State Laws Target Trans Youth In Sports, Health Care : Consider This from NPR Bills under consideration in dozens of states target trans youth by focusing on two things: health care and sports. Some bills have already become law in states including South Dakota, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Alabama.

One of the harshest measures is an Alabama, where a bill would make it a felony to provide gender-affirming therapy to anyone under the age of 19. NPR's Melissa Block reports on what that would mean for one trans teenager and his family.

University of Pittsburgh professor Jules Gill-Peterson explains what she's uncovered about the history of trans youth in America. She is the author of Histories of the Transgender Child.

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'It Hurts People': How Trans Youth Are Being Targeted By State Legislation

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'It Hurts People': How Trans Youth Are Being Targeted By State Legislation

'It Hurts People': How Trans Youth Are Being Targeted By State Legislation

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It took years for Joanna Brandt's son Dylan to just feel like himself.


JOANNA BRANDT: I had to make tough decisions over those years for him - always thinking first of his safety and well-being.

SHAPIRO: Dylan is 15. A few years back, he came out as trans. Joanna says she did a ton of research, talked with doctors about their options, and they decided he would begin gender-affirming therapy. That's an umbrella term that can include puberty blockers, talk therapy and, in Dylan's case, hormone treatment.


BRANDT: Today, after two years of therapy, doctors visits, Dylan is happy, healthy, confident and hopeful for his future.

SHAPIRO: And now Joanna Brandt is afraid that those years of work could be undone because she and her son live in Arkansas, where a new law would make the hormone therapy that Dylan receives illegal.


BRANDT: My son will be devastated if he is forced to stop his hormone treatment.

SHAPIRO: The new bill is called the Save Adolescents from Experimentation, or SAFE Act. It would outlaw puberty blockers, hormone treatment and transition-related surgeries for kids under 18. This week it passed the state legislature, and it's now waiting for the governor's signature.


BRANDT: All of the progress that he has made, all of the plans to be able to graduate from high school and go off to college, presenting outwardly in the full expression of how he feels on the inside would come to a screeching halt.

SHAPIRO: The ACLU, which organized the press conference where Joanna Brandt spoke this week, called the Arkansas bill the single most extreme anti-trans law to ever pass through a state legislature. And there are many others like it under consideration in dozens of states, measures that seek to limit the kind of health care trans youth can access or bar them from school sports.


RACHEL LEVINE: I think that people fear what they don't understand. And so my goal is to educate people.

SHAPIRO: Dr Rachel Levine is the assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services. And she also made history as the first openly trans federal official to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. I spoke with her in her first interview since she started the job.


LEVINE: We have made so much progress, but we still have a long way to go. And I think it's really challenging to see state legislators and certain governors targeting LGBTQ people, particularly vulnerable transgender youth.

SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS - transgender children and their parents are suddenly at the center of a political fight all over the U.S. We'll explore why and meet one teenager who's trying to cope. From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Friday, April 2.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. According to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, there are at least 95 bills under consideration in 28 states targeting trans youth. These bills mostly focus on two things - health care and sports. Mississippi, Tennessee and South Dakota all have new rules restricting the teams trans athletes can play on. So does Arkansas, and that state passed another law this year, saying health care workers have the right not to participate in non-emergency treatments that violate their conscience. The state's own Chamber of Commerce opposed that law, saying it sends the wrong message about Arkansas.


SHAPIRO: Among the many bills working their way through state legislatures, one of the harshest is in Alabama. That state could make it a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to provide any gender-affirming therapy like hormones or puberty blockers to trans people under the age of 19. The bill has passed the state Senate and is awaiting a full vote in the House. NPR's Melissa Block has this story about what its passage would mean for one child and his family.


MELISSA BLOCK: Meet Syrus Hall, who lives in Mobile, Ala., with his twin sisters, his mom and her fiancee and his pet fish...

SYRUS HALL: Good morning, buddy.


SYRUS: It's time to eat.

