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Hospital Canceled Hysterectomy for Trans Man Minutes Before Surgery

Oliver Knight
Oliver Knight

Oliver Knight is now suing the Catholic hospital in northern California.

A transgender man is suing a Catholic hospital in Northern California that canceled his hysterectomy minutes before the surgery was to begin.

Oliver Knight was scheduled to undergo the procedure in August 2017 at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka. Knight, then 27, had experienced misgendering at the hospital and had been told to wear a pink gown rather than a blue one (which he preferred) because he was having "female" surgery, according to his lawsuit, which is being handled by the American Civil Liberties Union and was filed Thursday in Humboldt County Superior Court. But it is the only hospital in the area, and he hoped to receive his gender-confirmation surgery there.

After Knight went through three hours of pre-operative procedures, his doctor, Deepak Stokes, informed him that the hospital had canceled the surgery and would not reschedule it. Knight asked Stokes if it was canceled because he is transgender, and Stokes said yes. The Roman Catholic Church opposes "direct sterilization," but the hospital routinely allows Stokes and other doctors to perform hysterectomies on cisgender women for a variety of conditions, the suit says. Hospital officials objected, however, to the surgery as a treatment for gender dysphoria.

Knight's medical records show that the decision to cancel his surgery "was initiated by an 'Ethics Assessment' completed by David Groe ... a reverend, with no medical training or medical licensure," according to the suit, which goes on to say the cancellation of the surgery was in accordance with Catholic beliefs about gender.

"'Sex change' is biologically impossible," the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has stated. "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."

Knight had a panic attack after he learned the surgery was canceled and was given anti-anxiety medication to treat it. He was discharged within half an hour and "was required to sit outside the Hospital alone, under the influence of medication administered by the Hospital, and experiencing a panic attack, until he was able to secure a ride home," the lawsuit states.

"I felt humiliated and queasy as I sat on the curb waiting for my roommate to pick me up," Knight recalled in an article on the ACLU's website. "It seems the hospital does not understand how it feels to be treated inhumanely just because your body parts do not match your soul. This surgery was important -- it was meant to balance my hormones. The delay disrupted my life. I felt like the hospital's bigotry had set me back years."

He was able to have the surgery a few days later at Mad River Community Hospital in Arcata, where Stokes also has surgical privileges. But that hospital is farther from Knight's home, and he contracted an infection there.

The lawsuit contends that St. Joseph Hospital violated California's civil rights law, which bans discrimination based on gender identity as well as other traits. It seeks to prevent the hospital from engaging in such discrimination and to pay Knight an unspecified amount in damages.

"The refusal of St. Joseph to allow a doctor to perform a medically necessary procedure because the patient is transgender is discriminatory," said Jessica Riggin, a partner at the law firm of Rukin Hyland & Riggin, in an ACLU press release. "This is a hospital that is open to the general public, so even though it's religiously affiliated, it's illegal for them to turn away someone based on gender identity. Everyone should be able to get the care they need." Her firm is assisting the ACLU's Northern and Southern California affiliates in the suit.

Officials with St. Joseph Health, the hospital's parent organization, told the San Francisco Chronicle they had not yet reviewed the suit, but issued a statement saying they "take these allegations very seriously" and "committing our 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 continued.

St. Joseph Health runs five hospitals in Northern California and is owned by Providence St. Joseph Health Network, which operates 51 hospitals around the nation.

A transgender man from Sacramento sued another Catholic health care organization, Dignity Health, in 2017 for denying him a hysterectomy. A court has ruled in favor of Dignity, but the ruling is being appealed.

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