By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - A major Boston academic hospital said on Wednesday it would become the first in the northeastern United States to begin performing gender-reassignment surgery on transgender patients.
Boston Medical Center, which has been providing transgender patients with hormone therapy and facial and chest surgery since the 1990s, said it would begin performing a male-to-female procedure it calls "gender affirmation" surgery beginning this summer.
BMC's move comes at a time of intense debate in the United States over the rights of transgender people, exemplified by a North Carolina law mandating that people use restrooms in public buildings and schools that correspond with their birth genders. That measure has sparked a legal battle with the Obama administration and prompted some top entertainers and large corporations to cut or cut back business in the state.
Dr. Joshua Safer, who will help oversee BMC's Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, said the facility made the move because of a growing realization that hospitals were not keeping up with the needs of transgender patients.
"This was not just a neglected population, but an unnecessarily neglected population because there was a gap between what conventional medicine knows and what conventional hospitals were providing," Safer said in a phone interview.
Even before publicly revealing its plans, the hospital had developed an informal backlog of about 100 patients interested in the surgery, Safer said.
The surgery will be available to adults 18 or older who have been living as the other gender for at least a year, subject to a review of their mental and physical suitability, BMC said. Given that the hospital initially intends to perform just one or two of the surgeries per month, many patients will have to wait longer, Safer said.
There are no firm statistics on how many transgender people live in the United States, but a March paper by researchers at UCLA's Williams Center estimated that 300,000 transgender people aged 13 and up live in 15 states including North Carolina that were considering transgender-related laws.
Proponents of laws including North Carolina's describe them as necessary to protect the restroom users' privacy and to prevent sexual assaults.
Transgender-rights advocates said BMC's move could promote understanding of the needs of transgender people.
"Having a major hospital system recognize this and put in place both the expertise and the infrastructure to offer care to the transgender community is a really exciting recognition of those needs," said Angela Mazaris, director of Wake Forest University's LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning) Center, in a phone interview.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry)