There is no principled reason to exclude transgender people from our federal civil rights laws

Kesha Williams experienced brutal treatment in a Virginia men’s prison facility. In a landmark ruling, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agrees that Kesha can pursue a claim for her mistreatment under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Crowd of people at rally with signs saying "Black Trans Lives Matter" and other protest signs

In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a hugely significant ruling affirming that transgender people who experience gender dysphoria may pursue claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The full Fourth Circuit bench then reaffirmed that ruling in October by denying the Virginia Department of Correction’s request to rehear the case.

“The Fourth Circuit ruling in Williams is incredibly important,” says GLAD Senior Director of Transgender and Queer Rights Jennifer Levi. “There is no principled reason to exclude transgender people from our federal civil rights laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

The ADA is a powerful federal civil rights law. It provides crucial protections against discrimination and requirements for reasonable accommodations in the workplace, public accommodations, and public institutions, including hospitals and prisons. While multiple district courts have previously found that transgender people cannot be excluded from the protections of the ADA, this was the first such ruling from a U.S. Court of Appeals.

The Fourth Circuit ruling came in a case brought by Kesha Williams, a Black transgender woman who was incarcerated in a men’s detention facility, denied access to medical treatment for her gender dysphoria, and faced persistent harassment by other inmates and prison deputies.

Speaking about the physical and mental abuse she experienced while incarcerated, Kesha Williams told the Washington Post in May, “I have to fight for the next girl, every other girl who has to go through this.” She hopes her lawsuit and the Fourth Circuit’s ruling will compel those responsible for operating jails and prisons to change their systems and practices to treat transgender women with less brutality. “They have to understand we’re in a different time,” she told the Post.

GLAD has been instrumental in developing the legal arguments to ensure the ADA is correctly interpreted to provide protections for transgender people and consulted with attorneys representing Williams in her case.

As GLAD also argued in a friend-of-the-court brief submitted in support of Williams, the ADA requires public institutions—including prisons—to provide equal access and to make reasonable accommodations when entrenched policies and practices discriminate against a person because of their gender dysphoria.

The ADA is intended to address the fact that people with stigmatized health conditions experience bias and discrimination and live in a world that is not accommodating. Yet bias, misunderstanding of gender dysphoria as a health condition, and outdated language in the statute have resulted in the misconception that transgender people — including those who have, have had, or are perceived to have gender dysphoria – are not covered by the ADA.

That interpretation is and always has been incorrect and unconstitutional.

“The Appeals Court ruling in Kesha Williams’ case will go a long way toward removing social and cultural barriers that keep people with treatable, but misunderstood, medical conditions from being able to thrive,” says Levi. “It would turn disability law upside down to exclude someone from its protection because of having a stigmatized medical condition.”

GLAD previously provided briefing and consultation in a Pennsylvania case, Blatt v. Cabela’s, leading to the first federal district court ruling in 2017 that transgender people are not categorically barred from seeking relief from discrimination under the ADA. In 2018 GLAD secured a landmark order from a Massachusetts federal district court allowing our client Angelina Resto, a transgender woman who faced brutal treatment while incarcerated in a men’s prison, to proceed with a discrimination claim under the ADA, leading to her transfer to a women’s facility. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals cited this GLAD case, Doe v. MA Department of Correction, in the Williams ruling.

Our friend-of-the-court brief in Williams was co-authored by National Center for Lesbian Rights and joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, Black and Pink Massachusetts, Lambda Legal, National Center for Transgender Equality, National LGBTQ Task Force, Trans People of Color Coalition, Transcending Barriers, Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, Disability Law Center of Virginia, and Disability Rights Vermont.