Manning, Transgender Prisoners, and Human Rights

Chelsea-née-Bradley Manning’s request for hormones and surgical treatment for gender dysphoria again raises the question of gender treatment for prisoners.

The issue became news a year ago with the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf that a Massachusetts prisoner, Michelle Kosilek, be granted sexual reassignment surgery. Michelle, then known as Robert, was convicted of murder in 1992 and is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole. While in prison Kosilek had a legal name-change, received psychotherapy, and successfully sued for electrolysis and hormone treatments. Following the ruling last year, which is being appealed by the Department of Corrections, Kosilek returned to court, demanding further electrolysis.

Judge Wolf’s position is that all these treatments are medically mandated by Kosilek’s transgendered condition. His ruling has sparked questions about whether the sense that one’s internal gender identity and outer body are out of sync constitutes a terminal condition to be addressed surgically and cosmetically. About whether the state should pay for such therapies when most health insurance companies don’t. About whether a convict has a right to sexual reassignment surgery in a nation in which there is no right to health care of any kind for people who have not been convicted of crimes.

Different questions preoccupy me. I find myself wondering why these particular convicted criminals are the focus of so much impassioned concern, with many protestations of support for their rights and well-being. Opinions may differ over whether Manning is a traitor or a hero. Kosilek is a murderer.  Their crimes are irrelevant to determining the medical necessity of surgery or electrolysis for transsexuals. Are they also irrelevant to their status as poster children for transgender rights? In a number of news outlets, arguments in favor of the treatments Kosilek demands site the concern that he is “sad” without them.

Here’s a story I find sad:

On May 20, 1990, a fifteen year old named Timothy McCaul needed a ride home. But when he phoned his house to ask for one, no one was there to take the call. That afternoon his mother, Cheryl, came upon his stepfather, Robert Kosilek, dressed in her clothes. They argued, and Robert strangled Cheryl, using both rope and wire and nearly decapitating her. He put Cheryl’s body in her car and drove to a mall not far from their Massachusetts home, where he left the car in the parking lot, taking a cab for the return trip.

Some news accounts of reactions to Judge Wolf’s ruling reported that there were law-abiding transsexuals frustrated that a prisoner would receive surgery they themselves found prohibitively expensive. This reaction is understandable. What I missed in all these stories was the cry of outrage from the GLBT community, and from the mainstream press, that the perpetrator of a hate crime had become a cause célèbre in a movement for human rights and dignity.

Wife battering, not to mention wife murder, is widely recognized as a hate crime against women.  How would the trans community respond if someone convicted of a hate crime against a transgendered person won an unrelated legal battle and was then celebrated by supporters, with little or no mention made of his or her victim, and no censure of the crime?

Those who argue for human rights might consider broadening their definition of whose humanity, whose rights, and whose lives have value.




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5 responses to “Manning, Transgender Prisoners, and Human Rights

  1. Tobysgirl

    What I have yet to see mentioned regarding Kosilek’s “rights” is the extraordinarily poor medical care received by most prisoners. Prisoners have a difficult time having basic medical needs looked after, yet this one man deserves electrolysis, etc? I would like to see a disabled or asthmatic prisoner respond to what Kosilek thinks are his rights.

    • Boo

      Maybe that the more precedents we can get for mandating healthcare for prisoners, the better, and that buying into the divide and conquer mentality just screws us all? Just guessing of course.

  2. Hi! I found Jillian Weiss’ article about Kosilek.

    The paragraphs in question:

    “Kosilek’s history includes a belief in her female nature since before the age of 10, and suffering of regular abuse for it, including being stabbed by her stepfather because of her announced desire to live as a woman. She met her wife, Cheryl, at a drug rehabilitation facility, where Cheryl, her counselor, told her that a good woman would cure transsexuality, and they married. When Cheryl found Michelle dressed in her clothes, Cheryl flew into a rage, and a fight ensued resulting in Cheryl’s death. After the sheriff denied Michelle treatment while awaiting trial, she twice tried to kill herself and once to castrate herself. The courts, after hearing medical testimony, found that Michelle had a particularly severe form of gender identity that caused her constant mental anguish and constituted a serious medical need. She is still suicidal.

    “As a transsexual woman myself, I know what that feels like. It is a desperate, constant, haunting feeling of wrongness, and it burrows into your soul and makes itself at home at every hour of the day and night. You can ignore it for a while, and then it comes back like a hydra. I also found myself in desperate situations, because we are given little quarter anywhere in society, where I could have easily been involved in criminal activity and imprisoned, instead of completing graduate school and becoming the professor and lawyer I am today. I also thought of suicide, before, but I never have since, thank goodness.”

    Reading these words with a little care, I noticed that Dr. Weiss wasn’t sympathetic to anyone’s murderous impulses. She was sympathetic to the horrors others had inflicted on Michelle, and she empathised with her feelings of desperation. She was NOT showing sympathy for the brutality of Cheryl McCaul’s murder by Kosilek’s hand.

    My personal disgust and horror for Kosilek’s brutal act makes it hard for me to even read about this tragic case. But I do feel Jillian Weiss should not be tarred with the same brush of brutality or be vilified otherwise for trying to understand how awful Michelle’s life had been. She made no excuse for anyone’s murderous acts at any point whatsoever. In the interest of fairness, I think that should not be overlooked.

    Sadly, childhood violence obscured Michelle’s own inner light from herself. So many other soul lights were then also dimmed by Michelle’s darkness.

  3. The whole issue is soaked in misogyny. A male murderer feelings of disphoria trumps the value of a woman’s life. Kosilek is by no means the only one. There are at lest seven men who “identify” as women serving time for the murder of women and girls. The transgender attorney Julian Weiss had a piece in the Advocate in which Weiss states “having felt the same way as Kosilek felt.” Okay, right sure all real and authentic women want to take a piano wire and pull it so tight around the neck that the head is severed from the body. More male rage.

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