By Sydney Bauer
ATLANTA, April 9 (Openly) - Arkansas this week became the first U.S. state to outlaw medical help for young people who want to change genders, staking out ground in a bitter nationwide fight over what rights to accord transgender teens.
Supporters of state laws that curb trans rights say they simply want to protect children. Opponents say this may backfire and expose struggling teens to self-harm and ill health.
"We have seen a huge spike of anti-trans bills all across the south," said Willow Brashears, a community activist. "It's really starting to gain a lot of support from bigger activists and celebrities speaking out against it."
Eighteen-year-old Brashears said she cannot imagine the trauma she would have had to endure without access to hormone replacement therapy to help her transition genders when she was growing up in a small town in central Arkansas.
She was lucky, aged 13, to have found a doctor who would prescribe hormones, said Brashears, recalling also "the importance of having gender-affirming care at a young age."
She worries other trans teenagers will not get the same support after Arkansas lawmakers on Tuesday banned doctors from prescribing transition-related treatment to under 18s.
Technically known as HB 1570, the bill is the first of its kind in the United States to pass into law and bars doctors from prescribing medication such as puberty blockers and hormone replacement to minors.
An estimated 1.8 percent of U.S. minors identify as transgender, according to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit that focuses on the mental health of young LGBT+ Americans. Most are aged 13 to 17, and many say they experience depression and suicidal thoughts waiting for help.
Doctors who break the new law risk fines and the potential loss of their license to practice medicine in the state.
The bill initially passed both houses of the state legislature last week, before Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson vetoed the move as a "vast government overreach".
His veto was overridden and the bill sailed through, reflecting support among social conservatives in the state and middle Americans who champion 'traditional family values' and worry that a vocal and growing minority has undue influence.
Republican lawmakers have introduced a record 127 bills this year on trans-related issues in 22 states, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT+ organization.
With Arkansas' new law set to go into effect later this year, trans youth and their parents are trying to figure out how to retain access to care that will soon be cut off.
Brandi Evans, mother of a trans male teenager, said the past few weeks had been "extremely stressful and nerve wracking."
Finding care in Arkansas for her son was already hard as so few doctors or psychiatrists had the training.
The family will see their current doctors until the bill becomes law and Evans said she remained hopeful that it might eventually be overturned by a court challenge.
"It's not like we're just doing it on a whim and going to one doctor saying, 'Hey, my child wants hormones, give it to them,'" Evans told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It's not like we just line them up like cattle cars and go through sticking each child with hormones. That's not how it works, but that's how they're portraying it in the legislature."
RAFT OF BILLS
But if the voice of trans teens is on the rise, so is the interest of legislators, who have responded with a flurry of trans-related bills.
Most center on two fiercely contested issues:
- Should trans high schoolers be able to compete at sport in line with their gender identity, or must they stick to the identity they were assigned at birth.
- Should doctors be allowed to prescribe transition-related treatment to minors, with 16 states now considering legislation similar to the Arkansas bill.
When it comes to medical help, opponents say they simply want to protect children from irreversible procedures they might later regret. They deny any prejudice or prurience.
Autumn Leva - of religious campaign group Family Research Council - said Arkansas was "leading the way" in protecting its children.
"In Arkansas, as in most states, children are not permitted to work in mines, get tattoos, or purchase alcohol or drugs ... - all for their own protection," Leva said in a statement.
The bill's authors "simply recognized that if a tattoo is potentially harmful for a child, then certainly sterilizing children or surgically removing their healthy body parts is harmful as well," Leva said.
Yet big medical groups - such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the sector's professional association - oppose bills that aim to restrict treatment, calling them "dangerous".
Civil Rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have protested against the bill, with the group's Arkansas chapter planning a lawsuit aimed at overturning it.
"We plan to fight this attack on trans youth with tenacity from all directions including filing suit to protect trans kids," said Holly Dickson, legal director at the Arkansas branch of the ACLU.
"If signed, this bill cannot and will not stand without a fight."
(Reporting by Sydney Bauer @femme_thoughts; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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