Gender-surgery insurance shows ‘understanding of complex issues’

Jacob Mueller: “Transition is a process, not a procedure.” Photo: Matt O’Connor/UIC News

The university’s decision last week to add gender reassignment to the list of benefits covered by student health insurance “sends a message of welcome to all UIC students,” one campus leader says.

“We talk about the value of diversity, and we do it,” said Megan Carney, director of the Gender and Sexuality Center.

The University of Illinois Board of Trustees approved the request at its May 29 meeting. The proposal, initiated by a graduate student in 2010, was developed by student groups with support from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, the Gender and Sexuality Center and the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer People and Allies.

“The Board of Trustees listened to the voices of the students, and made a decision that is inclusive and reflects their understanding of these complex issues,” said Jacob Mueller, director of administrative operations in the department of medical education and a member of the transgender community.

Trustees voted 6-2 to approve a $60 increase per semester for CampusCare that includes about $4.50 for coverage of gender reassignment procedures.

The increase for CampusCare, a self-funded student health benefit program, is the first in six years, said director David Wurster, and also covers enhancements to other benefits. Students can opt out of CampusCare with proof of health insurance.

CampusCare coverage for gender reassignment, including hormone therapy, medical care, mental health services and surgery, has a lifetime maximum benefit of $117,096.

People in the LGBTQ community prefer the term “gender affirming” to “gender reassignment” or “sex change,” explained activist Fransely Robles, a senior in the Honors College who is majoring in gender and women’s studies and applied psychology.

“It means you’re identifying as something you’re comfortable with,” Robles said.

Until recently, transgender was classified as a mental illness, termed Gender Identity Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

A recent push to revise this classification led to a new term, Gender Dysphoria, which characterizes the emotional distress that can result from “a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender.”

“It’s not a mental illness, but like homosexuality, it was perceived that way for decades,” Mueller said.

“Transition is a process, not a procedure,” added Mueller, who transitioned from Jennifer to Jacob more than 10 years ago.

It’s an often long and tumultuous journey, he said, that led him through severe depression, substance abuse and intense anger.

“At some point in my early 30s I realized that I was either going to transition or I’d end up killing myself,” he said.

For some who identify as transgender, simply finding their place in society is a daily challenge as basic as deciding which bathroom to enter, Mueller said.

“If you’re gender variant you might get beat up in the men’s room, you might get the police called on you in the women’s room,” he said. “Really, all you’re trying to do is use the bathroom.”

Gender-neutral bathrooms with single stalls have greatly benefited the transgender and gender variant population on campus, he said.

“That’s something that changed the perception of the community forever,” said Mueller, who praised Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares for supporting the effort.

Staff from the Gender and Sexuality Center and Student Affairs will work together to clarify the details of the new insurance coverage so they can answer students’ questions, Carney said.

UIC joins 37 other colleges and universities that offer the insurance coverage to students, including Northwestern, University of Michigan, Duke, Yale and Stanford.

Aetna Insurance said that last year, there were seven total surgeries at the 19 schools where it provides coverage for gender reassignment.

Although the insurance benefit may be used by a small number of students, the work that went into making the request to university trustees sends a message about UIC students’ “empathy and critical understanding of gender issues,” Carney said.

“I hope it influences the other University of Illinois campuses,” Robles said. “It’s definitely a proud moment and it should be celebrated.”

— Sonya Booth contributed to this story

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