Presidential candidate Kamala Harris probed over trans rights record

Senator Kamala Harris, who has faced criticism for her treatment of transgender prisoners, speaks to reporters following a closed briefing on intelligence matters on Capitol Hill on December 4 2018 in Washington, DC

US Senator Kamala Harris has announced her candidacy for the 2020 presidential election, prompting questions over her record on transgender rights.

Harris released a campaign video on Monday (January 21) telling the American public, “Let’s do this, together. Let’s claim our future. For ourselves, for our children, and for our country,” while simultaneously announcing her bid for the Democratic nomination on ABC’s Good Morning America.

Watch Kamala Harris introduce her campaign:

But the Californian senator, who was the state’s Attorney General for six years until she was elected to the US Senate in 2016, has faced criticism over her decision to argue that two prisoners should not receive state-funded gender confirmation surgery.

Kamala Harris appealed decision to let transgender prisoners have surgery

In 2015, trans inmates Shiloh Quine and Michelle-Lael Norsworthy were prescribed gender confirmation surgery, only for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to refuse to cooperate, The Washington Blade has reported.

After US District Judge Jon Tigar ordered the state to allow Norsworthy—who was in prison for second-degree murder—to have the surgery, Harris appealed the decision to the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

She took on the prisoner’s claim that denying her surgery broke the Eighth Amendment, which stops the government from imposing cruel and unusual punishments on its citizens.

“The ‘essential test is one of medical necessity and not one simply of desirability.'”

— Kamala Harris, writing about a transgender prisoner’s case

In one brief signed by Harris, the court was encouraged to stay the order because hormone treatment was sufficient for the moment.

“The core of Ms Norsworthy’s complaint is that Defendants have not provided the particular treatment she wants, sex-reassignment surgery and unspecified ‘additional treatment,’” Harris wrote.

“But the Constitution ‘does not guarantee to a prisoner the treatment of his choice.’ The Eighth Amendment requires that an inmate be afforded ‘reasonable measures to meet a substantial risk of serious harm to her,’ not that she be given the specific care she demands,” she continued.

Kamala Harris, who has defended the right of transgender students to use their bathroom of choice, listens to testimony from U.S. Attorney General nominee William Barr during his confirmation hearing January 15, 2019 in Washington, DC

Kamala Harris is one of the current frontrunners for the Democratic nomination (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

“The ‘essential test is one of medical necessity and not one simply of desirability.'”

In the end, both Norsworthy and Quine reached settlements with the state which allowed them access to gender confirmation surgery.

Kamala Harris under fire for treatment of transgender prisoners

Harris’ approach to these cases has been highlighted by activists online who tweeted messages like “Kamala is anti-trans people” and “the trans community rightly hates her” after she announced her candidacy.

One person wrote: “If you support Kamala Harris, you don’t think trans people are people, and you wouldn’t even hesitate to throw them under the bus. Kindly f**k off.”

In 2017, trans activist Chelsea Manning responded to a tweeter who called Harris a hero by asking: “a hero in the war against trans people!!?”

However, EmilyRose Johns, a civil rights lawyer who has fought for trans inmates in California, told The Guardian that if Harris “would grapple publicly with what was going on when she was denying the rights of trans people in prison and admit that her mind has changed… I might not call her a hypocrite.”

Kamala Harris has an otherwise excellent transgender rights record

Others have highlighted Harris’ work in favour of trans and LGBT+ rights in general, pointing to how she has signed friend-of-the-court briefs arguing that trans people should be allowed to use their bathroom of choice.

When she was California’s Attorney General, she filed briefs which voiced support for the Obama administration’s guidance supporting trans students’ rights and argued against North Carolina’s anti-trans House Bill 2.

Kamala Harris waves a rainbow flag while participating in the San Francisco Pride parade in San Francisco, California on Sunday, June, 26 2016

Kamala Harris has been a supporter of LGBT+ rights, other than her briefs about transgender prisoners (JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty)

As a senator, Harris signed a brief which called on the Supreme Court to rule in favour of trans student Gavin Grimm, who argued that a Virginia high school had violated his constitutional rights by blocking him from using the bathroom corresponding to his gender identity.

Harris co-sponsored The Census Equality Act in 2018, which, if passed, would add questions related to sexual orientation and gender identity to the decennial census and American Community Survey.

Harris also introduced legislation last year to ban the use of the gay and trans panic defence across the US.

Harris joins a growing Democratic field that already includes Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, and may soon involve openly gay Indianan Mayor Pete Buttigieg.