We Can’t Afford to Participate in a ‘Justice for Some’ Culture

Coverage of the case of Michelle Kosilek, the Massachusetts prisoner who will receive state-funded gender reassignment surgery, has sparked lots of vicious, vengeful, anti-trans comments. Here's why that's dangerous for everyone.

By Akiba Solomon Sep 24, 2012

I’m at a point in my online reading life when phrases like "my tax dollars," "your tax dollars" and even "taxpayer-funded" instantly raise my blood pressure. It’s not the words themselves, but the mouth-foaming outrage, the finger-wagging, the faux expertise–and the straight up bigotry–they tend to trigger in comments sections. The latest example, which has me wanting to throw my poor, innocent laptop out of a 16th floor window, comes from coverage of the case of Michelle Kosilek.

Some background: Earlier this month, a U.S. district court judge in Massachusetts made an unprecedented ruling related to Kosilek: Barring an appeal, the state must pay for gender reassignment surgery and related legal fees for Kosilek, a convicted murderer imprisoned for life without parole in a men’s facility. As several columnists have pointed out, Kosilek is far from a sympathetic character. In 1990, Kosilek, who was assigned male at birth* and named Robert, was convicted of strangling his wife, Cheryl, with a wire after she discovered Robert wearing her clothes. For this savage act, Kosilek, who legally declared herself Michelle in 1993, will be incarcerated for life. Despite the horror of her crime, I believe the surgery ruling–which is a straightforward application of Kosilek’s Eight Amendment right to treatment that is neither cruel, nor unusual–makes sense.

While incarcerated, Kosilek was diagnosed with a gender identity disorder which has prompted her to try to kill herself twice and to castrate herself. That’s why prison medical personnel prescribed Kosilek female hormones, psychotherapy and antidepressants but then took the rare step of ruling her gender reassignment surgery medically necessary. Unfortunately, state corrections officials denied Kosilek the surgery, claiming that it was a "security risk." But, as District Court Judge Mark Wolf wrote in his 126-page Kosilek vs. Spencer decision, the real reason for the denial was political. (Please note that Wolf uses male pronouns throughout the ruling.)*:

Kosilek has proven, however, that the Commissioner’s purported security concerns are a pretext to mask the real reason for the decision to deny him sex reassignment surgery – a fear of controversy, criticism, ridicule, and scorn. Therefore, Kosilek has proven that the DOC is violating his rights under the Eighth Amendment. He has also established that this violation will continue if the court does not now order the DOC to provide the treatment its doctors have prescribed.

According to the decision, the Department of Corrections even went as far as to fire the specialist who prescribed Kosilek’s course of treatment and hire a Canadian doctor "known for his view that hormones should never be prescribed for a prisoner, like Kosilek, for whom they were not prescribed before his incarceration."

It will come to no surprise to you that coverage of Wolf’s decision has prompted widespread commenter rage against wasted tax dollars, liberals who love wasting tax dollars on murderers, and liberals who coddle murderers with our tax dollars. Some bigots who aren’t hiding under the guise of wrongheaded state spending are using words like "cosmetic surgery" and "luxury" to describe the procedure. Others have even suggested that prison officials allow Kosilek to go through with castrating herself to save the state money and to avenge the murder of Cheryl Kosilek.

A sampling of (some of the worst) comments in response to an article posted on Huffington Post Gay Voices:

"I am sure those guys in prison can make him feel just like a woman without surgery. Just leave him alone with a few of them on a dark night with a couple candles and a nice bottle of wine. (and maybe some vaselin)"

"He’s in prison for murder and he made two suicide attempts. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to let him make a third attempt and let him go through with it?"

"So, isn’t MURDER cruel and unusual punishment on the victim? I say cut it off and shove it down his throat!"

"Did he promise the judge something in return? hmmmmmm"

Real talk: This kind of mob mentality scares me, even when the target is a convicted murderer. I know from history that this approach makes it too easy for any dominant culture to oppress those who, in their minds, don’t belong. In the United States, "rights for some" has led to gross injustices for people of color, for women, for religious and political minorities, for incarcerated people of color, for people who are not heterosexual or gender conforming, for fat people, for the undocumented, and the list goes on.

To be clear, I am not riding for Kosilek the person. Not one iota. What I am suggesting is that "rights for some" simply doesn’t work for many, many, many, many, many people and it certainly doesn’t work for the most vulnerable. We’re living in a time when more than 25,000 transgender people are at risk for losing their voting rights because (of course) they too are being caught in the net of racist voter ID policies; when black transwoman Cece McDonald sits in a mens’ prison for defending herself against a racist transphobe; when violence against transgender people is so prevalent that the nation’s capitol has taken the extraordinary step of creating an ad campaign to combat it; when being transgender and a person of color represents a life-threatening "double burden."

And we’re also living in a time when a relative of the late Cheryl Kosilek has decided to take down the Facebook page she created in opposition of state-funded gender reassignment surgery for the person who murdered her family member because some of the commenters kept posting violent, vile, painful anti-trans invective.

From a September 13th entry on "Cheryl’s Voice: Stop Robert Kosilek from Getting a Sex Change in Prison":

"Unfortunately I will be closing down this page. It does not appear we will have a constructive debate over this issue. My deepest sympathy to my family who have suffered a great loss when Cheryl was murdered. I love my family with all my heart.

I would also like to express my sincere sympathy to those in the transgender community who have experienced descrimination and deep hurt in their lives. I just feel that we are having separate debates and both sides are being hurt. The emotions are very raw and real and both sides do not deserve to be hurt any longer."

Anytime a relative of a murder victim feels like she can’t express her disagreement with a legal decision relevant to her family’s loss without random bigots sabotaging her page with their own agenda, we have a problem. A serious cultural problem.

*Column has been edited since publication for clarity.