Trans woman’s ticket could spur changes

Posted on 03 May 2012 at 5:50pm

Gay Parkland board member says hospital needs LGBT liaison, written policy after Paula Witherspoon is cited for using women’s restroom

transwoman

CITED | Paula Witherspoon was at the hospital with her husband, Billy Lorentz, who had a follow-up after suffering a heart attack. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer

An openly gay board member called for Parkland hospital to add an LGBT liaison and adopt written policies this week after a transgender woman was ticketed for using a women’s restroom at the facility, in a case that made national news.

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Dr. Roberto de la Cruz

Dr. Roberto de la Cruz, a gay member of Parkland’s Board of Managers, met with Paula Witherspoon on Wednesday, May 2, a week after she received the citation.

Witherspoon, a transgender woman, was cited for disorderly conduct by hospital police on April 25. Officers wrote the citation for the class-C misdemeanor after a complaint was lodged by someone who saw Witherspoon coming out of a women’s restroom.

Witherspoon said she was at the hospital with her husband, Billy Lorentz, who had a follow-up appointment after suffering a heart attack.

“I live full time as a woman,” Witherspoon said.

But she said hospital police told her they weren’t there to decide whether she was guilty.

“Then they wrote me a ticket,” she said.

The ticket lists Witherspoon as a man and her name as Paul.

Before meeting with Witherspoon, de la Cruz said he spoke to Parkland interim CEO Thomas C. Royer.

“He’s aware of my outreach and encouraged my effort,” he said.

De la Cruz told Witherspoon he wanted to apologize in person and talk to her about formulating a plan to make it better.

“The transgender community needs to feel comfortable and safe at the hospital,” he said.

De la Cruz said he met with Witherspoon to get her perspective. He said he wanted Parkland to be aware of these issues, “so we’re more sensitive in the future.” He said he thinks there also needs to be an educational component and has already spoken to Cece Cox, Resource Center Dallas’ executive director and CEO.

He said he’d like to find a Parkland employee to act as a liaison to the LGBT community to run interference when an incident happens.

And he’d like to see a written policy in place.

“But that will take time,” he said, asking for patience.

Witherspoon has been transitioning since 2006 and said she’s never before had a problem.

“At the beginning of transition, using public restrooms is scary as hell,” Witherspoon said. “Everyone’s been accepting.”

She was particularly surprised that there was any question about her using a bathroom stall at Parkland, not only because it’s a medical facility that should be attuned to the issue, but because of the design of the restroom.

“Parkland stalls go all the way to the floor,” she said.

ticket-editMara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said harassment of transgender people in hospitals is not uncommon.

In a national survey of more than 6,000 transgender people, 1 percent had been physically assaulted in hospital emergency rooms, 13 percent had been denied treatment and 16 percent had been harassed. The numbers increase when doctor’s offices are included with hospitals, when the survey found 2 percent had been assaulted, 24 percent denied treatment and 25 percent harassed.

Often it is hospital security harassing the transgender person, according to Keisling, but she said that information was anecdotal. Keisling said bathroom use is always a concern.

“Every time I go into a public restroom, I know this could be the time,” she said.

Keisling said many trans people just avoid using public bathrooms, which can cause additional medical problems.

Her suggestion for a practical policy was, “How about everyone just leave everyone else alone in the bathroom?”

But she said written policies should have gender identity included in the nondiscrimination statement. The restroom policy should say that everyone should use the bathroom associated with their gender identity.

Although the city of Dallas has a nondiscrimination policy that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public accommodations, other governmental entities are exempt. Parkland falls under county government.

Had the incident happened outside a county facility elsewhere in the city of Dallas, transgender activist Marla Compton said she’s confident Dallas police would have educated the person who complained. In diversity training, Dallas police are taught to honor a person’s gender identity.

Compton said she has only had one incident involving bathroom use. Several years ago, members of the Resource Center Dallas group GEAR were at a restaurant. Another patron complained to management when someone from the group used the women’s bathroom. The manager told that person that everyone had the right to use the bathroom.

Witherspoon, who is on parole for a 1990 indecency with a child conviction, said that receiving the ticket scared her beyond the embarrassment of being hauled downstairs from the doctor’s office. She said the first thing she did after receiving the ticket was call her parole officer.

“My parole officer respects me as a transgender person,” she said.

Next she made an appointment with her psychologist at the Dallas VA Medical Center. Dr. Gloria Emmert was furious when she heard the story and typed a letter for Witherspoon to carry.

“As a frequent visitor to the Dallas VA Hospital, she is expected to use facilities consistent with her external presentation, which is female,” Emmert wrote. “Please assist this Veteran by supporting the application of this ethical approach in all Dallas settings.”

Counselor Felishia Porter, who also sees Witherspoon, has been working with people who are transitioning for about 15 years. She said that women are more territorial about their restrooms than men.

“My girlfriend is real masculine and she gets harassed all the time,” Porter said.

Her female-to-male transgender clients don’t seem to have a problem, she said, but male-to-female ones do. “But that’s why I provide walking letters,” she said.

In 2006, she gave one to Witherspoon.

“She is, at present time, undergoing psychological therapy in preparation for SRS (sexual reassignment surgery),” Porter wrote. “Treatment requires the candidate to live full time as a woman prior to surgery. Therefore, she should be treated with respect and afforded all the rights and privileges of a woman.”

Ken Upton, supervising senior staff attorney in Lambda Legal’s Dallas office, said he was having trouble understanding the charge against Witherspoon. Disorderly conduct was marked on the ticket, and Penal Code section 4201 was written.

Upton said the lewd conduct portion of that section of the penal code was all that could have applied.

But for that portion of the code to apply, he said, Witherspoon would have had to act “intentionally or knowingly for a lewd purpose.” Since she went into a private stall, that indicates there was no lewd intent, Upton said.

Witherspoon said she didn’t know whether there was even anyone else in the restroom.

“I went in, did my business, washed my hands and left,” she said.

And the letters from her counselors indicate she was following doctor’s orders rather than acting out of lewd intent.

Upton said Parkland would have trouble defending the case.

“The officer doesn’t know if anyone else was in there,” he said, adding that the officer’s testimony would be hearsay.

And if the complainant wasn’t in the restroom, that person was not a witness to any lewd behavior.

He said the officer probably thought Witherspoon would either pay the fine or the charge would be dismissed.

“And he doesn’t care,” Upton said.

He said the officer could not write a ticket for simply using the wrong bathroom.

“That’s not a crime in Dallas,” he said.

Officials at Parkland issued a statement saying they were looking into the incident.

“We have verified that on April, 25, 2012, Parkland Police responded to a complaint from a concerned female patient regarding her allegation that there was a male in the female restroom,” spokeswoman Charise Thomason wrote. “Because of the complexity of the issue, the incident is currently under review.

Parkland strives to treat patients, visitors and staff with dignity and respect, as well as provide a safe environment at all times.”

On Thursday, May 3, Witherspoon took Lorentz back to Parkland for another emergency. Before using the restroom, she called de la Cruz. He arranged for someone in hospital administration to walk her to a bathroom.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 4, 2012.

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