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Federal court rules Americans with Disabilities Act protects trans people from discrimination

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A federal court of appeals judge ruled Tuesday that transgender people are protected from discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As The Hill reports, the ruling stems from a 2020 lawsuit filed on behalf of a transgender woman who was incarcerated in a Virginia men’s prison despite the fact that she had been receiving hormone replacement therapy for nearly two decades.

Kesha Williams spent more than six months incarcerated alongside men and was periodically denied hormone therapy. After she was released in 2019, she sued Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid, as well as a prison nurse and a deputy, alleging that the prison had violated both the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act in failing to treat her gender dysphoria.

While the 1990 law specifically excludes “transvestism,” “transsexualism,” and “gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments,” the American Psychiatric Association has since replaced gender identity disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders with gender dysphoria, which is the distress a person feels when their gender identity doesn’t align with their sex assigned at birth.

In an amicus brief, attorneys for the GLBT Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) explained that, “In short, the gender dysphoria diagnosis recognizes that incongruence between a person’s identity and birth sex is not the problem in need of treatment—the clinically significant distress associated with that incongruence is.”

“Reflecting this shift in medical understanding, we and other courts have thus explained that a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, unlike that of ‘gender identity disorder,’ concerns itself primarily with distress and other disabling symptoms, rather than simply being transgender,” Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote in her opinion.

“This is a thorough, well-reasoned opinion recognizing that the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against individuals with gender dysphoria,” National Center for Lesbian Rights legal director Shannon Minter said in a statement. “This decision sets a powerful precedent that will be important for other courts considering this critical issue.”

GLAD Transgender Rights Project director Jennifer Levi called Motz’s decision a huge win. “There is no principled reason to exclude transgender people from our federal civil rights laws,” Levi said. “It’s incredibly significant for a federal appeals court to affirm that the protections in our federal disability rights laws extend to transgender people. It would turn disability law upside down to exclude someone from its protection because of having a stigmatized medical condition. This opinion goes a long way toward removing social and cultural barriers that keep people with treatable, but misunderstood, medical conditions from being able to thrive.”

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