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.
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.