Emergency Room Allegedly Denied Treatment to Woman Because She is Trans

by Cara on August 3, 2010

in bigotry, discrimination, human rights, LGBTQ, misogyny, patriarchy, trans, transphobia and trans misogyny, women’s health

A closeup image of a sign at the entrance of an emergency room, reading in bright red letters 'Accidents and Emergencies'

Trigger Warning for transphobia/transmisogyny and abuse by health care workers. Some links also contain transphobic language.

Fifteen years ago, a woman named Tyra Hunter was involved in a car accident and in need of emergency care. Adrian Williams, the firefighter/EMT who was the first responder on the scene began treating Hunter for her injuries — but upon cutting open her pant leg, abruptly stopped treatment and instead began mocking her to the other firefighters present, as onlookers begged him to help her and Hunter gasped for breath. When she was transferred to an ER, she apparently received inadequate care there, as well, and one doctor refused to treat her.

All because she was transgender.

Tyra Hunter died shortly thereafter.

Today, access to medical care remains an enormous issue for trans* people, but is regularly ignored by cis folks. I speak not just of trans-specific health care (i.e. medical treatment specifically related to transition or one’s trans status), though such care is extremely limited and surrounded by barriers. I speak not just of issues of poverty and ability to afford to see a doctor, though this is also an enormous problem that needs immediate addressing. In this context, by “access to medical care” I mean “the confidence that once one has actually procured a visitation with a medical professional, sie will not refuse to treat you.” Even if your condition is potentially life-threatening.

In mid-July, Erin Vaught went to an emergency room in Muncie, Indiana because she was coughing up large amounts of blood (h/t). While there, because she is a trans woman, she was mocked, humiliated, called names, and outright refused treatment. Thankfully it turned out that her condition was not immediately life threatening — though there’s no indication that medical personnel knew this with confidence at the time — and she is still alive to tell her story now.

Last week, Erin Vaught shared her entire story over at the Bilerico Project. I encourage you to read her full account in addition to my summary. (Though, Trigger Warning for lots of victim-blaming in the comments.)

After arriving, the intake nurse marked her down as “male” even though her ID clearly said female, and staff proceeded to become annoyed and/or laugh at her when Vaught corrected the mistake. Staff continued to mock her, tell jokes about her, and refer to her as “it” as she underwent routine intake procedures. Following this were inappropriate questions entirely irrelevant to her medical concerns, as well as a psychiatric examination, seemingly conducted based entirely on her gender identity and presentation. And then:

I was quite mad, but I kept it in check and said, “When are we going to see a doctor?” She told me that I could not be seen until I had my doc write orders. (For tests, I think she meant.) I said “Why do I need to do that? This is an emergency room.”

She said, “Well, we don’t know how to go about treating someone with your condition.”

I responded, “I don’t even know my condition. That’s why I’m here!”

She replied, “No. Your other condition. The transvestite thing.” I felt angry, and I was fighting my hardest to keep from crying, I was embarrassed and I grabbed my son and we left quickly so they wouldn’t see me cry

It constantly amazes me that those who are tasked with saving all of our lives — who presumably entered a profession requiring a significant amount of education and long hours because they wanted to save lives — can so easily discount and put at risk the lives of certain people whose identities and/or choices that they deem unworthy. Whether it be the cis woman who will die without an abortion, or the homeless person whose needs are scoffed at, or the trans* person who is denied treatment based on the bigoted and false perception of hir body as grotesque, those who are supposed to value life most have a too frequent habit of deciding that certain, marginalized lives just don’t matter much at all.

Of course, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Health care workers are people, too, products of the same prejudiced society as the rest of us. The problem is that while it shouldn’t be particularly stunning, it is especially egregious when health care workers let their personal prejudices dictate their behavior.

All of us have the responsibility to be decent human beings, a responsibility that is violated every time someone engages in acts of transphobia and cis supremacy. But health care workers have graver responsibilities above and beyond this one — not just the responsibility to treat all people with dignity and respect, but the responsibility to ensure their well-being to the best of their abilities. The ability to look after a person’s health, safety, and well-being is always compromised when there is a failure to provide them with dignity and respect. The further direct refusal to attend to their health and safety at all is an outright violation — of all ethics, medical and social, and of the law.

