Transphobia in the medical field can have dire consequences

Leslie McMurrayOne of the major issues transgender people face is access to healthcare. Time and again, I hear the stories of doctors who are disrespectful or flat out decline to treat a patient because they are transgender.

There are plenty of insurance nightmares — I’ve personally been denied coverage back in the day because “men don’t take estrogen.”

On the more humorous side was a trans woman who was being treated post-transition in the same hospital where, years before, she had been a patient pre-transition. When she was admitted, her wristband reflected her former name and when she asked that it be corrected, she was told that it couldn’t be done.

Try as she did, whoever she asked refused to change the name on her hospital wristband to her correct and legal name. Since the name was attached to her Social Security number from her previous visit, there was nothing they could do, right? She finally learned to speak the language of the hospital telling a doctor of the old name “he doesn’t have health insurance; she does.”

The wristband was changed.

Just a few months ago, a trans guy in North Texas had his I.D. and gender marker changed and when he went for top surgery, doctors discovered a form of breast cancer that was life-threatening and found almost exclusively in women. Since he was a guy, he would not be covered. Really? Was it going to become necessary to change his gender back to female just to get life saving care? Fortunately, common sense eventually prevailed and the insurance company finally approved treatment.

This has to stop.

People wonder why transgender people don’t trust doctors or others entrusted with our medical care. The reasons are many and there is a lot of work yet to do to in order to gain our trust.

Some amazing strides are being made by hospitals here in North Texas like Children’s Medical Center of Dallas and U.T. Southwestern Medical Center. Dr. Roberto de la Cruz is making a difference at Parkland in treating transgender people with dignity and care. But let’s never forget how bad it can get.

It was 20 years ago this month — Aug. 7, 1995 — when Tyra Hunter was on her way to work as a hairdresser in the Washington D.C. area. She was a passenger in a car involved in an accident at the corner of 50th and C streets. Tyra had been transitioned since age 14; she was then 24. Witnesses to the accident pulled Tyra and the driver of the car from the smoking wreckage when fire department paramedics arrived to render aid.

The male firefighter treating Tyra cut open her pants leg and discovered she had male genitalia. The firefighter, later identified as Adrian Williams, then backed off from Tyra, who was semi-conscious, in pain and gasping for breath. One witness recalled Williams as saying: “This bitch ain’t no girl … he’s got a dick.”

In spite of bystanders’ pleas to treat Tyra, Williams refused. Instead he joked with other firefighters as Tyra lay in the street, her life ebbing away.
Critical minutes ticked away as the firefighters tried to “one-up” each other with snappy one-liners. Eventually, an EMS supervisor arrived and resumed treatment. Tyra was rushed to the hospital.

The horror of this incident continued as Tyra Hunter was refused care by a doctor and, at 5:20 p.m., died … officially of blunt force trauma, but mostly from neglect. More than 2,000 people attended her funeral on Aug. 12.

On Dec. 11, 1998, a jury awarded Tyra’s mother, Margie Hunter, $2.9 million (the case was later settled for $1.75 million). The suit alleged that the fire and rescue personnel made derogatory comments about Tyra’s personal appearance and withdrew emergency medical treatment. Additionally, Margie alleged that Tyra suffered from neglect at D.C. General Hospital, contributing to her death. Experts at trial testified that had Tyra received proper care at either stage of treatment, she had an 86 percent chance of survival.

Adding insult, none of the firefighters at the scene were disciplined, and Adrian Williams was later promoted.

Today, the Tyra Hunter Drop-In-Center in D.C. is named for her and the sensitivity training given to fire department personnel is named in her honor.

Let us hope this situation is never repeated. Tyra Hunter was a victim not of a car crash, but of transphobia. It’s time that medical schools include transgender healthcare as part of their curriculum so that we are not a mystery, nor a curiosity, nor worse, the butt of jokes.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 14, 2015.