On the face of it, Michelle Kosilek is an unlikely poster child for transgender rights. Transgender activists want to show they’re normal people who deserve empathy and respect, while Kosilek’s grisly murder of her wife defies understanding. Still, as her quest for gender-reassignment surgery plays out in court, Kosilek is becoming an unlikely transgender cause celebre.
In a recent interview with Boston Spirit magazine, Michelle Kosilek waxed regretful, not for killing her wife, Cheryl McCaul, but for making the lives of other transgender individuals more difficult.
“My crime has been conflated with my right to medical care in a very cruel way that I’m sure has negatively impacted some of the transgender members of the family.”
But according to Mason Dunn, the head of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, Kosilek’s impact has actually been positive.
"I think when you have cases like this that set such amazing precedent for having transgender-inclusive care, there’s very little downside," Dunn said.
Dunn believes trans individuals should get all the medical care they need, including gender-reassignment surgery. And ultimately, Dunn said, Judge Mark Wolf’s ruling that Kosilek has a right to such treatment helps to make that case.
"Thinking about insurance companies and businesses and the state itself, we can take this to all these different institutions and groups and say, 'Here it’s medically necessary. You should treat it as such as well,'" he said.
As advocates like Dunn talk about Kosilek, Cheryl’s murder barely comes up. Jennifer Levi of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders is representing Kosilek. As she sees it, when it comes to treatment, Kosilek’s crime is irrelevant.
"It’s certainly true that people who are incarcerated are often not politically popular, or popular in the public sentiment," Levi said. "But that’s not what’s at the heart of this case."
What is the right to what she calls life-saving medical care, no matter how unsympathetic the prisoner is.
"If people had a choice, I suppose they’d deny people in prison food," she said. "People might say that we should abuse people who are incarcerated, or torture them. But that’s not the American way."
But even though Kosilek has attempted suicide and tried to castrate herself, not everyone believes her right right to gender-reassignment surgery is so clear cut. In that Boston Spirit interview, Kosilek referenced negative comments on a transgender website.
“People were questioning why a prisoner should be able to get something. I mean, this is really big in the minds of trans people in the community: why a prisoner should get a procedure that is very, very expensive, that many of them have to save years to be able to afford.”
Meanwhile, gay-friendly politicians like Deval Patrick and Elizabeth Warren have opposed Kosilek’s request for treatment. But advocates for Kosilek downplay that opposition.
"I do still consider many of those people, the governor among them, to be LGBT allies in many cases," Dunn said. "But maybe not in this case."
For her part, though, Kosilek is less forgiving.
"We don’t go to prison for punishment. We come to prison as punishment. This is what a lot of people, including our elected officials, don’t understand."
But whether Kosilek makes understanding the transgender cause easier or more difficult is an open question.