Philadelphia City Councilmember David Oh landed at the center of a Facebook controversy last weekend when he shared a religious news outlet’s article about Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren supporting health care coverage for gender-affirming surgeries.
The piece was published by conservative site OneNewsNow.com, part of a Christian news network backed by the American Family Association. The Human Rights Campaign has previously called out the group for discussing death and jail time as punishments for homosexuality and saying the suicide rate among students would drop if young people were told that being queer is wrong. The outlet’s website informs readers “you will get your news from reporters you can trust to give the latest news without the liberal bias that characterizes so much of the ‘mainstream’ media.”
Oh shared a link to the article and asked his followers whether they were aware that the City of Philadelphia provides its employees insurance that covers gender-affirming surgery. This law passed in City Council in 2013 after being introduced by Mayor Jim Kenney, who was a councilmember at the time. Oh’s post referenced when he — along with Councilmembers Bill Green and Brian O’Neill — opposed the policy with a 3-14 vote.
“I spoke with representatives of the transgender community and they said they wanted certain healthcare coverage but did not request sex change surgery,” the Republican councilmember wrote on Facebook last weekend, adding, “There are a lot of work-related health injuries the City refuses to cover. I didn’t believe the taxpayers should pay for sex change surgery and continued medical care when the City says it doesn’t have enough money to fund it’s most basic responsibilities.”
The Facebook-sphere reacted with a flurry of negative responses, prompting Oh to delete his post. The councilmember penned a subsequent status detailing his reasons for sharing the article and erasing his original post, but a second wave of adverse comments resulted in another deletion.
On Tuesday, Oh told PGN he didn’t realize that what he hoped would be a helpful discussion would become a “very unconstructive, unproductive exchange.”
“I think part of it was because it dealt with the trans community that is very small and has had a long history of discrimination and abuse and even kind of talking about it was almost like exposing the issue of competitiveness,” he said, “like, ‘Oh, are you saying they shouldn't have this health care?’ and that was not at all my purpose.”
Oh added that his intention was rather to discuss the nation’s health care process, not the value of gender-affirming surgery, by exploring “a pursuit of health care based on best practices, rather than a winner-take-all political process.”
Elizabeth Williams, local trans advocate and cofacilitator of TransWay, a weekly gathering for trans and gender-nonconforming people at William Way LGBT Community Center, said her initial reaction to Oh’s comments was to question who the councilmember spoke with from the trans community.
“Where was he getting this information?” said Williams, a trans woman. “My other thought was that anyone who actually knows anything about the continuum that we refer to as transgender understands that surgery is an option for some people and for some people it’s genuinely necessary surgery.”
She added the councilmember’s words were another example of throwing “the most disenfranchised” under the bus.
“It’s been happening for too long. Too many people are at risk, too many people lose their homes, too many people are being killed, especially women of color,” Williams told PGN. “In a city that takes great pride in being one of the most LGBT-affirming cities in the entire country, in a city that takes pride in even having our flag of inclusivity … those words made me feel like there was a potential for a step backward.”
When asked if he supports gender-affirming surgery coverage for City employees today, Oh told PGN that “once we have a vote, the vote is done, and I am not against democracy.” His stance on Kenney’s policy stemmed from the City not providing coverage for care for other ailments like cancer and work-related hearing or sight loss, he added.
“I gave my reasons, I wasn't against the surgery, I'm not belittling it, I don't think it's unimportant,” Oh explained about his 2013 vote. “I said that I didn’t see the nexus between city employment and this, although I understand the human rights issue, because there were things that I thought had greater nexus.”
Oh is up for re-election to City Council on the Nov. 5 general election ballot. At-large candidates Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke — of the progressive Working Families Party vying for two seats historically held in a Republican stronghold — released a joint statement responding to Oh’s Facebook comments.
“2019 should be the year that Philadelphia sets forward a human rights agenda for all Philadelphians, particularly our transgender, gender expansive and marginalized communities,” the statement reads. “We need full health care that’s fully inclusive and free, affordable and accessible housing, real employment opportunities to all people and deep conversations about safety and stemming the high murder rates for particularly Black trans people. We are running because there’s no place for Trump’s party in City Hall.”
Oh told PGN he historically might not be “the best person, but a good person” for representing LGBTQ Philadelphians, and has tried to advocate for the community by supporting William Way, senior living options and funding that goes to thwarting discrimination or violence.
“I didn’t write that post to belittle the health care, it wasn't about the value,” Oh said. “It is about the transparency of the process and I try to be transparent about it.”