Skirting the Issues: Being Brave

Ellen Krug. Photo by Mike Hnida
Ellen Krug. Photo by Mike Hnida

I confess. Sometimes, I get afraid. Like coward afraid.

Example: two years ago, as I was moving to Minneapolis, I obtained health insurance with Big Insurance Company. When I filled out the health insurance application, I didn’t disclose that I was transgender—they didn’t ask and I didn’t volunteer. I left the “male or female” box unchecked. Still, they issued an insurance card and I paid several months’ premiums.

All went well until I received a notice terminating my health insurance. The reason? You guessed it—recent medical records discussed that I am transgender. Big Insurance thought I should have disclosed that in my application—which they then would have automatically rejected.

I appealed the termination. Eventually, I ended up in a fancy conference room with ten or so Big Insurance representatives. “You’re discriminating against me,” I said. “This is wrong.”

A couple months later, Big Insurance wrote again. They weren’t going to change their collective mind. I was out of luck.

At that point, I had to make a decision. I could have sued Big Insurance or I could have simply bought more expensive insurance through a high risk pool. For a variety of reasons, I chose option 2. I’ll admit it: one reason was fear—I was all alone in a new city; I feared my medical and emotional history would spill out in a courtroom of strangers; and I feared losing.

In other words, I chickened out from a big fight. I’m not proud and hope that in the two years since, I’ve become a bit braver. I can only hope.

Recently, another transgender faced a very similar situation. This time, someone had real guts and things turned out way differently.

Christine Radtke was born a biological male in 1965. By 2003, she had transitioned to female via sex-reassignment surgery. She met a man, Calvin, they fell in love, and in 2005, they married in a small civil ceremony in Red Wing. Calvin worked for UPS, and had Christine added to his medical insurance, which was administered by a union-related trust fund, something which the court decision refers to as “the Fund.”

Fast forward to early 2010. After hearing a rumor that Christine and Calvin weren’t actually married, the Fund hired an attorney to investigate. Quickly, the attorney determined that Christine had been born male. The Fund then terminated Christine’s insurance asserting that under Minnesota law—which as we all know, doesn’t allow same sex marriage—the Radtkes didn’t have a valid marriage.

At that point, Christine could have done what I did—she could have let it drop and found coverage through the higher market. But Christine wasn’t like Ellie Krug—Christine bravely fought back. She hired lawyers and sued in federal court. The Fund then countersued, asserting that Christine now owed $80,410.79 for medical benefits the Fund had previously paid out.

Talk about pressure. And risk. Despite this, Christine persevered.

Much of the Court’s April 2, 2012, decision—37 pages long— is devoted to the question of whether Christine could actually be considered “female” even after reassignment surgery. The Fund asserted that notwithstanding Christine’s surgery (and emotional makeup), she was still male, making her marriage to Calvin a sham. Thus, Calvin had no right to dependent spouse medical coverage for Christine.

Chief Federal Judge Michael Davis didn’t buy this argument. Almost any transgender would find his words lyrical, if not magical:

An individual’s sex includes many components, including chromosomal, anatomical, hormonal, and reproductive elements, some of which could be ambiguous or in conflict within an individual. The assigned sex of an individual at birth is based solely on observation of anatomy at birth, which itself may change when the individual reaches puberty. Here, Ms. Radtke is anatomically and hormonally female. It would be wholly inappropriate for this Court to invent a narrow federal definition of “sex” based on the sex assigned at birth…” 

In what constitutes a groundbreaking decision—at least for Minnesota—Judge Davis ruled that Christine had a right to marry Calvin. According to the judge, “The Fund’s interpretation of Minnesota law was unreasonable and wrong.”

I started to cry when I read the court decision. For transgenders everywhere, the ruling was one more step, another foot or two, toward normal. More importantly, it affirmed the value of bravery. Without Christine courageously taking a stand—a responsibility which I shirked—we wouldn’t have this crucial precedent.

To Christine Alisen Radtke—and her husband and lawyers—I say, Congratulations! May all of us learn from your example.

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