The university system overseeing Georgia’s public colleges has changed its health care policies to provide trans-inclusive coverage after Skyler Jay, Queer Eye’s first transgender contestant, sued his employer over its health insurance plan. Jay, who is a catering manager for the University System of Georgia (USG), was denied medical coverage by his employer’s insurance, Blue Cross Blue Shield, before having undergone top surgery and then was subsequently denied again after applying for an appeal.
After he was denied coverage for a third time in 2018, Jay raised money to cover the accruing fees and sought to have it reimbursed. He also sought to challenge the discriminatory guidelines. Transcend Legal, a law firm owned and run by trans men that specifically challenges trans exclusionary health care across the nation, filed suit against both USG and Blue Cross Blue Shield on Jay’s behalf.
The judge dismissed the suit against Blue Cross Blue Shield, citing that the insurance could only enforce the policies the employer chose. Although the insurance provided the exclusionary language implemented by USG, the company wasn’t liable.
“I think the judge didn’t want to open a huge can of worms,” Jay said.
However, the exclusionary policies that troubled Jay and his lawyers were not with the insurance company, but rather USG’s Board of Regents, which governs the entire university system. USG’s policies absolved state universities and Blue Cross Blue Shield from covering medical expenses relating to trans affirmation surgery and other trans-related health expenses. He depicted the board as “consisting of 30 to 40 mostly middle-aged white men, about two women, and two people of color on the whole board.”
“It’s not diverse and not representative at all of the population of the university, but those are the people who make the decisions,” Jay said. “It didn’t matter how many times I appealed through the insurance company, the insurance had to default what my employer had chosen not to cover, which was transgender healthcare.”
But as of September 20, USG has agreed to reverse the policy for its 26 public colleges, affecting more than 60,000 of its employees.
Any USG employee and their dependents are now able to receive trans-related care through their insurance. Other settlement terms included reimbursing Jay for expenses he paid out of pocket. Jay said he has already received payment.
Now that the suit is over and the policy is changing, Jay said he feels “relieved” and “ecstatic.”
“Honestly, I feel like this is history for our community,” he said. “Given the administration and the politics facing the transgender community, we’re unfortunately losing a lot of battles right now. At the end of the day, there is so much more work to be done, but this is a huge move.”
One of the aspects that makes the victory so groundbreaking is that Jay’s lawsuit was the first of its kind filed in the South. Previously, similar suits had been filed in Wisconsin, New York, and Washington, with victories for the plaintiffs in each case. According to Jay, Georgia claims one of the largest populations of transgender people in the United States.
“The fact that this win is coming out the center of the Bible Belt is a huge move for the community and for morale in general.” he said. “I’ve had so many people from this state contact me since Queer Eye to say, ‘I can’t be out but what can I do to help you,’ or that ‘I need this for my child because we have to pay for my child’s hormones out of pocket,’ and countless other messages.’ These messages from other people are the biggest reasons why I was unwilling to budge about the removal of these exclusions.”
Through his appearance on Queer Eye, Jay gained new friends but also grew a platform as an advocate, educating others about trans issues. “I really put myself out there [on Queer Eye] by sharing the struggles we as trans people face,” he said. “I think it was really a make or break for how the decisions panned out and how that the lawyers for USG treated me. I think the outcome of the lawsuit had a lot to do with me sharing these struggles.”
According to Jay, the most important thing wasn’t whether he was reimbursed by USG but knowing that “there are so many people behind [him] that have to [go through] the exact same thing and possibly with less resources.”
“I just felt disgusted at the fact that I was employed by and graduated from an institution that enacted such painful policies on people,” he said. “Now I can honestly and truly say that as an alumni of the university, as an employee of the university, I have never felt more proud, especially that this was something that was settled outside of court, and not something the judge had to force the university to do.”
Out has reached out to the USG Board of Regents, as well as Blue Cross Blue Shield for comment. This story will be updated should they respond.
Devin-Norelle is a nonbinary model, advocate, and writer. Ze has written for Teen Vogue, Allure, them, and Out magazine. Ze recently walked in New York Fashion Week shows for Chromat and dapperQ.