3 min

Approved but denied

BC Liberals won't pay for trans surgery here or abroad

Credit: James Loewen photo

For three years, Mac Gordon has done every thing the government’s asked to prove that he can be a man.

He’s changed his name, he’s gone through hormone therapy, he’s been psychologically assessed by Medical Services Plan (MSP) professionals-he’s essentially worked, lived and socialized in the gender he hopes to one day physically become.

Now, after many years of hard work, he was finally approved for gender reassignment surgery in August. But there is one problem: gender reassignment surgery isn’t available in this province, and the government won’t pay for him to go somewhere else. So all Gordon can do is wait.

Hitting a brick wall after working so hard for so long is extremely frustrating, he says. “I think this is really horrendous treatment of human beings.”

Prior to this year, people who were approved for gender reassignment surgery had to go out of province to have the surgery performed. MSP would foot the bill for the procedure, though patients had to cover their own travel and accommodation costs.

But recently things have changed.

Vancouver Coastal Health and MSP have been working on finding the money to provide gender reassignment surgery in BC. And while they got the funding to offer surgeries here and even hired a surgeon last year, they haven’t got enough money to actually get him into an operating room.

The result: trans people can’t go elsewhere for subsidized surgery and they can’t stay here.

“It’s misleading,” says Gordon. “It’s fraud. In any other business it would be.”

The approval process for surgery is based on the Harry Benjamin guidelines. People are required to demonstrate readiness by going through two years of ‘real life experience’ living in their desired gender, as well as undergoing a psychological assessment by two psychiatrists who specialize in gender dysphoria. There are only two such professionals in the province who currently do this kind of work, so the wait times are long.

For Gordon, jumping through all of the hoops seemed worth it when he knew at the end of it all he would get his surgery.

Though there were many delays along the way, he was told that despite the wait the money was there to pay for his surgery. And once the surgeon was hired, he assumed that things would move along rather quickly. But they’ve slowed instead.
Gordon likens his situation to someone being put on a six-month waiting list for a knee replacement and then at the end of the waiting period being told that the surgery just wasn’t going to happen.

It’s unacceptable, he says. “This is serious business. This is life. This is our life.”
“Both the Ministry of Health and Vancouver Coastal Health are committed to making the surgery program work in Vancouver Coastal Health,” promises Robena Sirett, who manages the Transgender Health Program, an under-funded resource centre that has been struggling to serve the province’s trans community on $115,000 a year.

Sirett has been in discussions with the Ministry of Health in Victoria on how to fund surgeries and is working on putting together a business case in favour of the sexual reassignment surgery program.

“We do need to move forward,” she says. “We know that. I don’t know how this is going to play out, but I’m optimistic.”

Sirett hopes that a plan for local gender reassignment surgery will be finished by this fall, but whether it will be accepted by the Ministry of Health is unknown. And even if it is accepted, it’s impossible to gauge when or how long it will take until the program is fully up and running.

That’s not good enough, says Gordon, reiterating that transitioning is hard enough without the added worry of not getting your surgery at the end of the process.

At 61 years old, Gordon is also worried that the older he gets, the higher the risk that he won’t be able to get the surgery if it ever becomes available.

Considering how long the wait has been already, he suspects that many people have become frustrated with the government’s inaction and have begged and borrowed money to pay for the surgery themselves elsewhere. But he believes that transgender people should be able to have the surgery they were approved for without leaving the province.

And he plans to fight the government to get his way. “I’m making noise,” he says.

Gordon has reached out to the transgender community across Canada and is actively spearheading a letter writing campaign to the government. He is also in the process of conducting a survey of other people’s wait times.

“What we need right now is people,” he says. “We don’t need a march down the street. We need people to understand us, to understand what we’re going through.”

Gordon is determined to be loud about this, and says he will seek legal help if need be. The government needs a push, he says, and he’s more than willing to do whatever it takes.

“MSP doesn’t know what they’ve done this time.”