This kind of behavior — which again, is not uncommon — treats trans* people as “untouchables,” too disgusting and strange to so much as brush against. It suggests that those whose bodies don’t look how most of society narrowly expects them to look have the potential to “infect” those who are supposedly “normal,” and it supposes that by their very nature, trans* bodies are Frankensteinian. It would be appropriately called childish if it wasn’t so incredibly harmful. Such behavior denies trans* people not just their genders and identities, but their very humanity. It has put them at enormous risk, and done them untold physical as well as mental/emotional damage. It has, as detailed above, sometimes cost them their lives.

All because cis people just can’t get the fuck over themselves. Because some cis folks think that their egos and position of superiority and “right” to avoid cooties are worth more than the right of trans* people to live.

Erin Vaught is just one woman who was brave enough — and safe enough, with enough support systems in place — to come forward with her story. She is not alone. From what she now knows, she’s not even alone with regards to this particular hospital. And until privileged people stop calling marginalized folks “it” and expecting generic “investigations” to be a sufficient response, she’s sadly going to stay in abundant company.

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{ 6 comments }

1 polerin August 3, 2010 at 2:29 pm

I would also like to point out that this comes at the same time that the UK gutted trans protections with the Equality act of 2010. If cis people are allowed to exclude trans people from gendered spaces at the cost of our lives and our safety it reinforces the idea that it’s ok to discriminate against us, and people run with it.

The result is what happened to Tyra Hunter, what happened to Erin Vaught, what happens every day and we don’t even hear about it. The result is trans women hurt, afraid, alone, and dead.

2 graciela. August 4, 2010 at 2:18 pm

I know you say that this is commonplace but reading your posting really surprised me. I’m going into the healthcare field and both my parents are nurses. It never, ever dawned on me that some people in the profession would let their personal prejudices get in the way of saving a human life! It breaks my heart that people can be that negligent and that pigheaded.

3 Chally August 4, 2010 at 6:04 pm

This is a really good post, Cara.

4 Sunset August 4, 2010 at 9:12 pm

Without making people read through the whole comments on the interview, I thought I’d copy people over here on one good point I found there:

“So she came back in not long after bringing the coloring book and asked a series of bizarre questions. “Do you ever feel so angry you might lose control?” “Are you able to buy groceries every week?” “Do you ever feel overwhelmed?” “Have you ever thought about suicide?” We were confused and still are.”" (from the original article)

It was a psychiatric evaluation. They were searching for signs of depression and suicide ideation or anything that could be used to demonstrate that she was a danger to herself or someone else, because then they can legally commit her for psych treatment without her or her partner’s consent.
Mercedes Allen | July 26, 2010 9:34 PM

5 Roschelle August 5, 2010 at 3:32 am

As a registered nurse, one who has spent the majority of her career in emergency medicine, I can only say that this is appalling.

Every night, especially weekends, that I enter the ER, I’m fully aware that we will have patients that have fallen victim to acts of violence.

On numerous occasions, I’ve cared for the violated and the violator, both of them only separated by a cheap replica of a what some might call a wall.

Life saving is my business. There’s never been a time when I’ve disregarded the shooter for the one that’s been shot or the drunk driver for the one that’s been critically injured as a result of his intoxication.

My commission is to save lives, help heal the infirmed and comfort those in need of solace.

There is no place for these type people in health care. Personal opinions, prejudices and anything other than the care of your patient needs to be checked at the door.

There was one occasion when my personal views “nearly” got the best of me.

Back when I was in high school a friend of mine was shot. He was 15 years old and therefore unable to make any decisions regarding his care. He lost a considerable amount of blood because of his injury. Desperately in need of a transfusion to save his life, the medical team asked his mother, a Jehovah’s Witness to sign the consent. She refused. He died.

Over the years I’ve cared for many patients with this same religious belief. I’ve had to swallow long and hard. But I’ve never ridiculed any of them. For if this is what they believe, it simply is what they believe.

I certainly hope there are some legal ramifications Ms. Vaught can facilitate regarding the way she was treated.

And thank you for sharing this information.

Some of us do keep are personal views out of our professional duties.

6 Bird August 17, 2010 at 2:53 pm

I had a friend of mine visit the ER a couple of months ago. She’d been badly beaten–nearly killed, in fact–by her abusive partner (thankfully now her ex). Once the police left, she was largely ignored, and on a subsequent ER visit for her injuries, she was called by her former name loudly in the waiting room, left to wait for many hours, and then told that she needed a psych consult when she was there for injuries to her face. She’s also faced challenges in accessing support services, including being ignored by our police victims services unit for several weeks. Being a DV survivor is hard enough already, but from what I witnessed as she went through the system, being trans and a DV survivor puts someone in a whole new category of untouchable.

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