Monday, February 8, 2010

Overwhelming Catch

As we near the end of Epiphany, season of illumination, the signs of God's presence among us begin to overwhelm. Two images from yesterday's readings for the fifth Sunday in Epiphany offer a strange combination-- one of abundance and the other of desolation-- that echo two major, recent events in the U.S. trans community.

In the gospel of Luke we had the improbable plenitude of fish pulled up by Peter and his companions upon the prompt of Jesus. So many were these fish that they threatened to sink the boats into which they had flopped. "Go away from me!" cried an unnerved Peter, knee deep in slimy muck, "I am a sinful man."

And in the Hebrew Bible reading, we had the fearsome scene of Isaiah's prophetic call, in which seraphim touch his lips with a live coal and God commands him to speak difficult truths to a people far from ready to hear them. The passage ends with successive images of desolation.

For trans people in the U.S., the last two weeks have brought an overwhelming combination -- to consider only two major news stories-- of grief and victory: a week of desolation in which the Houston trans community grappled with the murder of one of its own, followed by a precedent-setting decision by the US Tax Court in favor of a Massachusetts trans woman.

In July of 2007, a Boston area woman named Rhiannon O'Donnabhain decided to sue the IRS. At issue was the agency's denial of her tax write-off of expenses related to her transition from male to female. As the original Boston Globe article reported, she could have repaid "the approximately $5,000 she received in her tax refund, but decided to challenge the IRS because she believes the ruling against her was rooted in politics and prejudice."

O'Donnabhain declared, "'This goes way beyond money. If I were to give the money back, it would be saying it's OK for you to do this to me. It is not OK for them to do this to me or anyone like me."

You tell 'em, I remember thinking as I read the story. I never tried to write off expenses related to my own transition-- I remember thinking about it, and even discussing the possibility in a peer support group, but I didn't try. I sure could have benefited from it on my then graduate student budget (almost every insurance company explicitly denies coverage for any medical care related to transition).

Then last week we got the very good news that the US Tax Court ruled 11-5 in O'Donnabhain's favor in this first-of-its-kind decision. Not only is it a ruling that respects O'Donnabhain; it's also a decision that could begin to open the door for insurers to consider procedures related to bodily transition as medical, not cosmetic. See the National Center for Transgender Equality's report on the case here.

As Jennifer Levi, Massachusetts-based attorney for the Transgender Project at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), commented in last week's Boston Globe story:

“I think what the court is saying is that surgery and hormone therapy for transgender people to alleviate the stress associated with gender identity disorder is legitimate medical care."

GLAD senior staff attorney Karen Loewy added in a press conference, “It’s incredibly big to have a statewide court setting a national precedent. This is the first time a court that has jurisdiction nationally has reached this conclusion.”

As Chuck Colbert reported, "the tax court ruled that GID [Gender Identity Disorder, which is listed in the DSM] is a 'disease' within the meaning of the tax code. The court said the IRS’s claim that all the treatments were 'cosmetic' was 'at best a superficial characterization of the circumstances that is thoroughly rebutted by medical evidence.' The court said that the IRS must consider sex reassignment surgery in the same manner, for example, as an appendectomy or even heart surgery."

Not all procedures one might undergo would necessarily count as medical, for tax deduction purposes, but the fact that some clearly do is a big deal for those trans folks who medically transition.

I add that caveat about transition because it's important to remember that a) not all trans folks actually do medically transition, and that b) those who do change their bodies do so in a variety of ways, contra the assumptions underlying the oft-asked query, 'have you had the surgery?'. Plus, c) in addition to differences of embodiment, there are also a variety of ways that people narrate their experience. While plenty of folks resonate with statements such as O’Donnabhain's of feeling "trapped in the wrong body", many of us don't experience ourselves in those terms.

That said, this is a major victory that brings us a step closer to being treated with the dignity we expect and deserve.

And, frankly, the trans community really needed some good news last week. Because two weeks ago we began mourning the death of yet another trans person found murdered, this time in Houston. Ical's death marks the seventh time a gender variant person has been murdered in Houston over the past ten years, as Chris Seabury reported for Edge Boston. Ical died, as the Executive Director of the the Transgender Foundation of America, Cristan Williams, put it in an interview with KHOU, "struggling for her life." “It’s personal," Wiliams continued, "I feel it on a personal level."

Ical was found at 2 in the afternoon in an empty lot. Local leaders feel strongly that given her proximity to a busy intersection, someone must have seen something. And given that the murder took place in Houston's Montrose neighborhood, an LGBT stronghold, witnesses (if there are any) could well be LGBT themselves. But relations between the LGBT community and the Houston police are not strong, Williams commented: "The LGBT community feels very isolated because of the Houston Police Department’s (HPD) often violent past towards LGBT Houstonians." She is calling for the appointment of an LGBT police liaison.

Ical's memorial service was held two weeks ago today. Featuring a moment of silence followed by a moment of noisemaking, the service aimed both to honor Ical's memory and to "encourage people to make noise about the violence that is inflicted on our community," as Kelli Busey reported on planetransgender.

This is the local news coverage of the memorial:

It is crucial to make some noise, not only in memory of those we have lost but also out of sheer determination to forge our way forward. Thank God for the community in Houston, for the ways in which they are clearly claiming their power. Thank God for the courage of Rhianon O'Donnabhain who was willing to make noise and say "this is not OK."

The catch of the trans community at this time and place is indeed overwhelming, a decidedly mixed bag. As we progress, we find ourselves still very much in the wilderness.

As we move toward my very favorite Sunday in the liturgical year, Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, I am mindful of the combination of glory and grief that are mysteriously incorporated in the image of the Transfiguration. The New Zealand Prayerbook's revision of the 1928 BCP collect for the Transfiguration says it particularly well:

God of life and glory,
your Son was revealed in splendour
before he suffered death upon the cross;
grant that we, beholding his majesty,
may be strengthened to follow him
and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory;

for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever.


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