Transgender woman sues hospital


By Barbara Feder Ostrov
Mercury News

Article Launched: 01/05/2008 01:42:54 AM PST

"God made you a man."

That's what Charlene Hastings said she was told when she called to inquire about breast enlargement surgery at Seton Medical Center, a Catholic hospital in Daly City.

Now the San Franciscan is suing the hospital, claiming officials there discriminated against her because she had a sex-change operation.

Hastings, 57, had already had the major surgery she needed to become a woman. She had chosen a San Francisco plastic surgeon with privileges at Seton to perform the breast augmentation in October 2006. But the surgeon, Dr. Leonard Gray, told her that Seton no longer allowed him to operate on transgender patients, Hastings said.

When Hastings called Seton to learn more, a surgical coordinator said the hospital would not allow its facilities to be used for transgender surgery, according to the lawsuit, "She was saying, 'It's not God's will,' " Hastings said. "I couldn't believe it. It's a blatant case of discrimination."

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 21 in San Francisco Superior Court, pits the rights of transgendered people against the hospital's rights to operate according to its religious principles.

State law allows religiously affiliated hospitals to refuse to provide abortions, but there is no specific religious exemption allowing hospitals to deny elective surgery to transgender people.

"This certainly isn't an isolated incident," said Kristina Wertz, legal director of the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco. "Seton and other hospitals in the area have put up significant barriers to care" for transgender people, she said.

Seton is a member of the Daughters of Charity Health System, which operates five Catholic hospitals in California including O'Connor Hospital in San Jose.

The surgical coordinator was following hospital policy in refusing Hastings' surgery, said Elizabeth Nikels, vice president of communications for Daughters of Charity.

"Seton Medical Center provides medically necessary services to all individuals," Nikels said in a prepared statement. "However, the hospital does not perform surgical procedures contrary to Catholic teaching; for example, abortion, direct euthanasia, transgender surgery or any of its related components." The hospital did not comment directly on the lawsuit.

Gray still performs breast enlargement surgeries at Seton on women who are not transgender.

When it was owned by Catholic Healthcare West, a large hospital conglomerate, Seton apparently did allow transgender surgery. But when the Daughters of Charity, which took ownership of the hospital in 2002, learned in 2006 that such surgeries were still taking place, they were stopped, said two sources who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly for their organizations.

Wertz thinks Seton's policy violates the Unruh Act, a state law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, gender identity or sexual orientation.

"There's simply no religious exemption in the Unruh Act," Wertz said. "We're talking about a type of care that's OK for one class but not another."

While her case winds through the courts, Hastings said she has put off having the breast augmentation surgery, in part because her breasts are continuing to grow through hormone therapy.

However, she is planning to have surgery to feminize her nose in February. Hastings, who works for the city of San Francisco as a tax collector, said she was raised Catholic. "I think God loves me no matter what," she said.

Christopher Dolan, the San Francisco attorney representing Hastings, said Seton may argue that it's within its rights to deny elective procedures to transgender people on religious grounds, but "that's not what this lawsuit is about."

"This is a civil rights story," he said. "It is about transgender people being able to use businesses and other facilities on an equal basis as other people. If you took out 'transgender' in the lawsuit and replaced it with 'African-American,' this would be a no-brainer."

Contact Barbara Feder Ostrov at or (408) 920-5064.