A Long Island transgender war veteran will soon have her day in court for a suit against Suffolk County and jail officials who she says denied her gender transition hormone therapy during a 16-month incarceration — allegedly undoing years of her transition to female.
Jessica Sunderland, who filed the federal suit under her legal name of Jeremy Sunderland, had been diagnosed by VA doctors in Manhattan with gender dysphoria, or distress caused by a conflict between biological gender and gender identity. The Iraq War veteran had taken estrogen and testosterone blockers for three years; but that was interrupted when she was held at the county jail in Riverhead from September 2012 to January 2014 to await the outcome of burglary and other charges, the suit said.
“It’s essentially a forced sex change, an involuntary sex change she was subjected to,” said David Shanies of Manhattan, one of Sunderland’s five pro bono attorneys.
In asking for $1 million in damages, Sunderland said she had filed two grievances in jail and pleaded to see an endocrinologist. Instead, she got excuses on why her needs weren’t met, resulting in a physically “painful” regression.
“One doctor told me that, ‘We don’t have this medication here,’ ” said Sunderland, 31, of Holbrook. “One doctor was like, ‘You can start over when you get home.’ Another doctor said, ‘The jail can’t afford it.’
“I would have thought that the doctors out of anybody would be the most caring. It was like the opposite,” Sunderland said.
If untreated, gender dysphoria can lead to self harm, including suicide, the suit said.
Oral arguments are expected to begin next month in the case, which was filed two years ago in U.S. District Court in Central Islip and names Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, whose office runs the jail; the warden at the time, Charles Ewald; and three doctors, including Vincent Gerarci, the jail’s medical director.
Susan A. Flynn, chief of litigation at the Suffolk County attorney’s office, declined to comment, as did officials at the jail and Health Department, which runs the jail’s medical facilities.
Court records show Sunderland was convicted on eight counts of burglary, several of grand larceny and other charges and was sent to a state prison in 2014, where she started getting hormone treatments again. She was released in Dec. 2016.
The case comes at a time when transgender rights are being rolled back in the military and other areas under President Donald Trump.
Shanies said the county had no official policy against providing transgender people hormone therapy but accused the doctors of discriminating against transgenders. He said Geraci “liked” several anti-transgender posts on his Facebook page, wrote in Sunderland’s file that treatment was “not an emergency,” and had put quotes around the word treatment.
Geraci could not be reached for comment.
Sunderland, who served in an Army military police unit in 2009 at an Iraq jail, said her crime spree was fueled by a drug addiction to OxyContin, a powerful painkiller prescribed after a benign mass was removed from her liver in 2012.
Now, she says she is trying to live healthy and get her gender transition back to where it was before she ended up in jail.
“It was probably one of the worst experiences I ever had,” Sunderland said. “I wasn’t expecting that . . . We’re still human beings. We don’t need to be treated less than that.”