AIDS Issues Update Blog

Dispatches from the fight against homelessness and AIDS

Transgender People & PLWA Share Same Stigma and Challenges in Healthcare

Posted by Sunny Bjerk , May 17, 2013

Transgender People & PLWA Share Same Stigma and Challenges in Healthcare

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During the early stages of the AIDS pandemic, many people living with the disease discovered that doctors and nurses in reputable, metropolitan hospitals refused to treat them, adding fuel to the fireball of stigma already surrounding the disease.

In a 1987 New York Times article, one Milwaukee hospital’s chief heart surgeon brazenly defended his refusal to treat people with HIV/AIDS by stating, “I’ve got to be selfish. I’ve got to think about myself; I’ve got to think about my family. That responsibility is greater than to the patient.”

Thankfully, we all know that such refusals to treat people living with HIV/AIDS became illegal, and that by instituting law, it worked to normalized—and humanize—the the treatment of people living with the disease. However, the same cannot be said for transgender people.

In New York state, it is still legal for doctors or hospitals to refuse medical treatment to someone because of their gender identity or expression. And because New York does not have gender-expression non-discrimination protections, transgender individuals have no legal recourse to challenge this outright discrimination.

This denial of medical treatment because of an individual’s gender identity is not only unethical, it is also extremely dangerous because many transgender individuals have high rates of chronic conditions that require medical attention, such as HIV/AIDS.

Like people living with HIV/AIDS, transgender people’s access to hospitals and professional medical help is a matter of life or death. This is fact is made painfully clear in the instances where transgender people have died because a medical professional has refused to treat them.

Do you remember Tyra Hunter? Thousands of us certainly do. Tyra was a lovely transgender woman who was involved in a car accident in DC in 1995. When firefighters arrived on the scene, one in particular refused to continue (later identified as Adrian Williams) and proceed to laugh and mock Tyra as she lay in critical condition on the street. Tyra was finally transported to DC General Hospital, only to be confronted by a doctor who refused to treat her. Tyra died from blunt force trauma later that evening. Her mother, Margie Hunter, filed a lawsuit against the District of Columbia, Adrian Williams (the firefighter) and a DC General Hospital physician for their refusal to administer emergency care to her daughter. The jury decided in her favor, finding that Tyra’s death was directly caused by medical malpractice. In fact, experts testified that had Tyra received proper and timely medical care, she had an 86% of full survival.

While Tyra’s case received much-needed attention to the dangerous of transgender discrimination, there are tens of thousands of New Yorkers who stories of healthcare discrimination go invisible every day.

Everyone deserves and needs full access to healthcare. And though they seem very different, the struggles and stigma that transgender people currently face are very similar—dangerously similar, to the struggles that people living with AIDS faced during the early years of the AIDS pandemic.

The fight for GENDA is a fight for everyone’s right to live a healthy and successful life. It’s a damn good fight, and I hope you will join it.

Sign our petition asking the New York State Senate to bring GENDA to a floor vote in 2013.

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