DOJ sues Utah, state corrections department for discriminating against transgender woman

TOP DOJ 013123 AP Patrick Semansky

The Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the state of Utah and its corrections department on Tuesday over alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for discriminating against an incarcerated transgender woman.

The Utah Department of Corrections failed to grant the woman, who is not named in court documents, equal access to health care services and imposed “unnecessary barriers” to treatment for gender dysphoria, according to a complaint filed Tuesday in Utah district court.

State corrections officials also failed to grant the woman’s requests for reasonable accommodations, including allowing her to purchase female clothing and makeup at the commissary, the DOJ said in its lawsuit.

Gender dysphoria, a medical condition marked by clinically significant distress that stems from an incongruence between a person’s gender identity and sex assigned at birth, is a disability protected under the ADA, a federal court ruled in 2022. The Supreme Court in June declined to weigh in on the issue, letting the lower court ruling stand.

A DOJ investigation into Utah’s corrections department last month found that the woman’s treatment for her gender dysphoria had been “unnecessarily delayed” by prison officials and a committee charged with granting access to gender-affirming medical care had included members who demonstrated “overt bias” against transgender people.

The woman had struggled with symptoms of gender dysphoria “for many years” before entering the department’s custody in 2021, federal investigators said, and her psychological distress worsened while she was incarcerated in a men’s prison. In May 2023, after nearly two years spent in custody without access to gender-affirming health care, the woman performed a dangerous self-surgery to remove her own testicles, resulting in hospitalization and additional surgery.

“By not allowing me this opportunity to live my life as a woman, who I believe I am and have lived life for many years, the prison is causing me such mental stress,” the woman wrote in her ADA complaint.

She was provided hormone therapy in June 2023, 17 months after she initially requested treatment and more than six months after she was formally diagnosed with gender dysphoria by the state corrections department’s contract psychologist.

“People with gender dysphoria, including those held in jails and prisons, are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and are entitled to equal access to medical care just like anyone else with a disability,” Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said Tuesday in a news release that announced the department’s lawsuit.

“Delays or refusals to provide medical treatment for people with gender dysphoria can cause irreparable harm, including debilitating distress, depression, attempts at self-treatment and even death by suicide,” she said.

A spokesperson for Utah’s corrections department said the department is still reviewing the lawsuit and has not yet determined a response.

Brian Redd, the department’s executive director, said last month that the department was “blindsided” by the DOJ’s findings and a slate of remedial measures that included paying unspecified damages to the woman.

“We fundamentally disagree with the DOJ on key issues, and are disappointed with their approach,” Redd said in an emailed statement.

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