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As California Trans Inmate Granted Parole, Gender-Affirming Surgery Postponed

As California Trans Inmate Granted Parole, Gender-Affirming Surgery Postponed

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Michelle-Lael Norsworthy's lawyers deny claims that she's previously avoided parole in order to receive surgery, pointing out that California requires health insurers to cover transition-related care.

An incarcerated trans woman who made history in April for winning a preliminary injunction from the federal government ordering the California Department of Corrections to grant her access to gender-affirming surgery has now won her parole hearing, reports Buzzfeed News.

Michelle-Lael Norsworthy, 51, is the only trans prisoner nationwide currently allowed to receive transition-related surgery deemed "medically necessary" by her doctors while imprisoned, after U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar ruled that her constitutuional rights had been violated when her prison denied her access to surgery in 2012.

Four months prior to Norsworthy's intial victory, the first decision of this kind in the U.S. -- granted to Massachusetts trans inmate Michelle Kosilek in 2012 -- had been overturned. Both cases have received much public and legal pushback over state institutuions funding surgical care for transgender prisoners, despite the treatment being considered medically necessary treatment for the prisoners' diagnosed gender dysphoria. Norsworthy's and Kosilek's lawyers have both argued that their clients' Eighth Amendment rights, which prohibit cruel and unusual punishment (including healthcare denial) and unnecessary infliction of pain on a prisoner, are being violated.

Norsworthy is currently serving 17-years-to-life at a men's prison, Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif., for a 1987 second-degree murder conviction. Following Thursday's finding that she is suitable for parole, the trial court order that she immediately receive gender-affirming surgery has been placed on hold.

Significantly, however, the court order for surgery had already been stayed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals after the state requested that Judge Tigar's ruling be postponed while the court considered some "serious legal questions," according to Buzzfeed News. These questions related, in part, to the state's claim that Norsworthy had postponed her parole hearings several times in order to avoid having her constitutuional claims "rendered moot," and therefore not receive surgery funded by the Department of Corrections.

Norsworthy's lawyers at the Transgender Law Center have strongly rejected the implication that Norsworthy "purposely delayed her parole hearings for some sort of medical advantage. [It's] offensive, has no basis in fact, and makes no sense since Michelle, upon release, would much more easily be able to receive the care the state insists on denying her," the Law Center's legal director, Ilona Turner, explained in an emailed statement, adding that parole postponements are not controlled by the inmate.

"We are disappointed that the stay was granted, as delays like this cause Michelle serious harm every single day," Turner stated Thursday, referring to the sleeplessness, cold sweats, hyper-vigilance, panic attacks, and mood swings, as well as the sexual assault Norsworthy's court documents allege she's faced while imprisoned for nearly 30 years.

"Still, we are delighted by the possibility of parole for Michelle and are confident that she will find support networks and services upon release, including access to gender-affirming surgery through Medi-Cal should the California Department of Corrections fail to provide her the care that the court and her medical providers have concluded she urgently needs."

Norsworthy now awaits a review of her parole decision by Governor Jerry Brown.

Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Magazine - Gus Kenworthy

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