Anna North — Ophelia De’lonta needs gender reassignment surgery. But the Virginia prison where she’s an inmate won’t pay for it. So she’s been trying to do it herself. According to the AP, De’lonta is serving time in the all-male Buckingham Correctional Center for drug, weapons, and robbery charges, some of them stemming from her teenage efforts to steal money to pay for surgery.
In prison, she’s allowed to take female hormones and wear a woman’s uniform, and she’s required to be addressed as “she” — but the Virginia Department of Corrections won’t transfer her to a women’s prison, or pay for genital surgery.
As a result, she tried to castrate herself in October, cutting her penis with three disposable razors for three hours. She ultimately needed 21 stitches. De’lonta can’t be sure she won’t try again, and thinks even death might be better than continuing to live with male genitals — then, she says, “I would have peace.”
But to keep that from happening, she’s suing in federal court, saying the state of Virginia is denying her a necessary medical procedure by refusing to foot the bill for her surgery. Whether prisons — which cover other medical expenses for inmates — should pay for gender reassignment is a controversial issue.
Another transgender inmate filed a similar lawsuit in California, and a lawyer for the prison health system argued, “A prison is not required by law to give a prisoner medical care that is as good as he would receive if he were a free person, let alone an affluent free person.” And in response to De’lonta’s lawsuit, Virginia Del. Todd Gilbert says, “The notion that taxpayers are going to fund a sex change is just ridiculous.”
But the ostensible fiscal conservatism of these statements may disguise transphobia. Paying for gender reassignment is only “ridiculous” if you regard the surgery as illegitimate or unnecessary, and De’lonta’s disturbing self-injury reveals how very necessary it can be. Asked why she can’t wait for the procedure until she gets out of jail, she says, “This is not something that I have any control over. This is just how I was born.”
State governments need to stop thinking of gender reassignment as a luxury, and recognize that for some, it can be a matter of life and death.