BLOCK: ...A brilliant blue crowntail betta.

SYRUS: His name is Florence.

BLOCK: Cyrus is 17, a high school junior, who hopes to study forensics in college.

SYRUS: I'm thinking about being either, you know, like, a forensics investigator or a forensic psychologist.

BLOCK: Cyrus was assigned female at birth, but around fifth grade, when he hit puberty...

SYRUS: That's when I started to fully get uncomfortable with, like, the way that I looked or the way that I felt. Like, in my head, I looked a different way than I looked in the mirror.

BLOCK: Even though he was feeling this way, Syrus says he didn't know how to explain it.

SYRUS: I didn't find out the words for, like, who I am. Like, I didn't know that trans people existed until I was about 12 or 13. Like, I had never heard of trans people.

BLOCK: That's where the Internet comes in. Syrus says he spent long nights online doing research to figure out who he is. And ultimately, he came out as trans to his family. Last August, with his mother's permission and after lengthy psychological counseling, he was prescribed testosterone, weekly shots. On a recent Zoom call with his pediatrician, Dr. Morissa Ladinsky, Syrus sounded bubbly as they talked about the changes he's started to see.

SYRUS: The first thing I noticed was hair. Just - you start growing so much hair. And I was, like, excited because, you know, I was like, oh, something's happening; this is so cool. And then I started noticing, you know, my voice changing a little bit.

MORISSA LADINSKY: That voice, I'm loving it.

SYRUS: (Laughter).

LADINSKY: See that laugh? I love that laugh.

BLOCK: The physical changes are one thing; the emotional transformation has been dramatic, too. As Syrus' mom Carla Saunee describes it, her son used to be reclusive, would mostly stay in his room. Now that he's transitioning, he's more confident and social, has good friends.

CARLA SAUNEE: He's more himself. He's happy, you know? He's like a big kid. He'll still sit on my lap and cuddle up with me, you know? And those are things he wasn't doing before.

BLOCK: So Carla and Syrus and their medical team have watched with alarm as the Alabama legislature advances a bill that would outlaw his hormone treatment. It's called the Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act. Here's a sampling of arguments in favor of the bill - first, from retired Alabama pediatrician Bill Whitaker...


BILL WHITAKER: The truth is that there are only two sexes based on biology, female and male - that it's impossible to change one's sex.

BLOCK: ...Also, pediatrician Den Trumbull.


DEN TRUMBULL: Medical procedures intended to alter or delay the normal sexual development of a gender-confused child is child abuse.

BLOCK: ...And the bill's sponsor, State Senator Shay Shelnutt.


SHAY SHELNUTT: Bottom line is we have a responsibility to protect Alabama's children. Minors are not mentally capable to make a decision of this caliber.

BLOCK: Those who treat transgender youth say remarks like these are not just factually wrong, they also stigmatize an already marginalized population. This month, the American Academy of Pediatrics called bills that prohibit trans medical care or other bills that ban trans girls from women's sports teams dangerous. The academy warned the bills threaten the health and well-being of transgender youth.

LADINSKY: There is a lot of viscerally repugnant language in those bills that really evoke pain and evoke fear and couldn't be farther from the truth.

BLOCK: That's Dr. Ladinsky, Syrus' pediatrician, who points out that in her clinic, no minor child is making the decision for treatment on their own. The child, parents and entire medical team have to agree through a lengthy, informed consent process. And Ladinsky emphasizes that their hospital never performs gender-affirming surgery on minors. But if the Alabama bill becomes law, she and her medical team could be charged with felonies for prescribing puberty blockers or hormones. That means they could face 10 years in prison.

LADINSKY: The idea of this precedent scares the living crap out of me.

BLOCK: The bill's sponsor, Senator Shelnutt, has acknowledged he has never spoken to a transgender youth, which boggles the mind of Syrus Hall's mom, Carla Saunee.

