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BY MEGHAN BARR
Years ago, in a darkened parking lot in the middle of the night, Kathy Padilla would meet with fellow transgender people who sought support from one another in a society that treated them like outcasts.
How things have changed since then for transgender men and women in America, who have made great strides in recent years toward reaching their ultimate goal: to be treated like ordinary people.
On Tuesday they won another victory when a Massachusetts judge ordered prison officials to provide sex-reassignment surgery for a murder convict, saying it was the only way to treat her gender-identity disorder.
The ruling marked the latest milestone in the increasing visibility of a class of people once roundly derided as freaks or used as a punch line.
"Now there are transgender delegates at the Democratic National Convention," said Padilla, a 55-year-old transgender woman from Philadelphia who has been an advocate since 1984. "And a number of transgender people have been invited to the White House."
In recent years, more than a dozen states have revised anti-discrimination laws to include transgender people, giving them hate-crime protection and providing rights as basic as restroom access. Transgender officials have helped raise the movement's profile by winning elective office in city halls, landing coveted appointments in the White House and, yes, sending delegates to political conventions.
The Massachusetts court ruling, though, shines a light on what many advocates view as the worst form of discrimination still faced by transgender people: lack of access to medical care.
"Transgender people are still denied health care
Transitioning from one sex to another can involve a variety of treatments, including hormone therapy, but the most expensive one is a sex-change operation, which can cost up to $20,000. Even though the American Medical Association and other medical experts recommend coverage of services for transgender people, a small but growing number of companies that actually provide it--including Apple, Accenture and American Express--are still the exceptions.
Federal health care that covers treatment for gender-identity disorders is virtually nonexistent, with no services for federal employees, veterans or Medicare recipients.
U.S. Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who filed unsuccessful legislation in 2008 to ban the use of tax money to pay for the surgery for prison inmates, said surgery for the inmate at the center of Tuesday's ruling would be "an outrageous abuse of taxpayer dollars."
"We have many big challenges facing us as a nation, but nowhere among those issues would I include providing sex change surgery to convicted murderers," he said in a written statement. "I look forward to common sense prevailing and the ruling being overturned."
The nation as a whole has not yet embraced the idea that gender reassignment surgery is a medically necessary procedure that could have dramatic health benefits, advocates say.