Friday, March 22, 2019

ACLU Lawsuit Accuses St. Joseph Hospital of Transgender Discrimination (Updated with Statement from St. Joseph)

Posted By on Fri, Mar 22, 2019 at 9:12 AM

click to enlarge Oliver Knight - ACLU OF NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
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  • Oliver Knight
St. Joseph Health issued a brief statement last night in response to the civil rights lawsuit filed yesterday alleging transgender discrimination at its Eureka hospital, saying it takes the allegations "very seriously" and is committing its "full attention to investigating this matter."

"At St. Joseph Health, we believe health care is a basic human right and that every individual seeking care should always be treated with compassion and respect," the statement reads. "We have not had a chance to review the facts  of the case, but take these allegations very seriously. We are committing our full attention to investigating this matter."

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit this morning alleging that St. Joseph Hospital violated the rights of a transgender man by refusing to perform a medically necessary surgery because of his gender identity.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 29-year-old Oliver Knight, of Eureka, seeks unspecified damages and a court order that would prevent the hospital from discriminating against patients on the basis of gender identity or expression.

St. Joseph Hospital spokesperson Christian Hill indicated in an email to the Journal that the hospital is still in the process of “gathering details” about the lawsuit and “will communicate as appropriate with the media.”

According to the lawsuit, Knight was born with female anatomy but over time began to identify as male. He started taking social steps toward transitioning in 2013, such as wearing masculine clothing, and was subsequently diagnosed with gender dysphoria. He began hormone replacement therapy in 2015, had a bilateral mastectomy the following year and scheduled a hysterectomy at St. Joseph Hospital in 2017.

“Since I was a kid, I’ve felt like my body didn’t match my soul,” Knight wrote in a story posted to the ACLU website. “I felt uncomfortable in clothes. I felt disgusting when I showered. Everything felt wrong but it took me a while to figure out why.”

The lawsuit states that Knight’s surgeon, Deepak Stokes, scheduled the hysterectomy at the hospital for Aug. 30, 2017. Knight arrived at the hospital and was going through pre-operation procedures, according to the suit, which included changing into a surgical gown. He was given a pink one, according to the suit.

“When Mr. Knight asked to instead wear a blue gown, a hospital nurse refused, telling him that a pink gown was required because he was receiving a ‘female’ procedure,” the lawsuit states, adding that hospital staff also repeatedly mis-gendered Knight despite “the fact that his medical records clearly identify Mr. Knight as male.”

In the piece for the ACLU website, Knight writes, “I felt like a child all over again, sitting uncomfortably in a pink dress. But I forced myself to do it. I had been waiting so long for this.”

Then, just minutes before the procedure was scheduled to begin, the lawsuit alleges Stokes came and told Knight the surgery had been cancelled by the hospital and would not be rescheduled because St. Joseph Hospital is a Catholic facility.

“Mr. Knight’s medical records show that the decision to cancel Mr. Knight’s medically necessary care was initiated by an ‘Ethics Assessment’ completed by David Groe,” the lawsuit states. “Upon information and belief, Mr. Groe is a reverend, with no medical training or medical licensure.”

The suit goes on to state that Knight suffered an anxiety attack upon learning the surgery was being canceled, at which point hospital staff gave him an anti-anxiety medication and — 15 minutes later — told him he needed to leave. According to the lawsuit, Knight, who had come to the hospital alone, was then forced to sit outside “under the influence of medication administered by the hospital and experiencing a panic attack, until he was able to secure a ride home.”

St. Joseph Hospital has a policy of not providing “elective” sterilizations, as they are in conflict with Catholic beliefs, and the lawsuit states that Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, prepared by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, refers to them as “intrinsically evil.” But the directives do allow for sterilizations when they are performed to “alleviate a present and serious pathology,” and are deemed medically necessary. As such, the lawsuit alleges that St. Joseph Hospital regularly allows surgeons to perform hysterectomies on cisgender women when the procedures are deemed necessary to treat certain diagnosis, including uterine fibroids, endometriosis, pelvic support problems and gynecological cancer.

But under the standards of care for gender dysphoria published by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health — which have since been recognized as the authoritative standards of care by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — treatment may require medical steps to affirm a patient’s gender identity, including surgery to align individuals’ bodies with their gender identities.

The Conference of Catholic Bishops, however, disagrees. According to the lawsuit, it submitted comments to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2015 that included: "'Sex change' is biologically impossible. People who undergo sex reassignment surgery do not change from men to women or vice versa ... Claiming that this is a civil-rights matter and encouraging surgical intervention is in reality to collaborate with and promote a mental disorder."

After St. Joseph Hospital allegedly refused to allow the surgery, Stokes was later able to perform it successfully on Knight at Mad River Community Hospital, where Stokes also has surgical privileges.

The lawsuit alleges that St. Joseph Health violated the Unruh Civil Rights Act and inflicted emotional distress.

“It seems the hospital does not understand how it feels to be treated inhumanely just because your body parts do not match your soul,” Knight writes. “This surgery was important — it was meant to balance my hormones. …. I didn’t expect discrimination from a hospital. The sting from the rejection remains, but I hope my story lets others know that this is unacceptable. And we should continue to fight until we are all treated fairly. NO one should be denied health care because of who they are.”

In the piece, Knight also writes about living on the North Coast as a transgender man.

“Life in Humboldt County has been tough enough,” he writes. “Everyone thinks it’s a liberal place, but it’s not for trans people. I am regularly harassed and called names.”

Read the full lawsuit here and find Knight’s piece for the ACLU here.
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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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