McGill University, Montreal, QB, Canada
As an American transsexual, Robert Eads, born Barbara Eads, never had it easy during the 54 years of his life. Robert Eads was born on December 18, 1945 in Toccoa, Georgia, United States. Having been designated as a female both anatomically and by his parents, Eads grew up as a woman, eventually establishing a family with a husband and two children.
However, despite leading a seemingly “normal” life, Eads confronted inner turmoil on a daily basis, grappling with gender identity issues and even identifying himself as a lesbian for some time. As he became increasingly convinced that he was a heterosexual man trapped in a woman’s body, Eads discarded his homosexual identity and began a new page in his life. He divorced his husband and started a life of his own as a male. Eads eventually found a partner, a transsexual woman by the name of Lola, and he started a life with his new identity.
Due to the late age of Ead’s sex change, doctors advised Eads not to undergo a hysterectomy, oophorectomy or phalloplasty; all three were popular procedures undertaken by to remove female genitalia and subsequently construct male sex organs. Eads was too old for hysterectomy and had no choice but to keep his female reproductive parts.
Unfortunately, what initially seemed like an innocuous decision – to forgo a hysterectomy and maintain female sex organs – turned into a life-threatening situation. In 1996, after being rushed to the emergency for severe abdominal pain, Eads was shocked to learn of his diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Even though he lived his life as male, he realized that the only part of him that remained female was literally killing him.
Desperately, Eads tried to seek medical help, but his plight seemingly fell on deaf ears: over a dozen doctors refused to treat him because they feared that treating this case of gender variance would hurt the reputation of their medical practices. When he was finally accepted for treatment in 1997 at the Medical College of Georgia hospital, his cancer had already metastasized to other parts of the body, rendering any further treatments futile.
“I wish I could understand why they did what they did, why they had to feel that way… And I know in a way they’ve contributed to my dying here. But I can’t hate them. I don’t hate them. I feel sorry for them… What makes me most sad is they probably felt like they did the right thing,” Eads remarked in his video documentary called Southern Comfort.
Eads was repeatedly refused treatment in the southern United States and died just fourteen years ago in 1999. Though Eads’ story may be rare, it is very hard for us to gauge the prevalence of individuals with stories like that of Eads – both in the U.S. and worldwide; the amount of literature that focuses on stigma faced by gender variant individuals seeking health care is woefully inadequate. Stories concerning gender variant people like Eads are especially rare outside of Western Europe and North America, for gender identity research as a whole remains overwhelmingly limited to the Western world. Unless researchers pay special attention to the medical care received by gender variant individuals outside of the Western world, it is difficult for us to generalize Ead’s story to the plight that may face millions of other gender variant patients.
Though research relevant to this issue is currently underway in the US, the history of medical care for this population has been troubling. The transgender and gender variant populations have not had proper access to the best standards of clinical practice and have been unable to receive individualized treatment plans that involve scientifically established treatment. It was only in July 2012 that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) openly made a statement on proper access to care for transgender and gender variant individuals. Though the APA’s advocacy has been a big step in the right direction, many private and public insurers still do not offer the required coverage for gender transition.
Gender variance, and the medical treatment that gender variant people receive are still a big source of confusion and contention, both in the developing and developed worlds. As our database of knowledge slowly expands, one truth we cannot ignore is that simply reading about these stories will not break the stigma that is still so intrinsic in society today. Instead, we need to talk about it and we need to come in contact with individuals like Robert Eads. Rather than simply analyzing the scientific literature on transgender individuals or watching their lives unravel impersonally on a television screen, we need to sit down and listen to their stories directly. Only then will we able to take an earnest step towards overcoming society’s prejudices in transgender health.
I am currently a third year undergraduate studying Cognitive Science at McGill University. My academic interests vary from Neuroscience and Linguistics to International Development and Philosophy. When I’m not debating why I think the physicalist’s stance on the philosophy of mind is detrimental to global health, I enjoy trying new restaurants in Montreal and curling up in bed and watching a good episode of Parks and Recreation. Over the past 20 years I’ve lived in India, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the US, and Canada as well as traveled to a number of other countries. My academic and personal experiences have inspired me to focus my columns on global mental health.