Transgender people are protected from discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act in all public institutions—including carceral settings.

Update: On June 30, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a writ of certiorari, leaving the U.S. Court of Appeals Fourth Circuit ruling in place.

10/7/2022: Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied en banc review in Kesha Williams’ case, leaving their prior ruling in place.

12/13/2021: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit today affirmed that transgender people who experience gender dysphoria are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The ruling reverses a Virginia district court’s dismissal of claims brought by Kesha Williams. This is an impactful ruling for Ms. Williams and the first time an Appeal Court has ruled to affirm transgender rights in this manner.

GLAD co-authored an amicus (friend of the court) brief submitted to the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Williams v. Kincaid. The case challenges the placement of a transgender woman, Kesha Williams, in a Virginia men’s prison and the denial of all other care related to her gender dysphoria, a disabling medical condition that affects many transgender people, by the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office. The district court ruled against Williams’ claims that these actions violated her rights under the ADA, which prohibits discrimination against people living with disabilities, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which bars discrimination based on disability by federally funded entities. The case is now on appeal.

GLAD co-authored the brief supporting Williams with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Quinnipiac University School of Law Legal Clinic, with assistance from the firm Arent Fox. The brief was joined by the ACLU, Black and Pink Massachusetts, Lambda Legal, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the National Center for Transgender Equality, Transcending Barriers (ATL), Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, and the Trans People of Color Coalition.

Drawing on scientific research and established case law, the brief argues that the ADA protects against discrimination based on gender dysphoria and some forms of gender identity disorder, two distinct medical conditions that affect many transgender people.

Under long-established medical protocols, the treatment for gender dysphoria is gender transition—the process of living consistently with one’s gender identity—which includes an individualized combination of hormone therapy, surgery, and or psychotherapy. Williams underwent gender transition 15 years ago and continued to receive hormone therapy that alleviated her gender dysphoria until she was wrongly incarcerated in a men’s prison.

There, prison officials withdrew Williams’ hormone therapy, forced her to shower in the presence of men, subjected her to strip searches by male officers, denied her access to female commissary items, and deliberately referred to her as a man, thereby jeopardizing her health.

GLAD’s brief argues that the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act prohibit these actions. The laws require that the treatment of people with disabilities must be based on “reasoned and medically sound judgments” and that social institutions—including prisons—provide equal access and make reasonable accommodations when entrenched policies and practices interfere with a person’s equal access to those institutions.