SAUNEE: I would ask him just to spend the day with us. Let's have a conversation. It doesn't even have to be us. You know, find you a transgendered youth and be around them and experience who they are. You can't write a bill when you have zero experience with the transgender population.

BLOCK: As for 17-year-old Syrus, he says it's simple; people who support this legislation would deny something essential - the person he knows himself to be.

SYRUS: I've been told not before. Like, people are like, oh, it's just a phase; you're going to grow out of it - blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And it makes me mad because, like, it hurts people. Like, when people who know who they are can't access the things they need to make themselves feel better, it's awful.

BLOCK: LGBTQ advocacy groups are gearing up for immediate court challenges if any of the medical care bans bubbling up around the country become law.


SHAPIRO: NPR's Melissa Block.

Defenders of these laws sometimes describe trans kids as a new phenomenon, like a trend or a fad in our contemporary culture. But historians can tell you there is actually a long history here.

JULES GILL-PETERSON: There isn't really anything new about trans children. As long as there have been trans people who we can identify in the past, there are children amongst them.

SHAPIRO: Historian Jules Gill-Peterson at the University of Pittsburgh has researched and written about trans children throughout history. And one story she uncovered in the records of a psychologist from the 1950s was about a patient who went by the pseudonym Val (ph).

GILL-PETERSON: And she lived in a rural county in Wisconsin. And she tells the psychologist that, you know, this was so long ago; there were no words to describe what it meant to be who I was. But, you know, before I was even 5 years old, my parents could understand that I was a girl and not a boy.

SHAPIRO: Val's parents were OK with that. Val dressed as a girl, changed her name, and her parents worked the whole thing out with her school.

GILL-PETERSON: She even mentions in this interview specifically that she was allowed to use the girl's restroom. And she also joined in extracurricular activities for girls. In that time period, it was the Four-H Club.

SHAPIRO: And remember, Val told this story as an adult in the '50s. She was describing a childhood that took place in the '20s and '30s.

GILL-PETERSON: There's nothing new about trans kids going to school. We don't have to treat it as a mystery, and we certainly don't have to treat it as a crisis.

SHAPIRO: So to bring the conversation closer to the present day, we've recently seen a lot of anti-trans bills focused on adults - I mean, the so-called bathroom bill in North Carolina and more. What do you make of this current shift to a focus on children? Why do you think this is happening right now?

GILL-PETERSON: Yeah, thanks for asking that. I think it's a really important but, in some ways, may be confusing shift. It's true that, you know, anti-trans backlash is nothing new. But I think, unfortunately, the kind of cruel political calculus here is that it's a lot harder to attack trans adults these days because there is more cultural acceptance and tolerance of trans people in this country. But children don't enjoy that same kind of protection.

But I think even more of what's happening is there's been a shift to focus on kids because there's been this perception that we can use the medical procedures involved to talk about a kind of moral panic here, a fear that children are in danger, when in reality what these bills are doing is actually putting trans children in danger. So it's quite ironic but, really, in a very cruel sort of way.

SHAPIRO: And so as a historian who has studied the last century of progress on LGBT rights, would you describe it as a century of progress? Or has it been progress for some parts of that LGBT community and not others? Or has it been, you know, steps forward, steps back? How would you characterize it, particularly for trans people?

GILL-PETERSON: I would have to say, I think sort of a two steps forward, one step back kind of situation is pretty fitting. You know, we see trans people more accepted culturally. Right? And we see recognition that there are trans kids, but most people don't know trans children, don't know what their lives are like. And I think we've seen that trans people often get used as cultural backlash and as, you know, sort of a call to arms for reactionary or right-wing movements. That has happened definitely before. It happened in the 1970s. And we see it happening again today.

And so in a lot of ways, I think what's happening right now is people are being introduced to the idea of trans kids probably for the first time, but also they're starting to hear a little bit about trans medicine for the first time. But that sort of cultural visibility doesn't necessarily translate into material change.

SHAPIRO: Jules Gill-Peterson is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of "Histories Of The Transgender Child."


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