willing to undertake the burden of speaking out about this terrible law, and the talents of the experts who informed the court about what it means to be transgender and the crucial importance of transition-related medical care. Six years of interviews with our clients and other transgender inmates in Wisconsin confirmed what I already suspected about how challenging it can be to grow up as transgender in a world with so little understanding of transgender people and so much distrust of persons they don’t understand.
But the ultimate success of this case, jointly litigated with attorneys from the ACLU of Wisconsin and Lambda Legal, illustrates the power of knowledge to win out over even the most entrenched biases regarding transgender people. Before this law was passed, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections had deferred to the medical knowledge of their medical staff regarding the treatment needs of transgender persons. But when the Wisconsin legislature ignored the advice they got from DOC’s medical and mental health directors and instead denigrated the treatment as “bizarre taxpayer-funded sex change procedures” and “prison extreme makeovers,” the law easily passed. Expert testimony led to early relief to keep our clients from being cut off of their hormone therapy treatment and ultimately persuaded the district judge that the law could no longer be enforced.